Book review: The Book of Beetles

The Book of Beetles: A Life-size Guide to Six Hundred of Nature’s Gems
Edited by Patrice Bouchard
Contributions by Patrice Bouchard, Yves Bousquet, Christopher Carlton, Maria Lourdes Chamorro, Hermes E. Escalona, Arthur V. Evans, Alexander Konstantinov, Richard A. B. Leschen, Stéphane Le Tirant, and Steven W. Lingafelter
2014, University of Chicago Press
656 pages, 2400 color plates
$55 (cloth), $33 (eBook)

Last autumn, while I was wandering around the poster presentations at the Entomological Society of Canada annual meeting in Saskatoon, I came across very inconspicuous display highlighting a book that was about to be released. Inconspicuous or not (and “display” might be a generous word to describe what simply amounted to a pile of handouts on a side table), it immediately caught my eye. And why wouldn’t it? The subject, beetles – in all of their glorious shapes, sizes, colors, and life histories – is always eye- and mind-catching. Upon returning home, I immediately pre-ordered it and received it from my local bookstore shortly after it was published. It has taken residence on the coffee table in our living room, and I have been enjoying it ever since.

The book is simply titled “The Book of Beetles” and is edited by Dr. Patrice Bouchard (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) with contributions by a number of experts. Much like “Snakes on a Plane”, the title tells you what it is about. But unlike that movie, this book is much more than its simple title. The idea of covering the full diversity of beetles sufficiently is, of course, a pipe dream. This book runs over 650 pages and covers 600 of the hundreds-of-thousands of known, not to mention the likely millions of more unknown, species of beetles. The full spread of beetle diversity is immense and, as is pointed out in a brand new (and open access!!) paper, “The beetle tree of life reveals that Coleoptera survived end-Permian mass extinction to diversify during the Cretaceous terrestrial revolution” by McKenna et al., “…(beetles) account for ∼25% of known species on Earth and ∼40% of insects”. To cover every known beetle species on earth would require well over 600 more of these volumes.

Also from McKenna et al.:

Curculionidae [snout and bark beetles, commonly referred to as weevils or “true” weevils] is the second most diverse family of metazoans (surpassed only by the rove beetle family Staphylinidae, which is older) with more than 51 000 named extant species in more than 4600 genera. Conservatively, it is estimated that there are more than 200 000 additional undescribed species of Curculionidae alone.

In other words, if we knew every single species of weevil extant today, we would need to compile more than 400 volumes of this size just to cover that one group within the beetles.

So the authors the The Book of Beetles were obviously required to complete the daunting task of choosing a mere 600 beetle species – a bit more than 0.1% of known beetle species – to highlight in this book.

In the introduction the authors set out their criteria for inclusion in this book. The authors chose among beetles that, variously:

  • are “scientifically compelling”
  • have “curious natural histories”
  • are “culturally significant”
  • are “economically important
  • are “rare and threatened”
  • are “physically impressive”

Again, certainly many, many other beetle species besides the chosen 600 met all of these criteria but could not be included. But I would argue that the editor and contributors did a fantastic job of selecting 600 compelling examples of these amazing insects that highlights a small, but still immense, range of their diversity.

Upon first encountering this large book (the cloth version, weighing in at 2.2 kg, is not one that is easily read in bed, but there is also an eBook option for those so inclined), the reader is immediately struck by the beauty of the jacket featuring an array of impressive insects surrounding the title. Remove the dust cover, and you will find three more gorgeous photographs of beetles on the front, spine, and back. These photographs all should simply whet your appetite for what you will find when you open the book.

The book begins with a short introduction to the volume followed by eight nicely illustrated chapters entitled “What is a beetle”, “Beetle classification”, “Evolution and diversity”, “Communication, reproduction, and development”, “Defense”, “Feeding behavior”, “Beetle conservation”, and “Beetles & society”. Each chapter is accessible for the non-expert, but engaging and full of enough detailed information to also keep career entomologists and expert naturalists interested. The chapters are short, ranging from about two to six pages each; and by p.30 the real meat of the book – the description of the 600 chosen beetle species – begins. The book, at this point, is divided up into four parts covering species from the Archostemata, the Myxophaga, the Adephaga, and the Polyphaga. The latter, of course, comprise by far the largest portion of the book

If you want to take a good look at what each species page entails, you can download a PDF sample of the book here.

Each species page contains information on one beetle species, so each open pair of pages features two species. From top to bottom each page has a generalized range map (entire world minus Antarctica mapped on each page) for the species; a table of generalized taxonomic and natural history information (family, subfamily, distribution, macrohabitat, microhabitat, feeding habits, and a note); a dorsolateral line drawing of the insect along with a note on the typical adult length (sometimes for both male and female if divergent); the species name in both italics and in all caps, along with the taxonomic authority and date; a paragraph on the natural history of the insect; a paragraph detailing related species of note; a photograph of the insect at actual size; a dorsal macro photograph, always of high quality; and a small figure heading next to the macro photograph with a bit more interesting natural history.

The level of detail in both the photographs and in the text is exceptional. For the photographs, you will have to look at the sample linked above to see what I mean. In terms of the text, each and every species is a joy to read about. For instance we learn about the cigarette beetle (Lasioderma serricorne; p.372) that specimens have been found in Tutankhamun’s tomb; and that the larvae of the Florida tortoise beetle (Hemisphaerota cyanea; p.555) build up strands of their own feces over their bodies to protect themselves from enemies. And on and on it goes, page after page in rich and amazing natural historical detail.

The book ends with several short appendices including a glossary, a classification of the Coleoptera, and a list of other beetle-based resources.

This is not the sort of book that most people would likely read through one page at a time front to back and then put away. Rather, it is a book that can be read much as one might open random drawers in an entomological collection, with the benefit of having a studied natural historian at your shoulder to tell you what you are looking at. In other words, this book is a sheer pleasure to read and to look at, and everyone will learn from it. It definitely belongs in the collection of every practicing entomologist or other naturalist who is interested in insects.

Wharf borers

Some of the nicest things about the older entomological literature are the short papers that record interesting observations. To some extent these almost seem like the blog posts of that era – reasonably short and pithy with some useful information as well. I really enjoy reading these short accounts, in part because of the interesting natural history information that they contain, and in part because they are often rife with potential research questions. The reality, of course, is that I have neither the budget nor the time to follow up on 99.9% of what can be found in these accounts. Nobody does. But, if nothing else, reading these short notes is a good exercise in brain stretching.

N. melanura larva (PaDIL, CC-BY-3.0)

I recently came across one of these notes in the Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia. Since I edit this journal, I often end up browsing its pages, and this note by G.J. Spencer (1946) on wharf borers found in pilings in Vancouver caught my eye. It seems that Spencer was asked to take a look at some creatures that were found at the BC Sugar Refinery at the Port of Vancouver. The enquirer was worried that they were Teredo navalis, the naval shipworm. The shipworm is a mollusk, so undoubtedly Spencer was able to immediately identify that the samples were not shipworms but were, in fact, insect larvae. He identified them as Nacerdes melanura, the wharf borer.

Spencer, however, “(found) it hard to believe the details that accompanied (the specimens)”, and he indicates that he went immediately to the wharf. What were these details that initially had Spencer so incredulous? Well it seems that construction work was being done at the site, and the workers had uncovered some old pilings that had been driven about thirty years before. Prior to the pilings being driven, that part of the seafloor was filled with ash and soil. After the pilings were in place more fill was dumped on top of them, concrete was poured over that, and then some buildings were built on top of that foundation. The workers who Spencer encountered had been in the process of demolishing those buildings when they uncovered the old pilings and found the larvae. Spencer himself also dug larvae out of a “…thoroughly soggy piling in which the centre only was of firm though very wet wood.”

Assuming that the historical account received by Spencer at the worksite was correct, that means that the infestation had been in place for some decades with no possibility of later infestation once the concrete was poured. In way of further corroboration of this phenomenon Morris (1980) cites Laing (1936) who observed larvae in wood that had been encased in concrete for seven years. Spencer indicates two logical hypotheses that flow from observations such as these. First, that it is possible that the larvae were introduced to the pilings during initial construction, and the insects were able to complete multiple generations in the same material. Or, second, that it is possible that the larvae of this species can undergo very long diapause or at least very lengthy development when trapped in such a situation.

N. melanura adult (PaDIL, CC-BY-3.0)

Either of these possibilities is, of course, interesting. So I dug around a bit more to find out about these strange creatures. However it turns out that the literature is rather sparse. They don’t seem to be major structural pests – which likely explains the rather low amount of research – although they do get mention as pests of wooden archeological artifacts. It seems that people mainly notice them (and call pest control professionals) when large numbers of adults occasionally burst onto the scene, often in damp basements or, interestingly, in the vicinity of toilets. There is no doubt that they like seawater-saturated wood, and saltiness may explain their association with urine as well.

Wharf borers have been documented just about anywhere that humans live. Because they seem to prefer saltwater-soaked timber, they usually are found at marine port cities. But that is not always the case as they have also been found far inland, and a substantial distance from seaports. Their seemingly ubiquitous presence associated with human activity has led to some debate about where they originate, and it is fair to say that centuries of shipping them all over the world have certainly tangled up that problem. But perhaps it is the sort of problem that could be worked out by some population genetics sleuthing.

Some recent work has shown that the larvae maintain enzymes that enable them to break down some components of wood. However it was not clear if those enzymes were from the insect itself or derived from fungi or other microorganisms associated with the larvae. Other papers that I’ve linked in this blog post speculate on whether the insect is digesting wood directly or if it is relying on, or even ingesting, associated microorganisms. That same recent study established that the larval period of the lifecycle is at least reasonable substantial and went some way to determining that temperature may signal the maturing insect to move from one stage to the next.

So it seems that we are dealing with some extremely hardy insects. They can live in the undoubtedly hypoxic environment of water-saturated and rotting wood. Besides that, the water that they prefer to soak their surroundings also has a high salt content. Somehow they are able to make a nutritional living in rotting wood that has undoubtedly has most of its easily available nutrients flushed out of it. And to top it all off, there is good evidence that they can spend at least a few years, if not decades, trapped inside of rotting timbers without further access to the outside world. It’s no wonder that these creatures have found ways to hitch rides with humans all over the world and then have settled in with us – usually mainly hidden from our sight – for the long haul.

Wharf borers are truly amazing little creatures, ones that deserve some further research attention. There are a lot of great questions here, and many of them represent some pretty low-hanging fruit.

Of dictionaries, buttercups, and time

Perhaps it’s because I live in a small city that is variegated with forests and that is surrounded for hundreds or thousands of kilometers in each direction with wilderness.

Perhaps it’s because my own kids are fortunate enough – in this increasingly technology-cloistered time – to be able to spend large chunks of time outdoors, often with minimal adult supervision.

Perhaps it’s because I work at an institution whose founding vision was towards the natural world around us; and with immediate colleagues who all spend a great deal of their research time in the outdoors.

Perhaps it’s because I work in a field where my closest research colleagues nearby and abroad conduct much of their work in forests, fens, and farmyards.

Perhaps it’s because many of the scientists who have influenced me most – past and present – approach their craft with a view to nature in its full and complex glory.

Just look at my personal Twitter community and you will find entomologists, ecologists, zoologists, botanists, microbiologists, paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, astronomers… and the list goes on. These are all people who – while much of their work is necessarily indoors – cannot answer the questions that they ask of nature without also spending time in nature. And these are a partially representative sample of the people who have influenced me.

So I think that I am often a bit blind to the reality of much of the world where increasing detachment from nature is commonplace. A world where, to quote T.S. Eliot, we are all becoming more and more “distracted from distraction by distraction.” It’s pretty easy, but not excusable, in my situation to forget that the larger culture beyond my family, colleagues, and vocation is changing in ways that bode longterm ill.

This – perhaps subconsciously willful or wishful or wistful? – blindness on my part hit home a month or two ago when I bumped into this article by Robert MacFarlane in which he describes and eloquently comments on the removal of a variety of “nature” words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Some of those words are:

…acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.

New words have taken their place – words that are corporate-economic, screen-driven, and solitary-making.

(As an aside, I deeply shudder that “committee” is among those replacement words. Please, let children grow up without that abomination infesting them until they’re at least in high school.)

The reality, of course, is that removal of a few words by a dictionary is not the cause of the problem, it is merely a symptom. Dictionaries change over time, and they change in a way that reflects the culture in which they exist. If new words emerge and come into common usage, they may show up in a dictionary. If words become unused, they may disappear from the pages or at least be marked as archaic. So what do the recent changes to the Oxford Junior Dictionary mean? I think it’s fair to say that it means that school-aged children – the target audience of this dictionary – aren’t holding buttercups under chins. They aren’t catching amphibians. They aren’t listening to birds. They aren’t playing games among tangles of willows. They are, instead, being influenced toward corporatized indoor loneliness instead of towards a corporate outdoor solitude.

This is is not just happening to the younger generation. If each of us were honest with ourselves, I expect that many – most? all? – of us would also see a shift in our own behavior in fairly recent years. This shift is happening at a time when the conservation crisis is more dire than ever. I don’t imagine that the co-occurrence of detachment and mounting environmental crisis is merely a coincidence. A detached and consumer-driven culture is by definition concerned with distracted consuming, not mindful conserving. How could rampant consumerism, then, ever contribute to conservation of the uncommodifiable natural world? Why should we expect a commercialized, buy-and-dispose attitude to instill exuberant appreciation of nature in its citizens, young and old?

As my former Ph.D. supervisor often says (I’m paraphrasing here, and he may be quoting someone else, but I’m not aware of who that would be):

Nature always answers your question, but you need to know what your question is or you will misinterpret the answer.

My worry is that most of the people who we rub shoulders with each day are less and less equipped to even recognize that nature is speaking to us, let alone to know how to ask the correct questions. So I, along with others, interpret the unfortunate nature-stripping of the Oxford Junior Dictionary as a bellwether and a challenge. The challenge for those of us who are concerned with conservation is to step beyond our small communities, which are not representative of the rest of society, and to incrementally bring a conservation mindset to our own family, friends, and neighbors.

Our shifting culture is a reality, and it would be magical thinking to insist that things are going to change anytime soon, or ever. A few in our concerned community have larger megaphones than others, and we need to encourage and help them to get the word out. But nothing beats the influence that each of us has on our immediate community, and it is there where most of us can work effectively.

If*:

Persuasiveness ∝ (Closeness of a trusted relationship)(Efficacy of the message)

then either factor in the equation can work in our favor.

We should each do our best with efficacy, of course. But we can also take comfort in the fact that however effective our message is, its impact is going to be multiplied by by our relationships. In other words, don’t worry about how loud your megaphone is. Whispering to a close friend still has more impact than shouting in a crowded room of near-strangers.

———
*Addendum:

Time spent in relationship is a factor in the development of close trust in a relationship.

Practice is a factor in increasing the efficacy of a message, and time is a factor in practice.

So one can argue that time is a factor in persuasiveness. If that is the case, then it behooves us to dispense with looking for insta-fixes and instead buck the culture of the here-and-now for approaches in which we take time deeply into consideration.

Cull

I run I run I run I run
panting heart-torn through new snow
I run I run I run I run
raging rumbling dervish winds blow
closer closer ever closer
I’m panting heart-torn through new snow.

Slowing, slowing, slower, slower
until I feel the flying death
closer closer ever closer
mingling, raging with my breath,
ice-encrusted heaving mane,
and I feel the flying death
ripping tearing searing pain
releasing me to dream, to dream.

With blood-encrusted heaving mane
I hear a final raven’s scream
releasing me to dream, to dream
we run we run we run we run
we run        we run        we run

—–

Read more about the BC government’s wolf cull here, and sign a petition.

Insect curation at the RBCM – my letter

As noted by Dr. Felix Sperling at the ESC blog, there is some discussion about the position of curator of insects at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Below is the letter that I have sent to Professor Jack Lohman (CEO) expressing my concern and the importance of ongoing curation and maintenance of the collection for scientific research and public outreach.

—–

Dear Professor Lohman,

I am writing this brief letter to express my support for continuing to fund a full time curator of insects at the Royal British Columbia Museum. It has come to my attention through a variety of sources that there is some discussion of redirecting the RBCM salary budget for the insect curator position (previously held by Dr. Rob Cannings) to other areas. I believe that this would be an error, both in the short term and in the long run.

My students and I often rely on museum collections in our research. Currently I have students and postdoctoral associates working on aquatic and high elevation insect biodiversity and ecosystem function research in the context of proposed infrastructure projects here in BC. Other work in my lab has been focused on the recent dramatic mountain pine beetle infestation; and now that the infestation has run its course in many areas, the ability to record shifts in biodiversity in regenerating forests in the wake of the beetle is becoming more and more vital.

In order to conduct this type of work – vital to the economic and environmental well-being of our province – we require access to well-curated, well-maintained, and broadly representative insect collections. While collections including some representatives of BC insect fauna exist elsewhere, nothing can replace the RBCM collections that were made in this province over the past many years. The data in the RBCM collection are immense and priceless, and to leave them without a dedicated curator would eventually reduce or remove their value entirely.

One might look to California as an example of the value of comprehensive and well-curated regional insect collections. Exemplary collections, such as the Essig Museum of Entomology at the University of California Berkeley, or the collection at the California Academy of Sciences, are prime examples of well-curated collections that have made a huge difference in past and present entomological research in that state. Like California, BC is a biodiversity hotspot. Much of that biodiversity comes in the form of insects and their arthropod kin. If we do not have the tools available to understand past and present biodiversity, we will not be able to react to quite predictable (e.g. development, climate change) or currently unforeseen changes that will affect our health, our food supply, and our environment.

Beyond economic and environmental security aspects, however, is the fact that the public are deeply intrigued by insects. Almost every child who I’ve ever met loves to catch and watch insects. Adults are variably enthralled or wary, but they always want to learn more. Insects are the animals that we encounter most often in our urban environments. They affect our outside activities (ants at a picnic, mosquitoes at the campfire), our health and comfort (West Nile virus, bed bugs), and our food (pollination, helpful and detrimental insects in your vegetable garden). Many are beautiful or exhibit charismatic behaviors. Others are just plain strange and are great fodder for fantastic natural history stories that encourage people to learn more about the world around them.

A dedicated curator of insects is vital for maintenance, documentation, and expansion of the collection and its broad utility. Such a person would be able to develop fantastic displays that attract patrons to your museum. They could develop tools to make the collection more accessible to scientists and the lay public. They would also be a continued invaluable source of information and advice to entomologists and ecologists working on vital basic and applied science in British Columbia. In short, the continuation of this position is vital for science, for outreach, and for our human well-being.

In your vision for the RBCM you state that you intend to “… advance knowledge about BC through our collections, presentations, expertise and partnerships.” Continuing to fund the salary of a curator of insects at the RBCM will go a long way towards meeting this objective. Please strongly consider maintaining this vital position at the RBCM for current and future generations of scientists and citizens.

 

Sincerely yours,

Dezene Huber
Associate Professor
Canada Research Chair in Forest Entomology & Chemical Ecology
Ecosystem Science and Management Program
University of Northern British Columbia

Beetle Byte (16 December 2014 edition)

A biodiversity beetle byte. Yum!

Nukes for biodiversity

If we can ignore the Fukushimas and Chernobyls, the uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, (and to be clear we shouldn’t ignore them, just place them in better context, perhaps), nuclear power’s attraction when it comes to minimizing impact on the wilds of the world is fairly obvious. The authors noted that the average person living in a developed nation will use a total amount of energy over his/her lifetime equivalent that stored within one golf-ball-sized lump of uranium. Check out the chart below to see how that measures up to other power sources.

 

Extinction infographic

Nature pulled together the most reliable available data to provide a graphic status report of life on Earth (see ‘Life under threat’). Among the groups that can be assessed, amphibians stand out as the most imperilled: 41% face the threat of extinction, in part because of devastating epidemics caused by chytrid fungi. Large fractions of mammals and birds face significant threats because of habitat loss and degradation, as well as activities such as hunting.

 

George Monbiot

I remembered that when I read the news that the world has lost 52% of its vertebrate wildlife over the past 40 years. It’s a figure from which I’m still reeling. To love the natural world is to suffer a series of griefs, each compounding the last. It is to be overtaken by disbelief that we could treat it in this fashion. And, in the darkest moments, it is to succumb to helplessness, to the conviction that we will keep eroding our world of wonders until almost nothing of it remains. There is hope – real hope – as I will explain, but at times like this it seems remote.

 

Bees!!

See ten species of American bee in pin-sharp detail and find out how they live.

 

Reviving Wallace’s notes

The illegible text of Wallace’s notebook has at last been revealed using a new hyperspectral imaging system at the British Library. While the human eye only sees a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we call visible light, hyperspectral imaging can detect wavelengths invisible to the human eye and convert these into an image that we can see. The technique can reveal hidden detail, such as the traces left by a pencil marking a page. The newly revealed pages of the notebook contain a wealth of information about fish, snakes, birds, bats and many others creatures that Wallace collected.

Citizen science

When I was in early elementary school I would spend afternoons catching grasshoppers on the bluff across the street from our house. I’d bring them back to the house and meticulously color their forewings with a Sharpie. I’d then take them back across the street to the hill and release them in the hopes of recapturing them on one of my next forays. I don’t recall how I got it in my head to do this, and I certainly didn’t know at the time that I could use the data from my mark-recapture experiment to determine population numbers. However, that was moot because I never did recapture a single specimen for all of my trying. I suspect that had to do with population numbers compared to my small marked cohort. Of course I didn’t do the requisite control experiment for the effect of copious amounts of Sharpie ink on grasshopper behavior and survival either. So who knows.

It might be argued that this was my first foray into (solitary) citizen science, of a sort. I was a citizen. I was attempting to do science (without a defined hypothesis). I am pretty sure that if I was a kid today I’d be pretty excited about the many actual citizen science initiatives that are available. Heck, I’m not a kid, but I am excited about them now.

My first actual participation in a citizen science initiative – although I don’t recall that jargon being used back then – was in the late-90s with SETI@home. Very quickly after SETI@home started up I was quick on the draw to install the software on my Bondi blue iMac. The system would download a packet of radio telescope data and then my computer would analyze it for non-random signals. It would send the analysis back to the SETI@home server and download a new packet to work on. The software ran as a screensaver on the iMac. The idea was that people could give up their unused CPUs and, with enough participants, crunch through radio telescope data faster than the fastest supercomputer at the time. I loved the idea of being involved in something bigger, and it made me very geeky about SETI in general. I read a ton of SETI books back then, likely a function of trying to avoid thesis writing. I’m still always game for a discussion about the finer points of the Drake Equation.

If we back up even further, its easy to see that citizen science is even older than that. For instance the Christmas Bird Count goes back over a hundred years. It might be argued that what we call citizen science goes back centuries, if not millennia. But in more recent years with the exponential development of the internet, citizen science has become a much bigger deal. So when Science Borealis asked us to think about the biggest thing in our field over the past year, this was one of the things that came to my mind. Specifically, I am noticing citizen science really maturing and growing exponentially; some evidence of which is the increasing publication of peer reviewed articles stemming from such work. A simple Google Scholar search of “citizen science” limited to 2014 pulls up well north of 2000 entries. And, because of their ubiquitous presence and importance in our lives, insects are often the subjects of this type of work.

This expansion and maturation of citizen science hit me thrice this year. First, I was the academic editor on a cool PeerJ paper that detailed data collection leading to a better understanding of invasive Asian camel crickets in North America. Second, I heard a really cool talk by Dr. Claire Rutledge (Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station) at the Entomological Society of Canada annual meeting about the use of wasps as a biomonitoring tool for emerald ash borer. And third, I heard two separate talks by Dr. Elizabeth Elle (Simon Fraser University) and Dr. Rob McGregor (Douglas College) about the UNIBUG work going on in the Greater Vancouver area.

Several things strike me about these projects, and so many more like them:

  • Those involved are highly creative in terms of finding things that people will appreciate and that they will take the time and effort to back up with sweat and time.
  • The organizers look for ways that people can contribute right where they are, whether through their computer or out and about in their local environment.
  • Never having organized one of these initiatives, I assume that a major challenge is organizing, planning, and ensuring robust data collection so that there can be a credible (published!) end product. In other words, they sure must be a lot of work
  • And, most of all, these projects get people to notice the natural world around them and help them to understand the scientific process and the actual rigors of data collection.

That final point is the most important. As scientists we have access to state-of-the-art equipment and analysis platforms. We are able to explore places and concepts that many people will have no opportunity to encounter in their lifetimes. Those of us at research universities have substantial background infrastructure that supports high-level research. When we are stuck in the cliche ivory tower, it can be easy to forget that seeing is believing because we see science working all the time, and we get to discover some really cool things about the natural world.

Not everyone in the public is as privileged as we are, however. So when we get frustrated with the popular discussion on things like climate change, evolution, vaccination, GMOs, or what-have-you, a good part of the responsibility sits on our shoulders. Many people do not have the opportunity or impetus to see and participate in research, so it is no wonder that they misread, misunderstand, or mistrust science and scientists. If we aren’t finding creative ways to get the message out, then we aren’t doing our job. And we shouldn’t expect reciprocal trust or understanding, because we provide nothing to reciprocate.

Engaging the public in scientific discovery, on the other hand, allows them to look deeper. My foray into the SETI literature would never have happened if it were not for SETI@home. I suspect that if, as a grasshopper-Sharpie kid, I had run into some sort of urban insect biodiversity project, I would have been one of the most enthusiastic volunteers that you can imagine.

Engage the public, and they will understand better what we science is all about. I think that 2014 was a big year for citizen science, and I have a feeling that this trend is just going to grow in coming years. And I am happy for that.

Perhaps a good way to end this post is to encourage those who are involved in these sorts of initiatives – either as organizers or participants – to continue on with the exciting work. And, secondly, I’d like to encourage any scientist who is not involved in at least one of these to make a New Year’s resolution to find some time in 2015 to participate and to bring a friend along.

To help with that, here is a list of a few citizen science projects that I’m aware of. Check them out, and send me more examples in the comments or on Twitter (@docdez), and I’ll add to the list. In no particular order:

  • SETI@home – Search for ET on your computer.
  • Bumblebee watch – Send in reports and photographs of bumblebees to help with monitoring pollinator populations.
  • eBird – Collect and submit data on birding observations, and explore data from your own area (there’s an app!).
  • eButterfly – Sort of like eBird, but with butterflies.
  • Notes from Nature – Too cold in the winter for insects or birding? Stay at home and help to digitize museum natural history collections. I personally really enjoy this one (with a nice hot cup of cocoa).
  • Zooniverse – All sorts of projects ranging from astronomy to biology to natural history to humanities. Take your pick.
  • The Genographic Project – Run by the National Geographic Society, submit your DNA and learn about your own history while adding to a larger database on human migration, etc.
  • Feeder Watch – Set up a bird feeder, count the birds that arrive, submit your data. Improve our understanding of bird population trends.
  • iNaturalist – Submit your natural history observations, and learn about your area from what others are reporting.
  • Stardust@home – Search through micrographs for stardust particles collected by a spacecraft. Find one and potentially get published (and you get to name the particle).

Have fun!

Silence

Winter has finally arrived in the BC interior this year. As of yesterday the temperatures have fallen and the snow has begun to rise. We’ve had the snowblower out a couple of times now and the last vestiges of green grass that (surprisingly) remained until late-November are under a quilt of white.

Most of the visible insect activity ended a few weeks ago at the latest, though there were still a few stray moths fluttering at my bus stop a bit before Hallowe’en. The plants in our garden, in the patches along the side of the roads, and in the understory beside forest paths in town are dormant. The leaves are all down and those that weren’t raked (OK people, mulch!! Save your back, and create some habitat… but I digress) are under the snow and are providing shelter for unseen denizens living below their new white, insulating roof. The fallen leaves are waiting for next spring when they will become food for invertebrates and fungi and will quickly turn into the next layer of topsoil to nurture summer growth.

Other than in the southern reaches of our continent, or perhaps along the coasts, we are all now entering into a period of relative quiet. Roots and rhizomes tuck in underground waiting out the cold months. Spring-buzzing and summer-chirping insects and other invertebrates in various life stages bundle under topsoil and mulch or nestle into sheltered nooks on plant stems or buildings. Leafless angiosperms barely whisper-move in the wind. Neighboring conifers maybe, just maybe, eke out a bit of photosynthesis here and there during warm spells. Many of the birds have left on long journeys to the far south, taking their songs with them. And the world has shifted from full HD color to black and white… and occasional spectacular blue on deep cold and cloudless days.

As a biologist, I know that these yearly cycles of quiescence and renewal are a vital part of the system in temperate climes. But, even knowing that I still miss the swirl of insects, the scent of wild roses and cottonwood buds, and the background chatter of birds singing their territorial warnings to each other. It’s important to realize that silence, stillness, soft snow, and serenity represent the repose of the world around us as it waits for wakeful spring. It’s important to embrace and welcome this season of silence as we each welcome a nightly sleep.

In the meantime, as the world around us slumbers, I look forward to brief dream flashes of sky-wrestling corvids, and melting interlude budded reminders of what is to come. Let the silence begin, and sweet dreams to all of the sleepers.

Beetle Byte (10 November 2014 edition)

Some biology, some climatology, and some Berlin.

Spiders are amazing!

Over 350 million years, spiders have evolved some impressive skills. Size for size, if spiders were as big as humans, some of these skills could be considered superhuman.

 

Just look a little closer and see what you find

This sort of thing doesn’t happen often. Over the last three decades, this is only the second new new frog species to have been identified in all of mainland US and Canada. The last time anyone turned up a new frog on the US Atlantic coast was in 1955. Even more remarkable that it should have been found in a swamp on Staten Island, so close to the restless streets of Manhattan.

 

Danish wolves

When wolves last roamed wild in Denmark, Napoleon was still terrorising Europe and the Battle of Waterloo had yet to be fought. But now a team of researchers say they have conclusive evidence that wolves have re-established themselves in much of the Jutland peninsula, the part of Denmark that is in mainland Europe, and that at least one male wolf has permanently settled there.

 

The recent IPCC report in plain language

We humans really, truly are responsible for climate change, and ignoring that fact doesn’t make it less true.

 

Speaking of climate, and other changes (interactive)

Investigate how the world around you has changed since you’ve been alive; from the amount the sea has risen, and the tectonic plates have moved, to the number of earthquakes and volcanoes that have erupted. Grasp the impact we’ve had on the planet in your lifetime; from how much fuel and food we’ve used to the species we’ve discovered and endangered.

 

I woke up to this 25 years ago while living in Germany

A human wave of East Germans, a quarter of a million strong according to an official estimate, swept through the Berlin Wall on Saturday to pack the pavements of West Berlin 20-deep with sightseers. Even three new crossing points created during the night could barely cope with the tide of humanity. The once feared East German border guards were brushed aside as the torrent of people swept through on foot, by car and by subway.

 

And today…

Until the early 1930s, West Berlin was the city’s racing heart. Now, it is beating once again. But it has not eclipsed the east — far from it. The whole city is prospering: Unemployment has fallen; the economy is growing faster than in any other German city. Finally, Berliners feel good in their city.

Under the big sky

Anyone who has grown up on the prairie knows that it is not the sort of place that is easy to capture in a few words. Upon first glance, of course, it is a simple place. Mainly flat. A few trees here and there. Not extravagant like the mountains, nor mysterious like the forest, nor boisterous like the ocean. Even the word “prairie” is unbecoming. Two syllables, quickly and quietly said. Of course, those of us who have spent ample time on the prairie can easily tell others that this apparent subtlety is just that – apparent. If you have ever experienced the full blast of a January blizzard, or if you have stood under those never-ending blue summer skies, or if you have watched a pronghorn skim across an expanse, you know that the prairie is a glorious and amazing place. While appearing subdued, it is anything but. Even after so many decades of intense human influence, it is still a place of beauty and wonder with a powerful story to tell.

Telling that story, and telling it well, is certainly a gargantuan task. But it is one that Candace Savage has accomplished in her book “Prairie: A Natural History” (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation, 2011, 320 pp, ISBN: 1553655885). I ran into this book via my local library, and I’m glad that I did because I have appreciated reading every page of it.

One interwoven message in the book is that the North American grasslands are likely the most human-impacted ecosystem on earth but that they and their denizens are also (so far) highly resilient. In much of the prairie – particularly the tallgrass prairie – it is difficult or impossible to still find substantial areas that remain fairly untouched. That said, however, it is amazing that there have also been very few known extinctions – passenger pigeons and the Rocky Mountain locust being the most obvious examples that Savage notes. In all honesty, this outcome is probably more due to dumb luck as it is to good planning or a cautious approach to development. This is particularly the case when you consider that this is an ecosystem (or, actually, a collection of interrelated and distinct ecosystems) that has historically received short shrift. Early on in her book Savage quotes Daniel Webster:

What do we want with this vast worthless area; this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs?

Even John James Audubon while in the Dakotas wrote:

The prairies around us are the most arid and dismal you can conceive of. In fact these prairies (so called) look more like great deserts.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

So it is not a surprise that the Great Plains have been used and abused by settlers and their descendants for most of the past couple of centuries. Throughout the book, Savage details changes in human land use patterns that were driven by economics, societal changes, shifts in technology, and legislation. In each case she draws attention to particular flora and fauna that benefit – or seem to benefit – and those that lose out. And in doing so she shows the extent that all of life – human and otherwise – is deeply connected as far as the grass grows and the wind blows.

Implied in much of that story is the fact that settlers have rarely given much thought to their actions beyond their own benefit and perhaps the first rank of consequences (if that). What would it mean to other predators (foxes, coyotes, and others) to extirpate wolves from most of the Great Plains? What birds would benefit, and which ones would lose out, with new crops or cropping practices? What do tillage practices and the introduction of vast monocultures mean for the native pollinators and their plants? What does our profligate use of surface and aquifer water and damming of rivers mean for aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, sturgeon, and other fish? In the Great Plains Anthropocene it has been rare for such questions to have been asked. And while that is hopefully changing, nowhere on earth is it etched more deeply than on the tablet of the prairie.

Savage works her way through the natural history of the prairie from its deep history and geological formation, to its soils, its meteorology, its plants and its animals of all conceivable types, and to our collective human influence, past and present. Throughout this epic journey across time and space – accompanied by many maps and amazing photographs – she brings out the wonder and beauty of this dynamic landscape and its inhabitants. Every story weaves into the next with nary a seam, and each chapter builds from start to end. There were times in her writing where I could practically smell the spring cottonwood buds while watching American white pelicans fly by my favorite fishing hole on the Bow River. At other times the melody of red-winged blackbirds called out from the cattails of the pages. My guess is that this book will speak most deeply to those of us who have deeply experienced the prairies, but that it will also draw out a new appreciation in those who have spent little or no time there at all.

Most of all, this book is a book of hope. As a young boy driving with my family across Alberta and Saskatchewan I often dreamed of what it would be like to see the prairie open and unfenced. Those days are not going to return again soon, if ever. But the prairie is still there in river valleys and along ridges, along the side of highways, in aspen groves, and in a few conserved expanses. And the more people who realize its beauty and its vital function (beyond food, and now fuel, production) in our lives, the more likely we will be to live to see more of it conserved.

Savage opens her final chapter of the book as follows:

In a century when the natural world is slowly dying all around us – when wildness has been pushed to the margins – the wide open spaces of the Great Plains are a landscape of hope. Here is an ecosystem that has experienced the full onslaught of modernization in one brief historical instant and that, though battered and torn, still inspires us with its splendor. This is a country filled with light. It is a place where city streets flow out onto the prairie and draw us along until, almost before we know it, we find ourselves rolling down a dusty gravel road, with warm gusts of meadowlark song blowing in through the open window. It is land where the seasons surge over us like tides, from the sudden upwelling of spring to the languid heat of summer and from the rushing retreat of autumn to the great sparking silence of winter.

Hope, indeed! I highly recommend this book; and then I even more strongly recommend that you find a way to take some time in your future to physically read and enjoy the book of nature spread out before you under a vast dome of sky.