Beetle Byte (28 October 2014 edition)

“Ancient” data; ancient DNA; zombies; other algae-covered creatures… and more.


“Ancient” satellite images

‘All of it’ turned out to be 25 boxes full of tins containing several thousand 60-metre rolls of photos, and quickly-deteriorating magnetic film with infrared imagery – unopened, and labeled with useless information on orbit numbers rather than locations. But the prize was too great, and he was running out of time: with the surviving NASA scientists who had taken the original images well into their 80s, he knew it wasn’t long before the knowledge he needed to decipher the data would be gone forever.


It makes sense to be slothful

Slowness is the ultimate weapon in an evolutionary war against eagle-eyed, fleet-footed predators. What better way to blend in with the forest than to cosy up with algae and fungi. Ritual defecation is the sloth equivalent of speed dating, just without the speed.



This morning, our friend Rebecca at Calipidder alerted us via a Facebook post to a woman named Casey Nocket who had traveled to the west coast from New York for a few weeks. Ms. Nocket had been enjoying her time in the outdoors so much that she decided to document her trip on Instagram. And apparently Nocket was so moved by all the natural beauty she saw that she just had to paint all over it.


Fossil forest… in a mine

But it was a different thing entirely when John Nelson and Scott Elrick, geologists with the Illinois State Geological Survey, examined the Riola and Vermilion Grove coal mines in eastern Illinois. Etched into ceilings of the mine shafts is the largest intact fossil forest ever seen—at least four square miles of tropical wilderness preserved 307 million years ago. That’s when an earthquake suddenly lowered the swamp 15 to 30 feet and mud and sand rushed in, covering everything with sediment and killing trees and other plants. “It must have happened in a matter of weeks,” says Elrick. “What we see here is the death of a peat swamp, a moment in geologic time frozen by an accident of nature.”


In time for Hallowe’en… zombie corals

Last year, marine biologist Peter Mumby took a dive into the Rangiroa lagoon, in French Polynesia. What he saw shocked him so much he thought he might be lost.He’d expected to be surrounded by death, by a reef of dying coral whose skeletons were slowly crumbling into the sea. Instead, majestic, olive-green Porites corals, the size of large hippos, carpeted the sea floor, providing a playground for parrotfishes and the occasional shark that weaved between the cauliflower-shaped giants.


You won’t catch me doing this

The 57-year-old leapt out in a specially-designed space suit, reaching speeds of more than 1,300km/h. He exceeded the speed of sound, setting off a small sonic boom, and set several skydiving records in the process.


Human evolution is always fascinating

But Petraglia sees Ust’-Ishim’s genome differently. “I think this is part of a population boom that’s going on around 45,000 years ago, which means modern humans got to the ends of the world by 45,000 years ago,” he says. Their numbers might have swamped human populations that arrived in earlier migrations.

Book review: Translations from Bark Beetle by Jody Gladding

While many people don’t think about it too much, insects are extraordinarily communicative animals. Perhaps this tends to escape notice because, as with most animal communication, the “speakers” and “listeners” use forms of language that are wholly unfamiliar to us. Insects use chemical pheromones, vibrations in the air (sound) and through solids and liquids, visual cues, and touch. And oftentimes, just like we do when we talk and simultaneously gesture, they will use two or more of these methods at once to transmit complex messages.

Bark beetles are no exception to this. In terms of chemical communication, they are one of the longest-studied insect groups. This is because learning how to mimic their chemical “words and sentences” can also help us to control their behavior. Bark beetles are an important part of any ecosystem in which they are found, but they can also be very economically destructive. They use their chemical language to, among other things, coordinate their often-fatal mass attacks on trees so that they can mate and their larvae can eat the tree’s tissues. Much of the research into bark beetle pheromone communication has been done with at least a background objective of developing new and better control methods. That is, if we can figure out how the insects are communicating with each other, we can send them false messages to lure them into traps, force them away from trees, or at least monitor their presence or absence in a forest or city park.

Bark beetles also “communicate” with researchers. One of the best things about working with this group of insects is that once they attack a tree, the parents and then the hatched brood etch their marks on the wood of the tree as they mine through the tissues just under the bark. The under-the-bark patterns of bark beetle galleries are about as diverse as the number of bark beetle species. In general terms, one or both of the parents excavate a main gallery, the female lays eggs on the walls of that tunnel, and then the hatched larvae bore outwards from the parental gallery. This means that an interested observer can strip back the bark of a tree – whether attacked recently or in the rather distant past – and can measure the length of the parental gallery and the length and number of the larval galleries. These measurements and counts give information on the number of eggs laid, the number of larvae hatched, and the success of the larvae among other things.

In other words, the beetles etch their story onto the wood, and we can read these “messages” as well as we can read a book.

Of course this isn’t real communication, per se, because the insects are not really passing a message on to the observer… or are they? Do the insects have something to say to us? What are they (collective) saying? These are questions Jody Gladding implicitly asks in her volume of poetry entitled “Translations from Bark Beetle”.

The cover of this book is the first thing that grabs the viewer – perhaps particularly if the viewer is an entomologist (click the thumbnail above to enlarge). The cover features pinned adult specimens of Hylurgopinus rufipes (a.k.a. the native elm bark beetle or the american elm bark beetle) and Scolytus multistriatus (a.k.a., the European elm bark beetle) along with an example of a bark beetle gallery etching. And this visual is the first poetic feature of the book. Here we see, juxtaposed, two insects that infest elms, but one that is supposed to be in North America sitting next to one that should never have arrived on our shores. The native elm bark beetle is a part of the system. While it can be destructive from a human perspective, it does what it has always done where it has always done it. The European elm bark beetle, on the other hand, is not supposed to be here, is not a natural component of the North American ecosystem, and is, if anything, even more destructive than its native cousin. The cover’s visual poetics, then, reveal that what we see as “natural” or “unnatural” (or “artificial”) may in fact have overtly similar symptoms, but that the deep reality differs in ways that matter.

And it is this deep reality that Gladding seeks throughout this volume. Bark beetle translations bookend this volume with a variety of other poems in between. In each case of bark beetle translation Gladding includes a rubbing of a gallery system and then provides the translation of the beetle-collective poetry. Gladding provides some indication of how she went about the translation, including this:

Certain elements of the grammar make translating Bark Beetle problematic. There are only two verb tenses: the cyclical and the radiant. Prepositional phrases figure prominently and seem necessary for a complete syntactical unit. The same pronoun form (indicated as •) is used for the first and second person in singular, plural, and all cases.

It is difficult – impossible, actually – to recreate any examples of the bark beetle poetry sufficiently in a blog format as the lineation necessarily follows the organized-but-chaotic shapes of the galleries. Certain sections stand out on their own, however, including this one from “Engraver Beetle Cycle”:

• think •’m repeating m•yself/there are rumors of flight and fungi/(of light and lying)/the death of a tree’s

“(R)umors of flight and fungi”… exactly what one might expect the yet-to-metamorphose larval collective under the bark to consider. This presents us with the question of what we (plural) contemplate in our (plural) larval stage, for ours is a continual procession of metamorphoses, whether we are willing to recognize that fact or not.

Ultimately the best way to appreciate the poems in their entirety along with the accompanying rubbings – besides buying the book, which I highly recommend you do – would be to take a look at a sample of the poetry linked at this page at Milkweed Editions. That short sample exemplifies the physical-natural aspect of Gladding’s poetry. In other instances she creates poems on objects – natural and artificial – ranging from eggs to tongue depressors to slate to change-of-address forms. This interplay between natural and artificial is a theme throughout the volume.

Some, maybe many, of poems seem playful on first glance – for instance “quarrying” poems from Robert Frost  – but contain a poignant, serious depth that is apparent with close contemplation. While this entire volume could be read in one sitting, each piece could, and should, be chewed and digested slowly, slowly. To riff on the natural/artificial divide, this volume is not a Big Mac that you devour in a rush. Rather it is a hearty soup and fresh bread eaten alongside conversation with good friends and a bottle of fine wine.

I will close by pointing to one of my favorite poems in this excellent collection. In “Look Inside to See if You’ve Won” Gladding shines a glaring light on the uncaring effect of human artifice on the natural. Describing blundering cars, big box stores, and fast food in the midst of a flight of butterflies being crushed on radiator grilles she writes:

                        The butterflies were not trying to tell us
anything and anyway we wouldn’t have noticed. It was
such a pretty drive.

If you think that short passage stings, buy the book, slowly chew that whole poem as a bark beetle would work its way through the tissues of a tree. And then go on to digest the rest of them. Slowly, slowly.

Translations from Bark Beetle, by Jody Gladding, is published by Milkweed Editions and is available from Milkweed Editions, your local bookseller, or various online sources. A Q&A with Jody Gladding, along with links to further written and spoken examples of her poetry, can be found at the book description page.

Beetle Byte (21 October 2014 edition)

Porcupines? Spiders? Canadian inside baseball politics stuff? Yes!


Ok, here’s the porcupine (video)

Pumpkin, pumpkin, and more pumpkin! What respectable porcupine could resist this Halloween feast?


So, about that big spider

For some reason, probably related to the proximity of Halloween, my blog post about the Goliath birdeater spider received an inordinate amount of attention, and has been republished, reinterpreted, outright stolen, and vilified all over the Internet. This one post on my obscure blog is now receiving in excess of 120,000 unique visits every day, and comments are pouring in. Alas, most of them are somewhat less than positive, and I am beginning to wonder if I really am a “HORRIBLE person” who “will destroy the earth.” (I must admit that some of the trolls were touchingly tactful – they might have said ” F&*K you, a$$hole”, but they modified the foul words as not to offend my sensibility.) But why the vitriol?


Trust me on this: Canadian politics are interesting

Forty-seven years ago, perhaps in the outsized spirit of Expo 67, the retired major general and author Richard Rohmer put forward a bold proposal in Mid-Canada Development Corridor: A Concept. It described a vast landmass stretching from Newfoundland and Labrador across Quebec, Ontario, and the Prairies, to British Columbia and up through Northwest Territories and Yukon, occupying the area between southern settlements and the treeline—a band dominated by boreal forest. His idea was to implement a national strategy to develop and populate it.


Anti-vaccine politics

What about those red states? Texas does have a lack of people being vaccinated, but defenders of anti-vaccine progressives are choosing to skew the statistics there. We want to think about people exempting their kids, not to try and claim that poor people whose children did not get a Hep B vaccine at 19 months of age is the same as Jenny McCarthy. Legitimate medical exemptions are why we want herd immunity for people will immune issues and Texas leads in those. California, on the other hand, has 8X as many ‘philosophical’ exemptions as Texas has medical ones. There is a big difference between a school-age child whose parents have chosen not to get a vaccine and an illegal immigrant or a poor person who cannot afford it.


“Antisocial networks” (video)

You need not delete your social networks or destroy your cell phones, the message is simple, be balanced, be mindful, be present, be here.

Conservation basic training

I’m always a good several months behind in reading my National Geographic subscription. Recently I was working my way through the August 2014 issue and got to a fantastic article (I can’t remember very many National Geographic articles that aren’t fantastic) about Franz Josef Land – an isolated archipelago in Russia’s region of the Arctic Circle.

I enjoyed the entire article, of course. But a particular quote that caught me quite off guard and has caused me to ruminate for the past few days. Digesting that glossy cellulose can be difficult for gut microbes. Here’s what I read:

(National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala) was a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, teaching grad students about food webs and marine conservation but dissatisfied with his contribution to the world. “I saw myself as refining the obituary of nature, with increased precision,” he tells me during a conversation aboard the Polaris. His distress at the continuing trends of ecosystem degradation and species loss, in marine as well as terrestrial realms, led him out of academia. “I wanted to try to fix the problem,” he says. So in 2005 he assembled a SWAT team of scientists, including experts on marine microbes, algae, invertebrates, and fish, and sailed for the northern Line Islands, a remote cluster of coral outcrops in the Pacific about a thousand nautical miles south of Hawaii.

Oftentimes there is a disconnect somewhere between what a person thinks, what they say, what a journalist thinks they said, what an editor decides, and what ends up being printed on paper. I’ve experienced that, as has anyone who has been interviewed by the media for just about anything. So I’ll give Dr. Sala the benefit of the doubt here, but will comment on the way that this has been presented by National Geographic.

The implication in this clip of text, intentional or not, is that the job of teaching biology and natural history is task that does not have important conservation implications. I beg to differ.

In fact, I would argue that teaching is at least as important as data collection. Yes, there are the more obvious conservation roles that are more easily noticed than a professor in front of a lecture hall or guiding a group in the field or the lab. These include conservation officers, engaged politicians, park rangers, environment/agriculture/forestry/parks ministry employees, thoughtful farmers and foresters, academic/industry/government scientists, environmental consultants, NGO employees, public health nurses and physicians, and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence. Those individuals are analogous to the soldiers fighting the battle on the front lines. But, as with any army, those front line soldiers would not do well if they were just dumped in front of the enemy with a loaded rifle and a “good luck.”

Winning battles, and ultimately winning a war, requires that soldiers be trained. Trained to operate independently. Trained to work in teams. Trained to understand the terrain. Trained to work with the equipment. Trained to get results. Academic teaching done correctly and enthusiastically – and with a focus on natural history and conservation – is a vital part of the basic training that conservation professions require in order for efficacy. Dr. Sala is undoubtedly the engaged conservationist and excellent scientist that he is in some very large part due to that basic training in an academic setting.

Beyond that, those of us who collect and synthesize data have not done our jobs completely if we do not also bring those results and their implications to a wider scientific and lay public. By participating in this National Geographic feature (indeed, by working for National Geographic) Dr. Sala has simply exchanged his teaching role from a classroom to the pages of a magazine. When we conduct research and then present it at a conference, in a scientific paper, in a classroom or field course, in a textbook, in a magazine, or on a radio or television program, we are teaching. Teaching, in whatever context, goes hand-in-hand with the scientific endeavor. I am taught when I read a colleague’s paper, even if I am reading her paper decades after she wrote it. She wrote it to teach me and others about phenomena that she had observed. When I take what I have learned from her study into the classroom and present it well, my students, I would hope, are better off for it and are better prepared as engaged conservationists as they prepare to work to protect habitats, species, ecosystems, and societies.

There is no doubt that the work of conservation in the face of massive, global anthropogenic influence is a vital and growing concern. Looking at the data, it sure seems that we are too often losing important battles. Dr. Sala is correct to be concerned about being caught up in “…refining the obituary of nature…” But the best way to stop writing that obituary is to bring the wonder and amazement and necessity of our natural world into the metaphorical “classroom” by bringing relevant research results (our own and those of others) to students. This is one of the best ways to create authentic, engaged, and active young conservationists who will fill traditional conservation roles or who will be conservation vocationists and ambassadors in whatever profession they ultimately choose.

Teaching is the hard and often unnoticed basic training work of conservation. And that’s why I choose to do it.

Beetle Byte (14 October 2014 edition)

Yesterday the Canadian readers of this blog had their turkey bites. Today, everyone gets some beetle bytes!


A report from the Endangered Species Coalition

Vanishing: Ten American Species Our Children May Never See


Time to say good-bye to the tumbling tumbleweed

Dana Berner wants to start an epidemic among tumbleweeds. Berner is a pathologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service who studies the diseases that afflict plants. One of his projects has been a search for something that’s able to infect and kill the iconic, spiny, rolling weed of the American West.


Take a look at this beautiful creature

When threatened, P. wahlbergii exhibits deimatic behavior, a threatening and startling response intended to discourage predators.  The mantis spreads out its body, raises its forelimbs, and opens its magnificent wings to expose patterns which resemble two large eyes.


12 tips for talking to science faculty about new teaching strategies (by Terry McGlynn)

Don’t push technology as a solution to a pedagogical challenge. We’d like to see what works, but not to have it marketed to us. (For example, tell us about clickers. But don’t claim that they make students learn better, because they don’t. They promote active learning, problem-solving and reflection, which causes learning. Scientists dislike false claims that often accompany technological promises.)


North Korea’s “Winston Smith”

Because Jang was required to write in a foreign style, he was one of the few people in the country permitted to read South Korean newspapers. Jang was shocked to learn that everything he’d learned as a child was a lie — and that South Korea was a thriving democracy many times more rich than its northern counterpart. More shocking still, he learned, writers in South Korean newspapers were permitted to criticize the government, a capital offense in North Korea. (In fact, everything in North Korea is a capital offense, as a sampling of public posters described in the book attests: “Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Disobey Traffic Rules!” “Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity!” “Death by Firing Squad To Those Who Gossip!”)


A great primer on the poetic line

If you want to understand poetry, and maybe learn how to write it, you definitely want to learn about the different kinds of poetic lines and the uses of line breaks in poetry. The more poetry you read, the more you’ll notice some poets use short lines, some use long, some set all the lines on the left side of the page, and some indent lines differently all over the page. The relationship between the poetic line (including its length and positioning and how it fits into other lines) and the content of a poem is a major aspect of poetry. Some critics go so far as to say that lineation is the defining characteristic of poetry, and many would say it’s certainly one major difference between most poetry and prose.

Goldilocks conferences

Last week I, along with dozens of Canadian entomologists, was in beautiful Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at our annual Entomological Society of Canada/Entomological Society of Saskatchewan Joint Annual Meeting. I had a great time there. There were five talks from my research program (including one of my own). I was very proud of all of my students and postdocs, as they all gave great talks. One of them, Sharleen Balogh, won the President’s Prize for her talk. And UNBC’s very own Staffan Lindgren became President of the Society for the next year.

Besides all of that, I was able to visit with many colleagues and students. We were able to “talk shop” and discuss our ideas easily, almost like an ongoing, really large lab meeting. We had time to get to know each other a bit better as actual humans, not just another name on a co-author list. And we were treated to all sorts of inspiring and informative regular talks, symposium addresses, and poster presentations. By the end of the four days in Saskatoon, I was tired but also elated at the state of entomological research and teaching in Canada. Our discipline is in very good hands for the foreseeable future, and that makes me happy.

All of this got me thinking a bit more about conferences on my plane flight back (while trying to avoid a conversation about “chem trails” with an insistent fellow sitting next to me). I’ve been to some very large conferences with attendees numbering in the thousands. And I’ve been to some very small conferences with maybe 20 or 30 attendees. The ESC JAM is an order of magnitude smaller than the former and an order of magnitude larger than the latter – nestling right into a bit of a sweet spot, in my opinion.

I do truly appreciate the smaller conferences for a number of reasons. There are no concurrent sessions, so you never are forced to miss a talk. They are really great venues for early-stage students to present their work in a thoroughly non-threatening atmosphere. They are a great place to reconnect with your closest – geographically and often in terms of discipline – colleagues. On that latter point, in a discipline like entomology where many of the issues that we deal with are regional in nature, this aspect cannot be stated too strongly. Having some time to compare notes on regional conservation or pest issues in a semi-formal setting with regional colleagues is vital.

I also like the larger conferences, but not quite as much. And the fact that I haven’t been to a large conference in several years now is perhaps a bit of a testimony to my deeper current mindset. Large conferences have the advantage of having something for everyone. With thousands of attendees giving talks or posters over a three- or four-day period, there are also many – sometimes dozens – of concurrent sessions. Organizers have a ton of resources, and they can bring in big speakers and a great trade show. This means that no matter what, I can find talks and items of interest to me at large meetings. But it also means that I feel required to preschedule myself to such an extent that it is unlikely that I’ll just stumble into a talk (or remain in a session after the talks that I was interested in) that truly but accidentally blows my mind. Pure organization is key at a large conference, and that reduces spontaneity.

I also find that I’m often more prone to being “lonesome in a crowd” at large meetings because you have to be pretty lucky to meet someone you might know just in time for lunch or dinner with so many concurrent sessions going on. Again, this can be overcome with planning (“hey, let’s meet at the registration desk for lunch at noon on Tuesday”), but does not really allow for surprise meetings with known and yet-unknown colleagues.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to large conferences. They are amazing events, and I have always benefited from being at them. But perhaps it’s my somewhat introverted tendencies that make me more comfortable at the small-to-medium-sized meetings. It’s at those venues that I find that I can see presentations that are both exactly relevant to my work and also tangentially interesting. I can easily meet with people who I know. I can meet a few who I didn’t know before. And I can make a gracious retreat when I’m feeling a bit tired of interacting.

Ultimately I suppose that each of us has a Goldilocks Zone for preferred meeting size. Mine generally matches what I experienced last week. Preferences, of course, will vary. And the benefits of all meeting sizes mean that we should all also step away from our personal Goldilocks Zone from time-to-time to experience meetings of all sorts.

(And a quick addendum: Thanks so much to the organizers of the ESC-ESS JAM 2014. Having been part of an organizing team in the past, I realize how much work that was. I hope that you all are feeling proud of the great work that you did, because that was an excellent meeting all around.)

To whom it may concern

Throughout the year, but particularly during certain periods when students are applying to graduate or professional schools, I am asked to write reference letters or to fill out reference reports. As a faculty member, this is one of those jobs that can be a positive experience or, frankly, less than positive. But in either case, writing reference letters and reports is an expected responsibility of my job, and one in which I take considerable pride in putting out a good product. The quality of a reference letter says almost as much about the referee as it does about the applicant.

When I am writing about excellent students who I know well – e.g., students who have committed substantial time and effort to our research program here and whom I have interacted with on a regular basis – I find this to be a pleasant task. However things become much more difficult, verging on near-impossible, if all that I know about a student is that they were in my class and they received a particular mark.

One of the biggest questions that a student should consider before asking a faculty member to write a letter for them is “does this person know anything about me other than a mark that I received in their class?” This means that the student should also begin to think about references early in their undergraduate career. So they should also ask themselves, “if I were an employer or on a professional/graduate school selection committee, what sort of references would I take most seriously?”

Having been on the committee side of the reference letter equation, I know that letters from referees who have had substantial experience with the candidate are taken far more seriously than are more tangential relationships. Any good reference form asks for how I know the applicant, and for how long; and I always make that sort of statement in letters that I write. And most good reference forms give the option of “have not observed” when asking for rankings of various criteria. Too many “have not observed” marks on a completed form tells the committee that the referee knows only very little about the applicant.

When I write a reference letter, I commit to:

  • being completely honest and enthusiastic about what I see as the candidate’s strengths and other indicators of excellence.
  • being equally honest about anything that I feel the candidate needs to work on, particularly in light of the position that they are applying for. My credibility relies on my honesty, and I will be fully honest.
  • delivering a letter or report that is clear, concise, and professional. I will ensure that whatever is asked for will be delivered in an appropriate manner and that the output will be a credit to the candidate’s application package.
  • delivering the letter or report on time. I will not irritate selection committees by being “that” referee who they have to badger for a report.
  • ensuring, if possible, that my snail mail or electronic letter reaches the recipients. Some organizations make this possible, others don’t. But if and when I verify that the letter has arrived, I will also notify the applicant so that they can cross it off of their to-do list. I will definitely notify the applicant that I have sent off the reference letter.

I expect the applicant to:

  • think carefully – before approaching me for a letter – about whether or not I will have enough information to be able to write anything that will be useful for the selection committee.
  • work with me to find a time to sit down and have a discussion about their plans, if we haven’t talked about this in the past. This allows me to write in a credible fashion and perhaps even include some tangential-but-relevant information that committees like to read about.
  • provide me with unofficial transcripts if I request them. It’s hard for me to say much about what courses an applicant has taken and their trajectory over the course of a degree if I don’t have this information.
  • ask me for the reference with sufficient time to spare before the deadline. In all honesty, if I don’t feel that I can write a good letter in the time that I am given, I will say no to the request. And keep in mind that reference letter requests often come near or during the end-of-semester rush when professors are under as much pressure as are students. Any deadline that is less than a week away is more than likely too little time, because by that time much of my upcoming week is already planned out.
  • realize that if I don’t know them other than from a mark in a course, that I will do my best but will not be able to say much, if anything, beyond what their transcript tells me. The applicant should also then realize that my letter may be of less value to the committee than would be one from someone who knows them better.

Reference letters are an important part of career progression, and I take this task very seriously.

I’d be interested to hear from others – applicants and referees – who may want to add to either of my lists.

Beetle Byte (19 September 2014 edition)

(Extinct) grizzlies, maybe-extinct aliens (or us?), prairie plants and pollinators, pollinator (and other insect) poetry, and a bit of balance.

Cloak and dagger natural history in California

When Johnson and Grinnell returned to Booth’s shop to follow up, they found Booth with a cleaned skull, which he promised to hand over when the job was done. But Grinnell recognized that the specimen was the skull of a polar bear. Grinnell kept quiet—he worried that confronting Booth would only diminish his chances of ever getting the real grizzly skull. Later Booth told Grinnell that if he wanted the skull (the polar bear skull that he was falsely presenting as a grizzly skull), he would have to bid against Grinnell’s good friend Frank S. Daggett at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art.


ET may not be as nice as the creature in the movie

Possibility 5) There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “superpredator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck.


You’ll probably spend the rest of your afternoon on this site.

Museums across Canada protect and preserve collections of plants and insects along with their collection data. These data are used to help scientists determine habitat preferences, and changes in species’ distribution and abundance over time. These specimens are therefore used to determine whether a species is in danger of becoming extinct! The gallery pages for each species will allow you to see actual Museum research specimens and photographs of the organisms in a natural setting.


Every insect order, in verse.

Now he is taking on insects in poetry as third co-editor of a new eBook called The American Entomologist Poet’s Guide to the Order of Insects, which includes about 90 poems that date from the seventeenth century up to the present, with at least one poem for each insect order. Contributors include three U.S. Poets Laureate (W. S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, and Ted Kooser), and luminaries such as John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Jonathan Swift, John Donne, and many others.



There is a blending of work and life that woos us with its promise of barbecues at work and daytime team celebrations at movie theaters, but we’re paying for it in another way: a complete eradication of the line between home life and work life. “Love what you do,” we say. “Get a job you don’t want to take a vacation from,” we say—and we sit back and watch the retweets stream in.

I don’t like it.


How to unplug. For a year.

One night, late in the summer of 2012, discussion at my dinner table turned to the venerable topic of What to Be When You Grow Up. My older son, Griffin, then nine years old, wanted to be an “underwater paleontologist.” His little brother, Huck, then seven, wanted to be a monkey.

“Do you know what I do for a living?” I asked Huck.

His eyes grew wide. “All you do is sit on your computer and say, ‘Blah blah blah Congress, blah blah blah Mitt Romney’!”

Finding something new

It seems that, with this post, I have inadvertently blogged a three-part series on why field work matters. In part 1 I wrote about the value of getting out, rather than being stuck behind a desk. In part 2 I wrote about the idea of place and how regular field work in one discrete location is important in terms of both understanding a system and for developing a conservation mindset. In this final (I think) part, I would like to write about the importance of novel experiences in the field.

In July I accompanied Dr. Aynsley Thielman, a postdoctoral associate in my lab, on her first visit to some high elevation, coastal field sites. Our particular task was to spend a couple of days intensively surveying the arthropod fauna in various habitats, and we were set to access the sites by helicopter. I’ve flown in helicopters on a number of occasions prior to this, but only for general reconnaissance purposes. This was the first time that I was going to be dropped off in a remote location. While the pilot was planning to stay with us, the reality in these mountainous situations is rapid shifts in weather and visibility. That meant that the pilot would give us very little notice before starting up the machine and leaving if he thought there was a safety risk. That, in turn, meant that besides efficient packing of field gear, we had to be prepared to potentially survive a night or two on the mountain before we could be flown down again. This was an interesting challenge, and one that I had never encountered before as most of the work that I have ever done is in locations accessible by well-traversed logging roads. I was, to be honest, a bit nervous leading up to the trip.

Those nerves dissipated rapidly, however, as soon as we were in the chopper and flying over the phenomenal landscapes of British Columbia’s central coastal mountains. And if just getting there was great, being there was doubly great. It’s hard to fully express in words how beautiful this place is. On the first day, we were beset by banks of clouds that meant that our pilot had to keep us moving quite quickly from site to site. But even so, the sight of clouds all around, the wind-stunted trees, the heather meadows, and the strange soil crusts kept us continually fascinated. The second day was as warm and sunny-beautiful a day as you can imagine – a complete reversal from the first day – and we were able to spend many hours in two discrete sites, looking under rocks for spiders, poking in the heather, sweeping trees, and waiting near flowers for pollinators.

By the end of two days of glorious collecting, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back to my desk. I was certainly jealous of Aynsley and the summer students who were going to be going up there several more times over the course of the summer.

This was a unique experience in my career as a biologist. Most of my field work experience has been in the, relatively speaking, lower elevation forests of the interior of British Columbia. On the mountain, on the other hand, I was taller than most of the trees at one of the sites; and the “canopy” at the other site was the heather and wildflowers. And we were dealing with a whole host of arthropods, and none of them were bark beetles (although I do need to get in closer to inspect the boles of some of those trees next time I’m up there). I found that being in a unique field site – one that is beyond my normal travels – helped to prod my brain towards fresh thinking. It is easy, I think, to lose some degree of that freshness when doing the same thing repeatedly in the same type of situation. An entirely new ecosystem, a different mode of transportation, and the challenges that go with this kind of field work stimulate the mind or, perhaps, rouse it from potential lethargy.

It might also be worth noting that some of the noted naturalists of bygone eras – think Darwin on the Beagle or Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, for instance – spent some part of their careers in fairly continuous motion to new and vastly different areas. I could never hope to accomplish what either of these preeminent scientists did in terms of turning the study of biology upside down. But I think it would be fair to say that getting out of what they were used to on the British Isles to new contexts allowed them to see patterns that they may have never noticed if they had stayed put. In Darwin’s case, the experience took some time to set in, but was instrumental in the development of the idea. In Wallace’s case, the idea came to him in the context of his experience. In either case one might argue that experiencing a unique field situation can help to make a scientist alert to new ideas. And this may be an outcome of the mind being stimulated toward fresh thinking.

Finally, new experiences like this can serve to remind us about the bigger picture. It is easy to get complacent about the “known” when we travel to our regular sites that we think that we understand so well. But how much do we really know, even of those sites? Spending time in a place that is unique to you – and where almost everything that you see is new – is a good reminder of how little we actually know. It should stimulate a researcher to return to their regular field locations with fresh eyes and a new realization about how much we still have to learn.

I know that it has done that for me. And I can’t wait to get back.

Beetle Byte (9 September 2014 edition)

You never know when you’ll be bytten by a beetle. Turns out, today’s the day!

Canada’s coolest university towns

The Spruce Capital of the North (pop. 84,000) – locally known as PG or the Notorious P-I-G – is a frontier town turned fun zone. Surrounded by ancient forests and mountain peaks, the green-minded University of Northern British Columbia combines small class sizes with the great outdoors: on a clear day on campus, you can see all the way to the McGregor Range. Just watch for wandering moose on the hike up to school.


Get your hands dirty

“We don’t yet know how much exposure to environmental bacteria (for example, through activities that involve contact with the soil) is enough to confer health benefits,” says Lowry. “It is clear, however, that exposure through breathing or consuming specific types of environmental organisms has the capacity to reduce inflammation and confer health benefits.”


Experience dirt by getting out to play

“Parents should think about why their child is in a particular program and whose needs are being served,” she says. “Is the program to keep the child busy while the parent is busy? Is it something the child really wants to do? If so, how much time is taken up with activities during the week? Is it reasonable? Does the child have time to complete school work and take responsibilities for other commitments at home? What about time to engage in simple play?”


You’re going to have to wait awhile to read this

A forest has been planted in Norway, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.


Poetry, translated from original bark beetle inscriptions

Translations from Bark Beetle (Milkweed Editions) is made up of two basic types of poems. In the first, Gladding translates notations left by bark beetle (those squiggly inscribed lines one sometimes sees in wood) into poetry; and in the second, she inscribes her own poems on natural materials such as quarried slate or found objects—a pair of tongue depressors, for example, or a scan from a doctor’s office. The collection is an ambitious work that presses the reader to see and read language (and resituate it in the world) anew.