The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Field work in the North

Life in the fast lane (subarctic beetles, part 1)

Sometime in the next few months my first research paper is going to be published (True story! I saw the proofs a few days ago!) The paper is based on 2 months of field work I did during my first summer as a PhD student, waaaay back in 2010. Some of you might remember that I packed up my gear (I traveled light, as you can see), hopped on a few planes and landed in a remote, barren landscape. The “remote” part ended up being pretty much bang-on, but the barren bit…not so much.

The incomparably stunning subarctic tundra is sprinkled with beautiful flowers and is home to incredible wildlife, some charismatic (grizzly bears! wolverines! snow geese!) and others more cryptic but no less important – arguably more important, in fact.

Kug flowers

Flowers from Kug (from top L, clockwise): prickly saxifrage, arctic rhododendron, arctic poppy, yellow saxifrage.

It was these these smaller creatures that I travelled all the way to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, to seek and collect: the insects. As you all know, insects are very important animals: they make up the majority of the world’s biodiversity (even in the Arctic: there are over 2000 species spiders, insects and mites living above the tree line, but only a few dozen species of mammals).  These insects all have very important jobs (or “ecological functions”) that affect the way the ecosystem works: they pollinate plants, they decompose things, they feed on plants and other insects, they bite other animals. When they do their jobs is equally important – if the timing is off, it can affect how other parts of the ecosystem work (think, for example, what might happen if pollinating insects like flies and bees were flying around and visiting plants after the peak blooming period).

Members of my research team have been travelling all over northern Canada, collecting insects and spiders, for the past few years. Most of the time, we collect in a single location for only two weeks. This doesn’t sound like much, but the summers are short and some our latest data (like for spiders, for example) tell us that two weeks is plenty of time to catch most of what’s out there to be caught at high latitudes. Also, we collect like possessed people. Over a hundred traps get set within 24 hours of arrival, and then we’re out all day every day, filling specimen bags and vials with six- and eight-legged critters.

So my time in Kug was pretty unique. Two months represents nearly the entire summer season – the time during which you would expect insects and spiders to be running and flying around. In fact, when I arrived on June 21, there were still piles of snow on the ground and the ice on the inland ponds was just starting to break up.  I left in mid-August, and friends reported that snow was flying two weeks later.

Subarctic summers are short, cold, and yet they’re an utter whirlwind of insect activity. When I was out emptying traps with frozen, wet fingers, sporting my long underwear and a toque, I was still hauling in dozens, even hundreds, of insects and spiders. Those bugs have a very tiny window of time during which they can wake up, move around, feed, mate/grow/lay eggs (for most, this can’t even happen in a single season – their life cycle has to be stretched out over several years) before having to go back to sleep for the winter again. Life for a bug in the north is life in the fast lane.

Me with samples

Whirl paks full of bugs make me very happy (even if I’m very cold)

Having a season’s worth of samples is a rare thing for studies of Arctic entomology – field work in the north, especially in remote locations, is logistically difficult and really, really, freaking expensive, so it doesn’t happen often and when it does it’s usually for a brief period of time.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

The day after I arrived in Kug, my field assistant and I set traps at three different sites on the tundra. At each site, we put 18 traps in a wet, soggy, sedge meadow and 18 traps in nearby dry tundra.

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

We used both “yellow pan” traps and “pitfall” traps. Both are dug into the ground so that insects walking around can fall into them. The yellow ones also attract flying insects (those critters were passed on to other people on my research team). We emptied all 108 traps about once a week, for eight weeks, putting the contents of each trap in its own sample bag every week. That’s a lotta samples.

A "yellow pan" trap, about to be collected.

A “yellow pan” trap, about to be collected.

These great samples allowed me to ask some basic questions about the insect community and how it changes over time (i.e., over the course of the active season). I wanted to find out four things: (1) what insects live in Kug, and what habitats do they live in?; (2) what insects are active at different points in the summer – does the species assemblage change over time? (3) what buggy jobs are being performed at different points in the summer – does the functional assemblage change over time?, and (4) can anything in the environment, like weather, explain any patterns in the way the assemblages change (if they even change at all?)

Over the next few weeks I’m going to touch on each of these points and tell you what I found, hopefully cumulating in a link to the actual research paper 🙂

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Published! But not about my research…

Last week I received some very  exciting news: the first paper I worked on as a Ph.D. student has been published! It’s especially exciting because it has nothing to do with my research.

Whaaaa?

That’s right. The paper is not about my research. Well, not directly. But it does touch on something you all know me to be very passionate about: outreach and education.

It’s a book chapter entitled, “Insects in Education: creating tolerances for the world’s smallest citizens”, in a brand-spanking-new book called The Management of Insects in Recreation and Tourism.

(Pardon me for a moment…*ahem*…ZOMG I’M IN A BOOK!!!1!!…o.k., I’m good now.)

I was brought on board to this project late in 2010, after the editor, Harvey Lemelin, expressed interest in the work our research group was doing in northern Canada and the overarching theme of one of our research objectives: Northern Awareness, Education and Legacy. Since I spent a good chunk of my first field season doing outreach, education and training in a northern community, my advisor very generously suggested that I take the lead on the chapter.

Very simply, the book is a multidisciplinary look at the different ways that humans interact with insects. From the description:

[the book] challenges the notion that animals lacking anthropomorphic features hold little or no interest for humans. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on the innovators, the educators, the dedicated researchers and activists who, through collaboration across fields ranging from entomology to sociology and anthropology, have brought insects from the recreational fringes to the forefront of many conservation and leisure initiatives.

Our part of this book involves some case studies based on my and my team members’ experiences and successes working in northern communities and we challenge other entomologists to embrace the idea:

… educational opportunities involving insects engage youth and provide a tangible link to more formal science training and inquiry, and provide benefits for students and researchers.  In additional to longer-term programs, informal or impromptu learning/teaching opportunities are abundant and require little effort from scientists to find and exploit them.  Such opportunities could be as simple and brief as a chat with a local who happens to stop and make an inquiry about the researcher’s work, or a quick display of sweep netting to curious children. These impromptu teaching/learning moments take little time or effort, yet can make a profound impression on the participants, and help foster strong and positive relationships within the community.  working in the north gain tremendous benefits from partnerships in local communities.  …

The time commitment and equipment to pursue local partnerships is minimal, but the impact can be profound.  We have experienced directly the benefits of using arthropods in an educational context in northern Canada, and our experiences suggest the opportunities are untapped. Given their abundance, diversity, importance in northern Canada, and ease and efficiency of sampling, arthropods are certainly one of the best “models” for pursuing further partnerships between schools, communities, and researchers.

As excited as I am about being a contributing factor to this project, it couldn’t have happened without the support and input of my co-authors Kristen Vinke, Donna Giberson and Chris Buddle. Thanks for everything, guys!

If you’d like to get your hands on a copy of the book, it’s going to be released in the U.S. in December, so you can place your order now and have one in time for Christmas! I can’t wait to read the other contributors’ work!

ETA: There is a 20% off discount being offered right now, so get it while the getting’s good! 😀

Field season in the Yukon – part 2 (the fine art of collaboration)

Now that the “oooh, aaaah” part of my field work is out of the way, let’s talk a bit about doing research, shall we?

My PhD work is a component of a research program called the Northern Biodiversity Program. It involves several professors from several universities, about a dozen grad students, a postdoctoral researcher, and a multitude of private and public partners. The word that must best describe a project of this scope is: “collaborative”.

col·lab·o·rate intr.v. col·lab·o·rat·ed, col·lab·o·rat·ing, col·lab·o·rates

1.To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.

Although we all share the same overarching objective, our personal research goals and areas of specialization are quite different. On this trip to the Yukon, I traveled with: an arachnologist studying spider population genetics; a hymenopterist doing biodiversity inventories of wasps using molecular techniques; another arachnologist interested in the distribution and life history of a species of pseudoscorpion; and another hymenopterist working on parasitic wasps and their leaf-mining caterpillar prey. Me – I study beetles and am interested in functional ecology and food webs.

Our research questions essentially had zero overlap, with the exception of the locality: it’s what brought us together for this particular field trip. In a nutshell, it meant five different types of critters being targeted for collection using five completely different methods in five different habitat/terrain types.

Hm.

This is the kind of situation that has serious potential to turn a group of nice, sane, rational adults into cranky, snarly, whiny ass-pains. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen. It’s very easy to get all “ME ME ME” in the field, wanting nothing more than to spend all your time basking in the glow of your own beloved study subjects, and getting royally snarky over any time “wasted” on other people’s work.

Happily, this is not what happened on my trip. I have proof:

Happy campers, L-R: Barb (wasps), Katie (spiders), me (beetles), Laura (wasps and prey), Chris (pseudoscorpions). Photo by Chris Buddle.

The smiling faces you see there belong to a group of people who understand how to collaborate. We took turns, helped each other out when our own work was finished or on hold, made concessions, compromised. We chatted about research ideas, approaches, and troubleshot. It was awesome.

My beetle collection techniques are primarily “passive”: I stick traps in the ground them come back later to collect the contents. Since I had a lot of waiting time between setting and collection (which everybody helped me do), I thoroughly enjoyed myself working with the others.

Yellow pan trap, with contents after a few days

We helped Katie catch wolf spiders by marching over the tundra and scooping them into a cupped hand or net as they scurried out from underfoot.

Laura and Chris help Katie search for wolf spiders

We picked caterpillars out of the “umbrella of science” after Laura whacked the bejeezus out of willow tree branches, catching critters as they fell into the umbrella held below.

Katie, Laura and Chris pick caterpillars out of Laura’s “umbrella of science”

We turned over hundred of rocks along creeks and found lovely little pseudoscorpions, helped Barb set up and take down her wasp traps, and I took photos of some of my teammate’s fascinating finds (always handy for papers or talks!).

A jumping spider – species yet to be determined!

One of Laura’s leaf-mining caterpillars (left), killed by a parasitic wasp larva (right). Two eggs laid (can you spot them?) indicate hyperparasitism.

Our willingness to collaborate made the trip enjoyable, the work smooth, and the inevitable challenges of field work less challenging. Although academic research seems to be an inherently competitive business most of the time, the benefits of working with others effectively and collegially make the extra effort, patience and open-mindedness very worthwhile.

Field season in the Yukon – part 1 (the Yukon is ridiculously pretty)

Yours truly at the Arctic Circle – km 405.5 of the Dempster Highway

Now that the Moth Week wrap-up is finished, I wanted to share some pics from my adventures in the breathtakingly beautiful Yukon territory.  I can now proudly claim to have survived a trek up and down the infamous Dempster Highway!

The science was awesome and the the team I worked with was incredible, but first I just want to share the tourist-ey bits of my trip.

We landed in Whitehorse late on on Sunday evening; by noon the next day we were equipped with an SUV, RV (i.e., transportable lab space), groceries and protective gear (it’s bear country after all!) and were on the road with Tombstone Territorial Park as our goal for the first night’s camp.

The caravan heading north from Whitehorse on the Klondike Highway

We arrived at Mile Zero of the Dempster Highway about 500 km later. This is where the pavement stops. We made it to Tombstone after another 75 km on the dusty, slick gravel road. It was a long drive, but well worth it: I have never experienced anything quite like sleeping in a tent surrounded by mountains on all sides. I was very glad to have brought extra long underwear and sleeping bag liners: it was a chilly night, and we awoke to low-hanging clouds and fresh snow on the mountaintops. The weather wasn’t ideal for bug hunting, but it sure was awesome to look at!

Waking up to snow on the mountains at Tombstone Mountain Campground – km 71.1

A view of the mountains on a clear evening later that week made it evident how “Tombstone” got its name:

Tombstone Mountain Range – km 74.0

I was blown away by the beauty of the landscape throughout our journey, and the way the ecosystems changed from boreal forest to alpine tundra to lush fields of pink post-forest fire fireweed as the miles piled on. Here’s a look at a few lovely spots on the drive:

Windy Pass – km 152.8

“Elephant Rock” – km 224.7

Ogilvie Mountains (a view from my tent!) – km 259.0

Fireweed blankets the landscape after a forest fire – km 302

The Dempster eventually crosses both the Arctic Circle (you can see my silly self-portrait at that point at the top of the post), and then moves into the Northwest Territories.

Crossing into the Northwest Territories – km “0”

Field of Cottongrass – NWT km 22.9

Our travels took us as far as the Peel River, but we were forced to stop there: the ferry was out of commission.

The tantalizingly close northern shore of Peel River – NWT km 74

While we were mainly focused on finding small, six- and eight-legged critters, we were also every bit the “road biologists”, often slowing our vehicles to delight in occasional sightings of larger wildlife. We saw all kinds of caribou tracks, spotted a couple of moose, a rather tame fox, many species of birds including these wonderful Sandhill Cranes

and got very excited to finally catch a glimpse of the most impressive “charismatic megafauna” of the region: a grizzy bear! It was from quite a distance, and from the safety of our SUV, but watching it stride confidently across the tundra was an unforgettable experience.

There’s a bear beyond those shrubs, honest!

The drive back down to civilization was filled with great camping, cooperative weather and, of course, scads of science – which I’ll talk about later this week. Stay tuned!

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This article was originally posted at: http://blogs.mcgill.ca/gradlife/2012/07/30/field-season-report-1-the-beauty/

If science is cake, then this is the icing…

I can honestly say that I love 95% of my work, 95% of the time.  Doing Science makes me feel happy and satisfied, and I can’t imagine doing anything else as a career.

That said, if science is my cake, then this is the time of year is the icing on top – it’s field season! I’ve chronicled some of my Arctic adventures from the past two field seasons, from my first incredible summer living in Kug to my stay in beautiful Yellowknife last year. This summer, my research will take me with a small team to the Dempster Highway, in the Yukon.

I’m excited about this for a few reasons, the first of which is that, after this summer, I will have visited every province and territory in Canada. I think this is pretty neat. Second, according to my advisor, the Dempster is the most beautiful place on the entire planet to visit. From his photos, I have to think he’s not exaggerating.

Photo by Chris Buddle, used with permission.

Of course, I’m also very excited that I’ll be collecting bugs like crazy for two glorious weeks in July as we drive northward; we’ll start in the boreal forest, end up on the tundra, then drive back down again. Awesome.

These field excursions are definitely one of the best perks of being a field ecologist; I’d never be able to visit places like these otherwise. I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am to have these kinds of opportunities, and I can’t wait to make the most of this latest trip.  I’m hopping on a plane for a loooooong flight north and west on the 8th, and then:

I am CAMPING.

On the TUNDRA.

So AWESOME.

I promise to report back with stories and photos upon my return, and have a lineup of stuff for you to read in the meantime.

Happy field season, everyone! 🙂

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*cross-posted: original post can be found here: http://blogs.mcgill.ca/gradlife/2012/06/24/if-science-is-cake-then-this-is-the-icing/

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