The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Tag Archives: Research

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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Where?

Warning: this post contains angst.

The third year of my PhD work is quickly coming to a close (Omg. Aak. Eeek.) I’ve been thinking a lot about post-docs. About the type of research I want to do and the type of researcher I want to become in the long run. About fellowships and funding applications. About finding a great lab and a great mentor.

There’s one other unknown that seems to consistently overshadow all these other considerations, no matter how much I try to convince myself that it shouldn’t be super-important:

where am I going to work?

That one word – “where” – stirs up a flurry of other stressful, intrusive thoughts: where will my wife and I live? Will we stay in Canada, or will we have to move to the US or even overseas? Will we be able to find a nice place that lets us maintain the quiet country existence we’ve both come to love? Will we have to sell our beloved old schoolhouse – or maybe we could just rent it out for a while? Will we be ABLE to sell our beloved old schoolhouse if we need to (the real estate market isn’t exactly on fire right now)? And then there’s our pets – if we move overseas we’ll almost certainly have to put them in quarantine – would we be able to manage that? What about our families? What about my partner’s career (she also returned to school last year to pursue a new path as a social worker)? Will we be able to live someplace that recognizes our marriage – will we both be able to get health care and feel safe in a new community?

This issue of “where” is awfully big. I feel like everything else is manageable, but this one…I don’t know. There are a lot of long-term implications and emotional investments wrapped up in “where”, and frankly it scares the poop out of me if I allow myself to think about it too much

I’m not sure what will ultimately settle the “where” question. We might have to simply follow the available funding. Maybe funding won’t be an issue and I’ll be able to carve out a nice niche for myself in a lab more of my choosing, and someplace where my wife can equally pursue her own dreams. (And maybe pigs will fly?)

Half of me wants to ask you other grad students and post-doc-ey and early-career-ey people to share your own journeys and concerns about this process, but the other half of me is terrified of what you’ll tell me (aak!) What were your primary considerations when looking for post-docs/jobs/higher degrees, in terms of the “where” question?

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/

A weird, wingless discovery

One thing I love about sorting my trap samples is that I never know exactly what I’m going to see! Add to that the novelty of specimens from the far north, and the inherent diversity of insects, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to see at least a few new-to-me species every time I sit down at my lab bench.

This term I’ve had an undergraduate student volunteer, Michael, working with me.  He quickly demonstrated that he’s not only interested but also talented, progressing from sorting to pinning and pointing specimens (a task I’m notoriously anal about and rarely relinquish to others – everything must look *just so* – but Mike has proven up to the challenge) in a few weeks.

He’s also got what I’d call a “good eye”.  While he may not know all the formal taxonomic names or anatomy of everything, he’s been quick to pick up on the visual cues and patterns of different groups of insects, and often points out interesting new things he finds in the samples he’s working on.

The other day, he looked up from his dissecting microscope and asked, “Do all wasps have wings?” He had been taught, you see, that two pairs of membranous wings was one of the defining characters of the wasps he was to extract from his samples.  “This looks like a wasp, but it doesn’t have wings.”  I came over to his station to take a peek and saw this:

Gelis sp., a wingless female parasitoid (Ichneumonidae)

A wingless female parasitoid wasp. Photo by Katie Sim (because I am useless at using our lab microscope camera and Katie can take great photos of tiny things like itsy-bitsy spider genitals. )

I saw that he had correctly nailed this critter as a Hymenopteran, and that, indeed, it had no signs of wings.  In a moment of blinding genius, the first words that fell out of my mouth were: “It’s an ant!”  Then, “No, wait…”  Although the tiny, reddish, long-legged animal did rather resemble an ant, the abdomen, mouthparts and antennae were all wrong. A wingless wasp it was! How cool!  I shared Mike’s excitement over the discovery, as this was a first for me as well.

I did some Googling and Bug Guide searching, and found that a number of parasitic wasp groups had wingless females.  (I also read that many of these were ant-mimics that would sneakily attack ant-tended hoppers and their nymphs, so felt somewhat better about my earlier ID gaffe).  Since there were too many possibilities, I called in the reinforcements: the post-doc in our lab also happens to be our resident wasp expert. Laura kindly agreed to take a look at the tiny critter and quickly confirmed her initial suspicions: it’s a member of the family Ichneumonidae, of the genus Gelis.  And that’s about as good an ID as we’ll get, because apparently the Gelis sp. group is ridonculously difficult to pick through.

As far as their diet goes, Laura had this to say: “They attack a variety of things, generally things in silk cocoons.  So, they can be hyperparasitoids on cocoons of Ichneumonoidea, or primary parasitoids on spider egg sacs or small Symphyta and Lepidoptera cocoons”.  So much for my maybe-it-looks-like-an-ant-so-it-can-attack-ant-tended-hoppers theory.  This wasp’s winglessness may therefore be a reflection of her preferred food sources: egg sacs or cocoons attached to low-lying vegetation are perhaps easier to access by land, rather than by air.  By not “wasting” energy on the development of wings or on flight, the female wasp might be able to devote more energy to the production of her eggs and eventual offspring.

I love this little discovery in part because parasitoids are awesome and wingless parasitods are extra-cool.  But I think I love it MORE because it involved the combined efforts of four people to pull all the pieces together (thanks Mike, Katie and Laura!)

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