The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Tag Archives: Research

Giving back by speaking out

O hai, terrifically neglected blog and blog-readers! I totally got sucked into that weird swirly vortex of work/rest/procrastination that sometimes happens over the winter break (you grad students know the one I mean), then suddenly found myself back in action at school (including teaching three days a week) and I am just now getting my spinning head above water again. Phew! Anyways, I’m back now.

The start of this new term was marked by my latest presentation. I didn’t give this talk at a conference, nor at a departmental seminar or even for a grad course. No, this talk was given to a special interest group called the Arctic Circle – a group of people with experience working in the Arctic and/or who are simply interested in what goes on in Canada’s northerly latitudes. I had been invited to speak about my research on beetles from Nunavut and the program of which I’m a part.

Now, consider this:

The audience members were not people in my field. The networking opportunities were therefore not ideal and it was unlikely that I would get the chance to schmooze with any potential future advisers or employers. I did not get paid.  This was not an academic event. There was no press coverage. There wasn’t even any free swag or food.

So why on earth would I spend hours carefully preparing slides and rehearsing? What was in it for me?

Well, that’s actually not really the point. The point is that one of our jobs as researchers and leaders in our chosen fields is to bring new and interesting information about our work to the general public.  I think we are often guilty of forgetting who it is that we’re doing research for: Mr. & Ms. J. Q. Public.

We grad students are doing lots of amazing research, but it often doesn’t make it past the pages of the latest issue of X Journal. It’s read, of course, by our academic peers, but what about everyone else? Don’t they also deserve to know about our research, and how it affects them personally? We find our  own work super-interesting (hopefully) – wouldn’t we want other people outside our field to be excited by it too? Let’s also not forget that most of us, in one way or another, are conducting publicly-funded research; the public deserves to hear what their tax dollars are doing.

I think we all have a duty to take these kinds of opportunities for outreach or education with the general public whenever possible – to share our work (and our enthusiasm for it) with others.

If you must have less altruistic motivations for doing this kind of thing, here you go:

  • sometimes you get paid (Or fed. Or offered beer. Or all three.)
  • you can practice your communication skills
    • public speaking (this talk was the first lecture-length presentation I’d ever delivered – and it went well!)
    • PowerPoint slide-making
    • NOT USING JARGON (completely impractical when speaking to a non-specialist audience, or to children!)
  • you might meet someone that could end up being a collaborator or supporter ($) of your work
  • it can be fun!

Personally, I really look forward to these kinds of opportunities. It’s refreshing to speak to more diverse audiences than the usual conference-goers. Working with kids can be especially rewarding – they have such enthusiasm and a wonderful sense of adventure, and they really provide the perfect audience for doing hands-on or outdoor workshops!  I have another general interest talk lined up at a garden club this spring to address the matter of a certain pesty red beetle – should be fun! I see this blog (and Facebook, Twitter etc.) as being a natural online extension of these activities.

Some kids in Nunavut, checking out my specimens, and ones they caught outside themselves - public outreach CAN be fun and games!

What do you all think?

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Arctic beetle trophic structure and shiny new research direction!

I am pretty excited by the next step I’m taking with one of my projects.

I’ve spent the past few months looking at a season’s worth of subarctic beetles from my summer in Kug, back in 2010. In my mid-field-season post that year, I mentioned that the community of beetles seemed pretty darned weird, at least to the naked eye: my traps were full of predatory beetles, but I was hard-pressed to find many herbivores, either in my traps or just by looking around on plants.

Now that I’ve actually gone through all of the samples, it’s clear that what I thought I saw was actually pretty much the case. Out of exactly 2638 adult beetles, 88.3% of them are carnivores. Only 11.2% are plant-feeders of some kind, and less than 1% are scavengers. I see almost identical figures if I consider the animals in terms of their mass and not just their numbers: about 87% of the “bulk” of all beetle bodies is carnivorous.

So why is this so weird?

Usually, when we think about how animals feed on each other, we tend to think of something rather pyramid-shaped, like this:

This is the “trophic structure” of a typical community of organisms. Each level in the pyramid is called a trophic level.

Most places on earth have a lot of plants. There are enough plants to feed, and provide energy to, all of the herbivores. Those herbivores are eaten by, and provide energy to, predators, which are fewer in number. Some trophic structures may have an additional level of “top” predators, that feed on just about everything, including other carnivores.

You can see how each trophic level in the pyramid gets smaller; it’s what keeps the community stable. For example, if there were more herbivores than plants, the herbivores would eat all of the plants (obliterating that level) and then they would in turn die off because there was nothing left for them to eat.

What I have found with my beetles from Kug is a trophic structure shaped something like this:

There are still quite a lot of plants, though not as many as you’d normally find in, say, an old open field in rural Ontario (this is the Arctic, after all). But the rest of the pyramid has essentially inverted: there are few herbivores and lots of predators.  The usual upward flow of energy seems to be disrupted.  Where are all these predators getting their energy?

My answer at this point is: I have no idea.

But I have two guesses:

1. Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture – the predators might be eating other things!

Beetles don’t necessarily feed on other beetles. Maybe, if I added in other groups of animals, the trophic structure might look a little more “normal”. I don’t actually think this will be the case. I have started to look at the other critters I collected in my traps, and MOST of them are large, heavy-bodied, predatory spiders. There are a smattering of plant-eating bugs, grasshoppers, caterpillars and springtails, but I am almost certain there are not enough to provide energy to all the “bulk” of beetles and spiders.

2.  Who needs herbivores – why not just eat other carnivores?

I think these beetles (and the spiders, too) are actually feeding on each other  – this is a type of cannibalism, called intratrophic predation. In this kind of arrangement, predators get their energy by feeding on other high-energy predators. This is not unheard of; it’s been seen in desert communities, for example, but these kinds of trophic structures are not terribly common.

Anyways, I’d like to figure out exactly what’s going on in this system, and particularly if my second guess is correct. Since I wasn’t able to directly observe what all these beetles were eating while I was up north, I have to rely on some fancy-schmancy and new-to-me lab techniques

(*Gasp!*  TGIQ doing lab stuff??!?  I know, right?  This is all in the name of trying out new binoculars, friends).

The technique I’m going to start working on soon is called stable isotope analysis.

I’ll save the inner workings of this method for another post (not just a little bit because I’m still sorting out all the details myself!), but I’m pretty excited about trying it out. My job will be to carefully prepare beetle specimens by drying, crushing, and weighing tiny samples of their bodies into special teensy little tin cups. Then I’ll send them out to a lab that has a couple of specialized bits of equipment (which, last time I checked, I did not have sitting on my lab bench) that will measure the amount of nitrogen and carbon in each sample.

In a nutshell, this technique should let me figure out the trophic levels of all my predators (i.e., where exactly on the pyramid they sit), mainly by the amount of nitrogen in their bodies.  If they’re eating only herbivores, they’ll have less nitrogen, and will be on a lower trophic level. If they’re eating only other predators, they’ll have lots of nitrogen, and will show up at the highest level. Beetles eating a mix of herbivores and other predators will show up somewhere in the middle, with an in-between amount of nitrogen.

If I see mostly herbivore-feeders, and not predator-feeders, then I’ll know that my guess #2 is incorrect, and that I’m missing a piece of this little trophic puzzle.

Stay tuned for updates in the new year on this project!

The Northiest Beetle Evar (Atheta sp.: Staphylinidae)

I just finished pointing* all of the beetles my research team collected at Hazen Camp, near Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. If you don’t know where that is, you should click on that link.

See? It is very freaking far north.

Sorting through the specimens from this site didn’t take very long.  The vigorous sampling efforts there resulted in a series of 17 individuals of what appears to be the same species of rove beetle (Staphylinidae), from the genus Atheta.

Staphylinidae-Atheta sp.

Atheta sp., a rove beetle (Staphylinidae) from the northernmost Canadian Arctic island.

The entire beetle is approximately 2 mm from head to tail; really, beyond my camera’s photographic capabilities.

Still, although fossilized ground beetles, and even lady beetles, have been discovered on Ellesmere in the past, this critter may be the only extant terrestrial beetle species from this part of the Arctic…which definitely makes it worth taking a photo, even if it’s out of focus.

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* “Pointing” refers to gluing insects onto a small triangle/pointy-shaped piece of paper, through which an insect pin is inserted. It’s a handy way to mount insects that are too small or too delicate to pin directly.

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Refs:

Oliver, D.R. (1963). Entomological studies in the Lake Hazen area, Ellesmere Island, including lists of species of Arachnida, Collembola and Insecta. Arctic, 16(3):175-180.

Blake, W. and J.V. Mathews. (1979).  New data on an interglacial peat deposit near Makinson Inlet, Ellesmere Island, District of Franklin.  Geological Survey of Canada, Current Research Pt A, 79-1A, 157-164.

Donning “New Binoculars” of Natural History

I’ve been mulling over my last post, in which I ranted about the preponderance of molecular biology in current entomological research.  I found it interesting that several people, people who I like and respect, quickly leapt to MolBio’s defense. Which made me wonder if maybe I was off the mark about the whole thing.

Then I listened to a dialogue between Gary Paul Nabhan and Josh Tewksbury, recorded as part of the Natural Histories Project, wherein advanced chemical, analytical, and visualization techniques are described as the “the binoculars of our age”.

Which made me think some more. And I asked myself, “Self, why are you so darned resistant to this whole concept?”  And the answer I finally came up with was both humbling and embarrassing:

I’m afraid of it.

Worse, I’m afraid of it because I don’t understand it.  Yikes. Not an easy admission for me to make.

Blethisa catenaria, a ground beelte (Carabidae)

I guess its genes could be equally awesome? (But probably not as SHINY)

See, I was the kid who barely scraped through high school chemistry. I moaned and sighed and drudged through mandatory introductory organic chemistry, biochemistry, and genetics courses as an undergraduate student.  I REJOICED when finally I was able to take courses that dealt with whole organisms, their environments, and the complex interactions between them.

The truth is that I have a very hard time working with and understanding things I can’t actually see with my unaided eye or touch with my own fingertips.  Everything else, all the cellular- or gene- or smaller(!)-level phenomena that are obviously integral to the organisms I so love to observe…well, they fall into the realm of “abstract” for me. I simply trust that they are going on as people claim they are (funny thing, that, considering I usually take very few things at face value).

So, my conceptual and practical comprehension of these things are, sadly, probably far more rudimentary than they ought to be at this stage of my career.

I’d like to fix this.

I’ve decided to adopt a new mindset, based on Nabhan and Tewksbury’s interview. I’ve decided to view these things as simply being “new binoculars” – new tools at my disposal that can help me better understand the animals I’m studying – not as high-tech annoyances.

Over the next week or so I’m going to develop a plan of action to help me get over this brain-hurdle I’ve imposed on myself. I expect it to be challenging, and I’m quite certain that it will take me well outside my academic comfort zone.  These are both very, very good things.

If anyone has any suggestions that might help highly kinesthetic/concrete experience-type-learners such as myself, I would gratefully welcome them.

* Expect regular posts from me on Mondays now. I’ll be sharing thoughts, pictures and updates about my research and growth as a grad student.

Wherein I celebrate a talk, cry over natural history, and do new things to this blog

I am finally back from conference-madness-land.  The annual Entomological Society of Canada meeting wrapped up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday.  To summarize:

1. It was super-fun and my brain is full of ideas and delicious nerdspeak.

2. I am super-stoked that I gave my first talk as a PhD student and I didn’t get boo-ed off the stage; not bad for having a data set of, oh, about ZERO ENTRIES less than a month ago, and for having frantically finished making my last slides the morning of the talk (this is not something I plan to make a habit of, because it is nauseatingly stressful). I am highly motivated to make next year’s talk awesome.

3. I am super-depressed by the tsunami-like wave of molecular biology sweeping over the ento research world, because it seems to be crushing every last little terrified, clinging speck of natural history work to smithereens.

Since when are genes more interesting than the animals to which they belong? *LONG DEEP SIGH*

 (Note: Morgan at Biodiversity In Focus tweeted about this Natural History Network today. It is freaking out my web browser for some reason, but when that settles down I hope to hear some good news about this subject. )

Acorn weevil taking off (Curculio sp.)

A weevil (a photo taken at BugShot). Entirely more awesome than a SNP. Amirite?

Anyhoo. You may have noticed something a little different around here: the blog formerly known as “Fall To Climb” is henceforth the domain (figuratively and literally) of “The Bug Geek“.  Also, I was a very nice person and made your lives easier by linking my old blog name to this one, so you don’t even have to update your readers (you’re welcome), but you can (but no pressure).

I am going to be messing around with the layout and things a little over the next few weeks, so bear with me if things are glitchy or stupid-looking.

Now, first things first: blogroll update. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while and just haven’t gotten around to it. Since attending BugShot 2011, I have added a number of fun new bug blogs (some of which belong to BugShot attendees) to my blog reader, but haven’t yet mentioned them here. Some may be old news to you, but just in case:

http://www.thatbugguy.com/ – bug photographs and photog tips by Scott

http://www.microvoyages.blogspot.com/ – more bug photos, with bonus natural history (yay!), and a dash of general geekery, by fellow (undergrad) student Alex Webb

http://www.bugdreams.com/ – portraits of insects with dreamy, beautiful, natural light by Rick Lieder

http://bugtracks.wordpress.com/  – great photos and field notes by Charley Eisman

http://bugsofboogercounty.wordpress.com/ – bugs and other critters in the Ozarks, by George Sims (he gets bonus points for getting the words “bugs” and “booger” in the same domain!)

http://homebuggarden.blogspot.com/ – bug photos from Edmonton, Alberta, TONS of natural history, referenced literature … swoon!

http://ucanr.org/blogs/bugsquad/index.cfm – “Bug Squad” – a great new bug blog out of U California Agriculture and Natural Resources, by Kathy Keatley Garvey

If I’m missing anybody, let me know! I hope you all find something new and fun to enjoy here 🙂

Edited to add: Forgot one!  http://www.beetlebrained.blogspot.com/ It’s got beetles!  Awesome beetles! By Jon!

Ooh, found another!  http://abugblog.blogspot.com/ – Great photos, natural history, from the UK!

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