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Musings about statistics by a statistics-phobe

By B. Staffan Lindgren, Professor Emeritus

A while back, a paper accepted by The American Statistician entitled “The ASA’s statement on p-values: context, process, and purpose” was posted to the American Statistical Association website. The gist of the paper was that many disciplines rely too much on the p-value as the sole indicator of research importance. Not surprisingly, the paper received considerable attention.

Over my career, I had a love-hate relationship with statistics, knowing just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to really understand what I was doing. Consequently I relied on packaged software and/or colleagues or students who were more quantitatively minded than myself. For example, I generally made sure that a graduate student committee had at least one member with some strength in statistics to make sure I would not leave the candidate stranded or led astray. So if you read my thoughts below, keep in mind that I tread on very thin ice here. I fully expect some disagreement on this, but that is the way it is supposed to be. Ultimately it is your responsibility to understand what you are doing.

The approaches and tools for statistical analysis have changed a lot since my student days, which was at the dawn of mainframe computers for general use, on which we could use a software package called Textform rather than typing the thesis on a type writer as I (read “a secretary I hired and almost drove to depression”) did for my masters. My first visit to a statistical consultant at Simon Fraser University ended with the advice that “This data set can’t be analyzed, it contains zero values.” The software of choice was SPSS, which did not allow for any complexity, so I did a fair bit by hand (which might have been a good thing since it forced me to think about what I was doing, but certainly did not prevent errors). Later in my career it was sometimes a struggle to decide among differing opinions of statisticians what was and was not appropriate to use, but with a little help from my friends I think I managed to negotiate most of the pitfalls (no pun intended) fairly well.

The author with his eponymous insect trap, sometime after struggles doing statistics with room-sized computers. Photo: Ron Long

The statistic-phobic author with his eponymous insect trap, preparing to gather data and test hypotheses. Photo: Ron Long.

One of the issues with our reliance on p-values is that it is tempting to do post-hoc “significance-hunting” by using a variety of approaches, rather than deciding a priori how to analyze the data. Data that show no significance often remains unpublished, leading to potential “publication bias”. In part this may be the result of journal policies (or reviewer bias), which tends to lead to rejection of papers reporting ‘negative’ results. We have also been trained to use an experiment-wise alpha of 0.05 or less, i.e., a significant result would be declared if the p-value is lower than 0.05. There are two problems with this. First, it is an arbitrary value in a sense, e.g., there really is no meaningful difference between p=0.049 and 0.051. Furthermore, the p-value does not really tell you anything about the importance of the result. All it can do is give some guidance regarding the interpretation of the results relative to the hypothesis. I have tried to make students put their research in context, because I believe the objective of the research may dictate whether or not a significant p-value is important or not. I used to work in industry, and one of the reasons I left was that recommendations I made based on research were not always acted upon. For example, pheromones of bark beetles are often synergized by various host volatiles. But whether or not they are may depend on environmental factors. For example, just after clear cutting the air is likely to have high levels of host volatiles, thus making any host volatile added to a trap ineffective. However, a company may make money by selling such volatiles, and hence they would tend to ignore any results that would lead to a loss of revenue. On the other hand, one could argue that they have the customers’ best interest in mind, because if host volatiles are important under some circumstances, it would be detrimental to remove them from the product.

This leads to my thoughts about the power of an analysis. The way I think of power is that it is a measure of the likelihood of finding a difference if it is there. There are two ways of increasing power that I can think of. One is to increase the number of replications, and the other is to use a higher alpha value. It is important to think about the consequence of an error. A Type I error is when significance is declared when there is none, while a Type II error is when no significance is found when in fact there is one. Which of these is most important is something we need to think about. For example, if you worked in conservation of a threatened species, and you found that a particular action to enhance survival resulted in a p-value of 0.07, would you be prepared to declare that action ineffective assuming that it wasn’t prohibitively expensive? If you have committed a Type II error, and discontinue the action, it could result in extinction of the threatened species. On the other hand, if you test a pesticide, would a significant value of 0.049 be enough to decide to pursue the expensive testing required for registration? If you have committed a Type I error, the product is not likely to succeed in the market place. If the potential market is small, which tends to be the case for behavioural chemicals, it may not be feasible to use this product because of the high cost, which has nothing to do with statistical analysis, but could be the overriding concern in determining the importance of the finding.

One area where the sole use of p-values can become very problematic is for regressions. The p-value only tells us whether or not the slope of the line is significantly different from zero, and therefore it becomes really important to look at how the data are distributed. An outlier can have a huge impact, for example (see figure). As an editor I saw many questionable regressions, e.g., with single points driving much of the effect, but which in the text were described as highly significant.

Fig. 1. An example of where a single point is driving a linear regression. Take it away and there is no apparent relationship at all. Figure from http://www.stat.yale.edu/Courses/1997-98/101/linreg.htm

Finally, we need to keep in mind that a significant p-value does not indicate certainty, but probability, i.e., at p=0.05, you would expect to get the same result 19 of 20 times, but that still means that the result could be the result of chance if you only ran the experiment once. (If you run a biological experiment that yields a p-value close to 0.05 a number of times, you would soon discover that it can be difficult to get the same outcome every time). Depending on the context, that may not be all that confidence inspiring. For example, if someone told you that there was only a 5% probability that you would be get seriously sick by eating a particular mushroom, wouldn’t that make you think twice about eating it?? On the other hand many of us will gladly shell out money to buy a 6/49 ticket even though the probability of winning anything at all is very low, let alone winning the jackpot, because in the end we are buying the dream of winning, and a loss is not that taxing (unless you gamble excessively of course). I consider odds of 1:8000 in a lottery really good, which they aren’t of course, evidenced by the fact that I have never won anything of substance! So relatively speaking, 1:20 is astronomically high if you think about it!

Why am I bothering to write this as a self-confessed statistics phobe? I have mainly to emphasize that you (and by “you” I primarily mean students engaged in independent research) need to think of statistics as a valuable tool, but not as the only, or even primary tool for interpreting results. Ultimately, it is the biological information that is important.

Dick Vockeroth and the CNC gang
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The Cobblestone Tiger Beetle

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Cobblestone Tiger Beetle. Photo by Stephen Krotzer, used with permission.

by Mischa Giasson

In 2008, l was asked to participate in a mark-release-recapture survey on the shores of Grand Lake, New Brunswick. My dad and I joined Fredericton entomologist Reggie Webster on a boat to visit three small sites among the rocky beaches surrounding the lake. We were searching for a rare, recently locally discovered beetle that is found nowhere else in Canada: the Cobblestone Tiger Beetle. This experience was the first of many that lead me to the realisation that a career in entomology was an option, fueled by my life-long fascination with insects (and other creepy-crawlies).

The Cobblestone Tiger beetle (Cicindela marginipennis) is an insect in the sub-family Cicindellidae (Coleoptera: Carabidae). This small, pretty beetle is listed as Endangered and placed in Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), which means that the species has been deemed at risk and that there has been development and implementation of protective and recovery measures.

There is no doubt that Tiger Beetles live up to their namesake as extremely beautiful, but equally deadly predators. These beetles run down their prey by sprinting in short, quick bursts. In fact, they run at such high speeds that they temporarily go blind! One species has been recorded moving at 9 km/hr, which is almost 54 times its body length per second. Their antennae are used to prevent any collisions while sprinting and they have a very short reaction time, but they must make frequent stops to take in their surroundings and make sure they’re on the right track.

Both the adults and larvae are predators, the larvae employing a sit-and-wait approach: they wait in ambush from small vertical burrows in the ground, striking out at lightning speed to catch any prey that passes nearby. Prey consists of other insects as well as spiders, which stand no chance against the huge mandibles of the Tiger Beetle. The Cobblestone Tiger Beetle can be distinguished from other Tiger Beetles by the smooth, continuous cream-coloured border along the outer edges of the elytra and by a bright orange/red abdomen that is visible when the beetle is in flight. Their overall colour is most often a dark chocolatey brown, but some metallic blue and green individuals have been observed in the New Brunswick populations.

 

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Cobblestone Tiger Beetle. Photo by Stephen Krotzer, used with permission.

The Cobblestone Tiger Beetle gets its name from its choice in habitat. The eight sites in New Brunswick where it can be found are all cobblestone beaches. This beetle is also found along major river systems in the United States, from Mississippi to Alabama and from Indiana through to New England. Populations are quite small, few and far between. The Canadian population was discovered in 2003 by Dwayne Sabine and is the only known population to also inhabit lakeshore sites, likely due to the riverine characteristics of Grand Lake. There are three known sites on Grand Lake, while the other five are on the shores of small islands in the Saint John River between Woodstock and Bath. These cobblestone habitats are unique to areas with yearly spring flooding which keeps the vegetation from spreading along the beach, maintaining the flat areas of gravel and sand between the stones which are necessary for the larvae to make their burrows. Not much is known of the Cobblestone Tiger Beetle’s specific life history, but it is assumed to be similar to that of other tiger beetle species. The beetles have a two-year life cycle: eggs are laid individually in the sand, where the larvae will hatch and make burrows. The larvae overwinter in their burrows, somehow surviving the spring floods and emerging as adults in June.

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Cobblestone Tiger Beetle. Photo by Stephen Krotzer, used with permission.

Due to their specific habitat requirements, Cobblestone Tiger Beetles are very vulnerable to environmental changes and disturbances. The biggest threat is habitat damage. In New Brunswick, the installation of the Mactaquac dam destroyed many suitable habitats both upstream and downstream. The small beetle populations are also quite vulnerable to over-collection by scientists and insect enthusiasts. The current concerns involve the use of off-road vehicles, as this leads to the alteration of suitable habitat and often directly leads to the death of many larvae present on the beaches. This threat applies mostly to the shores of Grand Lake, where there is increasing development and use of the beaches. The protective measures implemented include developing a stewardship plan, educating the local communities and encouraging their support and participation in the conservation of this special beetle. Decreasing human disturbance is the most important factor in ensuring the survival in our province of the already very small populations of the Cobblestone Tiger Beetle.

References

https://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/plans/rs_cobblestone_tiger_beetle_e_final.pdf

http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=1031

Zurek, D. B., & Gilbert, C. (2014). Static antennae act as locomotory guides that compensate for visual motion blur in a diurnal, keen-eyed predator. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences281(1779): 20133072.

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The Cuckoo Gypsy Bumble Bee: A Species Endangered

 

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B. bohemicus male Image: Magne Flåten via wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 3.0 (B. bohemicus female here)

By Zach DeLong

When people hear of endangered species they often think of large and impressive creatures like the Siberian Tiger or Panda Bear, but we often forget about the smaller, yet no less impressive species that need our help as well. The charmingly named Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee, or as scientists all it Bombus bohemicus, is a member of the family Apidae, in the order Hymenoptera. Though the Species at Risk Act (SARA) currently has no status for the Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee, it has been recognized and listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The term “endangered” is a hot topic, but there may be confusion about what it truly means.  As defined by COSEWIC, an endangered species is “a wildlife species facing imminent extirpation or extinction[1]”. In the case of the Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee, this means the species is at risk of disappearing from the Canadian wilderness.

The Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee is an inquiline parasite of other types of bees, which means the Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee is a home invader. Normally such an invader would be attacked by the workers within the hive, but the Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee produces a variety of chemicals which both disguise it as a member of the host species[2] and inhibit worker aggression towards the invader[3]. The Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee is a generalist parasite and is surprisingly able to successfully invade a number of different Canadian species, namely the Rusty-patched Bumblebee, the Yellow-banded Bumblebee, and the Western Bumblebee[4]. Once inside the nest the Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee engages in a number of dominance behaviours to usurp the host queen, including ejecting host larvae from cells, eating host eggs and even outright attacking the host queen[5]. Coexistence with the host queen is preferable as her suppressor pheromones help control the workers who might otherwise attempt to become reproductively active themselves, so the invading Cuckoo Gypsy queen will often choose to shove or perform faux-stinging behaviour over outright killing her co-matriarch[5]. The Cuckoo Gypsy queen produces no workers of her own.  This means she relies on host workers to defend the nest, rear her young, and forage for food[2]. Instead, all her offspring are reproductive with a 1:1 female to male ratio[6]. Young Gypsy Cuckoo Bumblebees can be seen flying about and feeding on flowers while they wait for their reproductive organs to mature so they can begin looking for a mate and a suitable host nest to invade.

 

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Distribution of Cuckoo Gypsy Bumble Bee throughout North America. Image: COSEWIC

The Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee is widely distributed across a wide range in Canada, with individuals found in all provinces and territories except Nunavut[4], though populations are mostly concentrated in southern portions of Ontario and Quebec, and the Maritime provinces. Its decline across Canada has been attributed to a number of factors. It has been shown that a certain host density must be maintained for cuckoo bee parasites to be able to persist in a given area, and the general decline of bees throughout Canada has subsequently damaged Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee populations[4]. The mass spraying of crops with pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, and the release of pathogen-carrying exotic bee species have impacted both cuckoo bees and host densities across Canada[4]. If we want the Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebee to recover, perhaps the best way is to make Canada a more bee friendly environment as a whole. If we address issues resulting in the decline of other bee species, we can provide the population density necessary to facilitate persistent cuckoo populations. Additionally, addressing factors such as pesticide usage and the introduction of foreign pathogens would have positive effect on Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebees as this would not only increase the population density of hosts, but also improve survival rates of Cuckoo Gypsy Bumblebees themselves.

 

References

[1]Assessment Process, Categories and Guidelines. COSEWIC. 2005-06-15. 2015-07-08. http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/eng/sct0/assessment_process_e.cfm#tbl5

[2]Kirsten Kreuter, Elfi Bunk, Anna Lückemeyer, Robert Twele, Wittko Francke, Manfred Ayasse(2012). How the social parasitic bumblebee Bombus bohemicus sneaks into power of reproduction. Behavioral Ecology and sociobiology, Vol 66, Issue 3, pp 475-486.

[3]Stephen J. Martin, Jonathan M. Carruthers, Paul H. Williams, Falko P. Drijfhout(2010). Host Specific Social Parasites (Psithyrus) Indicate Chemical Recognition System in Bumblebees. Journal of Chemical Ecology, Vol 36, Issue 8, pp 855-863.

[4]COSEWIC Wildlife Species Search: Bumble Bee, Gypsy Cuckoo | Bombus bohemicus. COSEWIC. 2002-10-21. 2011-11-07. http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/eng/sct1/searchdetail_e.cfm?id=1232&StartRow=191&boxStatus=All&boxTaxonomic=All&location=1&change=All&board=All&commonName=&scienceName=&returnFlag=0&Page=20

[5]R. M. Fisher(1988). Observations on the behaviours of three European cuckoo bumble bee species (Psithyrus). Insectes Sociaux, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 341-354.

[6]Vergara, Carlos H. (2003). Suppression of ovarian development of Bombus terrestris workers by B. terrestris queens, Psithyrus vestalis and Psithyrus bohemicus females. Apidologie 34, pp 563–568

 

 

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The Skillet Clubtail Dragonfly: What you don’t know

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Fig. 1. Skillet Clubtail dragonfly adult; notice the distinctive “skillet” on tail. Photo Credit: David Marvin. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence. 

By Melody McLean

What if I told you that as a New Brunswicker, there are animals in danger of going extinct in your own backyard? Saying that, you’re probably thinking of a cute, fuzzy, little animal with big, sad eyes being displaced from its home.  Well, that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about the Skillet Clubtail Dragonfly (Gomphus ventricosus), belonging to the insect order Odonata. This dragonfly currently has no status under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), but was the only arthropod classified in the 2010 COSEWIC (Committee On the Status of Endangered Wildlife In Canada) report as being endangered. Simply put, if we don’t do something, they could become extirpated[i] from Canada or even extinct.  When we hear about insects in our province, we often associate them with being pests, like spruce budworm, aphids, or disease spreading agents like mosquitos. But what we don’t often realize is that not all animals at risk of extinction are cute and fluffy. I’m here to shed some light on an underdog of the animal world, who could use a little help from us.

Insects-we can’t live with them; we can’t live without them.

  What you may not know is just how thankful we (myself included) should be for insects. They clean up after us, help to provide us with rich soil for our gardens, indirectly provide us with fresh food thanks to their pollination efforts; some, like dragonflies, even keep other insects from bugging us¾like our own personal pest control.

 

The Skillet Clubtail dragonfly is strikingly beautiful, with green, yellow, black and brown markings running along its thorax and abdomen; transparent wings; big dark green eyes; and a distinctive circular flare, resembling a skillet, at the tip of its tail (Fig. 1).

The Biology behind the Insect

The Skillet Clubtail’s  life cycle and biology is very similar to that of other dragonflies. The female lays her eggs by dipping her abdomen into the water to release them. Growing and developing, the shallowly burrowed nymphs take at least 2 years (possibly more) to develop before emerging. If conditions are right, usually in the latter 2 weeks of June, the dragonfly nymphs will find a “settle point” where the water is calm; they’ll climb up onto nearby vegetation to emerge synchronously[ii] as adults. Although the nymphs spend the majority of their lives in the water, the adults spend most of their lives around brush, fields, bogs and in the nearby canopy to forage for other insects.

Home of the Skillet Clubtail

 This stunning dragonfly is restricted to North America. In Canada, it is currently found only in a few select places along the Saint John River, specifically in the Fredericton region of New Brunswick.  Over 60 years ago, the Skillet Clubtail could be found in a few other locations in Canada, including Ontario, Nova Scotia and Quebec. But since there have been no recent sightings there, New Brunswick may be the last known Canadian location. The United States is running into similar problems with this insect too.  It was once found in Pennsylvania and New York but is likely extirpated from both of those areas. The U.S. range extends along the Red River Basin, running from Mississippi, Tennessee, Minnesota, to the northeastern limit in New Hampshire and Maine.

Habitat: Very Important

 This insect is in need of a specific and rare habitat type: a clean, large, slowly running body of water, with fine sediments and substrate, such as clay, silt, or sand, with nearby forested areas for cover. Many of these habitats are only found when the waters run through an area of rich soils, at a low gradient[iii].

99 Problems

 This is where problems arise, as the Skillet Clubtail’s habitat is often prime agricultural land, where possible pollution in the river can occur, and nutrient run-off becomes a concern. Keep in mind, agriculture runoff from fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, are not the only culprits behind river pollution. Accidental and illegal dumping, and everyday toxins such as oil, grease, road salt, contaminants from vehicle exhaust, lawn and garden chemicals, and other harmful substances, all have a tendency to wash off lawns and roadways down to rivers and waterways. This is especially relevant here in Fredericton as the Saint John River is considered to have “marginal” water quality. As this city is literally built on a hill, all that urban runoff must go somewhere.

Although pollution is likely a major factor to this species decline, there is also the problem of sea level rise. As the sea level rises, saline water travels further up stream into the rivers, changing the chemistry of the water. This is likely to impact freshwater aquatic wildlife, as most aquatic species cannot adapt to such rapid change in their habitat. Because the farthest population is just 5 km away from the saline water limit, this is a real possibility. It’s been discussed that the Skillet Clubtail populations further upstream on the Canaan River and Salmon River could be safe from saline influence. However it has also been speculated that the main Saint John River population acts as a metapopulation, supporting the other two populations by providing immigrating individuals to them.

It’s good to note that this species needs the surrounding forest, included in its habitat. Even though mass cuttings of forests in these locations are unlikely to happen right now, we should still keep in mind deforestation has the potential to affect not only the Skillet Clubtail dragonfly, but many other species as well.

 

Why should you care?

 

Maybe you’ve gotten through this whole article and decided that you don’t care about the Skillet Clubtail Dragonfly. That’s fine. But think of it this way: the things that are likely affecting this particular dragonfly should be of broader concern to us. Chemical runoff, deforestation, general pollution and rise in sea level don’t just affect this one dragonfly species; they affect everything living that comes in contact with them, including us. The best way to finding a solution to a problem is by better understanding it through increasing our knowledge.  Don’t be ignorant of the events happening in your community and environment. Take notice and do something about any detrimental events, like pollution, in your area. Dragonflies and other aquatic insects are great indicators of stream and river health, and not much is known about this particular dragonfly. So if you spot the Skillet Clubtail dragonfly, send your recordings and findings to your local Entomological Society. Many little changes have the potential to lead to one big change.

 

[i]  Extirpated: a species that was once found in an area but is no longer found there. This is different from extinction because you can still find that particular species of animal in other areas of the country or world, therefore not totally extinct just extirpated.

[ii] They all emerge at once over a short period of time.

[iii] Low gradient streams are associated with flattened stream beds, with slow moving water and gradual, less steep slopes of surrounding valley

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The sand-verbena moth

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Figure 1 The sand-verbena moth (Photo: Wendy Gibble, Used under a CreativeCommons CC_BY 2.0 licence)

By Lisa Jørgensen

The sand-verbena moth (Copablepharon fuscum) is, when it comes to looks, a relatively anonymous fellow.  This nocturnal moth, which belongs to the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and the family Noctuidae, has a wingspan of 3.5-4.0 cm and has only been found in three Canadian sites, all on the coast of southwestern British Columbia, and in a few sites in the northwestern coastal part of Washington, USA.

The moth is heavily dependent on the presence of yellow sand-verbena, as this plant is the only host that it uses for egg laying, and later for the emerging larvae and adult to feed on. The yellow sand-verbena demands sandy, nutrient poor conditions, and though it is present in areas where other plants are dominating, it will only flower at sites where it is the dominant species. The moth has been found to require large patches of yellow sand-verbena to sustain a population, but such patches are difficult to come across because of the habitat requirements of the plant.

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Figure 2 Preferred habitat of yellow sand-verbena, here Long Beach Peninsula, WA, US (Photo: Wendy Gibble), Used under a CreativeCommons CC_BY 2.0 licence)

This pickiness in the moth’s choice of host plant is the most probable reason that the sand-verbena moth is considered an endangered species under the SARA (Species at Risk Act), which is the official list of Canadian wildlife at risk. The label ‘endangered’ is put on species that are in risk of extirpation or extinction, meaning that the present populations of an ‘endangered’ species are the last in the wild. We do not know how many individuals of this moth species is left, but we do know that due to plant invasion, the number of sandy patches with yellow sand-verbena is decreasing, as other plants colonize the same habitat, thus keeping down numbers of yellow sand-verbena and keeping them from flowering. When the number or size of available habitats is lowered, the moth populations will naturally experience a decrease. Another reason for the loss of habitat is the proximity of the sandy patches to the shoreline that makes the patches at risk of suffering of erosion or flooding, and the use of dunes for military training that expose the plants to the risk of being trampled down. A more direct threat to the moth than the threat of habitat loss, is the spraying of Btk (Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki) against the larvae of pest moths, or parasitic flies introduced (i.e. not from the “hood”) for the same cause.

But why should we care about this specific endangered species? It does not play any crucial part in the pollination of yellow sand-verbena, nor is it particularly important in the local food web or to the economy, so what would happen if it we took the laissez-faire approach and did nothing to help this species? It would probably disappear from some patches, and ultimately go extinct, as it has shown poor ability into dispersal on its own. But we can do something, and it may not even cost us a lot of money (that’s a good argument, eh?)! Approaches to help recovery the Canadian populations of sand-verbena moth include the protection of patches dominated by yellow sand-verbena by physically protecting the plants from erosion and trampling by training soldiers, by fencing the area (however temporarily), and the movement of yellow sand-verbena from patches where it has a low abundance (and so no sand-verbena moth population) to patches that are in risk of being dominated by other plants (with a moth population). Also, public outreach to the areas with populations of sand-verbena moth has been initiated, and the existing populations are being monitored. The Ministry of Environment of British Columbia considers the recovery goal of the sand-verbena moth, to maintain the populations at the current locations, to be feasible.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

SARA (Government of Canada): https://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=789 25/11 2015

British Columbia Invertebrates Recovery Team. 2008. Recovery strategy for Sand-verbena Moth (Copablepharon fuscum) in British Columbia. Prepared for the B.C. Ministry of Environment, Victoria, BC. 18 pp.

 

Aedeagus of Polistes parametricus Buck. Vespidae Wasp
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The Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth, Prodoxus quinquepunctellus

The Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth, Prodoxus quinquepunctellus

By Isaac MacLean

yucca moth

Mark J. Dreiling via bugguide.net (2) CC BY-ND-NC 1.0

 

The Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth (Prodoxus quinquepunctellus) belongs to the family Prodoxidae of the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). It is a small, nondescript, almost entirely white moth with a few small dark spots on its forewings. Although it can be found in much of the United States, there is only one remaining population in Canada1. This species’ SARA (Species at Risk Act) status is endangered1. An endangered species is one that is very close to being extinct or extirpated. In the case of the Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth, it is very close to being extirpated from Canada1 (which means that the species is nearly gone in Canada, but still exists in other locations).

In order to understand where the Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth got its odd-sounding name, you need a little background on another moth and the plant it relies on. In Canada, Yucca is found only in Alberta1. It is a small shrub pollinated exclusively by the Yucca moth (not the “bogus” Yucca moth)1. Why do the Yucca moths pollinate Yucca plants? When a Yucca moth lays its eggs on a Yucca, they develop into larvae, and the larvae need something to feed on. The Yucca moth is the only pollinator of Yucca, and as a sort of “thank you” for pollination, some of the seeds a Yucca produces feed the developing moth larvae6.

So where do the Bogus Yucca Moths (genus Prodoxus) come into all of this? They got their “bogus” name because although they also need Yucca for their larvae to survive, they do not aid in pollination and their larvae do not feed on Yucca seeds.6 A female Bogus Yucca Moth will lay its eggs inside the flowering stalk of the Yucca plant. When the larvae emerge, they feed on the stem tissue of the Yucca1.

yucca moth 2

BIO Photography Group/CNC, Biodiversity Institute of Ontario via Boldsystems.org (3)

 

The Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth is so fragile because of its complete reliance on Yucca and Yucca Moths. If a Yucca Moth does not pollinate a Yucca’s flowers, no fruit is produced and the flowering stalk withers1. Almost all larvae within a flowering stalk that bears no fruit will be killed when it withers1. This species has been listed on SARA because in Alberta, there are only two populations of Yucca, and only one of them currently supports a population of Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moths1. There are only an estimated 500 to several thousand Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moths remaining in Canada1.

To keep this species from becoming extirpated from Canada, we must protect it and the species it relies on. Because of the relationship the Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth has with both Yucca moths and Yucca, any threat to the latter two will be an equal threat to the Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth. Currently, threats to Yucca and Yucca moth populations include cold weather, consumption by mule deer and pronghorn antelope, off-roading vehicles, and collection of the plant for medicinal use1,5.

Some possible actions that could be taken to minimize these threats are already being implemented through SARA and were outlined in the 2011 SARA recovery strategy for Yucca and Yucca moths. These include plans for habitat protection by limiting public access, fencing to deter mule deer and antelope, and a museum display to promote Yucca conservation6. Further action to protect the species could be implementing regulations on the collection of Yucca for medicine or horticulture. It is important to spread information about the conservation of the Five-spotted Bogus Yucca Moth, its host plant, and the Yucca moth as without public knowledge of threats to them and their habitat the risk of extirpation from Canada greatly increases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

  1. https://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=927#ot18
  2. http://bugguide.net/node/view/631427/bgpage
  3. http://www.boldsystems.org/index.php/Taxbrowser_Taxonpage?taxid=139786
  4. http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=715
  5. Snell RS and Addicott JF. 2008. Limiting the success of stem borers (prodoxus quinquepunctellus) in yuccas: Indirect effects of ants, aphids, and fruit position. Ecol Entomol 33(1):119-26.
  6. http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/plans/rs_soapweed_yucca_moth_0811_eng.pdf

 

 

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Student posts from Bio 3883!

This week the ESC Blog will host posts written by undergraduate students at the University of New Brunswick (Fredericton). In the autumn, the students of Biology 3883 (Entomology) each wrote a blog post-style assignment on an arthropod of conservation concern in Canada. We posted these to our (private) course blog, and five of the students agreed to share their posts here.
We had a few goals in mind when asking the student to do this type of assignment. First, we wanted students to gain experience writing in a different style and for a different audience than a regular course assignment, and a blog post seemed like it might be an interesting format for both the students and ourselves. Second, while the students were aware of many of the ways insects impact human lives (as pests, parasites, pollinators etc.), we wanted to give students the opportunity to learn about the lesser known insects, specifically those of conservation concern, many of which are of such concern directly or indirectly as a result of human activities.
We hope you enjoy the student blog posts as much as we did!
Stephen Heard (@StephenBHeard) and Chandra Moffat (@ChandraMoffat)
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Basic vs. Applied Entomology: How the Mountain Pine Beetle Opened My Eyes

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Staffan Lindgren checking the lure on a prototype multiple funnel trap. Photo: Ron Long

A guest post by Staffan Lindgren

I finished my bachelor’s degree at the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 1975. I had actually completed most of my degree at Umeå University, but because I wanted to take limnology and entomology, I moved to Uppsala for my last semesters, so my degree was granted by that venerable institution. Like many recent graduates, I was now faced with finding my way to a future in biology, and since I was interested in research I wanted to continue as a graduate student. A 2-year detour as a failed doctoral student in medical physiology (I have actually co-authored five publications in endocrinology), a semester as a special-interest student in two courses in forest entomology at what was then the Royal College of Forestry in Stockholm brought me back to essentially the same conundrum. I managed to land some temporary jobs (teaching assistant, which had the perk of leading a student field trip to what was then still the Soviet Union, and stream surveyor using aquatic insects to assess pollution) I applied for entry into the Master of Pest Management (MPM) Program at Simon Fraser University. Why this program? Well, one of my criteria for future employment was that anything I did had to be “useful”, so it had to deal with applied science. To make a long story short, I managed to get through this program, and was recruited by Dr. John Borden for a PhD working on semiochemical-based management of ambrosia beetles. Dr. Borden had quickly pegged me as “bright, but not particularly hard working if not motivated”! I can’t really argue with the latter part of that assessment! Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and since using sticky traps (the standard research tool when I started) involved hard work, I invented the “multiple-funnel trap”, a story I will save for another blog.

This is where my obsession with “usefulness” started to hurt me, however.  SFU had excellent ecology faculty, and they had a seminar series called “Les Ecologistes” (and they still do). The MPM program also had a seminar series, and unfortunately there was a bit of a rift between the MPM and ecology faculty with each side preferring to stay clear of the other.  Consequently I never went to their seminars, something I deeply regret to this day. I feel that it hurt me because I went through my PhD with blinders on, looking only at outcomes, rather than causes for my successful and failed experiments.

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Dan Miller (now a research scientist at USDA FS, Athens, GA) (Photo B.S. Lindgren) checking the tree where he just applied a verbenone bubble cap.

Skip forward to well into my 10-year stint as Research Director at Phero Tech, Inc., a spinoff company that was in part based on my PhD work, including a commercial version of what was now called “the Lindgren trap”. I was working on the application of verbenone, an oxidation product of a major monoterpene of many conifers, α-pinene via trans-verbenol, the principal aggregation pheromone of the mountain pine beetle Hunt et al 1989). Verbenone had been known for some time through research in the United States, but I wanted to see if we could use our release technology to make it applicable for mountain pine beetle management (Lindgren et al 1989, Safranyik et al. 1992, Shore et al. 1992, Lindgren and Borden 1993, Miller et al. 1995, Lindgren and Miller 2002a,b). The results were somewhat mixed, however. On the one hand we achieved significant protection of trees, but sometimes there seemed to be no effect at all (Amman and Lindgren 1995). It appeared as if the beetles responded, but if they attempted an attack, they then ignored the verbenone. At high densities, verbenone appeared to have no significant effect at all.

As I thought about this, I gradually came to the realization that I had no idea whatsoever of the mechanism of “anti-aggregation”. In the literature, verbenone had been billed as an anti-aggregation or spacing (epideictic) pheromone. Research by David Hunt revealed that verbenone was produced by microorganisms, so that if bacterial symbionts were knocked out, the beetles could not produce verbenone. Furthermore, it appeared that many species responded negatively to verbenone. This made me think that it was less of an anti-aggregation pheromone and more a tissue degradation kairomone, which would explain some of our failures, and necessitate a different approach to application. Other more capable researchers picked up the mantle and the use of verbenone is still being investigated.

It was about this time that I was fortunate enough to land my current position at UNBC, and with many new avenues of (curiosity-driven) research available to me, I eventually abandoned verbenone and semiochemical –based management research. I felt that mountain pine beetle had taught me a lesson, and in the words of Bart Simpson “…I never give up before trying at least one easy thing”.

What is the morale of all this? To me it is an example that shows that we must strive to not let existing paradigms blind us to the opportunities. My experience in science is that paradigm-shifts, even at the small scale that I would be capable of, are often slowed down because you cannot get funded to try something that goes against existing wisdom. One of my lasting memories from my undergraduate years in Sweden was listening to a Nobel Laureate (whose name has long since faded away) in brain research from UC Berkeley (if I recall correctly). He said that he would essentially state as fact something that would go against common knowledge, because he knew that it would generate lots of research to prove him wrong. He didn’t care if he was right or wrong, he just wanted to know the answer! I was never such a maverick, but I think some of the most successful scientists are. In the end, my zealousness for being “useful” made me less able to be just that. Don’t let that happen to you!

References

Amman, G.D. and B.S. Lindgren.  1995. Semiochemicals for management of mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae Hopkins: Current status of research and application. In S.M. Salom and K.R. Hobson [tech.eds.], Application of Semiochemicals for Management of Bark Beetle Infestations –  Proceedings of an Informal Conference, Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America, Indianapolis, Indiana, December 12-16, 1993, Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-GTR-318, U.S. Dept. Agric., Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Ogden, Utah, 54 pp.

Hunt, D.W.A., J.H. Borden, B.S. Lindgren, and G. Gries.  1989.  The role of autoxidation of  α-pinene in the production of pheromones of Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera:Scolytidae).  Canadian Journal of Forest Research  19:1275-1282.

Lindgren, B.S. and J.H. Borden. 1993. Displacement and aggregation of mountain pine beetles, Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera: Scolytidae), in response to their antiaggregation and aggregation pheromones. Can. J. For. Res. 23: 286-290.

Lindgren, B.S., and D.R. Miller. 2002a. Effect of verbenone on predatory and wood boring beetles (Coleoptera) in lodgepole pine forests. Environmental Entomology 31: 766-753.

Lindgren, B.S., and D.R. Miller. 2002b. Effect of verbenone on five species of bark beetles (Coleoptera: Scolytidae) in lodgepole pine forests. Environmental Entomology 31: 759-765.

Lindgren, B.S., J.H. Borden, G.H. Cushon, L.J. Chong and C.J. Higgins.  1989.  Reduction of mountain pine beetle (Coleoptera:Scolytidae) attacks by verbenone in lodgepole pine stands in British Columbia.  Canadian Journal of Forest Research  19:65-68.

Miller, D.R., J.H. Borden, and B.S. Lindgren. 1995. Verbenone: Dose-Dependent Interruption of pheromone-based attraction of three sympatric species of bark beetles (Coleoptera: Scolytidae). Environmental Entomology 24:692-696

Safranyik, L., T.L. Shore, D.A. Linton and B.S. Lindgren. 1992. The effect of verbenone on dispersal and attack of mountain pine beetle,  Dendroctonus ponderosae Hopk. (Col., Scolytidae) in a lodgepole pine stand. Journal of Applied Entomology 113: 391-397

Shore, T.L., L. Safranyik and B.S. Lindgren. 1992. The response of mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) to lodgepole pine trees baited with verbenone and exo-brevicomin. Journal of Chemical Ecology 18: 533-541

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We stand on the shoulders of giants: Reflections by a midget


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Guest post by Staffan Lindgren

On a rainy, blustery day I am sitting in my new home in Nanaimo, BC, and thinking about my professional career, which is about to come to an end in the next few weeks, at least officially. I have been doing a fair bit of reading lately, and the last 2 books have been by and about Charles Darwin. Both are books I probably should have read a long time ago. The first book was Darwin’s “The voyage of the Beagle”, which is essentially a travel diary of the four-year journey Darwin took as a young man. The second book was “Darwin and the barnacle”, by Rebecca Stott, which is about Darwin’s struggles to formulate his Magnus OpusOn the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, which essentially changed biological sciences, and perhaps society, forever. The “Voyage” gave me an appreciation of the incredible breadth of knowledge that Darwin acquired. Much of the book deals with geology and the effects of seismic activity on the environment rather than the biological focus I had expected. Stott’s book is a somewhat fictionalized portrait of Darwin’s life in the period between his return from the Beagle voyage and the publication of his final of a four volume monograph on the barnacles (Cirripedia). The book is largely based on correspondence and publications, and luckily Darwin seems to have recorded pretty much everything he did, although Darwin’s actions and thoughts may have been embellished somewhat by the Stott’s imagination. For me, it worked quite well, though. I felt as if I got to know the man much better, and particularly I felt that I got an appreciation of the monumental barriers that Darwin overcame, both because of the rather crude technology available to him (fairly rudimentary microscopes, correspondence by “snail mail” etc.), and his poor health.  I was amazed to find out that he suffered from sea sickness during his voyage on the Beagle, and anyone who knows what that is like (I have been lucky, but have been close enough a couple of times) would perhaps understand how difficult it would be to work productively while sea sick, let alone in the cramped quarters on the ship. Darwin’s “lab” was in the “poop cabin”, which conures up some interesting images for us landlubbers, but actually only refers to the cabin in the elevated “poop deck” at the front of a ship”. Darwin also had bouts of illness during his voyage, but most notable he suffered chronic problems after his voyage. This may have been due to Chagas’ disease, which was unknown at the time.  During a trip across the Cordillera (he made numerous such excursions during his voyage), Darwin describes a night spent in Luxan (now Luján de Cuyo), in the western Mendoza Province, as follows: “At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas” .  Chagas’ disease is widespread in that area.

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Scientists back then were either independently wealthy, like Darwin, or employed as clergymen or physicians, or more rarely as lecturers at universities. Linnaeus for example, was a physician as well as a naturalist. It has always been my assumption that this allowed them virtually endless amounts of time. Darwin, however, spent only 2-3 hours a day on his barnacles due to a rigorous water cure he used to overcome his illness. In spite of this, he published rather prolifically on geology, volcanoes, coral reefs, plants, domestic animals and humans. In the title I refer to myself as a midget, and after reading about Darwin I really do feel rather insignificant!

I enjoy retrospective mind-journeys. Another scientist that I have a particular interest in was one of Linnaeus disciples, Daniel Solander. His name rarely surfaces, however, because he did not publish his work for various reasons (apparently in large part in deference to his friend and financier Joseph Banks, but also because he died of a stroke at age 49). He is of particular interest to me because he grew up about 6 km from where I grew up in a small town in northern Sweden, so it is likely that I spent my naturalist beginnings in the same areas that he did. He was a naturalist on James Cook’s first voyage on the Endeavour, and was therefore one of the first scientists to see the odd marsupials of Australia, for example.

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Science today is very different. Naturalists, systematists and taxonomists, which is what old-school scientists were, are not valued the way they were even as late as the mid-20th Century. Our publications tend to be short and to the point, lacking the wonderful context that older literature often provides. Looking at the publications of my entomology professor, Bertil Kullenberg, who was active into the mid-1990’s, it is striking how often the title includes “Observations on…”, “Studies on…”, or something similar, particularly early on. Of course, if current publications were as prosaic as they were back then, the task of keeping up would be even more daunting with hundreds or thousands of papers published on the most important (to humans) taxa. But perhaps they would be more enjoyable to read?

With the processing power of present day computers, we can now do in seconds what would take weeks or months in the past, if it was possible at all. One aspect of science (specifically entomology in my experience) that remains constant today is the camaraderie among scientists. Darwin understood the importance of networking, and depended to a large extent on his friends and colleagues for specimens, reviews, and discussion: “if a person wants to ascertain how much true kindness exists amongst the disciples of Natural History, he should undertake, as I have done, a monograph on some tribe of animals, and let his wish for assistance be known.”  To me, it is gratifying that one of the greatest minds of science, also appears to have been a genuinely kind and considerate person. That is something I admire greatly, and as I look back at my own rather modest career (particularly in light of giants like Charles Darwin) it is the friendships with colleagues that I value the most. A most appropriate reflection as the holiday season approaches. Happy holidays everyone!

Sources

Darwin, C. 1962. The Voyage of the Beagle. Natural History Library edition, edited by Leonard Engel.

Stott, Rebecca. 2003. Darwin and the Barnacle. W.W. Norton & Co., New York

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Winning Presentations

Photo 1 The author’s graduate student, Andrew Chaulk, captured in mid-presentation at the ESCJAM 2015 in Montreal. Andrew received an honourable mention for this communication. (photo by Sean McCann)

The author’s graduate student, Andrew Chaulk, captured in mid-presentation at the ESCJAM 2015 in Montreal. Andrew received an honourable mention for this communication. (photo by Sean McCann)

Guest post by Tom Chapman

 

My students frequently win prizes for their conference presentations (2015 was a particularly good year for our group), and I am more than willing to bask in their reflected glory. But really, was I a brilliant speaker in my day? Simply put, no. I have gotten better, you can’t help it, it just comes with age. And perhaps having taken my lumps, I am now able to provide some helpful advice. Looking back on my public speaking experiences, I think I can offer two lessons for students that are worried about presenting at scientific meetings: (1) there is time to develop as a speaker (2) in the meantime, if you are earnest; that is, you think you have something to say, no matter how modest, that could benefit your audience, your presentation is going to go well. To demonstrate these lessons, what follows is primarily the story of my last, and scariest, undergraduate presentation. Although, I start this story the year after that.

 

It was orientation day for us newly enrolled graduate students. We were shown the library, we met the office staff, we met our graduate student representatives and we were given advice on various aspects of graduate student life by the faculty. One grad-rep told us that these were to be the “best days of our lives!” I was hopeful, but she turned out to be very wrong (lots of bloggy grist there for another time). More nonsense was presented to us on the subject of presentations. Let’s call this presenter Professor Ramrod. Never use humour in a talk – and there was none to be found in Ramrod’s Address. Men should wear a tie and jacket and women should wear a skirt suit. He was wearing a classic tweed jacket with leather elbow patches; yup, I’m sure you are picturing him perfectly now. During this presentation I tried and failed to make knowing eye contact with my fellow novices. They must have been concentrating very hard on their poker faces, otherwise, were they really taking seriously this dinosaur’s fashion advice? Ramrod’s list of no-no’s continued: never lean on the lectern, never move out from behind the lectern, never put your hands in your pockets, never… In brief, this teacher of the highest rank’s take home message: there is only one way to give a presentation. What bullshit! I think you get advice like this from people that assume when they find themselves at their destination that every step they took en route was a positive and essential one. And they must be incurious in the stories of others in order to believe that they have found the one true path. I have a colleague that told me his secret to winning large research grants. I leaned forward attentively as he said “use plenty of sub-headings.” Ta-da! I’ve read his grant applications. He is wildly successful despite using a ludicrous number of pointless sub-headings. Similarly, my ramrod impaled professor above, was successful despite being an uninspiring orator. Take note here, you have to give presentations, but you don’t need to be good at it to have a career in science. On that first day of orientation, I sensed that presentation-cat-skinning could be done a number of ways, but I hadn’t found my way. In fact, my last presentation as an undergraduate was a nightmare.

The author (1990), Truelove Lowlands, Devon Island. (photo by Christine Earnshaw)

The author (1990), Truelove Lowlands, Devon Island. (photo by Christine Earnshaw)

 

I was enrolled in a research course where you conduct an original project, write a paper about it, and then present it to the faculty. My project was in the Canadian high arctic (Truelove lowlands on Devon Island, to be more precise), and I was measuring the amount of heat energy absorbed by the inflorescences of Salix arctica, the arctic willow. What does this have to do with insects? Not a lot, I focused on the impact of heat on the development time of pollen and ovules. But maybe you didn’t know that some insects can be attracted to some plants for the heat energy they offer. I did find fly larvae in some of the fuzzier inflorescences of the willows on Devon, but I didn’t pursue it. If that observation hasn’t already been noted and published by others, you’re welcome to it. Everything that was involved in executing this project, even the data analysis and writing, was a thrilling experience for me. I had plenty of help and inspiration from others, and I do credit this experience with influencing my decision to pursue a career in research. Again, my oral presentation was almost the undoing of that.

 

While helping me to prepare my talk, my adviser could sense that I was very nervous. So, he told me the story of the student he supervised in the course the previous year. Apparently, this student did a great job collecting data and putting together the final paper. His presentation went well enough, but the final slide, no one knows why, was a picture of this student and his girlfriend. They were both naked, spread eagled and caught in mid-jump off the end of someone’s cottage dock. There was no microphone in the classroom, but it was certainly a drop-mic moment. He took no questions and walked out of the room never to be seen again, or so I was told. I think I was to take from this story that no matter how bad my presentation went it wouldn’t be that bad. Instead, what I took from this story was that it was possible to screw up so horribly that you could be remembered forever and used as a warning to others. It never helps, don’t tell these stories when someone is feeling anxious. It’s the same rule when trying to comfort someone before a comprehensive exam or dissertation defence. When you say something like, “don’t worry about it, Terri passed and she’s an idiot”, that just means to your listener that not only will they fail, they’ll be stupider than Terri. If you get told an apocryphal public speaking story, keep a few things in mind. The teller usually wasn’t present at the talk, so who knows how true the story is, and the teller never goes on to say what happened to the person afterwards. I didn’t see spread-eagle boy’s talk, I can’t be sure of its veracity, but if my advisor had gone on to say that the guy passed the course anyway, and that spread-eagle boy and his girlfriend are still in love and doing crazy fun things together, I would have felt better. Public speaking is rarely lethal, and even if it goes badly the impacts on you and your career are local and temporary.

 

I didn’t have that perspective the evening before this arctic willow talk. I didn’t sleep at all, and let’s just say that I left the bathroom fan on for the night. There were five of us to give talks, I was last. There were about 15 faculty and a handful of graduate students in attendance, each of them was armed with five printed sheets of paper to guide them in their evisceration of the five of us. The small size of the classroom made it very cramped and, therefore, this already intimidating audience was made more menacing. I don’t know how my classmates performed or what their projects were about because I was lost in anxious thoughts. When my turn finally came I was bloated with gas and in pain. I gingerly walked to the lectern and then stood unmoving. I was following Professor Ramrods future advice, but only because I was afraid if I moved I would fart. When I began my talk I discovered that my tongue would repeatedly release with a clack from the roof of my very dry mouth. I would utter a few sentences that sounded like clack, clack, clack, clack, and then I would pause. During these pauses I would switch hundreds of times rapidly between two panicky thoughts: run away now and never look back; stick it out and finish this crappy little lecture. Then I would continue clack, clack, clack, clack, pause, clack, clack, clack, clack, pause until my talk was finished. I wasn’t completely sure how it went, but at least I didn’t fart. I wonder if there is someone out there who was unable to say that at the end of their presentation?

 

In my evaluations several people indicated irritation that they couldn’t see the whole screen because I was blocking some of it, and they suggested that I move around a bit; they didn’t know I had gas, but fair enough. More shocking was that the majority of my evaluators described my frequent pauses as thoughtful. What was sheer panic was largely perceived by my audience as calm control, or they were willing to put the best spin on it. I got an okay mark, so it would appear that even this assembly, stacked with smarty-pantses, was willing to work to understand my message and could sympathize with a young person who was obviously nervous. Caring audiences are not just found at home. Years later, a lab-mate of mine gave a talk at an international meeting. She always put awesome hours of preparation into her talks. Although, to see her present was like visiting Disney’s Hall of Presidents. Like an automaton, she would appear to rise slowly from beneath the stage and then would begin human enough looking head and hand movements while unerringly running through her very formal monologue. But, during this presentation something jammed a cog in her works and she stumbled on the word “phylogeneticist” and then blurted out loudly “I screwed up!”. She then continued with her script, took questions and left the stage. I caught up with her a little later, she had clearly had had a cry, she is not the robot you see on stage. While we chatted several strangers interrupted us to tell her how much they appreciated her presentation. One woman went so far as to say it was the best presentation of the meeting; no small praise, we were in the third day of the conference program of about 1000 talks. Every audience is filled with these wonderful people. Yes, there are a few sociopaths out there, but they are hugely outnumbered and you can count on the rest of us to understand what you are going through and to pull you along.

 

Back to my undergrad presentation, the other positive comment from my assessors was how well I handled their questions. In Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style, there is a chapter called The Curse of Knowledge. He argues that painfully unintelligible writing arises from the author failing to imagine “what it’s like for someone else not to know something that [they] know”. I did that with this talk. I failed to realize that no one in that room was there on the tundra with me, nor had anyone else been to the arctic at all. The questions were simple, and now I can see how I had motivated them. I have come to really look forward to questions (I would rather cut short my presentation than to miss hearing from the audience), they are the best indication to me of how well my message came through, and it’s a small disaster when I get no questions at all.

 

In summary, my group emotionally support each other (I get support too), we focus and refine our talk messages, we take risks by exploring new ways to communicate those messages, we think about our audience’s perspective and we count on empathy from those audiences. If some scientific society wants to give one of us a cheque, then the drinks are on the winner.

The author’s graduate student, Holly Caravan, captured in mid-presentation at the ESCJAM 2015 in Montreal. Holly was selected to present in the Graduate Student Showcase. (photo by Sean McCann)

The author’s graduate student, Holly Caravan, captured in mid-presentation at the ESCJAM 2015 in Montreal. Holly was selected to present in the Graduate Student Showcase. (photo by Sean McCann)