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Job Opening – Entomology Curator, Royal British Columbia Museum

After an outpouring of support from the Canadian entomological community, the Royal British Columbia Museum has decided to hire a new Curator of Entomology!

The competition for the Curator of Entomology position at the Royal BC Museum is now posted at http://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/assets/Posting3.pdf. Deadline for applications has been extended to 24 March.

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Royal BC Museum insect curator position in danger, but you can make a difference

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Only half of an estimated 35, 000 insects in BC have been recorded. A curator is urgently needed to address research priorities for BC’s most diverse group of organisms. Photo by Miles Zhang.

 

The following is a guest post by Professor Felix Sperling 

I’m always amazed when I see a well-established natural history museum that doesn’t have entomology curators. What are their administrators thinking? Insects form half of the known species diversity of our planet, a fundamental fact that too many people are unaware of. The ecological and even economic impact of all those species is overwhelming across all terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, which are of course the habitats that we occupy ourselves. And there is still a shocking amount of insect biodiversity left undocumented or misunderstood, lying in wait to bite us, literally and figuratively, just when we are unprepared to deal with it.

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Over 16, 000 RBCM Entomology specimens have been loaned out in the past 5 years alone. Photo: S. McCann.

 

But that is just the surface. The study of insects is an indispensable portal to understanding life on our planet and therefore to knowing ourselves and our place in this world. An appreciation of the exuberant diversity of insects is an essential foundation from which to build a fully connected and integrated appreciation of our surroundings, and to understanding the diversity and vitality of our interactions. That connectedness is what modern museums strive to capture and present. An entomology curator is the nexus for such connections, serving to do so very much more than just assembling specimens. An entomology curator is responsible for half of all known biological diversity, which also means curation of half of our knowledge about diversity, a human construct that is vulnerable to extinction just like a language is. And more than a purely cultural construct, such a curator maintains the chain that ties the dynamic memory of a human community to the material reality that allows the people of our planet to thrive. So how can a serious museum do without one, especially in a region where biodiversity is important to the self image of a people and insect biodiversity professionals are already so few in number?

 

So I was seriously puzzled to hear that the CEO of the Royal British Columbia Museum, Professor Jack Lohman, is seriously considering redirecting their entomology curator salary line, which was vacated when Dr. Rob Cannings retired in 2012. But I hear that there is still time for us all to have some input into the process, since Lohman has agreed to discuss the issue one last time on January 22nd, and has asked for a demonstration of support for such a position from outside the museum by that date.

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Curatorial oversight leads to enhanced public engagement, fulfilling the core mission of a public museum. Photo by Miles Zhang.

 

 

I hope that as many of you as possible can write a short letter to Professor Lohman to point out the importance of entomology in the context of the Royal British Columbia Museum and the broader community that it is part of. Letters from a diversity of backgrounds and institutions would be most helpful. Some of you will have already heard about this via emails that circulated just before the holiday break, and here is an information sheet that may help you to make the case. You can get a better sense of Professor Lohman’s vision and background here.

Letters on institutional letterhead would be best, and can be sent to:

Prof. Jack Lohman,  Chief Executive Officer

Royal British Columbia Museum

675 Belleville St,

Victoria, BC V8W 9W2

JLohman@royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

 

And send a copy to:

Peter Ord: Vice President, Archives, Collections, and Knowledge

POrd@royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

 

My deepest appreciation to all of you who have read this far, and especially to any of you who can send off a letter, however brief. May you all have a happy, healthy and prosperous year in 2015!

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The Royal BC Museum houses over 600,000 entomological specimens. Photo: S. McCann.

 

 

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Spiders with an identity crisis: a new taxonomy paper

The following is a guest post by Terry Wheeler, from the Lyman  Entomological Museum at McGill University. It is re-posted from the Lyman Museum Blog, where it originally appeared. 

Two wolf spiders, whose names are Pardosa lapponica and Pardosa concinna, run across open ground all over northern Canada. Here’s the problem: these two species of spiders live in a lot of the same places, and they look very similar. Katie Sim, a grad student working with Chris Buddle and me here at McGill, asked the obvious question: are these spiders really separate species? Katie’s insights on that question were just published in the journal Zootaxa.

As taxonomists, we can use multiple kinds of evidence to determine species limits. This includes things like morphology, genetic sequence data, geographic distribution, and ecology. These two species were originally described from widely separated areas: P. lapponica from Lapland, and P. concinna from Colorado. But since then they’ve been found in many more sites and we now know that their ranges overlap in northern North America.

The other long-accepted way of distinguishing between these two species was a small morphological difference between their reproductive structures (many closely related arthropods look very similar externally, but if there are differences, we often see them in the genitalia. “Why?” is a topic for another post).

As Katie collected spiders as part of our Northern Biodiversity Program fieldwork in northern Canada, she realized that the morphological differences between the two species weren’t that clear-cut, once you take variation into account. Based on careful measurements of specimens from all across the north, Katie found overlap in almost all morphological characters, even genitalic characters that had been used in the past. There was only one small piece of the complex male mating structures (the terminal apophysis, for the spider fans reading along) that seemed to hold up as a difference between the species (and only the males, obviously). Question marks started to appear.

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Katie’s next step was to delve into the genetic differences between the two species. Even though species can look very similar externally, DNA sequence data sometimes uncovers fine differences between them. This is especially helpful with closely related, or recently diverged species. Katie used the DNA barcode, a section of the mitochondrial gene CO1, which has proven pretty useful for distinguishing animal species. And the DNA results showed some interesting patterns, some of which were unexpected.

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The figure above is a haplotype network. Each circle is a little island of genetic similarity, connected to other islands by the lines. We’d expect different species to be part of separate “islands”, but that didn’t happen here. Pardosa lapponica (in light gray) and P. concinna(in black) sometimes share the same haplotype, and each of the two has multiple haplotypes. That means there’s more genetic variation within a “species” than between them. But wait! There’s more!

After a suggestion from one of the reviewers on an earlier version of the paper (this back-and-forth of suggestions is one of the strengths of peer-reviewed science), Katie looked at the CO1 barcode sequences of P. lapponica specimens from northern Europe, where it was originally described. Unexpectedly, the Russian specimens (the dark gray circles without numbers in the figure above) were genetically distinct, by a good margin, from the North American specimens of P. lapponica.

So what does this all mean, taxonomically? First, the spider we call “Pardosa lapponica” in North America seems not to be the same species as “Pardosa lapponica” from northern Europe (which “owns” the name, because it was described from there first). Our North American P. lapponica may, in fact, be the same species as the spider we’ve been callingPardosa concinna, but before we can make the final decision on that, it would be necessary to study additional North American specimens, especially from Colorado (the “type locality”, or collection site of the original P. concinna), to confirm this.

And that’s how taxonomy often works: good, careful research will answer one question, and in the process, new questions pop up. Sometimes, you think you know a spider, and sometimes, you realize you really don’t.

Reference

Sim, K.A., C.M. Buddle, and T.A. Wheeler. 2014. Species boundaries of Pardosa concinna and P. lapponica (Araneae: Lycosidae) in the northern Nearctic: morphology and DNA barcodes. Zootaxa: 3884: 169–178.

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Respect your specimens

By Crystal Ernst, PhD Candidate (McGill University)

Since I finally submitted my manuscript to a journal (YAY!), I’ve been tying up the little loose ends remaining at the end of the project. You know: organizing the useful data and image files, tossing the files marked “MESSING_AROUND_WITH_DATA_v.29), tidying up my R code, and, perhaps most importantly, curating my specimens.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the project here (I’m saving that for another post). I will say, though, that the work I just completed includes just over 2,600 beetles from a single location in Nunavut (Kugluktuk, where I spent my entire first field season).

Two major aspects of the physical work (as opposed to the thinking, reading and writing) involved in an ecological/entomological project such as this one are the pinning and the identifications. Some of the tasks are a bit tedious (cutting labels; entering data; gluing over 800 specimens of the same tiny, plain black ground beetle to paper points), and some of them are thrilling (finally getting over the “hump” of the morphological learning curve and feeling good and confident when working with your keys; having experts tell you “Yep, you got those all right”; discovering rare species or new regional species records). In the end, in addition to the published (*knocks on wood*) paper, you have boxes or drawers full of specimens.

The specimens are gold. (Read this post by Dr. Terry Wheeler to understand why.)

Unfortunately, they don’t always get treated as such.

In the two-ish years that I’ve been working in my lab, we’ve had two major “lab clean-up days”. The first managed to get rid of a lot of clutter (old papers, broken apparatus, random crap). The second involved going through the “stuff” that was eating up all the most valuable storage space: specimens. Years and years worth of graduate and undergraduate projects’ specimens, stashed in freezers, boxes, bags and vials of all shapes and sizes.

Some things were in good shape (pinned well, or in clear ethanol). Other things were, well, downright nasty: gooey beetles in sludgy brown ethanol, dried up bits of moth wings in plastic containers, and a little bit of “what in the name of pearl is growing on that agar plate???” in the fridge.

None of these items were kept – their value as useful specimens was nil. So, the physical representation of some student’s work – probably months or years worth of work – was tossed in the trash.

Others, happily, were tucked back into drawers and cupboards, because someone had taken the time to ensure the specimens were well-preserved.

However, even many of these were suffering from a serious issue: bad labels.

Allow me to illustrate the point. This is a bad label:

This is also a bad label:

The first, you’ll note, is written in ballpoint pen (which fades) on a torn piece of notebook paper and contains almost no information. The second, although it looks fancier and perhaps more sciencey, is just as bad: it contains a cryptic code that is useful only to the bearer of the lab notebook in which said code has been written down. Or, perhaps the code is completely intelligible to the researcher who developed it, but the key to it exists only in his or her head.

To everyone else, it is meaningless. Neither of these labels indicate who collected the specimen, where, when, or how. And we all know what happens in labs: upon completion of their degrees, students move on, email addresses change, notebooks are misplaced, data files are not backed up. The labels’ codes can never be broken, and the scientific value of the specimens – *poof*.

While there’s nothing wrong, in theory, with using labels like these temporarily (although there is always a risk that they will be misinterpreted or misunderstood after a little while, even by the person who wrote them), they are absolutely useless as permanent records.

These are good labels:

These labels, properly affixed to a specimen, provide clear and universally understood information. One provides the location, including GPS coordinates, a method of collection, a date, the name of the collector(s). The information that goes on this label can vary a bit (it may include information about the habitat or host plant, for example), but those are the basic requirements. The smaller label is typically affixed on the pin below the first, and contains the specimen’s scientific name and the name of the person who identified it (it is the “det. label”, i.e., “determined by”). These labels, and therefore the specimen with which they are associated, will remain useful for decades, even centuries.

I am totally guilty of both of the offenses I just explained (the gooky vials of nastiness and the bad labels). For my undergraduate honors project, I identified close to 8000 spiders, mites and insects to the Family level – it was hundreds of hours of microscope work. Then I stuffed all those specimens back into vials with cryptic little codes, like V-1-F(!), hand-written on STICKERS(!), which I placed on the LIDS(!) and not even in the vials themselves(!). Oh, and I’ve long since lost the notebook that contained my decoder key(!). THIS IS ALL SO BAD. I have no doubt that those boxes of vials, which I once prized so highly and felt such pride for, have been unceremoniously tossed in the trash by my former advisor.

Well, I’ve learned from my mistakes, and from working with museum and other collection specimens. I now understand that each specimen is deserving of respect – it’s the original data after all – and that means it should be properly preserved, and labelled.

So.

Last week I spent a great deal of time, as I said, tying up my loose ends. The last thing I needed to do was remove my cryptic labels (the second in the series up there is an actual example of one of my own “secret code” labels) and replace them with proper ones, sorting and tidying up the collection in the process. The end result?

This:

Frankly, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also enormously scientifically valuable. These specimens will be deposited in various nationally-important collections and museums, like the CNC.

As a matter of fact, just last week I was at the CNC, and I saw specimens bearing the name of the last person to do a comprehensive survey of the insects in Kugluktuk, back in 1955. That tiny but so-important label suddenly made me feel connected to the man who, almost 60 years earlier, had stood on the same stretch of tundra as me, holding and perhaps delighting in the very specimen that I held in my own hand.

Giving my specimens the respect they deserve is worth it, not only for the scientific value, but also because perhaps, 60 years from now, another grad student will discover my name on a specimen’s det. label. Perhaps she, too, will feel that same wondrous sense of connection to the the greater scheme of scientific discovery…

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Original post at: http://thebuggeek.com/2012/06/25/respect-your-specimens/

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News from the Entomological Society of Manitoba

By Matt Yunik, Public Education, Entomological Society of Manitoba
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After a slow start, I can finally say that spring is in the air here in Manitoba. Summer students have started their work in the various labs and grad students are chomping at the bit to get back into the field. After the devastating flooding followed by unquenchable drought of last year, this field season shows promise for being more successful.

Memorial in the J.B. Wallis and R.E. Roughley Museum of Entomology, with a case of Dr. Roughley’s Dytiscid beetles.

The entomology museum here at the University of Manitoba has recently undergone some transformations. A modest but fitting re-dedication ceremony was held on March 27th for our newly named J.B. Wallis/R.E. Roughley Museum of Entomology. Dr. Roughley had always been a big promoter of the museum, earning it the status of being the largest insect museum in Western Canada and the first bar-coded database system for entomological collections in Canada.

The department’s Graduate Student Association, with the assistance of the current curator Dr. Barb Sharanowski, has secured funding and are assembling a stereoscope with digital imaging system that will provide stellar images that will be shown on later blog posts.

Finally, there are two points of interest to report from the ESM front. On April 18th the ESM held our new member social. Dinner and drinks were served with admission covered for all new members of the society. I personally enjoyed meeting other newcomers while spending time with some of the more senior members.

Also, the ESM youth encouragement and public awareness team is getting ramped up for the multitude of presentations through the summer months. We typically conduct over 60 presentations a year, the majority of which are for summer youth camps. It will be exciting to see how the influx of new faces in the society will add to these presentations.

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A Meager Existence Fit for a King

By Christopher Cloutier, Naturalist, Morgan Arboretum
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The Morgan Arboretum of McGill University, with its 245 ha of forest and interspersed field habitats, is home to nearly 50 species of butterflies. Over the past two years I have tried to document all species occurring within the Arboretum and made note of the date of their earliest appearance. Many of the butterflies observed are the “expected” species, such as the Question Mark, White Admiral and the Monarch.

Others, though, were much more exciting finds: the Banded and Acadian Hairstreaks, the Baltimore Checkerspot and the Silver Spotted Skipper to name a few. Of all the highlight species found over the past two years, one that truly stands out is the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis).

Hackberry Emperor looking down from a high perch. Credit: Christopher Cloutier

Like many other butterfly species, the Emperor is specific to one type of host plant for its larvae. You guessed it: the Hackberry Tree (Celtis occidentalis). Although the Arboretum lies within the native range for this tree, it is one that is rarely encountered. It is found naturally on the outskirts of the property and nowhere near the main walking trails; that is, until about 10 years ago when the Arboretum planted several trees near the parking lots along the main road. The trees today are no taller than 4m but are growing rapidly. This represents nearly the entire habitat in which the Emperors were discovered back in 2010, and this is the tale of their unusual discovery.

Unlike most of the species which I have documented over the years, this one came as a report from a concerned visitor to the Arboretum. I remember this case vividly as it was quite unique. A visitor to the Arboretum came by the gatehouse to mention that they were seeing a large butterfly up close. In fact, the butterfly was landing on them with regularity every time they passed by a certain location. This was something I had to see for myself. Not knowing what to expect I followed the man to where he encountered this critter and sure enough we were standing right next to the Hackberry plantation. Within less than a minute a butterfly alighted on my shoulder, a species I had never encountered before. I quickly collected it with my aerial net and brought it back to my office for a closer look.

It didn’t take long to discover that this beautiful butterfly was indeed the Hackberry Emperor. After doing a little bit of research, I realized that this was not the first time that this species had been encountered at the Arboretum, but it was the first time in nearly half a decade. I decided to have a little photo shoot with the insect just to get some record shots. I then gave it a sip of grape juice and brought it back to where I first captured it.

Hackberry Emperor refueling after a photo shoot. Credit: Christopher Cloutier

I decided to have a closer look at the Hackberry trees scattered about on the grassy lawn. There were only five trees, not more than twice my height, and I quickly noticed why the butterflies were here. They were breeding. After searching the gall-riddled leaves of the Hackberries, I discovered several clusters of eggs as well as some recently hatched first instar larvae. Again, upon my arrival several adults were patrolling the area trying to frighten me away, or maybe trying to get a closer look at who I was. It didn’t seem to matter what colour clothing I was wearing, they just seemed interested in large silhouettes near their nursery.

Eggs and freshly hatched larvae of the Hackberry Emperor. Credit: Christopher Cloutier

Since this first discovery I have encountered Hackberry Emperors every summer since. They are typically active in mid-June and their activity time extends into July and August. Their dependence on a single tree species makes this butterfly quite interesting. Had we chosen to plant a different species of tree as a windbreak for the parking area, we may not have ever encountered this butterfly again. It seems now that we have made an ideal artificial breeding habitat for this beautiful insect, and hopefully they choose to use it year after year, that is, as long as they abide by our strict “no harassing other visitors” policy.