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Dung beetles in high mountain landscapes of Oaxaca

By Matthias Rös, Alfonsina Arriaga-Jimenez, Bert Kohlmann

 

Dung beetles (Scarabaeidae) belong, besides ants and butterflies, to the best-studied insect groups in tropical ecosystems. Three subfamilies are considered as true dung beetles: Scarabaeinae, Geotrupinae, and Aphodiinae. There are about 10,000 species of dung beetles around the world known to science, although that number is still rising; montane areas in the tropics are exceedingly rich in species, and new species are regularly discovered. 

High mountain ecosystems in the American tropics have been less studied than the diversity-rich lowland rain forests, which have received greater attention and efforts for conservation purposes. Nevertheless, the significance of temperate ecosystems within the tropics may have been underestimated regarding their importance to explain species distribution patterns in various biodiversity hotspots of the Earth. Mexico, and particularly the state of Oaxaca, will serve us here as an example to explain why. 

Oaxaca is one of the most (if not the most) biodiverse states of Mexico. One reason is the rugged orography, shaped by different geological events, which, accompanied by changing climate, separated and connected animal and plant populations several times, and so turned Oaxaca into a laboratory of species evolution. Oaxaca is situated in the southeast of Mexico and is dominated by three major montane areas (Sierra Norte, Sierra Sur, Mixteca Shield). Eighteen percent of the state has an elevation higher than 2000 m, and around four percent is situated between 2500m and 3700m. 

Typical land-use patterns in Oaxacan mountains. Forest dominated landscapes with traditional milpa system (corn, beans, squash). El Rosario Temextitlan, Chinantla, Sierra Norte de Oaxaca at elevations between 2000 and 2700 m. Photo by Matthias Rös.

In the last two years, we have collected and described new dung beetle species from Oaxaca. All of them were not collected in pristine or remote places, but in mountain forests close to the capital city of Oaxaca. Whereas the state has few large reserves, Oaxaca is known for its high number of community-conserved areas (CCA), and the new species were collected in the CCA La Mesita, in San Pablo Etla, a 3000 ha community-managed forest at altitudes between 1800 and 3200 m, which provides firewood, clean water to the entire watershed, and offers small scale sustainable tourism. In Oaxaca, at lower altitudes, there exists an oak forest, with mostly small trees that lose all their leaves during the dry season, reminiscent of the familiar chaparral vegetation. In Oaxaca, this oak forest is a typical vegetation type of piedmont, mostly surrounding the Central Valley. We named Canthidium quercetorum after this forest type, only known at present from La Mesita. Onthophagus etlaensis, named after the Nahuatl word for bean-fields, sampled by us in the same reserve, had already been collected in the 1970s but was erroneously identified because of its closeness to another, more common species. This is a very typical pattern found in Oaxaca: there abound many endemic sister species of common and more widespread taxa, and they have a small distribution range in the mountains of Oaxaca, which indicates their speciation in situ.  Finally, Phanaeus dionysius, a veritable jewel of a beetle, was also found in this CCA.

Onthophagus etlaensis (left) and Phanaeus dionysius (right), two dung beetle species of the subfamily Scarabaeinae, described from the community-conserved area of La Mesita, San Pablo Etla, near the city of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca belongs to the Mexican Transition Zone, a region ranging between the southern USA down to the Nicaraguan lakes. Its outstanding characteristic is the overlap of Nearctic and Neotropical species distributed here, the former more often at higher elevations with the latter at lower elevations. Both Neotropic and Nearctic faunas have generated a high number of endemic species in Mexican mountains. 

Besides its rich biodiversity, Oaxaca is also one of the most understudied states in Mexico, and regarding plant or animal groups we have only little information. This  might explain why we also found, in addition to the recently described species, some species which were last collected 45 years ago. 

This map shows Oaxaca as depicted by a 3D Digital Elevation Model. Black dots represent sampling sites for Onthophagus anthracinus, the red dot Canthidium quercetorum, and the blue dot Phanaeus dionysius.

AAJ started to work on dung beetle diversity at high-altitude mountains ten years ago when she collected insect material from the alpine prairies of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt (TMVB). For her Ph.D. project, she moved up to high elevations between 2500 and 3500 at four volcanos. One of the most interesting results was that a high variability of diversity patterns between the volcanoes existed. We also found an unexpectedly high diversity, coupled with low abundances and detection probabilities, that in three years of sampling, abundances were still lower than what you collect in one rainy season in a cloud forest. Our next step shall be to compare diversity patterns between the mountains of Oaxaca and the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Bert Kohlmann has studied for almost three decades the dung beetle communities in the high altitude-mountains of Costa Rica and Mexico, where interesting evolutionary phenomena have been discovered associated with the Last Glacial Maximum. Nevertheless, to detect and understand processes which determine diversity patterns at high altitude mountains in the tropics, more attention, longer sampling periods, and deeper taxonomic knowledge of the species and their phylogenetic relationships covering the whole Neotropics is needed. Matthias Rös studies diversity patterns in natural and human-modified landscapes, looking for biodiversity-friendly land-use patterns. Oaxaca seems to have plenty of these biodiversity-friendly land-use patterns in its mountain landscapes, despite or even because of a human-induced modification history dating millennia. Our research of describing new species is the baseline for further investigations. How can we protect the outstanding biodiversity under scenarios of climate change and land-use intensification? Oaxaca might suggest very interesting answers to many questions related to this topic. Oaxaca and its mountains still have many secrets to unfold, and we want to explore and reveal them.

 

Arriaga-Jiménez, A., Escobar-Hernández, F., Rös, M., & Kohlmann, B. (2020). The establishment of the Onthophagus anthracinus (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae) species complex and the description of a new species. The Canadian Entomologist, 152:1-17. https://doi:10.4039/tce.2019.62. (Paper made available to read for FREE until March 24, 2020 in cooperation with Cambridge University Press)

 

Related research to dung beetles in high mountains:

Kohlmann B., Arriaga-Jiménez, A., Rös, M. 2018. Dung beetle vicariant speciation in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, with a description of a new species of Phanaeus (Coleoptera, Geotrupidae, Scarabaeidae). ZooKeys743:67-93. https://zookeys.pensoft.net/articles.php?id=23029

Arriaga-Jiménez, A., Rös, M. & Halffter.G. 2018. High variability of dung beetle diversity patterns at four mountains of the trans-Mexican volcanic belt. PeerJ 6:e4468. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4468

Kohlmann, B., Arriaga-Jimenez, A., & Rös, M. 2018. An unusual new species of Canthidium (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae: Scarabaeinae) from Oaxaca, Mexico. Zootaxa 4378 (2): 273–278. https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4378.2.7

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Call for nominations: Societal Director (Second Vice-President), Director at Large

The Society will hold an online ballot to select candidates for a Societal Director and Director at Large.
The selected candidates will then be presented as a slate for formal election by members at the Annual
Meeting in Calgary in October. Nominations for these positions must be signed by three active members
of the Society and be received by the Secretary of the Entomological Society of Canada, Neil Holliday
(Neil.Holliday@umanitoba.ca), by 28 February 2020.

 

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Berm Outreach Day: The importance of enhanced non-crop habitat for beneficial insects in intensive agricultural landscapes

by Dillon Muldoon, MSc student


Me on one of my newly planted berm research plots. Photo by Jenni Dunning.

While driving up highway 400 for that cottage getaway in the Muskokas, you’ll pass by a little slice of Ontario agriculture on some of the darkest soil you’ve ever seen. But be careful: If you blink, you might miss this beautiful place known as the Holland Marsh. Located 50 km north of Toronto, the Holland Marsh is known for its intensive production of carrots, onions, and over 60 other horticultural crops. The Marsh contributes over 1 billion dollars to the Ontario economy through the production, processing, and shipment of vegetables.

For my MSc project, I’m looking at ways to enhance ecosystem services in the Holland Marsh. Ecosystem services are benefits humans gain from ecosystems, which can include water and air purification, carbon sequestration, agricultural pest management, and crop pollination. My research specifically focuses on enhancing non-crop areas so that they can provide better habitat for pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests. Studies show that the enhancement of “naturalized” non-crop areas (e.g., hedgerows, field margins, riparian areas, mowed grass) with vegetative and floral plantings can help support the abundance and diversity of beneficial insects within an intensive agricultural system. The habitat provided for these beneficial insects can offer several ecosystem services to growers, from pollination of crops to assisting with crop pest control. Until recently, the Holland Marsh had almost no non-crop habitat. In 2010 the Holland Marsh Drainage System Canal Improvement Project was initiated, and at its completion in July 2016, 19 km of canals had been relocated and dredged, and 10 km of berms (dykes) had been expanded to improve safety and efficiency. This expansion of the berms increased the amount of non-crop habitat in the Holland Marsh. My study investigates how different vegetative enhancements on the canal berms might affect beneficial insect complexes and agricultural pest populations at the Holland Marsh. I’m using both active and passive trapping to assess the abundance and diversity of natural enemies, pollinators, and insect pest populations in two different vegetative enhancements throughout the growing season.

Me at Berm Day explaining the importance of non-crop habitat. Photo by Jenni Dunning.

Although vegetative enhancements can be beneficial, stakeholders were concerned about the possibility that the enhancements could provide a refuge for pests (e.g., insects, weeds, vermin) and that they may not be aesthetically pleasing. To address these concerns, I orchestrated a public and grower outreach day (Berm Day) on July 5, 2019 with help from funding by the Entomological Society of Ontario. The goal of Berm Day was to connect with the public and growers about the importance of enhancing non-crop habitat to support beneficial insects in intensive agricultural systems. I hoped to create a dialogue surrounding the importance of ecosystem services, and to disseminate some of my findings. My study has shown that vegetative enhancements support a greater abundance of natural enemies than the natural berm vegetation and increase floral resources for pollinators. The enhancements have not provided a refuge for primary insect pests of the crops grown at the Holland Marsh.

Overall, Berm Day was a great success. I connected with local growers, members of the public, master gardeners, conservation authorities, and members of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, over some fresh baked goods and coffee. We opened a dialogue about the project and shared ideas for future research, including management approaches and new seed mixes to improve the aesthetics appeal of the plantings. Everyone who attended left with a package of Ontario Native Seed Mix to plant at home, which was generously provided by Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator Multifunctional Landscapes.

I have heard once or twice that diversity is the spice of life, and within an intensive agricultural system, it can play an important role by offering numerous benefits for both growers and natural ecosystems. The conservation and enhancement of non-crop habitat can help provide ecosystem services in the Holland Marsh by increasing and supporting beneficial insects.

A special thanks to all the volunteers, advisors, the Muck Crops Research Station’s staff, Paul Hoekstra, and the Entomological Society of Ontario for making this day possible.

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Do Insects Feel Pain?

By Dr. Shelley Adamo, Dalhousie University

Do insects feel pain?  Many of us probably ask ourselves this question.  We swat mosquitoes, step on ants, and spray poison on cockroaches, assuming, or perhaps hoping, that they can’t – but can they?  As someone who studies the physiology behind insect behaviour, I’ve wondered about it myself. Those thoughts motivated me to examine the question from the perspective of evolution, neurobiology and robotics.

Are these crickets angry? In pain from being whipped by antennae? How would we know?

To find out whether insects feel pain, we first need to agree on what pain is.  Pain is a personal subjective experience that includes negative emotions.  Pain is different from nociception, which is the ability to respond to damaging stimuli.  All organisms have nociception.  Even bacteria can move away from harmful environments such as high pH.  But not all animals feel pain.  The question, then, is do insects have subjective experiences such as emotions and the ability to feel pain?

We’ve probably all observed insects struggling in a spider’s web or writhing after being sprayed with insecticide; they look like they might be in pain. Insects can also learn to avoid electric shocks, suggesting that they don’t like being shocked.  However, just as I was appreciating how much some insect behaviour looked like our pain behaviour, I realized that Artificial Intelligence (e.g. robots and virtual characters) can also display similar behaviours (e.g. see (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxyGwH7Ku5Y). Think about how virtual characters can realistically express pain in video games such as “The Last of Us” (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQWD5W3fpPM). Researchers have developed circuits allowing robots and other AI to simulate emotional states (e.g. ‘joy’, ‘anger’, ‘fear’). These circuits alter how the robot/virtual character responds to its environment (i.e. the same stimulus produces a different response depending on the AI’s ‘emotion’).    However, this does not mean that robots or virtual characters are ‘feeling’ these emotions.  AI shows us that behaviour may not be the best guide to an insect’s internal experience.

Given that behaviour seemed an unreliable guide, I then looked for neurobiological evidence that insects feel pain.  Unfortunately, the insect brain is very different from the human brain.  However, once we understand how our brains perceive pain, we may be able to search for circuits that are functionally similar in insects.  Research in humans suggests that pain perception is created by complex neural networks that link up the necessary brain areas.  These types of networks require massive bidirectional connections across multiple brain regions.  Insect brains also have interconnections across different brain areas.  However, these interconnections are often quite modest.  For example, the mushroom bodies in the insect brain are critical for learning and memory. Although the mushroom bodies contain thousands of neurons, in fruit flies, for example, they have only 21 output neurons.  In humans, our memory area, the hippocampus, has hundreds of thousands of output neurons.  The lack of output neurons in insects limits the ability of the insect brain to sew together the traits that create pain in us (e.g.  sensory information, memory, and emotion).

Finally, I considered the question from an evolutionary perspective.  How likely it is that evolution would select for insects to feel pain?  In evolution, traits evolve if the benefits of a trait outweigh its costs.  Unfortunately, nervous systems are expensive for animals.  Insects have a small, economical, nervous system.  Additional neurons dedicated to an ‘emotional’ neural circuit would be relatively expensive in terms of energetics and resources.  If it is possible to produce the same behaviour without the cost, then evolution will select for the cheaper option. Robots show that there could be cheaper ways.

The subjective experience of pain is unlikely to be an all-or-none phenomenon.  Asking whether insects feel pain forces us to consider what we would accept as a subjective experience of pain.  What if it was devoid of emotional content?  What if cognition is not involved?  If insects have any type of subjective experience of pain, it is likely to be something that will be very different from our pain experience.  It is likely to lack key features such as ‘distress’, ‘sadness’, and other states that require the synthesis of emotion, memory and cognition. In other words, insects are unlikely to feel pain as we understand it.   So – should we still swat mosquitoes?    Probably, but a case can be made that all animals deserve our respect, regardless of their ability to feel pain.

Adamo, S. (2019). Is it pain if it does not hurt? On the unlikelihood of insect pain. The Canadian Entomologist, 1-11. doi:10.4039/tce.2019.49 (Paper made available to read for FREE until Sept. 16, 2019 in cooperation with Cambridge University Press)

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Say Bees!
How Not to Bumble Your Bee Photography

by Angela Gradish

A common eastern bumble bee male on a flower. Photo by Brett Forsyth.

There’s been a buzz in the air about bees lately, and for good reason: Bees are major pollinators of both wild plants and agricultural crops, and some species are declining because of threats like habitat loss, climate change, and agricultural intensification. Many people assume the honey bee is the top pollinator among bees. But bumble bees, the honey bee’s bigger, hairier, and louder cousins, are just as important for pollination*. (For some plants, bumble bees are even better pollinators than honey bees.) North America is home to 46 bumble bee species that collectively visit hundreds of types of plants. Also, a few bumble bee species are commercially reared and sold to growers to pollinate certain crops, like blueberries and greenhouse tomatoes. Unfortunately, some bumble bee species are declining or endangered, and the status of many other species is unknown. Bumble bees are historically understudied, and so for some areas, there aren’t many bumble bee records (documented sightings of individual bumble bees with associated reference information, like sighting location, date, and species name). Without good records, it’s difficult to know how many individuals of certain bumble bee species there are now and how large their geographic range is, and how their population sizes and ranges may have changed over time. Brett Forsyth, a photographer and naturalist from Guelph, hopes to help address this problem and raise awareness about bumble bees with his new online project, Photographing Bumble Bees for Identification.

A pinned rusty-patched bumble bee, an endangered species in Ontario. Photo by Brett Forsyth.

Originally from British Columbia, Brett became interested in bumble bee conservation when he moved to Ontario. Currently, there are three bumble bees on the Species at Risk in Ontario list: the rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis, endangered), the gypsy cuckoo bumble bee (Bombus bohemicus, endangered), and the yellow-banded bumble bee (Bombus terricola, special concern). Brett decided to figure out how to photograph these at-risk species, and in the process, he discovered that there are relatively poor records of many Ontario bumble bees, especially in the northern and central areas of the province.

Brett saw a way to improve our knowledge of Ontario bumble bees** via iNaturalist, an existing online citizen science project aimed at documenting and sharing observations of global biodiversity. Users create free profiles and upload photos of their biodiversity finds, where they can then be viewed by other users and identified by experts. iNaturalist educates people about the natural world, but it also can provide scientists with valuable data that can be used to track changes to species’ geographic distributions and population sizes. For those data to be useful, the species in the uploaded photos must be identifiable, which requires high-quality images that contain key body structures needed to identify the organism. But as anyone who’s ever tried will tell you, getting a bumble bee to sit still for a picture is tricky. As a photographer, Brett saw an obvious solution to that problem: simply teach people to take good pictures of bumble bees with their mobile devices, and in turn, get better data on Ontario bumble bees.

Pocket guide to photographing bumble bees by Brett Forsyth.

In a series of videos on the Photographing Bumble Bees website, Brett takes viewers step-by-step through the process of taking pictures of bumble bees and uploading their photos to the Bumble Bees of Ontario project on iNaturalist. He also provides a free, printable pocket guide that outlines the most important tips for photographing bumble bees and gives descriptions of the three at-risk species in Ontario. Brett has four general tips for getting great pictures of bumble bees. First, get as close as you can to the bumble bee. (Don’t be scared of that stinger–bumble bees really aren’t very aggressive!) Second, get separate shots of the bumble bee’s back, side, and face. These areas contain features that are important for identifying bumble bees. Third, slow motion video can be used to get good images of fast-moving insects: It produces a bunch of still images that you can sort through later to find the perfect shot. And fourth, find an app that will allow you to manually focus your phone’s camera.

Brett hopes his project will inspire 250 people to join the Bumble Bees of Ontario project on iNaturalist and generate at least 1,000 new bumble bee records from central and northern Ontario. More generally, he wants to get more people interested in bumble bees and the underappreciated world of insects. So help scientists help bumble bees: Grab your phone, get outside, and start snapping photos.

 

*This article is focused on bumble bees, but there are many other types of bees. In fact, there are around 4000 species of bees in Canada and the US. All of those bee are also very important pollinators, and many of them may also be at risk. (We know even less about other bees than bumble bees.) So please learn about other bees too!

**Maybe you’re not in Ontario, but don’t let that stop you from using these tips to photograph bumble bees in your area. Information on any bumble bee species from anywhere is important!

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Women in Entomology
Jessica Linton

Today’s Women in Entomology Q&A features Jessica Linton, a terrestrial and wetland biologist with Natural Resource Solutions Inc.


Q: What are you studying or working on right now?

JL: I am the founder and coordinator of the Ontario Butterfly Species at Risk Recovery and Implementation Team, so a large proportion of my time right now is focused on developing and implementing recovery activities for butterfly species at risk in Ontario. This includes coordinating things like finding and applying for funding, permitting,  working with researchers to develop specific research projects, working with land managers to inform habitat restoration and management, and conducting field work. I am currently coordinating the proposed reintroduction of an endangered butterfly (Mottled Duskywing) to Pinery Provincial Park.

 

Q: What led you to your specific field of study or work?

JL: Since childhood, I have always been fascinated by butterfly biology and ecology. A job as an interpreter at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory and two undergraduate co-op terms in Costa Rica at a butterfly education centre solidified my career direction for me.

Q: When did you first become interested in science and entomology?

JL: It’s been in my blood for as long as I can remember! I spent a lot of my days as a kid just being outside.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your research or work?

JL: I enjoy the flexibility and diversity that working as a consultant in the private sector affords. I bid on many contracts related to species at risk assessment and recovery planning, and work with academic collaborators on research and monitoring projects.

Q: What are your interests outside of academic life or work?

JL: Butterflies definitely cross over to my personal interests, and I enjoy observing and photographing them in the field. My children and I enjoy spending time outdoors, hiking, etc.

Q: What are your future plans or goals?

JL: To continue to build a tailor-made career that feeds my interests and keeps me engaged in my work. I would like to make a meaningful impact on butterfly species at risk recovery in Canada.

Q: Do you have any advice for young students that may be interested in science and/or entomology?

JL: If the job doesn’t exist, find a way to make it happen! Never underestimate the power of your enthusiasm for what you’re passionate about, and make an effort to network and build connections!

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The ESA-ESC-ESBC JAM is around the corner

By Staffan Lindgren

Many of us remember our first interaction with the Entomological Society of America (ESA) when we co-hosted a JAM in Montreal. Canadians were generally upset that the meeting was controlled completely by the ESA. Because of this, many ESC members have been skeptical of the upcoming meeting, thinking that it may be a repeat of that experience.

I have been one of a number of ESC and ESBC members who have participated in the organization of this meeting. I am writing this short blog because I want to assure you that the ESA staff has gone out of their way to be inclusive with both ESC and ESBC. They acknowledged from the start the mistakes that were made in 2000, and they have lived up to their promise of better relations this time. We have met on-site in person twice (June 2017 and June 2018) and this year we have had monthly conference calls to make sure that nothing slips through the cracks. ESA staff has obviously handled the administrative duties given their experience and resources, but they have been extremely receptive to our suggestions and requests, and I cannot speak highly enough of all of them. Rosina Romano, Becky Anthony and others have been amazing to work with (I think they are miracle workers), and we can look forward to a great meeting where all three societies will be equal parties.

In these times of political uncertainty and what seems like daily tragedies throughout the world, it is re-assuring to know that our profession of entomology serves as a shining example of how well we can get along when we treat each other with respect and in a spirit of cooperation.

I look forward to seeing you in Vancouver.

Vancouver Convention Centre. Image: https://www.vancouverconventioncentre.com/facility

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Fourteenth Annual Photo Contest

The Fourteenth Annual Photo Contest to select images for the 2019 covers of The Canadian Entomologist and the Bulletin of the Entomological Society of Canada is underway. The cover images are intended to represent the breadth of entomology covered by the Society’s publications. Insects and non-insects in forestry, urban or agriculture; landscapes, field, laboratory or close-ups; or activities associated with physiology, behaviour, taxonomy or IPM are all desirable. A couple of ‘Featured Insects’ (for the spine and under the title) are also needed. If selected, your photo will grace the cover of both publications for the entire year. In addition, winning photos and a selection of all submitted photos will be shown on the ESC website.

Contest rules:

Photos of insects and other arthropods in all stages, activities, and habitats are accepted. To represent the scope of entomological research, we also encourage photos of field plots, laboratory experiments, insect impacts, research activities, sampling equipment, etc. Photos should, however, have a clear entomological focus.

Digital images must be submitted in unbordered, high-quality JPG format, with the long side (width or height) a minimum of 1500 pixels.

Entrants may submit up to five photographs. A caption must be provided with each photo submitted; photos without captions will not be accepted. Captions should include the locality, subject identification as closely as is known, description of activity if the main subject is other than an insect, and any interesting or relevant information. Captions should be a maximum of 40 words.

The entrant must be a member in good standing of the Entomological Society of Canada. Photos must be taken by the entrant, and the entrant must own the copyright.

The copyright of the photo remains with the entrant, but royalty-free use must be granted to the ESC for inclusion on the cover of one volume (6 issues) of The Canadian Entomologist, one volume (4 issues) of the Bulletin, and on the ESC website.

The judging committee will be chosen by the Chair of the Publications Committee of the ESC and will include a member of the Web Content Committee.

The Photo Contest winners will be announced on the ESC website, and may be announced at the Annual Meeting of the ESC or in the Bulletin. There is no cash award for the winners, but photographers will be acknowledged in each issue the photos are printed.

Submission deadline has been extended until 10 October 2018. Entries should be submitted as an attachment to an email message; the subject line should start with “ESC Photo Contest Submission”. Send the email message to: photocontest@esc-sec.ca.