Spiders with an identity crisis: a new taxonomy paper

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.

Confusion and variation in female reproductive parts.

Confusion and variation in female spider reproductive parts.

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.

Haplotypes. A solar system of genetic diversity.

Haplotypes. A solar system of genetic diversity.

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 calling Pardosa 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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Sometimes, a shirt is not just a shirt

In July 1969, I watched, with my family, as the Eagle lunar module touched down on the moon and Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first steps out there. I remember some of the details of that day with great clarity, others not so well. A couple of things that must have been true on that day were: my dad came home from work and hung out on the couch while my mom made dinner; and the childhood dream of “being an astronaut” may have been considered possible for me, but not for my sisters.

Today, in 2014, I watched, alone in my office, as the Philae lander disconnected from the Rosetta spacecraft and touched down on a comet 500,000,000 km away from here. In some ways we’ve made great progress in those 45 years; in some ways we haven’t.

I want to talk about “the shirt”. But first, a preamble . . .

A ridiculous paper was published a few weeks ago that claimed that we’ve pretty much solved the sexism problem in academia.  The paper was followed up by an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that made the same argument even more clearly. Well, no. No, we haven’t. Rebuttals and takedowns of all the faulty assumptions, interpretations and conclusions in that paper were swift, and many, and loud (two great examples by Emily Willingham and Jonathan Eisen are here) as they should have been. Science does have a sexism problem, and that problem is manifested in many ways, both subtle and overt. We see ample evidence of it on social media, in the literature, in line-ups of invited speakers at symposia and panels, or in any random subset of tweets from people like Richard Dawkins. I won’t bother linking up to any of the many examples here, you just need to spend any amount of time interacting with scientists on Twitter to see how widespread the problem is.

Now back to the comet . . .

In the internet age, big exciting events get lots of media coverage, and that coverage is immediate and wide-ranging. So the people at the control centre for the European Space Agency kind of had to know there’d be some TV coverage of the comet landing today, and the key players in the mission could have probably assumed they’d be interviewed. But despite all that, for some unknown reason, project scientist Matt Taylor decided to wear this shirt to work today:

The Shirt; The Shirt

The Shirt; The Shirt

Now, ok, I understand that many of us become scientists because we’re unconventional, because we’re individuals, because we’re quirky. Sure, some of us dress funny. I know lots of scientists, great scientists, who are pretty fond of Hawaiian shirts. But, really, seriously, did it not occur to Matt Taylor for maybe just a nanosecond, that appearing on camera, as a scientist, at a defining moment in the history of space exploration, in a shirt festooned with sprawling half-naked women (and a couple o’ guns) might, I dunno, send the wrong goddamn message?!?!

Here’s the thing. I’m a 50-something, white, male scientist. This means that, in the traditional structure of science and academia, I’ve had it pretty easy. Harder than some, but easier than most. But I have to say, from my position as a 50-something, white, male scientist, that it’s about time science had a lot more people who do not look like me. We need diversity, and we need it badly. We need to make science and research and academia a fair and welcoming place for people who are not white, straight, males. I’m not entirely sure how we’re going to get there. But there are two things I do know for certain:

1. We are only going to get there if senior, white dudes like me either step up and say “yes, let’s change things” and then work to make that change happen, or just shut up and get out of the way.

2. We are not going to get there if some of our visible scientists use their brief moments in the spotlight to convey a message (unintentional or not!) that females are better suited to being decorations than to being colleagues.

Science took a huge step forward today, and, thanks to one dumb fashion choice, one step back.

 

 

 

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Why do I blog about what I blog about?

One of the good things about Twitter is that it’s like a big party where I can wander around and drop in on as many conversations as I want. Most of them are related, on some level, to science and research and education and natural history. One topic I follow is a pretty important one — it’s about how and why scientists communicate, with each other, and with a broader audience outside our usual little world. Some of the people at the heart of this conversation, people like Paige Brown Jarreau, Kirk Englehardt, and the whole team at Science Borealis, have gotten me thinking about the why of my own efforts in science communication here; specifically, why do I blog about what I blog about?

When I started this blog early in 2011 I viewed it as an on-line newsletter for our lab — an opportunity to post updates about our research, our people, and our collection. And looking back at the first few posts, that’s pretty much what it was. But the blog has morphed and evolved since then, more by accident than by design.

I think this blog (and my too infrequent posts) now focuses on three general areas that are near and dear to my heart.

Communicating our research

The core of what we do here in the lab is research on insect biodiversity, and the main currency of that research is journal papers. But journal papers tend to be written for a specialist audience, which makes it more challenging for non-specialists to access our work. I think scientists have a duty to communicate their research to a broader audience and I see this blog as a chance to summarize our papers, in a more accessible way. I have a lot more freedom to talk about, for example, insect diversity in temperate treetops, or how we straighten out the taxonomy of some little South American flies.

Dispelling misconceptions

A lot of our research lies at the intersection of three misunderstood things: flies (which are often considered dangerous and annoying pests); taxonomy (which is often considered an old-fashioned pursuit that isn’t very “sciencey”), and natural history (which is often perceived as a bunch of retirees going birdwatching). Yet, flies are one of the most diverse, fascinating, and ecologically important groups of terrestrial organisms on the planet. And taxonomy and natural history are both part of the essential foundation for the rest of biology. Research and training in taxonomy and natural history are absolutely critical for understanding ecosystems, and we have vast amounts still to learn. And this message clearly resonates with people: some of my most popular posts here have been about why taxonomy is important, about what natural history is, and why it matters, and why natural history collections are a critical resource.

Science as a human enterprise

Hollywood and TV depictions aside, scientists are not emotionless, purely objective robots. Science is done by humans, with all the good and bad implications that carries. Media coverage of science often talks about the results or the implications of research, but not often about the people behind the research — the students and postdocs and professors and volunteers and collaborators who took the research from idea to data to paper. I like the human side of science. And I like history. So I write about people who aren’t telling their own stories on Twitter because they died a long time ago; about why I sometimes question myself and sometimes laugh at myself;  about why I need fieldwork;  and about why questions matter just as much as answers.

I don’t post as often as I’d like, mostly because other kinds of writing eat up a lot of my time. Sometimes I’ll start to write a post and then sit on it for ages. I’m indecisive that way (or maybe I’m not). Sometimes, if I’m inspired, I’ll have a good run of posts. Sometimes I am anything but inspired. I should probably post more. Yeah . . .

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The phone, the program, and the big dark room: Twitter at a conference

I wrote a post a little while ago about my first 100 days of Twitter. Sort of a report card from a late adopter. I took another step on the social media stairway last week, when I attended the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Sacramento, California. it was my first conference since joining Twitter and, in addition to checking out lots of great talks and posters, I decided to check out some of the pros and cons (for me, at least. Your mileage may vary!) of dragging my “devices” around with me for the week.

The changing nature of “us and them”

The way we communicate and share science is changing, so gatherings of scientists have to change to keep up. The lines between scientists and non-scientists are blurring, as are the lines between researchers and the people who communicate research. We are increasingly connected, so even the distinction between those who had enough money or time to attend the conference, and who did not, is becoming fuzzy.

The changing relationship between who’s at a conference and who isn’t creates challenges for the societies hosting the meeting. In the rapidly evolving world of science communication, clear policies on what kind of sharing is and is not permitted are important. At ESA, for example, there was a stated policy in the program book prohibiting audio/video recordings or photographs of presentations (nothing about tweeting though!) Some recent meetings have been more open; some have been more closed. I think the next couple of years will see a real shift in these policies.

One of the oft-stated concerns about sharing presentations broadly is “fear of being scooped”. But, well, seriously, this is ecology, not smartphone design or pharmaceutical development. I suspect my results on the nature of arctic insect food webs and fly diversity are reasonably safe from industrial or academic espionage. Plus, we’re already presenting our research at a conference with 3500 people and our abstracts are posted online for the world to see, if they’re so inclined, so it’s not like there’s shroud of secrecy over our work.

A blue bird on my shoulder: pros and cons of Twitter at the conference

The Pros:

I connect with new people. This was the first conference at which I already knew some of the presenters via Twitter. So although we’d never actually met, I knew I wanted to check out their talks and posters on a wider array of subjects than I’d normally take in. And that’s mostly because I enjoyed their previous tweets about their research. It was nice to put faces to the names and be able to talk with people in real time. Of course, there were Twittery benefits as well. I followed a few new people and picked up a few new followers as a result of connecting with them at the meeting.

I concentrate more in talks. If I’m going to send out tweets about a presentation it’s probably a good idea to get it right. And because I would likely only post a small number of tweets about each, I wanted to make sure I was capturing the big picture, without sending out specific details about the actual results. This one surprised me the most — I have trouble keeping my brain focused sometimes and one of my initial reservations about diving into social media was the opportunity for twitchiness and distraction. The fact that I found the opposite result while listening to talks was a bit of a revelation (I briefly toyed with the idea of live-tweeting my own attempts to write to see if it would help my focus, but quickly realized that would be insanely boring and nobody would follow me any more).

I see what’s happening in talks I missed. With 20–30 concurrent sessions at an ESA meeting it’s hopeless to try and see every talk you want to (posters are different, because ESA has a dedicated 2-hour block at the end of each day when authors are at their posters, nothing else is scheduled, and there is beer. I wish other societies I belong to would do this at their meetings). But even with concurrent sessions I could, for example, keep up with the session on Theory vs. Empiricism while listening to bee or tree or bird talks in another room. And if somebody tweets about a great climate change talk while I’m sitting in an ant talk somewhere else, I can at least flag the presenter and remind myself to check out their work another time.

I practice communicating science. Let’s be realistic — if we write our science so that only other scientists read it, what’s the point of doing it in the first place? We, as researchers, have a responsibility to communicate what we do, and what it means, to a broader audience. And social media is one of the best mechanisms for doing that. Some people I know are great at this. Some are not great. But we can all use the practice. Doing it in 140-character bursts is challenging, but not as hard as writing a manuscript.

We can promote each other. Our community is big, but not that big. There are some great people doing really great work, at all levels of The System, both inside and outside academia. Some of the best talks and posters I saw at the meeting were by grad students and post-docs, at early stages in their careers. They’re not “big names” (yet), but they’re asking great questions, doing great research, and presenting it with consummate enthusiasm and clarity. Other people deserve to know who they are (think of it as the non-Hollywood equivalent of “10 rising actors to watch”, but in a realm that actually means something).

We can extend the discussions. Talks are short, and question periods are even shorter. But there’s no need to for the discussion to end there. I saw some great examples of discussions about research or approaches or methods that went beyond the end of the talk, and beyond the people who were in the room.

We can check in on other events. For entomologists, this was the Summer of Meetings. There were major gatherings for specialists on many orders around the globe. Unfortunately for me as a fly person, the ESA meeting overlapped exactly with the International Congress of Dipterology in Germany. I chose ESA for a variety of reasons, but found it remarkably easy to keep up with what was going on at the fly meeting via  frequent tweets from some excellent and connected colleagues. As an added bonus, the time shift between California and Germany meant I could get my fly feed in the late evening and early morning when the rush of ESA was less intense.

The Cons:

. . .

 

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Remembrance of things past: footprints in a log

I spent last week at the annual Ecological Society of America conference in Sacramento, California. It’s a huge gathering of ecologists, and it’s amazingly diverse. Ecology is as big as the planet, and the range of presentations and conversations at the meeting are as big as ecology. I like going. It gets me excited about science, it challenges me and pushes me to understand research that’s unfamiliar to me, and it gives me the chance to interact with other people who work on very different organisms and research questions. But it’s a lot of time to spend inside, especially in the summer, so I always try to take a day or two at the end of the conference each year and go someplace quiet and wild. This year I drove east from Sacramento, out of the Central Valley and up through the hills, watching the landscape change, until I was up in the conifer trees and granite rock on the crest of the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass. I parked the car and went for a walk. I saw lots of great things up there, from tiny plants growing in crevices, to craggy mountains I’ve hiked on past trips through the area.

I also saw this lying by the trail:

Ecological footprints: beetle galleries in a conifer log (photo T.A. Wheeler)

Ecological footprints: beetle galleries in a conifer log (photo T.A. Wheeler)

And that’s what this post is about.

The squiggles on this log were made by beetle larvae, eating their way through the outer layers of the wood, hidden under the bark, while this tree was still standing, or just after it fell. That’s the easy story, but it only tells part of what went on here, only a small fraction, really. These squiggles are footprints of a huge set of interactions.

The adult female beetles that laid their eggs here probably didn’t choose this tree randomly. Plants get stressed by a huge variety of factors: changes in water or temperature; a hard winter or summer; diseases or pests; pollution; damage from fires or storms; or just old age. And the plants put out chemical signals of  stress that many insects are adapted to detect. These beetles came here because they picked up that signal on the breeze.

There’s a huge variety of beetles that live in trees. Some of them eat wood; some eat the inner layers of bark, others excavate  galleries under the bark to rear fungi that the female brought in with her and left behind along with her eggs. The tree becomes a habitat for growing a fungal garden. Other fungi, drifting on the wind, will colonize the tree too, finding a way through the protective bark in the holes made by the beetles. Bacteria show up as well, and add to the community living in the beetle galleries.

The beetles themselves give off chemical signals that other organisms pick up. Parasitoid insects use a range of cues and clues to locate host insects inside the tree and lay eggs in, on or near the hosts, turning the beetle larva into a food source for their offspring. Predatory insects colonize the galleries and hunt down the beetles, while fungus feeding insects or bacterial grazers move in and feed on the fungi and microbes. Some insects specialize in feeding on frass — the nutrient-rich droppings and debris created by the wood-feeding beetles moving through their galleries. Bigger players move in as well – woodpeckers and other birds pick insects from the bark and wood, and small mammals dig into fallen logs. It’s a diverse little food web there under the bark, and many of the players will, in their own way, contribute to breaking down the bark, and the underlying wood, recycling the tree and speeding up its decay.

You might look at this log and see only beetle galleries. And if that’s your main research focus then that would be a perfectly reasonable perspective. Somebody else might look at the log and see the fungi, or the woodpeckers, or the parasitoids, or the little frass-eating flies, or the cycling of nutrients that goes on in and under the decaying wood. Or, you could step back and see the big picture, the whole complicated, messy food web.

Ecology, and our ecology conferences, are kind of like that. We’re interested in different questions, and we like different organisms. Some of us do most of our research in the field, some of us do our work at the lab bench, and some of us at the computer. We wear different clothes to work, and we use different tools. But, in a sense, we’re all looking at the same log.

 

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Me and my shadow: on Impostor Syndrome

Reader Advisory: The following post contains material suggesting that a white, male, middle-aged, tenured professor sometimes has doubts about his abilities. If such ideas mess with your worldview, perhaps you’d prefer to read about why taxonomy is sexy, or why natural history matters, or why Bohemian Rhapsody is kind of like data.

Let’s talk about Impostor Syndrome — that “what the hell am I doing and who the hell am I kidding?” feeling that can follow you around, poking you at the worst possible times, making you doubt Every Single Decision you have made throughout the duration of your young career. There’s been a growing recognition lately of how common this is in science people (although it’s by no means restricted to scientists!) A lot of the discussions have focused on grad students, especially female students. I’ve seen it my own students, and in other students I’ve known or talked with over the years. And I can only imagine how challenging it can be for female and other under-represented students, who have to fight so much harder for recognition and respect in the (still) male-dominated world of science.

I can relate to this, at least on some levels, because I deal with it myself. Impostor Syndrome is a little shadow that still follows me around.

When I was in primary school I was a good student. I was smart and curious and I liked learning. And I always did well (disclosure: it was a tiny rural school with three classrooms). But moving up through school is a bit like running fast. Little kids like to run, and fast little kids tend to win the races at school and family reunions and summer camp. But as the fast kids keep running, they come up against other fast kids, and by the time you get to varsity track meets and national championships and the Olympics, you realize that you may not always be the fastest kid any more. And finishing 7th out of 8 in the Olympic final in your event may make you feel like a failure, because it’s easy, in those moments, to forget that you’re in the freaking Olympics with only seven other people in the world! And the world of science is a lot like that.

My road’s been smooth so far (at least my academic road). I got scholarships. I got my PhD in 1991, I got a faculty gig in 1995 and tenure in 2001 at a great university. I get grants and I publish papers. Lots of my grad students have great jobs that they love. Students like my teaching. I won some awards. People on other continents know who I am and what I do. You’d think that all of that together would give me all I need to feel pretty awesome about my accomplishments.

Nope.

Impostor Syndrome still greets me in the lab some days, with a fresh cup of coffee and sinister giggle. Why? Because fieldwork doesn’t always work out. Because results don’t always make sense. Because manuscripts get rejected. Because I get dropped from a grant application cuz my H-index is small (srsly. that happened). Because somebody says the wrong thing at the wrong time about my work or my students’ work. Because scientists are only human.

I trained as a taxonomist. My grad and postdoc work was based on insect taxonomy using morphological traits. I was pretty comfortable with that. When I was hired at McGill, that’s what I came to do. But pretty soon I realized I should diversify. That was mostly driven by my students. Not everybody wants to do taxonomy. Some of them liked working with insects but they wanted to do faunal inventories, or address ecological questions. And I thought there was a niche for ecologists who also do taxonomy. So I had to start learning some ecology. And some more stats. And a bunch of new literature. On top of all that, 21st Century taxonomy uses more characters than just morphology, so I’ve had to learn about molecular methods and the pros and cons of DNA barcoding, and the analyses that go along with those methods. If not for my own work, at least to keep up with my students. Sometimes I feel like I’m back at the MSc/PhD level trying to digest a bunch of new papers and questions and methods. And although that’s great for making me question my abilities, it also gives me the chance to remind myself that my Impostor Syndrome is an indication that I’m still pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

So how do I deal with it? I wish I had an easy answer. But I don’t. What works for me might not work for others. Hell, sometimes it doesn’t even work for me. But here it is.

Some ways of dealing with it definitely don’t work. The “have you tried not having Impostor Syndrome?” approach is about as effective as asking someone with mental health problems if they’ve tried not being depressed.

It’s hard to ignore the negative feelings sometimes, but a concerted effort to focus on one or two things that I’m pretty proud of can help, at least in the short term: looking over a paper or a presentation that I’m pleased with; talking with one of my students who’s doing great work and feeling excited about their progress; reminding myself about good things that have happened to me over the course of my career; talking to somebody who thinks I rock. Sometimes these things don’t help much, but sometimes a little is enough.

Sometimes the workload gets overwhelming. And that contributes to stress. And that contributes to the sense that I’ll just end up doing crappy work anyway. Hello, Impostor Syndrome! I find it’s worse when I’m doing something out on the edge of my comfort zone — community ecology, phylogeography — when I get away from the work and methods that I’ve been doing and using the longest. I’m having a challenging time lately, for example, because I’m trying to work on some manuscripts that have analyses that are new to me. But what if they’re all wrong? What happens when the reviewers shred them? Silly mind games. At worst, I’ll shelve these papers for a while. I know they have to get done sometime, but maybe when I’m feeling better about things. Maybe next week. Maybe the week after. In the meantime, there is always a big backlog of work to be done that’s right in my comfort zone — sorting samples, identifying flies, describing new species. So I’ll take a break and do that for a while. It’s displacement, I guess, but at least it’s productive displacement. And it reminds me that I’m pretty good at that part of my career.

The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. I can’t stress that enough. As we go farther in The System, the air gets rarefied. Everybody who got this far got here because they are good. Really good. But yes, a lot of us brought our little shadow of doubt along for the ride. A lot of us wonder how we’ve gotten away with it for so long. But for all its faults, The System is generally pretty good at recognizing good people. If we’ve made it this far, it’s because we deserve to be here. Sure, sometimes we venture into areas that aren’t a good fit for us. A little alarm goes off. That’s maybe just a signal that, for the moment, we’re a better fit in other parts of The System, doing the stuff we already know that we’re good at (but see stuff up above about pushing comfort zones!)

And I am sure I am NOT the only mid-career professor or research scientist or director or teacher or writer who feels this way. Far from it.

And with that, it’s time to get back to work. On this new stuff. That I’m new at.

I just wish I knew what the hell I was doing . . .

Epilogue: I started writing this post almost a year ago, but I kept not finishing it. One reason was that I wasn’t sure it was a good decision to come out with this. Gotta maintain that veneer of sciencey superiority after all! The second reason was that I wasn’t convinced many people would care about this post (Entitled Prof Whines!) I’ve never been big on the “personal gut-spilling” approach. In the end, I decided those weren’t very good reasons and the potential benefits to joining this conversation outweighed the costs. Thanks to Sally Le Page for giving me the nudge to write this up. Check out her take on Impostor Syndrome here.

 

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The flavours of loss: a tale of a moth

Loss comes in many forms. Sometimes loss is a sharp, sudden thing; sometimes it’s a slow, fading twilight, creeping in so slowly you don’t even notice when it gets there. This is a story about both those kinds of loss. It’s also a story about the naturalist son of an eccentric Englishman, about a Montreal businessman, about a mysterious little moth, and a homestead on the Canadian prairies that tied them all together.

History

Percy Criddle left England and came out to Canada in 1882 to start a new life. He settled on a piece of land west of Winnipeg, Manitoba with his wife Alice and children, and his mistress, Elise Vane, and her children (it’s complicated). They built a log house at first (replaced by a much bigger frame house several years later), barns, a tennis court, a golf course — all the things any farm needs. And he started raising a family that would help shape Canadian natural history in the 20th Century. The place they set up farming was called Aweme. It’s still called Aweme, even though there was never really anything else there except the Criddle-Vane homestead. It’s also one of the most famous insect collecting localities in Canada. Specimens from “Aweme” have found their way into the world’s great insect collections.

Norman Criddle (photo: R.D. Bird)

Norman Criddle (photo: R.D. Bird)

Norman Criddle was a boy when they came to Canada and he grew up on the homestead and spent his life outdoors. He was a naturalist in the old and honourable and generalist sense of the word. He wandered. He watched things. He wrote field notes. He sketched and painted. And he asked questions and collected data and studied the life around the homestead. By the time he was in his early 20s he was already a well-known naturalist, with connections and correspondents all over North America. The province of Manitoba hired him as an entomologist in 1912 and a couple of years later the family built him a lab on the farm so he could better do his research and host visiting entomologists.

In the summer of 1908, when he was still an amateur, Criddle collected three specimens of a moth that he couldn’t identify. The label says “Aweme” but in those days Criddle put “Aweme” on all the labels of specimens that he collected within several miles of the farm. So his specimens could have come from the pastures around the house, from little streams in the forests nearby, or from the big open sand dunes over at Spruce Woods, where glacial Lake Agassiz had left its footprint after all its water had drained away several thousand years before.

Henry Lyman (Lyman Museum Archives)

Henry Lyman (Lyman Museum Archives)

Criddle sent the moths to some collaborators and one of the specimens found its way to Henry Lyman, of Montreal. Lyman was also an amateur, but in very different circumstances than Criddle. Lyman’s family owned a very successful pharmaceutical business and that gave him the money and time to pursue his real passion — butterflies and moths. His collection was an impressive one, he was very well-known and active in the North American entomological community, and he had published many papers over the course of his long career as an amateur entomologist. He was a recognized expert on the noctuid moths, so he was the logical person to look at Criddle’s strange little moths.

The moths from Aweme caused Lyman some confusion at first, but he soon decided it was a new species, so he published a description of it in 1908 and called it Gortyna aweme. It’s now called Papaipema aweme, the Aweme Borer. The holotype specimen (that’s the single specimen, the “real entity” to which a species’ name is permanently attached) is deposited in the Lyman Entomological Museum here at McGill University. It’s in a small tray, in a tight wooden drawer, in a closed metal cabinet, just over my left shoulder here in my lab.

The original: Holotype of the Aweme Borer

The original: Holotype of the Aweme Borer

Rarity

Norman Criddle collected three specimens of the Aweme Borer that summer of 1908. He never collected another. Between 1913 and 1936 three more specimens were collected, all around the Great Lakes: one near Grand Bend, Ontario on the shores of Lake Huron; one at Rochester, New York, south of Lake Ontario; and one on a boat near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. And then nobody collected another until 2005, when John Morton, a lepidopterist who lives on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and has been collecting there for decades, collected a specimen on his own property. I can only imagine how he felt when he realized what he had.

Seven specimens. That’s all we have of the Aweme Borer.

It was listed as an Endangered Species by the Government of Canada in 2006.

Loss

Henry Lyman died in 1914. He and his wife were on their way to England for their honeymoon. As their ship, The Empress of Ireland, was steaming out the St. Lawrence River, it collided with the Storstad, a Norwegian coal ship, in the dark and fog. More than 1000 people drowned when the Empress sank, including the Lymans.

Norman Criddle died in Manitoba in 1933. He was buried in the little family cemetery at the farm in Aweme. His gravestone reads “Norman Criddle – Naturalist – 1875–1933″. Whenever I go to Aweme I stop by the cemetery to visit. It’s a quiet little shady place, nestled under trees.

I’ve also visited the big farm house many times on past trips to Aweme. We’d go through the empty door frames and wander through the empty rooms with the peeling wallpaper. I’d regale my students with stories of how important this place to Canadian entomology. They’d very kindly try not to look bored. In recent years, with its historical importance recognized, the Criddle-Vane house got a new lease on life as renovation work started, evicting the barn swallows and pigeons and fixing the place up.

A few weeks ago, somebody, probably a bored and ignorant group of kids from the area, burned the house to the ground. It’s gone now. All that history reduced to rubble in one night. Because people can be incredibly stupid.

But what about the moth? Norman and Henry’s dull little moth may have outlived them all. The Aweme Borer might still be hanging on out there somewhere on the sandy glacial beaches in the middle of the continent. We don’t know. We don’t know how it lives or how it dies, where it lays its eggs, what the caterpillars eat.

We know that all seven adults were collected in August. And we know that they were mostly collected in places that are either sandy dune-like habitats, or open oak prairies. Until John Morton collected his specimen in 2005, nobody had seen an Aweme Borer for more than 70 years. And, as far as we know, nobody has seen one since.

The Aweme Borer is not an iconic endangered species, but maybe it should be, if for no other reason than that its eventual loss might look exactly the same as the loss of so many other species — not a sharp, sudden thing that everybody notices, but that slow, fading twilight . . .

 

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