Adventures in empathy: allergies, mental health, & hard days in academia

Last week, in the midst of my 50s, I discovered the delightful horror of allergies. When I got the sore throat, I assumed it was a cold. And then my eyes caught fire. And then I got all the other symptoms from those antihistamine commercials. I did not like it. I searched the pharmacy, through unfocused, weepy eyes, to find where they keep the allergy drugs. I found a brand name that I recognized. I took the pills. They did not work as miraculously as they did on TV. But I have much work to do so I struggled on as best I could. And it was tough.

A few of my students have dealt with seasonal allergies over the years. I could see that some days were really hard for them, and some days we accepted that not much was going to get done. It’s especially tough on field work, but that’s one of the reasons we always schedule free days in the field. People are going to have days when work just can’t be the top priority. It’s the nature of being both a scientist and a human. But now I finally, really, get it. And I have a much greater appreciation for the students who have tried to tough it out through the bad days.

Given how many different people, with different lives and different challenges, interact on our pathways through academia, it’s no surprise at all that empathy for the challenges that our students and colleagues face is sometimes easy, and sometimes it’s harder. I can put Allergy Days into the serious empathy pile now.

I’ve also known several students over the years who have had to deal with mental illness. It’s been a sobering realization for our community just how common mental illness is, for for people all through the academic hierarchy, in the increasingly stress-filled and high-speed world of academia. It’s a hugely important issue, and we need to acknowledge that, and talk about it, more than we do.

In the early years, I had a hard time understanding what some of the students were going through. I could listen if they wanted to talk, or try to recognize when they were having bad days, and try to help find ways to help get through the tough parts, but it was hard sometimes because I didn’t really have a frame of reference to relate to their illness. So I didn’t always appreciate how hard it was for them. I still feel bad sometimes about not doing better as a supervisor or mentor or advisor with some of them.

A few years ago I started getting a better sense of what some of those students were going through, as mental health problems started to have an impact on my own work, and the rest of my life. For me, a combination of an increasing inability to focus on necessary tasks, even simple ones, and crushing anxiety when those unfinished tasks piled up on me, made some days really tough. Sometimes paralyzingly tough. And the more responsibilities I took on, or were offloaded onto me, the tougher things became. That’s when I understood, really, really well, how hard it had been for some of the students, and it also made it easier to relate to the students who were dealing with different kinds of mental health issues. In losing some control in my own career, I finally understood how to relate to students and colleagues who were dealing with similar problems in theirs. It was an eye-opener.

Like this year’s new allergies, I didn’t ask for that shot of empathy that made it easier to appreciate the importance of paying attention to, and taking care of, your mental health. But it’s made it a lot easier to understand why, sometimes, that thesis or manuscript or data analysis needs to be put on hold for a few weeks, or why somebody just does not need to be in the lab for a few days, or why some days are good for meetings and some are not. It’s made it a lot easier to understand why our lab policy to schedule days off during fieldwork is a good one. It’s made it a lot easier to understand why talking about the challenges we’re dealing with, when people choose to talk about them, can be a really good thing. During my bad stretches, people who know what’s been going on with me have been understanding and supportive, and that makes a huge difference. Some of my students and co-authors were amazingly patient with me (even though they had no choice) as it took me far too long to get things back to them. A few people were patient until I inconvenienced them, and then they stopped being patient. It’s understandable I guess. We’re all only human, and I think they didn’t know what was going on with me, or didn’t get it, just like I didn’t always get it in the past when dealing with other people.

But all of this reminds me that one of the most important things I can give my own students is patience. Because sometimes we all need everybody else to cut us some slack.

Not every day in this game is going to be a good day. And just because somebody isn’t doing well or producing, it doesn’t mean they’re slacking off on purpose. The good thing is that universities are starting to take student and staff mental health more seriously, and there are often good resources available. If you’re a student, take the time to find them, in case you feel like they might help. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, no matter how insignificant or fleeting you think your problems may be. And if you’re somebody who teaches or supervises students, you should find out about those resources too. Not everybody wants to talk about their health issues, but if they do, it’s good to know there’s somebody there to listen, and what the options are.

As for my own health, learning how to deal with any new challenge takes time. And there is a huge range of ways in which we deal with it, depending on the person and the nature of the illness. What works for one person won’t work for another. Because we’re all different. Although I have good days and bad days,  this year is starting out better than last year and the year before. I’m optimistic that the next year will be even better. Part of it has been learning what I can and can’t manage, and convincing myself to let go of the things that have the potential to cause the biggest problems. Some research projects won’t get finished. Some administrative things I wanted to do won’t get done. None of those decisions will result in the collapse of civilization. My lab is smaller than my university would probably like it to be. But my students are all good scientists and good collaborators. We’ll do cool research. We’ll publish good papers. They’ll go on to careers that will hopefully make them happy. I’ll be on sabbatical for the next year and I’m looking forward to spending more time collaborating on that research with my students, finishing off some lingering projects of my own, and starting some exciting new things.

These allergies though. This just sucks.


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The last lecture: 6 things to keep for 5 years

I finished my final class for the year in Evolution & Phylogeny the other day. The students wrote their final exam yesterday. By today I figure some of the course content has already hit its half-life and it’s on its way to being overwritten by other things in their minds. I’m ok with that; I’m a realist. In that room of 104 faces, am I really so naïve/disconnected to think they’ll all become evolutionary biologists? (the answer is no, by the way). It’s a required first-year course for our Environmental Biology and Life Science majors, and the students are headed off in many directions. Some who have sat through that course are professional evolutionary biologists or taxonomists today. Most are doing other things and my great hope is that those  things make them happy.

Several years ago I thought about all this, and started making a list of the things I hoped the students would take away from the course and retain after their undergrad degrees were over. And every year since then, I’ve wrapped up the last session of Evolution class with a list of six things I’d like them to remember five years later if we run into each other somewhere out in the world. Here’s the list of Five-Year Memory:

The Wisdom of Theodosius Dobzhansky

in 1973, Dobzhansky published an essay in American Biology Teacher called “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I use that quote to start the first class in the course, and it runs as a theme through the term. Because life on earth is all interconnected through time, and because most things about organisms — their genetics, morphology, physiology, behavior, distribution, ecology — evolve, an understanding of evolution becomes a powerful context for understanding similarities and differences across the living world, regardless of your interest in biology.

The Power of a Tree

A phylogenetic tree is a picture of history. If our hypothesis of the relationships of a group of species is a good one, we’ve got a framework for understanding known things about species, and making reasoned predictions about the things we don’t know. I don’t expect all the students to remember how we went from characters to matrix to trees in the lab, or the speciation processes that grew those trees in the first place. But I’d like it if, when they see phylogenetic trees in papers or the media, it triggers something about the vast and varied amount of information contained in those twigs and branches.

Change is Constant

The evolutionary processes we talked about in the course grew out of the interplay between mutations and selection and organisms and environment. And those things are almost always happening. The world in which organisms live is always changing, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, and those organisms are changed along with it. Life evolves; the way we do science evolves; the way we communicate and share science evolves. Prepare to adapt. Prepare for change. It’ll be along shortly.

Question Authority

After hundreds of years of accepting “conventional wisdom” in the form of ancient writings, western Europe woke up in the Renaissance because a bunch of people started asking “Why?” And those people became the philosophers and astronomers and anatomists and physiologists and chemists and artists who changed the way we do science and understand the world. The first step in finding an answer is to ask “why?”

Some of the best ideas and innovations in science today come from students and postdocs who don’t simply accept what’s written in the papers or pronounced by professors. They play around with “conventional wisdom” to see if it holds up. That’s how science keeps moving forward. Always ask “why?”

Poke Nature

It’s a weird paradox that a lot of biology  is taught inside rooms without windows. We wander off on tangents all through the term about how amazing and varied the living world is, and how the things growing and living and dying out there are the product of all these processes we talk about in the course. But take the opportunity to go outside into the world and experience all those things for yourself. You don’t have to go far! Life is going on all around, in cities, in back yards. Go have a look. Explore it. Poke nature.

Embrace Magic

Depending on the combination of courses they take in their undergrad program, the students in that class will, by the end of their degree, be able to go outside, look up at a bird flying by, and deconstruct it into a branch on a phylogenetic tree, a legacy of the dinosaurs, a set of categories in a classification, a suite of behaviors, a node in a food web, a series of biochemical pathways, a biomechanical marvel of engineering, and an aerodynamic equation that explains how those wings keep it airborne. That’s all great, and that’s all science, and that’s all valuable. But what’s equally valuable is the ability to go outside, temporarily forget all of that information, look up at the bird and think “That. Thing. Can. FLY”. Because we all need some magic.


I was at a conference a couple of years ago and ran into a student who’d taken my course a few years earlier. He was doing a PhD in ecology in the US by then. We said hi. Good to see you. The usual. Then, out of the blue, he said “Hey! I remember the five-year list!”

In a career in science, dotted with the odd award here and there, conversations like that one are the prizes I can retire on.

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New flies in new places

When taxonomy makes the news, it’s usually because somebody’s just described a new species. But there’s more to taxonomic research than just discovering and describing new species. A new paper from our lab that’s been published on-line in early view is a nice example of some of the other aspects of taxonomy. In this paper, former Lyman student Christine Barrie and I revised the North American species of the genus Dicraeus, in the fly family Chloropidae. The last taxonomist to work on this genus in North America was chloropid fly expert Curt Sabrosky who published a paper on the North American Dicraeus in 1950. Now, while some people may think “1950? That’s ages ago! That’s before we had DNA figured out!”, it’s actually not THAT long ago for a taxonomic revision. Because there are so many more insects than there are insect taxonomists, we’re still trying to get by with identification keys written long before 1950 in many groups. But, even so, there have been enough changes in what we know about North American Dicraeus flies that it seemed like a good time for an update.

Dicraeus is a fairly distinctive genus of chloropid flies. Acalyptrate flies, the bigger group of  families that includes Chloropidae, has a well-deserved reputation of being a huge pile of species that are cryptic and hard to identify, so “distinctive” in this group usually mean “slightly more easily recognizable than usual, based on looking at a couple of obvious  characters that you may not actually need a key for once you get to know them”. There are Dicraeus species on most major continents and the larvae are herbivores, feeding on seeds of grasses. Because some of the grasses they like to eat are also cereal crops that humans like to eat, this makes Dicraeus an occasional pest. Don’t hold it against them; they were eating those grass seeds long before we were. Dicraeus is widespread in North America, especially in grassy prairies and meadows.

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Dicraeus fennicus, a European species now found in North America (photo: T. Wheeler)

New species from North America

We described a new species from the western United States (Oregon, Idaho and Nevada). We named it Dicraeus curtisi, in honour of Curt Sabrosky. But that was only one of the taxonomic contributions in the paper. So in this post, I won’t describe the exciting expedition that led to the capture and discovery of this new species (because, well, all the specimens of the new species had been sitting in the insect collection at the Smithsonian Institution since the 1950s–1970s). Instead, I want to talk about some of the other contributions taxonomic papers make to documenting and organizing the diversity of life on earth, beyond the headline-friendly new species.

Old species in new places

We had a species from California, and a few sites in the Appalachian mountains, that we originally thought might be a second new species, but it was also very similar to a known European species. In the end, and after one of the reviewers of the manuscript commented on the similarity to the European species, we went back to our specimens, and to some more European specimens in museums, and decided the differences we’d seen weren’t big enough to justify a new species. Instead, we concluded this was the first North American record of a European species called Dicraeus vagans. So, not something new, but something old in a new and distant place.

Updating classifications

In 1950, Sabrosky described an unusual species of Dicraeus from New Mexico that he called Dicraeus aberrans. It had a few obvious characters that clearly set it apart from other species in the genus (hence the species name). Christine thought it probably belonged somewhere else and, having worked on Central American chloropid flies for the past few years, I had an idea where it did belong. The traits that make aberrans aberrant for Dicraeus, are, as it turns out, the defining characters for the genus Notaulacella, which was previously known only from Central and South America. Transferring the species from Dicraeus to Notaulacella updates the classification, puts aberrans in the same group as its likely close relatives, and now means that Notaulacella occurs in North America as well as Central and South America. (I suspect Sabrosky would have reached this same conclusion eventually if he’d gone back to look at “Dicraeus aberrans” in later years, because one of the last papers he published included the description of several new species of Notaulacella from Panama)

New identification tools

The taxonomic changes I’ve outlined above mean that the last identification key to Dicraeus species is out of date. Sabrosky’s key didn’t include Dicraeus curtisi or Dicraeus vagans. It also didn’t include Dicraeus fennicus, another European species that we first recorded in North America a few years ago. On the other hand, his key did include Dicraeus aberrans in this genus. That means that anybody using the 1950 key to put a name on North American Dicraeus specimens might well get it wrong. So Christine spent time with all the North American species of Dicraeus on our updated list and produced a new and accurate key to the species.

Taxonomy under the radar

We rarely see headlines like “Scientists move species from one genus to another!” or “This simple key will change the way you identify flies!” But the reality is that it’s as much a part of the day-to-day work of taxonomy as the new species with the memorable names that grab media attention.


Barrie, C.L. & T.A. Wheeler. 2016. Revision of the Nearctic species of Dicraeus Loew (Diptera: Chloropidae). Canadian Entomologist doi: 10.4039/tce.2015.74

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Open spaces: A new species of fly from the Yukon

There’s a little genus of small, rare flies that live in bird nests. They’re called Neossos, and a few years ago one of my former undergraduate students, Gregor Gilbert, pulled together what was known about the taxonomy and ecology of Neossos in North America and published a nice paper on the group. The three described North American species of Neossos are known from a few locations in northeastern USA and Quebec, and scattered records from British Columbia south to California. Because Neossos specimens are almost entirely restricted to bird nests (at least, it looks that way), they are rare in museum collections. In total, we managed to find a little more than 100 specimens of Neossos in museums in the course of that project, mostly from previous student projects on bird nest arthropods here in the lab.

Given all the above, it was a surprise when we were sorting through flies we collected in 2011 on wet subarctic tundra along the Dempster Highway up above treeline in the Yukon and found something that looked a lot like Neossos. Anna Solecki, a M.Sc. student in the lab and a specialist on arctic flies, decided to take a closer look and started comparing material of the other described species of North American Neossos in the museum collection here (This is one of many advantages of having accessible natural history collections). After a lot of microscope work we confirmed that our Yukon specimen was a new species, distinct from the three other North American Neossos.


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Neossos tombstonensis. The tundra specimen. (photo by T. Wheeler)

We only collected one specimen that first year. It was a male, which in flies tend to have more definite species-level traits (female flies are often harder to identify to species). So, when we planned a return trip to the Yukon we were hoping to collect more specimens up on the tundra. In the meantime, we put the single fly away to see if we could add more data to the taxonomic description with additional specimens.

wet rep 3 dempster

“Wet Replicate 3”, Tombstone Mountains, Yukon. Collecting site of specimen 1. (photo by T. Wheeler)

We didn’t find any more specimens of the new species of Neossos in similar wet tundra habitats, but we did collect a second specimen in a very different habitat a few hundred kilometers south: a dry meadow south of Whitehorse.

Robinson roadhouse.jpg

Robinson Roadhouse, Yukon. Our new species of Neossos was collected near here. (photo by T. Wheeler)

It’s nice to have lots of specimens when we describe new species. It gives us a better sense of things like variation in traits, geographic distribution, ecology, etc. But taxonomy doesn’t always work that way and many new species are known from only one or a few specimens. It’s a start, and it lets us put a name on a new species, so future researchers have a reference point for identifying new material. Based on our two specimens, we wrote a description of the new species, which we named Neossos tombstonensis, after the Tombstone Mountains and Tombstone Territorial Park, where the first specimen was collected, and we published the paper in the recently launched Biodiversity Data Journal (which I highly recommend for taxonomic and other biodiversity data!)

Even with the taxonomy sorted out, there are still some lingering mysteries about Neossos tombstonensis. The other species of Neossos have been collected almost exclusively from bird nests, and each species seems to specialize in a different type of nest and host: Neossos marylandicus lives with cavity-nesting passerine birds; Neossos californicus in the nests of raptors; and Neossos atlanticus (a new species we described in 2007) is known only from the simple nests of cliff-dwelling seabirds. So, based on the known ecology of the other species, we can predict that Neossos tombstonensis lives in bird nests too. But we have no idea what kind of birds or nests. The wide distribution of Neossos tombstonensis (wet tundra at subarctic treeline and dry meadows in boreal forest clearings) doesn’t help narrow down the search. There are several species of flies that live in bird nests, and play a wide range of ecological roles there. Neossos is almost certainly a scavenger in the nest material. Clearly, we still have a lot of unanswered questions about these little flies. Somewhere, where the worlds of entomology and ornithology intersect, there are some more answers. But that’s a future paper.


Solecki, A.M. & T.A. Wheeler. 2015. A new species of Neossos Malloch (Diptera: Heleomyzidae) from the Yukon Territory, Canada, and a revised key to the Nearctic species. Biodiversity Data Journal 3: e6351. doi: 10.3897/BDJ.3.e6351

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Suburban biodiversity: surprising flies in the neighborhood

Christine Barrie, a grad student in the lab, found a fly she couldn’t put a name on. Other students in the lab had trouble too. So did I. It looked familiar, but it didn’t key out in the standard North American keys.

I eventually realized I’d seen it before, but not around here. It looked a lot like a European species we have in the museum collection. And that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Armed with that possibility, Christine pulled out those European specimens, and some European species keys, and she put a name on the fly. The name was Cryptonevra diadema, in the family Chloropidae. And then we wrote a paper, which was published recently in the journal Zootaxa.

The paper is the first report of the chloropid fly genus Cryptonevra in North America. It’s not terribly surprising to find a species or even genus of insects in North America for the first time. Humans move things around and species are introduced pretty regularly. We also have a surprisingly incomplete knowledge of the arthropod diversity of Canada. Tens of thousands of species of insects live here, and there are only so many taxonomic specialists who have the training and experience to identify many of them. But there are a couple of things about this discovery that make it a little bit more interesting.

Commuter biodiversity

Here’s where Christine collected the first documented North American specimens of Cryptonevra diadema. A place called Terra Cotta Park. Looks nicely wild, doesn’t it?

Terra Cotta

Let’s zoom out a little bit.  So you can see the houses. And the sports fields. And the roads.

Pointe Claire

Let’s zoom out a little more. The little green square by the yellow arrow is Terra Cotta Park. The big gray mass is Montreal. It’s a really big city.

montreal view

The lesson here is that you don’t have to travel by plane/boat/helicopter/elephant to discover new things in unexpected places. You can take the bus. Or ride your bike. You can be a naturalist, a taxonomist, an explorer, right in the city. New things are waiting to be found everywhere.

The things that feed on reed

So what does Cryptonevra diadema do in Terra Cotta Park, on the fringes of Montreal? One of the great things abut having a name for this fly is that we can look up other published references to the species. Its habits are better known in Europe, where we know it feeds in the stems of Common Reed (Phragmites australis), because many other entomologists have spent time out in the field watching it, collecting it, rearing it, and documenting its natural history. In fact, it feeds inside galls on Phragmites made by other chloropid flies in the genus Lipara (which, incidentally, Christine also collected for the first time in Canada. At Terra Cotta Park). And after Christine identified the first single specimen of Cryptonevra (collected in 2011) she went back to the park, to a big patch of Phragmites, and collected several more specimens.

There’s a large assemblage of flies, many of which are in the family Chloropidae, associated with Phragmites in Europe. But even though Phragmites is very abundant in eastern North America, most of its flies haven’t made the trip from Europe. In recent years we’ve discovered a few of them gaining a foothold (tarsus-hold?) in eastern North America, and Cryptonevra seems to be the latest arrival. We’re less certain about whether it’s a recent introduction, or whether it’s been here for much longer and we just discovered it. Why?

Because we don’t always pay enough attention to the scientific value of going to the park and looking around.


Barrie, C.L. & Wheeler, T.A. 2015. Assembly of a Phragmites-associated Chloropidae (Diptera) fauna in North America: the Palearctic genus Cryptonevra Lioy in the Nearctic, and the genus Lipara Meigen in Canada. Zootaxa 4012: 198–200.

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Fading walls: Communication, conferences, and sharing science

The front walls of the convention center are mostly glass, but you’ll need your name badge to get beyond the lobby.

I was at the 100th annual conference of the Ecological Society of America in Baltimore last week. I saw some great science, I reconnected with some friends, and I spent some time thinking about communication in science. This post is about that last part.

Much has changed in the 30 years since I went to my first science conference. Although there’s still a big component of “scientists in dimly-lit rooms talking at other scientists” at many traditional scientific conferences, the walls are coming down (or at least getting transparent) in some ways, and that’s a really good thing. As I spend more time engaging with other scientists and non-scientists through various and assorted forms of social media, I can’t help noticing changes in the way we communicate science and share science. And conferences are a really interesting place to see those changes happening, especially within the scientific community.

I think there’s more value placed on story than there used to be. Great presenters don’t just dispense the data and results and implications of their research; they invite the audience into the research, weaving a story of why they asked that question, and what it all means. The best science ventures into art and literature and more, and comes out stronger. And that’s a great thing. Just because your DNA lab has to be sterile, that doesn’t mean your talk has to be. The talks and posters I remember most are usually those done by a student or post-doc who instantly helps me feel a connection to a study system or question or place I know nothing about. That’s scientific communication!

My own interests are strongly rooted in natural history, so I’ve been really delighted to see the prominence of natural history at ESA in recent years. One of the benefits of that for communication is that natural history presents such a strong opportunity to connect institutional research with public interest in nature; to connect professionals with amateurs; and to connect science with art. Strengthening these connections across traditionally separate domains is a great way to increase the understanding and appreciation of science outside the walls of ScienceWorld. It was fantastic to see people stopping by booths in the big exhibit hall to sketch specimens at the Natural History Section booth, or sketch their research at the Science Communications Section booth.

Another change that’s increasingly obvious wandering through the exhibit hall is the way we publish and share science. A mainstay of conference exhibit halls are the displays from publishers, both the big publishing houses and university presses. As a book junkie, I love it. But in among the usual Wiley and Springer and Cornell University Press booths, other pathways to publishing and sharing science are gaining ground too. Big data repositories make data shareable, verifiable and accessible; open access journals make the results of our science accessible to people; and changes in the way peer review works may just streamline one of the most annoying and capricious parts of the publishing process.

Although there were a few thousand ecologists at the conference, far more people interested in the field and the presentations weren’t. But that’s becoming less of a divide too. Speakers are increasingly posting their posters, slides, code, or data on figshare, github, or other websites. You no longer have to be IN the room to see them. The rise of Twitter has led a huge shift in the way science is shared beyond the meeting room too. The ESA meeting in 2014 was my first conference after joining Twitter and I posted some thoughts after that meeting about the positive side of Twitter at meetings. So I arrived at ESA 2015 ready to connect or reconnect with some Twitter people, and share my 140-character perspectives on the meeting (at least the parts I saw) with people beyond the room.

Then things got a bit peculiar.

ESA has a Code of Conduct for conferences. This is important and I wish every conference did this. The Code of Conduct, with some additional conference-specific pieces, was printed in the conference program. Two pieces were related, directly or indirectly, to live-tweeting presentations: don’t photograph slides or posters without author’s permission; and “we ask that attendees posting to social media avoid posting detailed information from presentations”. Both these seem reasonable, and are in line with last year’s policy. Most people would, I think, interpret that to mean: tweet about the speaker’s topic, general question, coolness of study, etc. but not actual data. And ask before you take pictures. And that’s what most conference live tweets do anyway.

But then on the eve of the meeting, when many people had already arrived in Baltimore, ESA reminded attendees, via Twitter, that any live-tweeting without the prior permission of the author was prohibited. That’s pretty different from the printed policy, and that caused a whole lot of confusion. Essentially, it put the onus on presenters (many of whom aren’t active on Twitter and thus would be unaware of this) to opt in to people in the audience live-tweeting their work, instead of the much more usual, and logical, opportunity for presenters to opt out of people live tweeting sensitive or eminently scoopable results (and that is a whole other discussion for other blogs and other posts). So, basically, by tweeting out (repeatedly) this new restriction on live-tweeting presentations early in the meeting, ESA was taking a step backward from their fairly open social media policy from previous years. Confusion ensued. Those of us used to live-tweeting talks were not sure what we should be doing (follow the printed program? do what we’ve always done? obey the new revised/restrictive tweet rules?). Ecologists who weren’t at the meeting were wondering why the usual stream of live tweets of presentations wasn’t coming as fast and furious as in past years; and there was little explanation or justification from ESA about why the opt-out policy had been replaced by an opt-in policy.

That’s a problem.

That’s a problem because the branch of science, and one of the biggest conferences in the field, that deals with some of the most pressing problems we face—climate change, conservation, urbanization, food security, sustainability, water quality, and more—should be making our research and its implications more accessible, not less accessible. The underlying principles of open science, and of good science communication are all about sharing. And as communities of scientists, we should be doing more, not less, to make sure the great science gets out. As double-edged a sword as social media can be, it’s one of the most powerful tools we, as scientists, have to explain to the big wide world what we do and why it matters.

I hope that, when we all turn up at ESA 2016 to share our excitement about what we’ve been doing for the past year, there’ll be a clear and open policy in place that recognizes the enormous overall benefit of open science, open communication, and the value of sharing.

Because sharing isn’t just nice; it’s absolutely critical.


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Learning to sharpen your scythe

My grandfather used a scythe to cut hay. Yes. A scythe: big blade, long curved handle, Grim Reaper scythe. I remember watching the mathematical, poetical way he’d arc the blade, pivoting from the waist, mowing down a strip, stepping forward on the backswing, mowing down another strip. He’d pick up the scythe stone every now and then and swish it along the blade to sharpen the edge. I watched him carefully. I knew these were critical skills I would need later in life. That, and things like milking a cow (by hand), throwing a cast net to catch capelin when they rolled in on the beach, cleaning a trout, and escaping from quicksand (OK, I got that last one from watching movies). Of course, my grandfather was no Luddite; he only used the scythe for small patches of cutting. When he had to cut one of the big hay fields, he’d harness up the mowing machine to the horse and clatter around the field that way, like any sane person would.

Well, as it turned out, I haven’t used most of those skills. I picked up other critical skills along the way, as I bounced through life. Some I’ve retained; others are long gone. As my job descriptions changed, the skills I needed had to change.

I was teaching a field course in the spring. One night I was sitting out at the campsite with a few of the students and the talk drifted into science as a career, as it sometimes does. One of them asked me what I thought what makes a good scientist.  I had to think about that a bit. I decided not to open with either “learn to use a scythe efficiently” or “learn to code”.

The problem with tool-based advice is that the tools change. The technology I used for almost every component of my M.Sc. thesis (1985–1987 A.D.) — from the computers, to the software, to the way we assembled plates of illustrations, to the publication process — now seems a bit laughable. It’s the stuff of “uphill both ways, in the snow, and we went home for lunch!” stories. Its been entertaining, enlightening, awe-inspiring, and sometimes a little bit career-altering to sit on the big beach of science and watch the waves come and go. We used to do computer things with command line instructions. And then we didn’t have to and we were happy. And now we code again and we are happy. Excel was amazing. And then it wasn’t. Windows was a game-changer. And then it wasn’t. And the same can be said for many of the other tools we use to build science.

So faced with that realization, I decided to fall back on the bigger picture in my conversation with the students. Not just the things that make doing science easier, or more efficient, or more powerful at a particular point in time. But the things that make science, well, good, at any time. I came up with some of these things on the spot, out there in the desert night; some came to me later, but I think they’re all part of a pretty useful package: Be kind, fair, and inclusive. Respect people, but don’t idolize people. Listen — stop talking and just listen. Collaborate at least as much as you compete. Never try to make yourself look good by making someone else look bad. Learn some things from fields outside your own; you’d be surprised how handy that can be. Be willing to admit that you don’t know, and then try to find out. Be willing to admit that you were wrong, and then fix it. Share what you know, not just with other scientists, but with non-scientists too. And don’t pass up the opportunity to learn new tools, new skills, new approaches as the game of science changes.

Because really, in the grand scheme of things, the tools and techniques of science don’t matter as much as building a community where good people come up with good ideas and good questions.

The important question isn’t “What kind of scythe are you using?”; the important question is “Who needs some hay?”

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What makes a good collecting trip good?

“Have a good trip! How’s the trip going? How was the trip?” These are things people say to me before, during, and after fieldwork trips. I go into the field to collect insects. I do this because that’s where a lot of my research data comes from. So, over the past couple of days, as I wind up my sixth summer of arctic fieldwork, I’ve been thinking that all my answers to all those questions are always “good” (or some superlative flavour of good, usually something along the lines of “great” or “11 out of 10” or “I’m not coming home”).

But yesterday as I was driving south from Dawson City bound for Whitehorse, I was thinking about what does make a good collecting trip good, and I realized that, for me at least, it’s the conjunction of many little pieces. So here, without further preamble or disclaimer, and in no particular order except for the first one, is my list of some of the things that make a good collecting trip good for me.

• We collect surprising insects in places I didn’t expect to find them (good collecting is, after all, the main purpose of doing this fieldwork in the first place!)

• Replicated samples are successfully gathered in numbers suitable for the appropriate analyses.

• None of the collecting nets or traps are destroyed by bears, muskox, dogs, ravens, rose bushes, falling trees, off-road vehicles, or other non-demonic intrusions (except where we have brought extras of the low-cost ones, thereby making me seem like a brilliant planner).

• Neither the first-aid kit nor the bear spray are used.

• On the Opening Grocery Expedition, we buy enough food, but not too much food. And everybody has a say in, and agrees on, what food we buy.

• The food is good and healthy and fresh and never so repetitive that rumours of mutiny are heard.

• The music we bring is good and varied and never so repetitive that rumours of mutiny are heard.

• Everybody works hard, but not so hard that we miss out on chances to explore natural history, cultural history and the sheer joy of being in a special place.

• All the field guides we bring are used, but we don’t regret not having any that we didn’t bring.

• I learn some new things about the natural history or cultural history of the place that I didn’t know before the trip.

• We meet interesting people along the road. All sorts of people. Some are curious about our work and want to know more.

• Nobody bickers with anybody else. But if we do, it is defused quickly, then we’re all OK again.

• Nobody is the Big Boss, and nobody is an underling. We’re a Team.

• There is ice cream.

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Lines on a map. Dots on a map.

I’m crossing some lines in the Yukon. I’m searching for dots.

Several lines drawn on maps define the Yukon for me. There’s a straight line across the bottom of the Territory that marks 60° north latitude. To many Canadians, “north” is what’s beyond that line. It’s a line mostly drawn by politicians and mapmakers, but it’s also a line that defines the way people view part of this giant country. In Canada, “North” is a thing.

Farther north, up at latitude 66°33’ there’s another straight line – the Arctic Circle. That one goes right around the planet. It’s a line drawn by astronomy. At that line, the sun doesn’t set on the longest day of the year, and it doesn’t rise on the shortest.

Between those two, there’s a squiggly, fuzzy line running more or less east and west. It’s the tree line. It’s a line drawn by biology and geology and climate. South of tree line there’s forest; north of tree line there’s tundra. But like most things biological, it’s not quite that simple. When you zoom in far beyond the level of that giant map of Canada on the wall, things get messy because tree line is spotty and broken and moving, depending on the interactions of living and non-living things. Patches of trees come and go up here. It’s like they didn’t even bother to look at the map at all.

Windy Pass, Yukon. Up on the edge of Beringia.

Windy Pass, Yukon. Up on the edge of Beringia (photo: T.A. Wheeler).

The fourth line, the one I’m tracing instead of crossing, is the Dempster Highway – a 732 kilometer, two-lane (more or less) ribbon of gravel running north (more or less) from near Dawson City, up through forests and tundra and then some more forest and then tundra, across the Arctic Circle, across northern rivers, to Inuvik, up on the huge Mackenzie Delta near the Arctic Ocean. It’s a line drawn by road-building crews and the native guides who showed them the best route. It follows old winding paths and carves new straight lines. In some of the straight stretches, the road is also an airstrip (don’t stop there). It winds along rivers, over low mountain passes, and rides on top of a thick bed of rock and gravel laid down over the permafrost. I drive up and down this road looking for dots to add to a map.

Dempster Highway, near North Fork Pass. The road to discovery (photo: T.A. Wheeler).

Dempster Highway, near North Fork Pass. The road to discovery (photo: T.A. Wheeler).

I’ve been collecting insects along the Dempster almost every year since 2011. Each year our research questions are a little different, our field crews are a little different, our focus is a little different. This year I’m mostly focused on collecting data for a long-standing project in taxonomy (where the root question is “what is this thing?”) and faunistics (where the root question is “what things are here?”). My main group of interest is the fly family Chloropidae. It’s a diverse and abundant group of little flies that live everywhere from tropical rainforest canopies to deserts to urban backyards to the high arctic tundra. And they play a huge range of ecological roles, from herbivores to scavengers to predators to parasites to pollinators. On my first visit to the southern Yukon in 1997 I started collecting chloropids and I soon noticed how many species there were, how widespread they were, and how many seemed to be undescribed species, or species unrecorded in North America.

That last part – unrecorded in North America – is especially relevant to research in the Yukon, because this part of the continent is a crossroads for species. Many widespread North American species range all the way up through Yukon and Alaska, but this place is also special because when most of Canada was covered with ice for much of the past two million years, a big chunk of Yukon and Alaska were ice-free, part of the great Beringian refugium. Beringia was a gateway for many species to walk or crawl or swim or be carried by wind or animals or water from eastern Russia into North America. And many of them stayed up here. So we know of several species that are widespread through Eurasia but only found in North America way up here in the northwest corner. Because of the glaciers. But, the species we know are only a small fraction of the species that are probably up here, especially in poorly studied groups like insects and other small invertebrates.

So I’ve been travelling the Yukon, stopping along the accessible routes to put out insect traps and sweep the vegetation for flies. And in most places I collect, there are chloropid flies. When I get back to the lab and prepare the specimens, I can identify the species, find out whether they are named or not, and I can put another little dot on a big map that says “this species lives here”. My dots come from my own collecting in the field, but also from samples collected by colleagues, and also from the rich holdings of older specimens housed in natural history museums. All the dots together give us a picture of the diversity of this one family of small flies up here, and when I’m done I’ll have produced a piece of work called The Chloropidae of The Yukon (or something like that; still a working title), that will help us understand a little piece of the biodiversity of this place a little better. And my dots can be combined with other dots of other groups drawn by other researchers, to help draw a very detailed pattern of dots.

So who cares? What’s the use of those dots? Well, those dots drawn by taxonomy and faunistic work are the basis for a whole suite of questions in ecology and biodiversity and conservation. With enough dots, we can define the structure of ecological communities, we can map them onto biotic and abiotic gradients, we can monitor the change in what, and where, those dots are over short time periods (as habitats change) or over long time periods (as the biota of the north has changed during and after ice ages).

And who doesn’t like connecting the dots?

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Why the Yukon? My love of northern entomology

I’m north of 60° again. Back in Whitehorse, Yukon for the fourth time in five years, and getting ready to head north. Beyond Dawson City, beyond the trees, up the Dempster Highway to the tundra. I’m going to collect insects. Again. Many of my entomological colleagues and friends head for the tropics when they want to collect insects, especially unknown new species. I can see the appeal — I’ve collected in Jamaica, in Costa Rica, in the Australian tropics. I’ve found wonderful new things in all those places. So why do I keep coming back to places with more mosquitoes than trees? to places with permanently frozen ground? to places where predictions of latitudinal species diversity gradients say “meh, why bother?”

You are here. And great things await around the bend (photo: T.A. Wheeler)

You are here. And great things await around the bend (photo: T.A. Wheeler)

Because this is a magical place to do entomology. There are tons of discoveries to be made here whether you’re a taxonomist (which I am), an ecologist (which I am), or if you have an interest in the long-term history of the continent (which I do).

A big chunk of the Yukon Territory was part of what’s now known as Beringia — a vast swath of northeastern Russia, Alaska, Yukon, and dry seabed connecting them — that was mostly ice-free when the rest of Canada was covered by Pleistocene glaciers through long spans of the past two million years. Beringia was named by Eric Hultén, a Swedish botanist who recognized the unique composition of the plants of the region. But there’s much more that’s unique about Beringia than just plants. This region supported enormous populations of giant ice age mammals: mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths and giant beavers, short-faced bears, scimitar cats, horses, camels, saiga antelopes, and more. The bones of these creatures wash out of riverbanks all through the region. And they help us reconstruct the history of this place. Other evidence from the past tells us that the first Americans walked into North America through Beringia, and there are signs of their hunting on the old bones, and their stories talk about the giant mammals of the past.

There were insects in Beringia, just as there are insects everywhere, but there has been surprisingly little research done on many groups of Beringian insects. But they’re just as much part of the story of this place as mammoths and sedges and shrubs. And unlike the Pleistocene megafauna, many of the Beringian insects are probably still alive. That means that the footprint of glaciation is still there in their genes, in the distribution of species in this part of the continent, and in the structure of their communities. There’s a rich source of taxonomic, ecological, and genetic questions up here.

Taxonomic questions: Some groups of Beringian insects have been well-documented. There’s been a long interest in fossil beetles here, for example. And some excellent work has been done on butterflies and moths over the years. The Biological Survey of Canada published “Insects of The Yukon” in 1997, with chapters covering many families of Yukon insects and arachnids. But that 1000-page book still only scratched the surface. In our ongoing research on Yukon flies since 1997 we’ve discovered many new species up here. People are often surprised at how few of Canada’s insects are known or named, but it’s simple math: this is a huge and diverse country, with many thousands of insect species, and not nearly enough people describing our own native fauna. I don’t need to go to the tropical rainforest to discover new species; I just have to drive up the Klondike Highway or Dempster Highway and pull off the side of the road. One of the main objectives of my fieldwork here in the Yukon this summer is to collect specimens of some fly families in which we know there are several undescribed species. The additional material I hope to collect will help us document size and colour variation in these species, as well as filling out our knowledge of their geographic distribution. It’s important to put names on these new species because this species diversity is the foundation for other questions about northern biodiversity.

Ecological questions. Beringia was not only ice-free, there was also a surprsing range of habitat types here, from dry tundra to wetlands to shrubland to extensive grasslands. We know this from ancient plant remains — pollen and plant fossils from ice age deposits. And a wide variety of habitats means that more insect species can be supported because they often have a strong preference for particular habitats. In our fieldwork here the past few years we’ve been surprised to see how many more species in a range of fly families live in Beringia, compared to other northern regions that were glaciated. Research by several students in our lab: Stéphanie Boucher, Meagan Blair, Sabrina Rochefort, Élodie Vajda, and Anna Solecki, has identified much higher numbers of species than we would have expected. So some of the questions we’re now addressing are focused on how these rich communities of species co-exist in what otherwise looks like a harsh place. Of course, climate change continues to leave a mark on the north, so we’re also interested in the ongoing impacts of a warmer, wetter north on insect populations and communities.

Genetic questions. Beringia is a crossroads for insect species. Many of the native northern species probably survived the Pleistocene ice ages right here. But during peak periods of glaciation, insects from eastern Russia could fly or walk or crawl across the exposed bottom of the Bering Strait. This is why there are some species of widespread Eurasian species that also occur in Alaska and the Yukon. But since the end of glaciation, other southern species have moved northward, following suitable habitats northward into Beringia. So the communities of insects in some of these habitats are an interesting blend of insects from many places. The challenge is that we can’t always reconstruct that history just by identifying the species, because many are geographically widespread. So we have to delve into their DNA, where small changes and differences can be more obvious, and can tell us about recent movements and connections and divisions over the past several thousand years. This “phylogeographic” approach can give us a clearer picture of which species survived where, and how and when they’ve moved since the end of glaciation. Recently graduated student Anna Solecki has been exploring some of these patterns in northern flies and we’re hoping to keep exploring similar questions over the next few years.

From a distance, the north may look two-dimensional and uniform. To an entomologist, getting down to a fly-level view of things, this world is anything but! There are mysteries and questions here to keep me busy and excited for years to come.

So much still to discover. Tombstone Mountains, Yukon (photo: T.A. Wheeler)

So much still to discover. Tombstone Mountains, Yukon (photo: T.A. Wheeler)

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