My favorite collecting spots

I’ve decided to launch my personal Earth Day weekend by turning my gaze outside and thinking about fieldwork. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the field chasing insects since 1987. Planning my summer travels for this year got me thinking about some of the trips and places that have made an impact on me over the years. Each of these places is different, and special to me for very different reasons. Here, in no particular order over the next few  posts, is why.

Last of the Mammoth Steppe, southern Yukon Territory. On warm, dry, south-facing slopes in the Yukon and Alaska, there is a unique community of plants and insects that may be remnants of an ecosystem that was once widespread in Beringia during the last glaciation – the so-called “Mammoth Steppe”, grasslands with pasture sage (Artemisia) and other broad-leaved plants that may have covered parts of the dry upland habitats in unglaciated parts of Yukon and Alaska. These communities are now mostly restricted to places too steep, dry and warm for other plant assemblages to take over. I spent several weeks collecting here in 1997 and 1998 with Stéphanie Boucher when she was one of my first grad students. It was my first extended field trip as a new professor and I wasn’t sure how smoothly it would all go. As it turned out, those slopes were richer in Diptera than we could have imagined. Great things came back to the museum from those trips, and it was the project that introduced Stéphanie to the agromyzid leafminer flies, me to the North, and both of us to the frustrating joys of trying to identify small wildflowers after they have lost their flowers. I’m heading back there again this year. I’m looking forward to sitting on the same slopes, looking out across the river valley and smelling the dry grass and Artemisia. Eating my lunch while the small things go about their lives at my feet. And I’m better at plant identification now . . .

late summer slope above Little Atlin Lake, Yukon Territory

Wreck Beach, Vancouver, British Columbia. Early in my PhD program I spent most of a day collecting along this Pacific seashore and the nearby forest with Dick Vockeroth – one of the world’s great fly collectors. Those who have spent a day in the field with Dick know what a special experience that can be, for all sorts of reasons. I had met Dick previously at the Canadian National Collection in Ottawa but had never seen him in action in the field and the day was a turning point in my early development as a collector. We crawled along the sand with aspirators trying to suck up tiny flightless dance flies without getting a mouthful of sand (I mostly failed at this, although I was very pleased to score at least a few specimens). Dick also taught me that day about seaweed flies, pointed out prime habitats for collecting tiny long-legged flies on steep wet banks, gave me a crash course on more syrphid flies than I could possibly remember, and introduced me to a smattering of colleagues from around the world who we ran into walking the beach. They were clean; we were not. Over the years after that day on the Beach, my students and I learned volumes about flies from Dick, passed on in that unique oral tradition that characterized the “Vockeroth Way”.

I suspect that many people who do a lot of fieldwork have had that one trip that changed the way they see their career (or their hobby, or their passion). How many people remember that pivotal experience? And how many go back to the same places to see how things have changed (or stayed the same)?

Next post – another northern landscape and a little piece of the tropics.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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4 Responses to My favorite collecting spots

  1. TGIQ says:

    I remember mine. I was an undergrad, pant legs tucked into my socks, in pitch darkness, siting on the ground in the middle of a primary rainforest in Belize. I was on a field course studying bats, not bugs, but it was this first true taste of ecological field work that confirmed for me that I was on the right track: a year before, I had made a rather drastic change-of-course from the Journalism major I started off with to Biology. It was a good choice.

  2. Yeah, I know a bunch of people who have switched from other career paths into biology (I was one of them). I wonder if it’s because a lot of us reach a point in our “adulthood” when we realize it’s OK to be a kid again and run around in the woods and splash in puddles.

    “Sorry Dad, I’ve tried to get fired up about this jazz band of yours but I guess my heart’s just not in it. My real love is rotifers”

    • TGIQ says:

      I think that’s very much it. Once I finally gave myself permission to enjoy those things again as an adult, the career path I needed to follow was obvious.

  3. Absolutely. Being childish is counterproductive, but being child-like is an essential trait for a naturalist!

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