Yukon Ho! The quest for northern flies continues

Since 2009 I’ve been part of the Northern Biodiversity Program, a collaborative project with some excellent colleagues and a whole team of fantastic students. We collected a arthropods at 12 sites in northern Canada so we could start addressing some large scale questions about the diversity and ecological structure of arthropods in a changing arctic. As this first incarnation of the NBP winds down (that is to say, as our initial research grant winds down; we’ll be mining the data for years to come!), I know that there are still many great questions and great projects to be tackled just on the flies of northern Canada. Arctic fieldwork is expensive, but I’ve been fortunate to have continued funding (thanks NSERC) that allows me to keep working on the diversity and ecology of arctic flies for another few years. And so, for the fifth year since 1997, I came back to the Yukon, one of my favorite parts of Canada and a fantastic place to do entomological fieldwork.

Our team of three this year is smaller than the typical NBP field teams, with a more modest set of goals. Both Sabrina Rochefort and Élodie Vajda have been in the Lyman Museum as undergrad students for the past couple of years, and they’ve been valuable members of the NBP team. But this September they’ll start grad programs, working on their own research questions. Not surprisingly, they’ve both developed a keen interest in northern flies. This year seemed like as good a time as any to introduce them to the north. And I can’t think of a better place than the Yukon, where, in one day, you can drive down the street from your hotel, into the boreal forest, up across the mountains and onto the Beringian tundra, a place untouched by glaciers where species from mites to mammoths survived the last ice ages.

We’re up on the Dempster Highway – more than 700 kilometers of often dusty, often muddy, sometimes slippery, occasionally bone-shaking, gravel that winds its way from just east of Dawson City, up through the Ogilvie Mountains, out onto the tundra, across the Artic Circle and the Richardson Mountains, to Inuvik up on the huge Mackenzie Delta.

Sabrina (L) and Elodie (R) at Mile Zero. There's still pavement here

Sabrina (L) and Elodie (R) at Mile Zero. There’s still pavement here

The Dempster is fantastic on many levels, but one of the best, entomologically speaking, is that it gives you an accessible transect from boreal forest to arctic tundra where you can (only if you’ve got the necessary permits!) collect insects across a huge swath of habitat diversity. On the other hand, you can also stop and find a nice piece of tundra or forest or river valley, and simply get to know the insects of that place. This year, the girls are doing a little bit of both.

Sabrina’s senior undergraduate project focused on the Piophilidae, a small family of flies and one of the few that is more diverse in the arctic than anywhere else. Sabrina identified all of our NBP piophilid flies, discovering a couple of new species in the process, which she’s now describing. But that work only whetted her appetite for piophilids and she’ll be expanding her focus in her Master’s program, delving more deeply into the taxonomy and phylogeny of these northern flies.

Élodie tackled another group that’s also diverse in the north (as well as everywhere else) – the empidid dance flies. Early in her time in the lab she was quite taken with the enormous and diverse genus Rhamphomyia, which is by far the dominant group of higher flies at some of our northern NBP sites. Élodie waded into the difficult process of identifying these abundant flies during her undergrad program and she’ll continue working on characterizing the NBP Rhamphomyia through her Master’s program. This is a group far too diverse for comprehensive taxonomic work in the scope of a single Master’s project, but there are already some interesting ecological questions, and a few manageable taxonomic goals, that Élodie will address.

So why did they come up here? They’re looking at flies, seeing where they live, what they do. Sabrina and Élodie are getting a sense of what a “good” collecting spot looks and feels like (it’s not always predictable!) They’re taking the time to watch their study organisms live their lives (on leaves or flowers or outhouse walls in the case of Rhamphomyia; on assorted rotting things in the case of many of the piophilid flies). They’re finally seeing, on the ground, the difference between mesic tundra and wet tundra after a couple of years of reading labels and notes in the lab. They’re finally appreciating what the phrase “Dempster Hwy, mile 81” or “North Fork Pass” on a specimen label really means in the real world. They’re learning what it feels like to walk across a spongy expanse of cottongrass hummocks or up a rocky, tundra slope while sweeping up insects.

Are these things necessary for an M.Sc. project? Absolutely not. We have lots of specimens already and they could do their projects without ever leaving the lab. But the whole experience, and the depth of their understanding, would be greatly diminished by not getting out here, feeding the mosquitoes, thrashing through the willows, seeing how different families of flies move around inside the net, reading the landscape. It connects them to their projects and their study organisms through the living, changing, complicated world.

So why am I up here? I’m the name on the research permit. I’m the truck driver, the money guy, the bear habitat identifier, the grocery coordinator. But I’m also up here collecting my own data. Chasing down new species and new records of little chloropid flies up and down the Dempster. I’m spending rainy afternoons and long breakfasts sitting in the camper and talking about science culture and research and ecology and phylogeny and flies and arctic ecosystems with a couple of enthusiastic and curious young scientists. Mostly I’m experiencing, vicariously through them, the thrill of discovering brand new things in a brand new place.

Maybe that’s the best reason to get out in the field with the students.

Tundra time on the Dempster

Tundra time on the Dempster


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Lab and Field News and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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