Friday, May 17, 2013

The Nature of Natural History: Kelowna CSEE 2013

Every few years a group of ecologists or evolutionary biologists experiences existential angst about the decline of natural history knowledge. This angst is wholly justified when many biologists no longer take the time to experience how the organisms they study actually live in nature. At best (and this is better than most), many biologists run off to the field for a day, stop at a bridge over a stream or along a forest trail, quickly collect their samples, and then run back to the lab to extract the DNA, run PCRs, and genotype their critters. Organism reduced to molecules. And yet we can’t possible hope to understand how organisms have evolved and how they fit into the polity of nature without careful observation and experimentation IN NATURE. After all, genotypes do not directly experience selection, nor do genotypes have ecological effects: instead it is phenotypes that experience selection and that have effects. And these phenotypes evolve and have effects through interactions with the environment that usually cannot be discerned without careful observation and study.

A five minute walk from the conference center.

This year, the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution held their annual meeting – organized by Jason Pither – in Kelowna, British Columbia. The overall theme was Range Margins in a Rapidly Changing World and I was in a symposium organized by Root Gorelick and Kevin Judge on – you guessed it – natural history. My own talk was about the role of photography as a way to bring readers and listeners a bit of a feel for the natural history of the systems under study. I told two stories through data and pictures. One story was about the interaction between bears and salmon and how the former drive evolu-tion in the latter.  The second story was about how humans are altering the evolution of Darwin’s finches in Galapagos.  I ended my talk by pointing out that, yes, photography was expensive but that anyone could set themselves up well from scratch for only about $3,000. The talk after me was about the role of illustration (as opposed to photography) toward the same goal. Lyn Baldwin pointed out that – in contrast to cameras – you can set yourself up well for illustration with a pencil costing less than a dollar. I don’t think that is really fair though as some pencils cost considerably more than a dollar.

The stories I told through data and photos.

The Natural History symposium was fascinating and yielded many curious tidbits about organisms that reminded me of the game I play with my kids at dinner “what did I learn that was new today.” (I did a similar post a few years ago based on a symposium in Leuven.) If I were home today, here is what I would tell my kids:

  1. Many cactuses have a large and extravagant cephalium which – according to Root Gorelick – has no function and could well be maladaptive. Of course, I would then tell my impressionable kids that, no, Darwin was not wrong, instead Root must be, but that, yes, biologists still have no clear explanation of what benefit the cephalium brings.
  2. Jumping spiders, those charismatic midgets with forward facing eyes that leap on their prey, have crazy mating colors and displays. I will also tell my kids how Wayne Maddison, when he was a kid in Ontario, discovered that two species found on sand dunes have incredibly different strategies for building their “nests.” Wayne told the audience that he feared that he would go to his grave before he published this observation and so I here pledge that, should this be so, my kids (one of whom loves spiders) will take up the study and published it (without mentioning Wayne of course).
  3. Feather mites are tiny (often microscopic) mites that cling to the feathers of birds. Heather Proctor explained how these mites show an incredible diversity of forms - even on the same birds – and have a number of crazy features. Males apparently grapple with each other for access to females by trying to throw each other off the feather – just like tiny sumo wrestlers on a tight-rope. And some groups show handed-ness, with the individuals on one wing of the bird showing a different body coiling pattern than individuals on the other wing of the bird.
  4. Like a number of other insects, male Mormon crickets give nuptial gifts to females – in this case, little “cheese balls” that the female munches on while the male mates with them. Cheese balls appear to be quite costly for the males to produce and they are an important part of the diet for females. This leads to so-called “sex role reversal,” where males become the limiting sex during mating and females compete intensely for males. When asked during the question period whether he had ever tasted these cheese balls, Darryl Gwynne admitted proudly that he had and that they weren’t actually that bad.
  5. Hump-winged grig males, like Mormon crickets, provide a nuptial gift for females but not a yummy cheese ball. Rather, they offer up their wings for the females to munch on while mating. Kevin Judge showed an amazing video of grigs mating, with the female on the back of the male munching vigorously away at the male’s wings (and seemingly trying to get at other male parts too), while the male simultaneously tried to keep her wandering mouth under control with his legs while crimping her abdomen with a structure that looked like a small staple remover (and at least once it removed part of the female’s abdomen).

That is just a small selection of natural history tidbits from the symposium – my apologies for any inaccuracies which I am sure the above hyperlinks can clear up. After sitting through this great symposium, I happened to see Sally Otto, who had some binoculars around her neck. “Have you been bird watching” I cleverly asked, and she proceeded to tell me about a nearby lake with nesting Avocets and many other great birds. How could I not take my own advice, and that of everyone in the symposium? So I ran off to take some photos of the natural history of Kelowna. Amazing stuff. In just a few walks, I saw 45 different bird species, including one – the Pygmy Nuthatch – that I don’t think I have seen before. The conditions were great and I was able to get some good photos, which I show below (many more are here).

So that is it for CSEE 2013 – now I am off to Vancouver Island for field work on stickleback. After that, it is time to get geared up for CSEE 2014, which we are hosting in Montreal. It will be the first ever joint meeting of CSEE, the Canadian Society of Zoologists (CSZ), and the Society of Canadian Limnologists (SCL). The meeting title is “GENOMES TO/AUX BIOMES” and it is supported equally by the three societies and by four Montreal Universities (McGill, UQAM, Condordia, and Universite de Montreal) – we hope to see you there. Montreal has some natural history too!

Breeding Avocets.

The omnipresent chipmunk

A robber fly (thanks for the ID Bob).

Common Flicker - the red-shafted flavor.

The ever-cute California Quail

A Wilson's Phalarope takes flight.


  1. The fly looks like a robber fly to me.

  2. Yep,you got it. Bob Lalonde beat you to the punch (by way of email). I have changed the figure caption.


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