Today’s Meet the Team post features Patrick Schaefer, a M.Sc. student at the University of Toronto.
I likely developed my interest in nature with the vacations my father would take me and my sister on as children. We would get in the car with a tent and sleeping bags and leave civilization behind for a month. This way I got an appreciation for the great diversity of this country, even if at the time I probably missed my T. V. and video games. Yet even when not on vacation, my family would often visit national and provincial parks. I would take these opportunities to collect biological artefacts to add to my ever-growing collection. These items often included birds’ nests, bee hives, dead insects, seeds and cones of various plants and (to the eternal frowning of my mother) rabbit and deer droppings. What I gained from these experiences was an admiration and intuition about natural history of organisms and the environment. Throughout my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto I pursued my love of nature while working in the education department at the Toronto Zoo. There I got to share my knowledge and experiences with younger generations eager to learn. While at school I focused on taking as many field courses as I could, as well as any classes dealing with the natural history of organisms. These were the classes that were most relevant to the interests and intuitions I had developed over the years. Insects had become a particular fascination of mine over the years, as their diversity and adaptations are simply astounding. I spent the final two years of my undergraduate degree studying insect morphology, and relating details of structures to their evolutionary history.
My role in the Northern Biodiversity Project (NBP) involves the collection and identification of biting flies: mainly mosquitoes, black flies and tabanids (horse flies and deer flies). Current species assemblages will be compared with those recorded during the 1948 – 1962 Northern Insect Survey (NIS) — a time when climate change was not a global concern. Because insects track environmental changes more rapidly than many other groups of organisms, this research has the potential to reveal distributional changes over a short (50 – 60 year) time period. In addition to contributing towards the overall research objectives of the NBP, I will be incorporating other research components as part of my M.Sc. in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto. Molecular genetic data gathered from northern populations have potential to reveal phylogeographical patterns, providing important new insights into the refugia of biting flies that repopulated northern North America following the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers ca. 10,000 ybp. Additionally, populations of closely related species from across Eurasia will be studied to address long-standing species-identity problems, and to better understand biogeographical patterns of northern Holarctic biting flies. Finally, selected taxa of black flies will be revised in a ‘total evidence’ approach using morphological-, cytological- and molecular data sets.
I very much look forward to the start of this ambitious project. While collections from the original NIS provide an important baseline from which to measure biotic changes over last half century, they lacked consistency in terms of the methods and intensity of sampling. My role in the NBP means I will have an opportunity to take part in a rigorously designed, quantitative, collecting program that will provide a foundation for future studies. This research will generate an important database for future generations of biologists, and hopefully create awareness about the fragile nature of arctic ecosystems in the face of climate change.