Category Archives: Field Season 2011

“Mastering” northern flies: another student crosses the finish line

By Terry Wheeler (originally posted at

I’ve written previously about our work on the flies from the Northern Biodiversity Program (the joys of collecting them, and the challenge of processing them). Three years, tons of travel, a mind-boggling number of hours in the lab, and more than a hundred thousand specimens into the project, we are starting to see the first wave of student projects wrapped up. And it’s a great feeling.

I’m delighted to report that my M.Sc. student Meagan Blair has joined the list of NBP grad students who have finished their thesis. Meagan’s thesis on spatial patterns and long-term change in northern scathophagid flies has been awarded a Pass. So, huge congratulations to Meagan for successfully steering an ambitious project on a large and difficult group of flies through to completion. Meagan was part of the first wave of students who joined the NBP in the first year of sampling in 2010 and she was one of the few students who was in the field from start to finish in both the 2010 and 2011 field seasons. That’s a lot of northern time! Meagan was also one of the stalwarts in the NBP “sorting room” in the Lyman Museum, cleaning, sorting and processing vast amounts of material before she could start in on the long hours of microscope time needed to identify her flies.

Scathophagids, also known by the unflattering common name of “dung flies” are probably most familiar to many people through the big fuzzy yellow dung fly Scathophaga stercoraria, which seems to be fond of sitting on fresh piles of cow manure (hence the name). They don’t eat the manure though; they eat the insects that feed on the manure. But that yellow dung fly is only one member of this morphologically and ecologically diverse family of flies, a family that has some very sleek, colourful and, yes, very attractive species. Many scathophagids are predators, others are scavengers and many feed on live plants. They are also interesting from the perspective of our NBP project because they are one of the few families of flies (and indeed one of the few families of insects) that becomes more diverse as you move north into the arctic.

Meagan found high species richness and high abundance of scathophagids at our NBP sampling sites from the northern edge of the boreal forest right up to the high arctic islands. And there is a significant change in the species found from site to site. Our late colleague Dick Vockeroth had a great interest in northern Scathophagidae and in 1958 Dick proposed what some of us informally call “Vockeroth’s Rule”. Dick hypothesized that tree line is a strong filter for scathophagid distributions, with species found either north of, or south of, tree line, but not both. Meagan’s work added several species to Vockeroth’s initial data set from his 1958 paper and in most cases confirmed that strong split at tree line (although what it is about tree line that actually limits the distribution of generalist scavengers and predators is another question).

Meagan’s work on documenting the current patterns of distribution of northern scathophagids will provide a valuable starting point for tracking change in distributions in the future as climate change causes the north to warm up. Will these flies track tree line north, or will a more complex set of interactions drive future patterns? Will the species that are dominant now remain dominant at the same sites into the future?

Meagan also reached back into time to compare our NBP specimens to specimens of the same species collected at the same sites in the early 1950′s. Her question was simple: “have northern flies themselves changed over the past half-century?”. The answer was “yes”, and in an interesting way. It’s not just the composition of the insect communities that are being affected by a changing north, there are evolutionary changes in the species themselves.

I won’t give away any more details of Meagan’s results here. A finished thesis is a very satisfying milestone along the academic journey, but it’s the published papers that matter most — those are the products that are read by the broader scientific community. We’re working on those now and you’ll be hearing more about Meagan’s results in the future.

The joys of arctic fieldwork: Meagan hunting flies on Ellesmere Island (photo: Donna Giberson)

The joys of arctic fieldwork: Meagan hunting flies on Ellesmere Island (photo: Donna Giberson)



Autumn Wrap-up!

From Chris Buddle:

Hard to believe that we are already into 2012!  Although there has been a distinct lack of blog entries, this does not indicate a lack of activity – quite the opposite!  After our return from successful field trip in August, we were busy all fall sorting specimens, working on identifications, and gearing up for conference season.

The project had very good representation at national and international conferences this past autumn. M.Sc. student Anna Solecki, post-doc Laura Timms, and Terry Wheeler attended the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting, held this year in Reno, Nevada.  Congratulations to Anna – she won the President’s Prize in a poster competition in Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity!

The NBP also had good representation at the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual meeting, held in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Terry and Laura also attended that meeting, as did Katie Sim, Crystal Ernst, Sarah Loboda, Chris Buddle, and the Toronto crew – Patrick Schaefer, Ruben Cordero, and Doug Currie.   Everyone gave oral talks or posters, and it’s very exciting to see preliminary results from the project.   We are especially proud of Katie, as she won the poster competition – congratulations, Katie!  Here’s a photo of Katie with her poster.  Up next – we continue working on sorting, identifications, and some analyses and manuscripts are also being prepared.  Stay tuned…

Katie Sim with her first-place poster!

Team Knife in Cambridge Bay

From Laura Timms on behalf of Team Knife; they’ve returned to the south since this update was written:
Team Knife is half way through our last stop for the summer: Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Cambridge Bay is located on the southern end of Victoria Island, on the Queen Maud gulf in the Northwest Passage of the Arctic Ocean. When we arrived on July 6th the Bay was still covered in ice but with all the sun and ‘excessive heat’ (17 C the day we arrived) it has been quickly melting. In fact the last large pieces of ice disappeared yesterday while we were out collecting. Cambridge Bay is home to an old DEW line station and soon to be home to a new federal government funded High Arctic Research Station.

"Excessive heat"??!?!


Research station

Our work here is going very well – we have finished our first servicing of the traps, the vegetation protocol, two sweep samples, and 10 of the 12 aquatic sites. Our traps have been full of spiders, beetles, crane flies, midges, and all sorts of smaller things that we can’t wait to go through back home under the microscopes. Patrick has been especially good at spotting cocoons and caterpillars of the arctic woolly bear (Gynaephora groenlandica) on the tundra. This species can take up to seven years to complete its life cycle, cramming as much eating and growing into the short arctic summer as it can before going into dormancy for the rest of the year. Some of the cocoons we have found are full of puparia of tachinid flies instead of the moth – these parasitoids lay their eggs inside the caterpillars and consume them from the inside out, emerging just before the caterpillar pupates. Laura is currently rearing the cocoons in our hotel room, hoping to get some adult moths and parasitoids for our collection.
We have also had encounters with some of the larger fauna around here, having spotted several chatty arctic foxes, some muskoxen, a lemming, a seal on an ice floe, and many of the over 100 species of birds up here. One of our encounters with the local wildlife was a bit too close for comfort: both of our ATVs were dive-bombed in succession by some very territorial terns as we were driving on a beach east of town the other day. Luckily we were wearing helmets!

Musk Ox

As the weather is continuing to warm up, the vegetation is becoming greener, and the black fly larvae are getting bigger, we are looking forward to continuing to explore the area and do more collecting. The road to Ovayok Territorial park is currently washed out, but we are crossing our fingers that we will be able to get there at some point before the end of our trip. And we are hoping to not spend too much more time with ATVs and/or team members stuck in pockets of wet clay that are almost impossible to escape from!

Iqaluit Insects

News from Chis Buddle in Iqaluit:

One cabinet drawer of the insect collection prepared in Iqaluit

From 6 to 13 July, Chris Buddle (Team Leader) and Nicolas Chatel-Launay (undergraduate student) completed field work in Iqaluit – although the weather started cold (6C) and wet, it cleared about half way through our trip and we had several excellent days of collecting. Our objective was to prepare an insect collection of representative and common species in the Iqaluit area. This involved catching, pinning, spreading, and labeling insects and spiders and preparing them in two display cabinets as an ‘educational’ collection. The collection was left at the Nunavut Research Institute in the care of our colleague Jamal Shirley. We ended up collecting half of the known butterfly species for southern Baffin island, and this involved some serious chasing; Nicolas was especially proficient at bounding over the tundra in pursuit of the fast fliers. We also had good representative specimens of ground beetles, bees, and many many flies!

We also had help form some people that live in the Iqaluit area: David Nakashuk, a student at the Arctic College, helped us set up our Malaise Trap and helped pick black flies off rocks. First Air employee, and future field scientists Eva quickly become an expert spider-hunter in the afternoon she spent with us. We also spent time with Carolyn Mallory – she has lived in Iqaluit for over 12 years, and has written a soon-to-be-published book about common insects in the North. Carolyn took us collecting at Rotary Park in Apex (5 km from Iqaluit), and she also donated some of her weevil and wasps specimens to our collection. This kind of help is really appreciated.

On the 11 July, Chris gave a talk at the Nunavut Research Institute in their brand-new facility. This was well attended, and many insect enthusiasts were in attendance. Given the cool and wet weather, we took advantage of some of the cultural experiences in Iqaluit – we toured the Legislative Assembly on one afternoon, and we took part in Nunavut Day activities on the 9 July. This included watching a seal skinning competition – not something you see everyday! Many local celebrities were in attendance, although the most popular was the NHL hockey player Jordin Tootoo (he’s from Nunavut). We also enjoyed Muskox Burgers at the Store House Bar & Grill, located at the famous Frobisher Inn.

We left Iqaluit with mixed emotions – it was sad to leave the long days, friendly people, and ever-expansive Tundra, but also nice to get back home to see family. Our Insect Collection was well received and if you are ever in Iqaluit, please visit the Nunavut Research Institute to take a look.

All’s Wells That Ends Wells

Slow northern internet connections have hindered our ability to keep this blog updated in a timely manner, but now that we have team members back in the south, the blog is back in business!  Our first long-overdue update comes from Team Wells, with a wrap up of the first leg of their journey, as told by team leader Doug Currie:

Team Wells

Team Wells wrapped up a memorable trip to the Mackenzie Valley last week. In addition to completing all the required sampling protocols, we got out for a fine day of riverboat collecting on the Mackenzie River (courtesy of Richard Popko, NWT Department of Resources, Wildlife & Economic Development) and a helicopter trip into the foothills of the Mackenzie Mountains (courtesy of Glen Guthrie, Sahtu Renewable Resources Board). This gave us access to sites that were otherwise completely inaccessible, providing many fine collections.

Helicopter perched on the bank of a black fly infested river in the Mackenzie MountainsRuben Cordero experiments with a novel technique to dislodge aquatic insects from the substrate.

Not to be outdone by “Team Arthropod’s” entry in Yellowknife’s “Midnight Sun Triathlon”, Team Wells participated in the Third Annual Bearathon in Norman Wells, finishing the 5K race in the medals! The fact that anyone crossing the finish line received a medal shouldn’t diminish our accomplishment!
Our time in Norman Wells passed all too quickly, and it was with mixed emotions that we moved on to our next site. Many thanks to all of our good friends in Norman Wells, including Alasdair Veitch, Richard Popko, and Glen Guthrie. We couldn’t have accomplished our objectives without your support!
Anna, Katie and Ruben departed for a night in Inuvik, before hooking up with new Team Leader Terry Wheeler in Dawson City. They are now stationed at the Tombstone Mountain campground in Yukon’s Ogilvie Mountains. “Old” Team Leader Doug returned to Toronto, where he’s now gearing up to rejoin Team Wells on the last leg of the trip… to the wilds of Aulavik National Park on northern Banks Island. Standby for the next Team Wells blog post, originating from the heart of Klondike Country. Beringia it on!