Starting an entomological collection

Recently I signed up to take an extra biology class at my university, BIO6441 Systématique des Insectes (Insect Systematics), an advanced course of entomology. The main objective is to learn insects’ families through the elaboration of an entomological collection (scientific designation for pinning insects in a box).

insectes_multiples

My colleagues and I went two weekends ago to the SBL (biology station I briefly introduced in a previous post) for the beginning of the class. On the menu: hunting as many bugs as possible. Indeed, we need to build up a scientific collection composed of the greatest variability of insects as possible.

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Tablet containers are great to temporarily store your specimens!

We swung all weekend our butterfly nets in open fields, in woods, on lakes shores, on the road, in a peat bog: even under water! We caught as much little creepers as there was, while being besieged by hordes of mosquitoes, horse flies and deer flies. For as much as we were outside, the warm sun kept the insects active and catchable: it began raining coincidentally (and fortunately) when the hunt was finished.

vespa

Beautiful wasp.

In short, I had a great weekend with amazing people and hunting conditions. Now the biggest work begins: mounting all my specimens and trying to identify the species. Over the course of the summer, I’ll have many opportunities to grow my collection, the class will only start again in September. I’ll try to post some pictures for you guys, feel free to comment below if you have any question about building an entomological collection: it’s a lot of fun and discovering! Enjoy the pictures!

Paul

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Moth on the surgical table.

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My big bumblebee.

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An assortment of dragonflies + a small moth.

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Some soft bodied insects + an intruder in alcool vials. From left to right: lady bug larvae, dragonfly larvae, stonefly larvae, caterpillar, damselfly larvae, spider, other caterpillar and caddisfly larvae (out of the picture).

demoiselle

A close-up of the damselfly larvae.

Tribulations of a young scientist

Lately I’ve been participating at a few scientific events within the framework of my master’s degree and it has been a very busy and stimulating couple of months. Approaching the end of my journey in my supervisor’s lab, the pressure to produce enduring results is increasing steadily: I’ll need notably to write one or two paper(s) to publish. So in the meanwhile, I had to share with the scientific community my results so far and their meaning in the grand scheme of things.

Since I’ve not yet introduced properly my work on this blog, let’s get rid of that now. Doing a master’s degree in the biological science department of Université de Montréal (Québec, Canada), I’m interested in the invasive species systems where populations of wild animals or plants are experiencing a great range expansion across the territory, colonizing new habitats. More specifically, I’m studying the impact of range expansion on the population genetic structure of the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae).

USDA

Source: USDA

For those of you who are unaware of this little beetle, it’s a small insect (about the size of a grain of rice) native of pine forests of western North America (from British Columbia to north of Mexico). Found in great numbers during an outbreak, these beetles mass attack several pine tree species and drill holes in their bark, laying eggs underneath it. The larvae then develop while eating the phloem (the living tissue of the tree): this herbivorism along with the introduction of pathogen fungi species rapidly kill the host tree. When there’s millions of these beetles across the landscape, the forest stands swiftly turn from green to red.

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Source: USDA

Historically, the Canadian populations of the mountain pine beetle have been secluded by the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and have been part of a natural equilibrium of forest regeneration. However, since the beginning of the current outbreak (early 2000s), populations have undergone a massive range expansion, crossing the mountain barrier to Alberta and heading northward to the Canadian territories and Alaska.

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Present and historic distributions of mountain pine beetle and pine species. Dotted arrows represent potential expansion.

Several agents may be in cause: climate changes allowing warmer winters and higher survivability of the beetles, forest industry’s logging methods homogenizing the stands properties, upper atmospheric winds transporting beetles kilometers away, etc. Of course, we can’t tell for sure what’s behind this new behavior. One hypothesis researchers attempt to verify is the possibility of an evolutionary process granting beetles the sufficient tools to continuously expand their range through novel habitats and novel tree hosts. Unfortunately, current statistical methods aimed to answer those kind of questions perform poorly on populations experiencing a massive range expansion. My humble task in this story is to identify the conditions where those statistical methods can’t be trusted and when it is important to analyse genetic data with more caution.


So going back to my recent scientific “twists and turns”, here’s an overview of the meetings I have been attending.

2016 US-IALE Annual Meeting in Asheville, NC

USIALE

The International Association of Landscape Ecology (IALE) is a huge association of academic and governmental researchers mostly working in USA and all working on various questions related to landscape ecology and spatial analyses. For example, I assisted to presentations sessions about spatial connectivity in fragmented landscapes, on natural disturbances such as forest fires, on landscape genetics… Even on thermodynamics! This great variety of subjects vulgarized by more than 200 participants made my first week of April a stimulating one. I had the opportunity to chat with specialists in my field of research: people I’ve been reading papers since two years now! On top of that, I gave a presentation on the first morning and it went very well, my English coming out better than I would expect. I received interesting questions and commentaries, and some of the attendees seemed quite involved with my project.

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Great place to have a taste of the vast selection of local beers!

And of course, I can’t skip saying two or three things about the meeting’s location. Leaving a cold and harsh Montréal, I was quite surprised and glad to step out of the plane in a sunny and springlike Asheville. Trees were blossoming and temperature was perfectly cozy. My colleagues and I had a great time each night picking which of the hundreds of bars and micro-breweries we would try and wandering around the atypical streets of this booming city nested in the forest and mountains. Although being quite busy all week, we had the chance before leaving to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and have a peak at this vast wild landscape.

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Snowy and windy at the top!

10th Annual Conference of the CEF

Back in Montréal, I attended a short meeting of two days at Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM), reuniting a wide range of people working in the forest industry in Québec: among which many researchers, students and forest engineers. The Conference was good, but a bit far from my personal work interests for me to be really engaged during the talks. In spite of this, my presentation went really well again and I had a good time interacting with other students and my lab colleagues.

TRIA-Net Annual General Meeting

Shortly after the previous conference, I had to take a flight to Edmonton (Alberta) where I had to present along with a colleague a scientific poster. This meeting regroups a network of Canadian researchers trying to figure out together what we could do about that mountain pine beetle situation in Canada. It was my second presence to this meeting and it’s always great to see again all those interesting and competent persons working every day directly with this insect. I didn’t had the chance to explore Edmonton, but the University of Alberta campus and its surroundings sure are much nicer than our own campus at Université de Montréal.

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Source: TRIA-Net, University of Alberta

FCM Summer School

I had to cut short my participation at the TRIA-Net meeting to go to a summer school a bit north of Montréal, after taking a red-eye flight from Edmonton. This formation is offered by the Forest Complexity Modelling program who financed my researches last year. The one week formation happened this year at the Station de Biologie des Laurentides, a research facility owned by my university in a wild setting, not far from Montréal.

MCF

Source: Virginie Angers, UQAM

Arriving on Wednesday, I was a bit groggy after the night flight but I soon recovered and was able to take part in discussions with other students attending the course. Through the rest of the week, we had good presentations from researchers on various topics, mostly about the modelling of forests ecosystems. My colleague and I quite enjoyed the spot, that we know very well by now, although there were lots of black flies.

Paul

Mapping the PCT

Cartographie

Next summer, I’m planning to make an exciting trip with a good friend of mine. Maybe you saw the movie Wild with Reese Whiterspoon? If it’s not the case, I suggest you to rent it: it’s a good little movie. It’s the (true) story of a young woman going through a long journey on the West Coast, to help restore order in her personal stormy life. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) offers to this lost soul all the quiet and natural wonders required to reach a more peaceful state of mind.

Although really digne, Cheryl Strayed’s (the young woman) motive is quite different from mine. Watching the movie, my eyes widely opened themselves to this crazy adventure accross the US: this could really be a life changing event. Constantly surrounded by nature for more than 2500 miles (roughly 5 months of hiking!), crossing deserts, snowy crests, mystical valleys, giant forests… An enterprise where everyday is enchanting, where modern responsabilities of life are put aside. This is also what my friend glared at (at least I believe so) when sitting in the theater a few months ago.

“Hey, what about hiking the PCT next year?”

On my side, I also began copying out some maps. Gabrielle gave me recently, for my birthday, a cute Moleskine notebook, composed of enough pages to hold my daily thoughts on the trail. I thought it might be appropriate to draw in the first pages some broad maps of the route we’ll take across 3 different states (California, Oregon and Washington). Completely inexperienced in the art of cartography, I simply traced screen shots of GoogleMaps, dividing the itinerary in 4 zones.

Map representing the projected route in Oregon (red line), the forest patches (green stripes) and the stretches of water (in blue). Each point and letter designate a possible point of resupply.

Carte Oregon

Map representing the projected route in Oregon (red line), the forest patches (green stripes) and the stretches of water (in blue). Each point and letter designate a possible point of resupply.

For the record, I simply superposed a grid in Word on the screen shots. With the help of some basic little calculations, I then determined the raster’s resolution and the size of the picture, in order to adjust it to my notebook size.

Besides making the first pages of my notebook look pretty, such maps could become useful to make a quick assessment of the journey’s progress and to estimate the amount of days necessary before reaching the next resupply point. Also, I hope to be able to note everyday on it our current position, with a view to keep every details of this marvelous adventure.

In the following months, I’ll probably keep nattering about this PCT thing, while the preparation will become more and more polished up. It’s a great life experience that I’m really looking forward, I hope to interest you a little bit with it!

Paul

Costa Rica Mon Amour: Episode II – Brasilito mucho

Finally we arrived in one piece in the lush lands of Costa Rica! After an uneventful flight, a special private shuttle booked by our hotel picks us late in the evening at the empty airport of Liberia, along dozens of other similar shuttles. With a mixture of excitation and fatigue, we try to discern along the dark road the vegetation and Costa Rican landscapes that are unfolding under our eyes during almost an hour. Our quiet chauffeur drives us to the first step of our trip, Brasilito, a small town in the Guanacaste Province, on the country’s west coast. Dropped in front of the hotel, we then cross the narrow gate decorated with plants and greet the giant security guard posted there. A fast check-in with an employee, then we can access our large room, eager to have a good night’s sleep.

 

Sunday November 8

It’s with relaxed bodies that we wake up in this wonderful morning under the quasi-equatorial sun. Far from our long previous night of transportation, we can now better appreciate the beautiful place were we just landed.

Our room, build directly on the concrete slab, includes all the necessities. However, the whole point of our trip lies beyond our front door. The sunlight filtering through the curtains invites us to quickly leave the room. After several seconds lost on figuring out the door lock, we can finally have a look at the area occupied by our pretty hotel. Conchal Hotel comprises about 15 rooms delightfully configured inside its enclosure, where there’s also a swimming pool and a restaurant. The colorful buildings are accompanied by a paradisiac vegetation and shining birds. In brief, it’s a magic welcome that whet immediately our appetite.

Notre hôtel: Le Conchal

Our hotel

Vue du restaurant

View from the restaurant

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So, it’s with enchantment that we climb up the stairs separating us from the breakfast awaiting us. Once we get upstairs in the dinning room (some kind of huge terrace protected by an water proof roof), we meet with the hotel’s owner, a lovely lady with whom we already exchange some emails for the room booking and such. After a nice and brief chat about the weather and the near main attractions, we pick a table and fill our plates with generous portions of fruits and other tropical delicacies.

Le bar à déjeuner de l'hôtel, très coquet avec les écriteaux à la craie et les jolies couleurs

The hotel’s breakfast buffet, quite pretty with the chalk boards and all the colors

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We take the time to contemplate peacefully the natural setting all around us, while enjoying some papaya, watermelon and pineapple, with a cup of coffee (Gaby), then we leave for our first day of adventures!

The main street, right in front of the hotel, has everything to envy from the setting we just left: the large and sidewalks free road, with some buildings here and there, doesn’t provide a view particularly pleasant and enjoyable. However, after a few steps, we rapidly realize that the richness is more about the life that abounds here. Everywhere, birds are singing, plants are blooming and insects are crawling. A short walk of about 5 minutes (during which we must cross a narrow bridge alongside deadly trucks) conducts us to the touristic center of the town, near the beaches. The burning sun accompanies us while we pass by the famous soda (small local restaurants typical of Costa Rica) and other small shops.

And then, finally, we are on the beach.

Playa Brasilito

Playa Brasilito

Looking at the horizon, we quickly take our sandals off to feel the sand and the waves on our naked feet. It’s alway a great pleasure to rediscover these exquisite and relaxing sensations, while breathing the sea air. However, the sun above our heads gets us rapidly back to Earth: after a quick inspection, this beach empty of human activity and shadow areas seems a bit unforgiving for our weak skin with a clear vitamin D deficiency. Fortunately, the hotel’s owner had told us in the morning about another beach a bit in the south of this one, where it was nice to swim and to relax under some tree shadow.

Les superbes coquillages du Costa Rica

The superb shells of Costa Rica

After passing through a small patch of forest, we access Playa Conchal, a beach way more populous (bordered by a resort, by the way) and composed of billions of small pieces of polished shells! The most beautiful beach we ever saw so far!

Playa Conchal

Playa Conchal

Le sable de coquillages en morceaux: adoucis par la mer, et très joli!

The sand made of pieces of shells: smoothed by the sea and very pretty!

Le petit chemin pour passer d'une plage à l'autre

The short passage to jump from one beach to the other

We spent some hours profiting from the beautiful weather in the waves and protected from the sun under the branches of trees. It was for both of us the first time we bathed in the waters of the great Pacific Ocean: its waves are so powerful! Even at knees level, these waves have enough strength to destabilize and… carry away!

On est biens à la playa Conchal

It’s so nice at Playa Conchal

Fortunately, Gabrielle had brought some paréos, on which it was nice to nap, despite the presence of tiny stinging flies. After this refreshing break, the first of our vacation, our stomachs suddenly begin calling us back to reality.

We then pick randomly a terrace of a soda to get a bite to eat, at Soda El Coco. There, we eat well, our waiter is a joker and the beer is really refreshing! It’s also the moment for Paul to fall in love with a South American dish: arroz con camarones! In fact, this soda’s recipe proved to be the most delicious one of all the arroz con camarones that Paul ate during the trip.

The remaining of the afternoon was allocated to a casual exploration of the handfull of shops around the village, an activity particularly exciting for Gabrielle (and tolerated by Paul). We thus made some food reserves in a grocery store, buying lots of strange oreos (with flavours unknown in Canada) and tropical fruit juices. It was also an opportunity to begin stocking local coffee that we would bring back in our travel bags. Also, a cute gift shop was just in front of our hotel. We discovered here a collection of magnificient tiny paintings on bird feathers: these are apparently quite popular with tourists in Costa Rica! Gabrielle bought there a pretty necklace and Paul bought a Costa Rican sewing patch for its backpack.

Un beau collier costaricain!

A beautiful Costa Rican necklace!

Un cadeau pour les parents de Paul!

A gift for Paul’s parents!

This marvellous hot and sunny day then suddenly shift to thunderstorm and heavy rain. In fact, November under these latitudes is straddling between wet and dry seasons. Consequently, and we can confirm it, most of the afternoons are ending with some hours of heavy rainfall, sometimes lasting to late in the evening. The trick: wake up with the sun and enjoy as much as possible the sunny hours and take a nap or take the time to eat during rain time.

Thus, to end this splendid first day in Costa Rica, we spent our evening at the hotel’s restaurant, Papaya, where is served a wide range of local food cooked in a sophisticated and original manner.

L'hôtel avec les chambres dessous et le resto au-dessus, vue de la piscine

Conchal hotel, with the rooms under the restaurant, when viewed from the pool

Our Guatemalan waiter, quite charming, helped us to choose a delicious selection from the menu du jour: coconut shrimps, soupe du jour, lobster and South American soup, all of these washed down with some Imperial beers. Unfortunately for Gabrielle, she had some difficulties digesting the chicken consumed earlier at Soda El Coco, so the appetite wasn’t really there for this delectable feast. Fortunately for here, Paul, with an iron stomach, was there to prevent the wastage. In summary, it was an excellent romantic dinner to the sound of the rain hammering the roof and making the tropical foliage rustle: a great conclusion to this paradisiac day!

Un de nos soupers au resto de l'hôtel: entrée de crevettes à la noix de coco

One of our plate at the hotel’s restaurant: coconut shrimps!

Monday November 09

This second day in Costa Rica is very similar to the first one in terms of activities. After a breakfast of cereals and tropical jellies, we immediately headed off to the beach. We must say that the Guanacaste peninsula is well known for its beaches and we were beginning our trip specifically there in order to relax and escape from our everyday lives. We took advantage of this new day to spend more time by the sea and better appreciate the presence of this refreshing water. This time, we adventured a bit farther into the powerful waves of the Pacific Ocean, resulting in a comical episode with Gabrielle. Indeed, it was really hard to resist the strength of those waves, losing our stability after each tremor. Caught off guard, we were having fun defying the waves, water just under our chins. Suddenly, a wave particularly imposing seized Gabrielle to carry her towards the beach, several feet farther. While dying on the sand bar, the wave threw energetically Gabrielle who made, while laughing out loud, some barrel rolls up to the feet of an old tourist couple, surprised of the scene. No time to meet each other: a second wave, even greater than the previous one, came to take back Gabrielle from the sand and propel her directly in the arms of Paul, at a prodigious speed, Superman style! So, it was a chain of rocambolesque events that nourrished our laughter for days to come. We ended this day with a good nap at the hotel and a delicious dinner at Papaya…

Tuesday November 10

Our first challenge then finally came: an entire day of transportation in bus to Santa Elena, in Monteverde. Many dangers and uncertainty await us: reliability of public transports, a spanish not exercised enough, a route with multiple transfers, the unknown… We like to travel a lot, but it was for us the first time we would be committing to such experiences, where resourcefulness is a pre-requisite.

Awake shortly after 6:00 in the morning, we went to the town’s bus station, where the morning bus was waiting its driver to finish his shower. Once ready, he let us board in his bus, telling us we were a bit too early and not in the official bus stop. Too bad: we would accompany him to all the other places he has to stop by before caming back to this exact spot. The weather is fabulous, our hair waves in the wind, we are confortably seated while the driver take some passengers in small coastal villages: everything is starting great. Of course, once the bus comes back to Brasilito, around 6:45 (at the stop where we were supposed to wait for it), heading towards Sardinal, near Puntarenas, the bus engine then suddenly fails. Not too suprised, we wait while the driver dives his hands into the beast’s belly. The clock is ticking, the heat begins to be less bearable. It has been 45 minutes since we are stuck here, 1 walking minute from the Conchal hotel! Our thoughts become now more concerning: we would never catch our next transfer, which happens only once every afternoon, will we have to contact our hotel in Monteverde and find a room elsewhere for the night?

Finally, after a relentless work, our driver washes the oil from his arms and takes back the steering wheel! The bus then speeds up on the road towards our objective, we are saved! We then head deeper into the country, leaving the peninsula, stopping here and there in several villages and towns where lots of workers and students embark. We are moving at a good speed, but the route is very long and there’s many stops. A short break at noon in a big cafeteria on the side of the road allows us to discover some hamburgesas wrapped in plastic wrap and warmed up in the microwave oven. Shortly after taking back the road, the driver, remembering our itinerary, shows us our stop and explains to us where to wait our next bus.

Right under the sun, we are waiting since almost an hour in front of a gas station, not far from the city of Sardinal. On an elevated plateau, we have at least a beautiful view on the Pacific coast and the extent of the sea to accompany us in this baking waiting. Suddenly, an old van stops nearby and one guy with whom we were waiting then go to meet the van driver, while waving at us, asking us to come closer. Intrigued, we then understand that the driver offers us to take us up in the mountains to our destination, for a ridiculous fee. Without thinking about it twice, we accept his offer and board in the back of the van. The long ascent in the mountains of the Monteverde then begins. Our driver talk tirelessly with the front passenger, definitely a good friend, while bypassing the other vehicules, horses and… precipices!! On the mountainside, the road that climbs towards the summits is primarily flanked by cliffs and steep slopes. It has the potential of giving a real feast to the eyes, but Gabrielle can’t help but think about the worst scenarios and thus she just crushes Paul’s hand every time the van’s wheels are nearing the void. Will Gabrielle and Paul succeed in surviving this perilous ascent?? We’ll know the answer in the next travel post…

Paul & Gabrielle