Nuggets of knowledge in unexpected places!

In these Covid times, I get what little inspiration I can muster from reading books. I admire the skill of authors who dive deep into old documents to find information for their stories. Most of what I read is non-fiction, so the information I gain is either directly from quotes by someone from a letter or other written document, but more often a mix of quoted text and the author’s interpretation of what happened.

Natural history books

In this blog, I am sharing some excerpts from three books that I have recently read. They range from a historical journey describing the lives of scientists who at some level realized that the biosphere is not a static creation of a higher being, but a constantly changing and evolving assembly of organisms, to a detective story with tendrils reaching back to Darwinian times.

Since the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, evolution has been increasingly accepted by science as more and more evidence has been assembled. But while Darwin (along with Alfred Russel Wallace) is credited with the discovery of the mechanism by which evolution acts on populations, leading to speciation and specialization. Many other scientists had arrived at the conclusion that something other than a deity was responsible, at least in part, for creating the variety of life forms, and more importantly, for ending their existence. In addition, many agreed that earth was much older than the 6,000 years, providing the necessary time to allow slow changes to be expressed. Names like Aristotle, Lamarck, and even Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin are among these scientists. In her book Darwin’s Ghosts, Rebecca Stott describes these scientists and their struggles to disseminate their ideas without facing retribution from a society dominated by religion. But it is the surprising effect of experiments conducted by Erasmus Darwin on a woman that fascinated me. Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley and John Polidori visited Lord Byron in June 1816, where they discuss all kinds of things. I will let Rebecca Stott tell the story (Where she quotes people I have Italicized the text; the rest is Rebecca Stott’s words:

Rebecca Stott writes: “Percy Shelley, aged twenty-two, not long out of Oxford, has been reading about microscopy, the solar system, magnetism, and electricity. He tells them of a discovery made by Dr. Darwin [Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin] — how in a paste of flour and water you can make tiny organsisms increase in number and size, even without air, and they will come back to life again when dried out. That is how life began, he tells them. Not with a garden in Eden, but with tiny organisms in a pond. Might it not be possible, he speculates, to find a way of harnessing the vital principle that drives the minute water creatures back into life from death.

Mary Godwin, Shelley’s brilliant and intellectually voracious lover……. is interested in theories of life for different reasons. Only 18 and unmarried, she has been pregnant almost continuously since she and Shelley became lovers when she was sixteen. After eloping in 1814 and traveling across Europe with barely any money, she lost her first child, a daughter, at only two weeks old in February 1815; the loss devastated her. “Find my baby dead,” she wrote. “A miserable day.” Pregnant again only eight weeks later, she gave birth to her second child, a boy, William, in January of that year. She is already pregnant again.

Mary — who became Mary Shelley on her marriage to Shelley later that year — described the late-night conversations at the Villa Diodati in her introduction to the revised single-volume edition of Frankenstein in 1831: “They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin…who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case till by some extraordinary means it began to move with a voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth.”

First edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The vermicelli is a misremembering on either her or Shelley’s part. Darwin had actually written “vorticellae”[1] in his notes on spontaneous generation in The Temple of Nature. He was describing a microscopic aquatic filament found in lead gutters that when dried out shows no sign of life but “being put into water, in the space of half an hour a languid motion begins, the globule turns itself about, lengthens itself by degrees and assumes the form of a lively maggot…swimming vigorously through the water in search of food.”

Unable to sleep, her head full of these speculations about life, Mary Shelley dreamed of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy half viral motion.”

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, went on to become a classic, and is considered by many the first Science Fiction novel. Who knew that evolutionary discussions may have played a role in its creation!

The second story I want to highlight relates to a chapter in North American history that is thankfully more or less over with the ousting of Donald J. Trump from the White House. His supporters, including many evangelicals, have seemingly abandoned all societal norms; lies, personal attacks, and bullying became acceptable, as was white supremacist extremism, racism, and misogyny. Many have compared Trump’s reign as comparable to Germany’s Nazi era under Adolf Hitler, but whether or not Trump and Hitler are directly comparable is a subject beyond the scope of this blog. Having said that, Bernd Heinrich, the eminent University of Vermont scientist addressed the issue in his family biographical book The Snoring Bird, and the parallels are striking. Heinrich’s father Gerd, a Hymenopterist focusing on the Family Ichneumonidae, was caught up in the sorry story. Bernd Heinrich wrote:

“For humans, one of the most powerful transforming stimuli is sensing that we are under attack. We close ranks and identify and “enemy,” which requires first of all isolating and identifying “us” as separate from “them.” Desperate situations always demand blame, and in combination with chaos, they then provide the opening for an authority figure who promises to restore order. “Liberties” must be curtailed while enemies, real and imagined, are sought. Then the spin begins, and those who follow are rewarded and those who don’t are punished in direct proportion to the power the leader has attained.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, exploited a disagreement with the French to withdraw from the League of Nations and go it alone. His “genius” was to link loyalty to Hitler to patriotism. Hitler was the “leader,” so according to Goebbels if you were against Hitler, you were against the country, and that was treason. He proclaimed revival of the Christian faith. Every soldier was to wear a belt buckle that said Gott mit uns (“God with us”). Any opposition to the regime was deemed unpatriotic, and dissenting voices in the press and elsewhere were muzzled. Soon other parties were banned because they were deemed anti-German. Still, there was resistance. But when scapegoats were needed, Jews who had positions in public life were thrown out, again because they were “anti-German.” Goebbels rallied university students to burn the books of liberals, to silence opposition to Hitler’s promised path to greatness.

And at the Nuremburg Trials, at the end of the war, Hermann Göring, Hitler’s designated successor, said:

Why, of course the people don’t want war….That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce peacemakers for a lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

It seems that one could easily simply exchange names in the above, and it would ring disturbingly true. From my perspective, we dodged a very unpredictable bullet when Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of the United States.

My final story comes from Kirk Johnson’s The Feather Thief, a book about natural history museums, fly tying, and obsession. But the nugget that particularly resonated with me came from one of the introductory chapters, which described how some of the bird skins came to be at the Natural History Museum at Tring, from where they were stolen by Edwin Rist, a young American musician obsessed with the tying of Victorian style salmon flies. Many of the stolen bird skins had been collected by none other than Alfred Russel Wallace, and as such were irreplacable. But it is Wallace’s thoughts on the value of museums, as well as the importance of conservation, and the threat of extinction that is the key to this nugget. Kirk Johnson writes:

“In all his travels, Wallace captured only five of the thirty-nine known species of Birds of Paradise, one of which, Semiptera wallacii, now bears his name. In an 1863 paper, he explained why he went to such lengths to gather specimens, describing each specimen as “the individual letters which go to make up one of the volumes of our earth’s history; and, as a few lost letters make a sentence unintelligible, so the extinction of the numerous forms of life which the progress of cultivation invariably entails will necessarily render obscure this invaluable record of the past.”

Victorian salmon fly tied by the feather thief, Edwin Rist.

To prevent the loss of the earth’s deep history, Wallace implored the British government to stockpile within its museum as many specimens as possible, “where they may be available for study and interpretation.” The bird skins surely held answers to questions that scientists didn’t yet know to ask, and they must be protected at all costs.

“If this is not done,” he warned, “future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had in our power to preserve.”  He challenged the antievolution religionists, “professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.”

His words could not ring more true today, with funding for Natural History Museums literally going the way of the Dodo!


Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. John Murray, London.

Darwin, Erasmus. 1803. The Temple of Nature; or, the Origin of Society: A Poem, with Philosophical Notes. J. Johnson, London.

Heinrich, Bernd. 2007. The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology, p. 125. HarperCollins, New York.

Johnson, Kirk W. 2019. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, p. 36. Viking, New York.

Stott, Rebecca. 2012. Darwin’s Ghosts. The Secret History of Evolution, pp. 180-182. Spiegel and Grau, New York.

[1] Vorticella is a genus of protist in the Phylum Ciliophora.

Posted in Biology, Birds, Conservation, Science, Scientists | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Species, their names, and the people who named them.

Linnea borealis, the twin flower which Carolus Linnaeus named for himself, apparently.

Reading is a good pastime during the isolation most of us experience due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Recently I have been reading books that grapple with evolution, the species concept, and the naming of species (I also have read about wolves and cougars, making me much more attentive when in the great outdoors). As a student, I always thought of a species as a unique entity, clearly separated from related species by some type of reproductive barrier, whether it be physical, physiological or behavioural. As I learned more and more about biology, the concept of reproductive isolation as a defining characteristic of a species has become increasingly shaky in my mind. While useful for “higher” organisms, it quickly crumbles as we start looking at “lower” life, e.g., bacteria, protists, archaea and fungi. Thus, I now think of the need to define a species as little more than a useful bookkeeping method for humans, but of little actual relevance to ecology or evolution. Reading David Quammen’s “The tangled tree: a radical new history of life” all but put the final nail in the coffin, picking apart the comfortable image of the evolutionary tree and replacing it with a complex network of branches. Quammen tells of the discoveries of evolutionary processes, including those that elucidated Horizontal Gene Transfer and CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a prokaryotic immune system. CRISPR has revolutionized gene editing and is likely to play an enormous role in solving some genetic human health issues, e.g., the treatment of some blood diseases. Impressively, Quammen correctly predicted that a Nobel Prize would go to one or both of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their roles in the discovery of this powerful gene editing technique (The book was published in 2018, and they received the prize in Chemistry this year!). While some of the book gets rather technical, much of it focuses on the personalities, actions and interactions of the scientists behind the discoveries, including the arguments over evolution among these scientists. This makes the book quite enjoyable to read. David Quammen’s book also confirmed my sense of how utterly dependent we are on the myriad of microorganisms that we share our bodies with. Did you know that your body has more microorganism cells than human cells? Essentially, we are not autonomous individuals, but an ecosystem of symbiotes, most of which are commensal or mutualistic, but some that are parasitic. As someone with an at times less than cooperative intestinal microbiome, I certainly understand that better than I care to admit. Thinking back to my undergraduate days in Sweden, this book has been to me the literary equivalent to “Beam me up, Scotty”! (For another timely read by David Quammen, I strongly recommend “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” first published in 2012).

Right now, I am reading Stephen Heard’s delightful “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels” (if you are reading this, Stephen – sorry, but I am reading a library copy). The names of animals and plants, whether common or Latinized, have long interested me, and Heard discusses these in some detail in an engaging, educational, and entertaining style. He is not the first to tackle this topic of course. One of my favourite reads about organismal names goes all the way back to a 1993 Buzzwords column by the inimitable May Berenbaum. There is some overlap between Berenbaum’s column and Heard’s book, e.g., the story behind Strigiphilus garylarsoni and the less palatable story behind Rochlingia hitleri. Apart from that, Berenbaum highlights some names that clearly support that taxonomists are far from stodgy or boring, a fact that Stephen Heard also emphasizes. For example, a quote from Berenbaum’s column:

“A. Menke (1977, Contr. Am. Entomol. Inst. 24) named a species of sphecid wasp Pison eu, which is fairly innocuous with a long “i” but is something else altogether if pronounced with a short “i.” Such actions may well have led to the inclusion in the “Recommendations on the Formation of Names” (Appendix D.I.5) the statement “A zoologist should not propose a name that, when spoken, suggests a bizarre, comical, or otherwise objectional meaning” (p. 193).” (Berenbaum 1993)

Another example is this 2013 blog post or this one. Some of the most entertaining talks I have heard were by taxonomists. Anyway, some years ago, I actually wrote a blog about common names, and before I started reading Stephen Heard’s book, I had started on a 1993 book by Howard Ensign Evans, “Pioneer Naturalists: The Discovery and Naming of North American Plants and Animals”, that I found at the local used bookstore Literacy Central Vancouver Island. This bookstore has the mandate to provide funding for free literacy tutoring, so I like to support them. Evans’ 294 page book includes 84 chapters, all but three about the eponymous naming of various organisms. Like Stephen Heard’s book, it describes the person(s) honoured and the person naming the organism, but with less flair leading to some chapters that are quite short. Nevertheless, if you are interested in these types of stories, both Evans’ and Heard’s books are certainly worth reading.

Metocalea lindgreni, an Aleocharine rove beetle (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae) named for me. Klimaszewski and Pelletier 2004)

I must end by stating that I actually had a species eponymously named for me. It is an obscure rove beetle, Metocalea lindgreni, named by my colleague and friend Jan Klimaszewski (Klimaszewski and Pelletier 2004). Stephen Heard discusses how people respond to having a species named after them, e.g., Gary Larson and Frank Zappa, and from personal experience I can confirm that even though I would not recognize M. lindgreni if it landed on my nose, having it named after me felt like a definite honour. Jan also named another species, Megocalea lemieuxi, for my graduate student, Jeffrey Lemieux, who collected these specimens as part of his Master of Science research. This came about because I contracted Jan to identify the specimens from Jeff’s pitfall trap collections near Smithers, BC. At the time, Jan was associated with BC Research, where he had to find his own funding. Not an easy task for a taxonomist of rove beetles as you may have already guessed. I had just started my new position at the University of Northern BC, and I had some funds that I could use for this.

Taxonomists are unfortunately becoming endangered, in part because of the perception that what they do is not important.  We know very little about the organisms that inhabit this planet, particularly when it comes to invertebrates. We are still discovering previously undescribed large charismatic vertebrate species, e.g., a primate in 2017, and possibly a beaked whale very recently, and there are thousands upon thousands of insects in museum drawers still waiting to be described, with more discovered in nature literally every day. If we don’t know what is out there, how do we know what is important and what is not? We are losing both species that have been described and named, but also species that we do not even know existed, termed “centinelan extinction” by Edward O. Wilson in his book “The Diversity of Life” (Wilson 1992). We have a duty to our descendants to do better.


Berenbaum, M. 1993. Apis, Apis, Bobapis. American Entomologist 39(3): 133-134.

Klimaszewski, J. and G. Pelletier. 2004. Review of the Ocalea group of genera (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae, Aleocharinae) in Canada and Alaska: new taxa, bionomics, and distribution. The Canadian Entomologist , 136(4): 443 – 500. DOI:

Wilson, E.O. 1992. The Diversity of Life, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 440 pp.

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“Return of the Wolf: Conflict and Co-existence” by Paula Wild

A book review

“There’s an important distinction between management of wildlife and management for wildlife” Paul Paquet

I have long had a strong interest in wolves and consider myself fairly knowledgeable about them. I have read a lot about wolves, starting with L. David Mech’s “The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species”, which at the time (1970’s) was probably the definitive work on these fascinating animals. I also wrote a term paper on wolves in my Master of Pest Management degree at Simon Fraser University. But our state of knowledge has changed a lot, and Paula Wild lays out the current reality in her excellent book.

Two young wolves on Vargas Island, near Tofino. These two wolves were involved in a serious attack on a sleeping kayaker in 2000. This and other attacks are described in detail in the book. The wolves were killed shortly after this photograph was taken. Presumably they had been habituated to humans, and perhaps even fed. Photo: Jaqueline Windh.

Living in Prince George, BC, and being out in the wilderness a fair bit, I was always hoping to see wolves, but to my disappointment I never did. The wolf population in that area was supposedly quite robust, but these animals are wary and seem to have an almost unnatural ability to appear and disappear at will. The closest I ever got was some tracks and scats, showing that they were around. I now live on Vancouver Island, which also has a healthy wolf population. In fact, based on Paula Wild’s book, wolves may be more prevalent than you think, even in area inhabited by people.

The sighting of a wolf would be a thrill, to say the least, and because of that most of us naturalists may not react the way we should in order to ensure the safety of both wolves, pets, and people. Based on my previous knowledge, I would not have worried about any aggression from a wolf, as the prevailing thought was that North American wolves did not attack humans. The exception would be attacks by rabid wolves, or old and sick individuals. Paula Wild’s book addresses human-wolf interaction in some detail, and it turns out that the non-aggressiveness of our wolves is more myth than reality. Ms. Wild describes many attacks and aggressive encounters that have occurred historically and very recently, some of them literally in my back yard (Tofino and Port Alberni, for example), and includes a lethal attack on a young man in Saskatchewan in 2010. Most attacks have been by healthy animals, and generally they have been by animals habituated to, or even fed by humans. Habituation can happen quite quickly, requiring only a few encounters where humans remain and watch the animals. This is likely what I would have done to get a photograph or two. The correct behaviour, according to wildlife experts, is to maintain at least 100 m distance, leave quickly, or if necessary, haze the animals by acting aggressively – try to appear large, yelling, throwing rocks or other non-food items while moving a few steps toward the wolves. This seems completely contrary to what we as naturalists would prefer, but the evidence supports the notion that wolves must associate humans with negative experience if we are going to coexist with them. If they don’t, the consequences can be dire. Food habituated wolves generally end up killed when they start attacking and killing pets, sometimes even when the pet is leashed. Like other organisms, wolves will choose the food that requires the least energy output. That includes pets, food left lying about or otherwise left accessible by campers. Dogs should be leashed as they are particularly attractive to wolves – one case describes a wolf trying to entice a dog into the forest by a play-stance, with other wolves waiting out of sight. Farmers and ranchers have to adjust by protecting their animals.

One way in which we should NOT interact with wolves is as pets, whether purebred or as so-called wolfdogs. Wolves are unpredictable once they reach maturity, and while all dogs descend from wolves, they are not dogs. In my opinion it is regrettable when wild animals are kept in captivity. There are more captive tigers in the United States than in the wild! With all the dog breeds available today, I fail to see why anyone would want a wolf.

In addition to what I cover above, Paula Wild’s book about wolves has a lot of important and interesting information. It really is a must-read for anyone spending a lot of time in the forest where wolves are present. As wolf populations re-establish in historic habitats and humans establish homes in the urban/wilderness transition zone, encounters are likely to increase. These magnificent animals deserve a chance to live their lives without the type of persecution they were subjected to in the past (and regrettably are subjected to still through poisoning with non-specific materials like strychnine or shooting from helicopters). Our behaviour towards wolves will determine how they behave around us, and that will ultimately determine their fate.

Posted in Biology, Conservation, Nature | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The role of luck in life success

“In the last few years, a number of studies and books…. have suggested that luck and opportunity may play a far greater role than we ever realized, across a number of fields, including financial trading, business, sports, art, music, literature, and science.” Scott Barry Kaufmann


By Joe Papp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I recently read an article by Scott Barry Kaufmann discussing “The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized, Are the most successful people in society just the luckiest people?” published in March 2018 in the Scientific American. Kaufmann’s article is largely based on a publication by Pluchino et al. (2018), who attempted to quantify luck and talent with some very interesting results*. Their findings fit very nicely with my view, as evidenced by what I wrote four years ago about luck as it applies to my own career in an Entomological Society of Canada blog entitled “Are you feeling lucky today? Is it possible to improve your “luck” in academia?” I firmly believe that you can ‘make your own luck’ in the context of career success. The Roman philosopher Seneca was attributed the quote “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”, and Pluchino et al. (2018) show that this is indeed the case.

Although I mention a number of lucky events in my 2016 blog, it does not cover everything. Here, I will add four lucky events in my career that I did not mention then. The first one happened just after the teaching assistantship ended at the end of the spring term 1977 at Umeå University, which left me with two months with no income just before leaving for Canada. Because I had worked on spider sorting and identification for a PhD student at a field station just north of Umeå, I had gotten to know some of the graduate students and instructors that also did field work there. One of them mentioned that the Umeå Environmental Department were looking for a student to do some stream invertebrate surveys over the summer. The timing was perfect for me, and I had enough qualifications (and a friend who could guide me through the steep part of the learning curve) to do the job, so I was able to take advantage of that opportunity.

The second lucky event came just after I defended my PhD at Simon Fraser University. A colleague who was doing a special post-doctoral fellowship in forestry across town at the University of British Columbia accepted a position to lead an educational program abroad, leaving the position open. The PI had been on my PhD supervisory committee, and offered me to step into that position, which I happily accepted. Again, the timing could not have been more perfect.

The third lucky opportunity came about as a result of my PhD work. Because of an aversion to sticky material, I had invented a trap now called the “Lindgren funnel trap”

DFB trapping standing

Lindgren funnel trap

(Lindgren 1983), which had been adopted by a small spin-off company for a pest management program to control ambrosia beetles (pinhole borers) using pheromone-based mass trapping. Because I had unique experience with that particular trap, I was offered an Industrial post-doc, and later a position as Research Director, which helped me get landed immigrant status and eventually citizenship in Canada.

The fourth opportunity was really two separate, but linked events. The first was that a friend, who was also qualified to apply, sent a small notice regarding a faculty position at the brand-new University of Northern British Columbia. If he had not sent that to me, I may have remained unaware that the position had been posted since I was not really looking for a job at the time. In my position as research director at the pest management company mentioned above, where I had been for 10 years at this point, I had insisted on my right to publish, and as a result I had about 30+ publications at the time the UNBC position became available. This made me qualified enough to be short-listed along with one of my colleagues. Both of us were applied researchers with respectable CV’s, and we were chosen because the search was for team-players rather than superstars. Unfortunately for me I lost out, but this soon turned into my next piece of luck. My colleague’s spouse refused to move to Prince George, an industrial town with a reputation for cold, long winters and pollution from three pulp mills, so the position was offered to me. I was very happy to accept and never looked back over the 21 ½ years that I and my wife spent there. It should also be stated that my wife’s support and enthusiasm was key to whatever success I enjoyed at UNBC – another piece of luck!


Evolution of success for the most succesful (a) and the least successful individual (b). From Pluchino et al. 2018.

It may seem that I had nothing but luck in my career, but my 2016 blog and the above is really looking back through rose-coloured glasses to some extent. There is no question that I have had more than my fair share of luck, but it really was a matter of preparation meeting opportunity in most cases. Pluchino et al. (2018) show that the most successful people have average or better talent, but the most successful people are not the most talented people, but do have luck on their side. Research impact is not correlated with productivity, and the dominant funding strategy to reward past excellence, e.g., exemplified by Canada’s Centers of Excellence and Canada Research Chairs, may not be the most productive use of available research fund. Gordon and Poulin (2009) concluded that NSERC could give every applicant a base grant of $30,000 and forego the enormous cost in time and money of the peer review process without loss of productivity. Similarly, Vaesen and Katzav (2017) calculate how much each researcher would receive if Government research funds were distributed equally to all qualified researchers for the Netherlands, UK, and US, concluding that  Bendiscioli (2019) highlight a number of issues with the peer review-based allocation system, e.g., increasing reviewer fatigue, a tendency to only fund “safe” projects (see also my blog “The inertia of science”), use of questionable metrics such as impact factors, journal quality, number of citations, and h-factors to judge excellence. All of these have their own set of problems which may create unwarranted bias against some researchers (Kumar 2009). In addition, Kaufmann lists some additional factors that are due to bias stemming from human nature that is more disappointing than insightful, e.g.:

Those with last names earlier in the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure at top departments;

The display of middle initials increases positive evaluations of people’s intellectual capacities and achievements;

People with easy to pronounce names are judged more positively than those with difficult-to-pronounce names.”

And to overcome those types of biases, you definitely need some luck!


Bendiscioli, S. 2019. The troubles with peer review for allocating research funding. Funders need to experiment with versions of peer review and decision‐making. EMBO Reports 20:e49472

Gordon R and BJ Poulin. 2009. Cost of the NSERC Science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research, 16: 13-40, DOI: 10.1080/08989620802689821

Kumar, MJ. 2009 Evaluating scientists: citations, impact factor, h-index, online page hits and what else? IETE Technical Review 26:3, 165-168.

Lindgren, BS.  1983.  A multiple funnel trap for scolytid beetles (Coleoptera).  The Canadian Entomologist  115: 299-302.

Pluchino, A., AE Biondo and A Rapisarda. 2018. Talent vs luck: the role of randomness in success and failure. Advances in Complex Systems 21, No. 03n04, 1850014 DOI: 10.1142/S0219525918500145

Vaesen, K and J Katzav. 2017. How much would each researcher receive if competitive government research funding were distributed equally among researchers? PLoSONE 12(9):e0183967.


*There are literally hundreds of papers and blogs discussing the validity of the peer review system.

Posted in Careers, Opinion, Science, Scientists | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The only constant in nature is that it is always changing

Humans are by nature conservative in the sense that we are most comfortable when our environment is stable. Change is frequently viewed as negative. One type of environment that is of conservation concern to European naturalists is the cultural landscape, particularly small wood pastures with scattered or bordering deciduous brush or trees, which are no longer in use for animal husbandry or hay production. These types of habitats have high biodiversity conservation value (Kunttu et al 2019), but provide low economic return, so they have at times been planted to spruce for timber production. In British Columbia, we tend to be more concerned with the preservation of old-growth forests and natural wetlands. In both cases we are trying to preserve the landscape as we know it. We are most comfortable when in a familiar environment.

Cichlid fishes of Lake Malawi in Africa, a wonderful example of the power of evolution.

Nature is not static, however. It is in constant flux, with organismal shifts in a constant cycle that keeps ecosystems healthy. Abiotic and biotic agents interact to force adaptation as conditions change. Darwin and Wallace provided a general mechanism for how this occurs with their theory of natural selection, and we later learned that DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), a wonderfully simple instructional language written with long chains of pairs of four nucleic acids, was the ultimate scaffold upon which all life forms could be expressed through evolution. The power of that is wonderfully demonstrated by the adaptive radiation of cichlid fish in the rift lakes of Africa (Schedel et al. 2019).

Climatic change is one driver of evolutionary change. We know that climate has changed many times in the past, but generally at a very slow rate relative to our current rate of warming. In fact, all five of earth’s mass extinctions, each eliminating 75-95% of life as it existed then, was caused by some type of climate perturbation. Rare catastrophic events have led to widespread and rapid change, e.g., the meteor that led to the global extinction of most dinosaurs and ammonites along with many other organisms, but even that event was in part caused by secondary climatic effects. Current global climate change deniers often bring up the fact that climate has fluctuated throughout the planet’s existence as evidence for their position. However, humans are now severely impacting the environment both directly and indirectly, and at all conceivable scales. The rate of extinctions over the last century vastly exceeds what would be expected in the absence of human influence, supporting the notion that we have entered a sixth mass extinction. Thus, the Anthropocene, the era dominated by humans, is characterized by unprecedented depletion rates of natural resources and an accelerating increase in CO2 levels. Carbon release is further accelerating as permafrost thaws, releasing vast volumes of trapped CO2. This animation from NOAA shows the variation by latitude and the global rate of increase. The result when combined with all other anthropogenic impacts (habitat destruction, pesticides etc.) is unprecedented loss of biodiversity, prompting media to declare insectageddon and bird apocalypse in response to some recent scientific studies sounding the alarm. (I strongly recommend that you read this and some follow-up posts by Manu Saunders on her excellent blog site “Ecology is not a dirty word” and this by Brian McGill before accepting the media reports at face value.)

When we think of evolution, we generally envision a slow process over many decades, centuries, millennia or even longer. We are of course familiar with resistance evolving to pesticides in insects, and bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics. Evidence is starting to surface that at least some higher animals are able to evolve fairly rapidly if the selection pressure is strong enough. Humans have had a hand in this for a long time, but for the most part by intentional selection as part of the domestication process of animals and plants. The dog evolving from the wolf into innumerable races that seem to have few, if any, wolf-like characteristics, and crop improvement for increased yield are some familiar examples. Darwin bred fancy pigeons in his attempts to understand the process of natural selection. We have already caused the extinction of many animals through over-exploitation, and this is still a major threat to the continued existence of numerous at-risk species. In addition, humans are now directly causing unintentional very rapid evolutionary adaptation in some animal populations through activities causing extreme selection pressure. This article summarizes the issues quite well, and provides some interesting examples. Below I will highlight a few additional examples that I am aware of.

Tuskless elephants

African elephants have been subject to extensive poaching for their tusks, which are sought after in China for carving and jewellery. Males are particularly sought after because they have larger tusks than females. Females are also killed, however. In some areas, e.g., Mozambiques Gorongosa National Park and Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, the  pressure by poaching on the population has been severe, leading to a much higher level of female tusklessness than in  areas with little or no poaching.

Levels of tuskless females in African elephants. From

Tusks are used for a number of tasks, but it appears that tuskless females manage well without them. Interestingly, female Indian elephants do not have tusks, possibly as a consequence of historic hunting pressure.

Rapid evolution in sea stars

Sea star wasting disease
Pisaster ochraceus affected by sea star wasting syndrome. From

In 2013 large numbers of sea stars along the Pacific coast of North America were found to essentially disintegrate and die for no apparent reason. The problem persisted into 2014, leading to a rapid decline in the number of sea stars. A paper by Hewson et al. indicated a densovirus as a causal agent, but that is was later confirmed only for the sunflower star, Pycnopodia helianthoides (Hewson et al. 2018). A marine heating event is also implicated, but the ultimate cause of what is now called Sea Star Wasting Syndrome is elusive. Recovery among some populations, e.g., the common ochre sea star, was shown to be due to rapid genetic changes (Schiebelhut et al. 2018). This extremely rapid evolution may indicate that some organisms have the capacity to adapt to environmental changes relatively rapidly, which may be cause for some level of hope.

Bird evolution resulting from anthropogenic activities

Using a data set of over 70,000 migratory birds collected over four decades, most killed by window strikes, Weeks et al. (2020) found that increasing temperatures have led to a decrease in body size, but an increase in wing length. We hypothesize that the increase in wing length is a compensatory adaptation to the reduced body size, which would impact migration due to an increased metabolic cost of flight.

In another study on cliff swallows occupying roadside nesting sites (bridges, overpasses etc.) over three decades, Brown and Bomberger Brown (2013) found that road kill of swallows declined rapidly. Birds that were killed had longer wings than the general population, which the authors hypothesize may be due to selection for short-winged birds that are better able to avoid collisions. They acknowledge that other selection pressures, e.g., severe weather events and a change in the insect fauna, may also have contributed. Nevertheless, their study indicates that evolutionary responses to changing conditions can sometimes occur rapidly.

A particularly interesting example of rapid evolution is the “re-evolution” of an extinct species of rail on Aldabra, a large coral atoll in the Seychelles. A subspecies of the white-throated rail, the Aldabra rail has gone extinct several times due to sea level rise which has submerged the atoll, but has re-emerged subsequent to re-occupation by white-throated rails presumably from Madagascar. White-throated rails are “persistent colonizers”, meaning that they tend to emigrate en masse due to unknown triggers. The Aldabra rail has “re-evolved” in the sense that flight has been lost and the birds have become heavier. The evidence for this comes from comparing fossil and modern humerus bones showing that pre-flood rails were similar to the Aldabra rail as it exists today, whereas post-flood rails were in the process of losing flight. The process took 20,000 years, but that is still rapid in evolutionary terms.

There are many additional examples, but these may be some of the easiest to relate to as the animals are charismatic. Bull and Maron (2016) provide an overview that may be of interest, or you can read this overview for the Reader’s Digest version.


Brown, C R and M. Bomberger Brown. 2013. Where has all the road kill gone? Current Biology. 23, R233–R234.

Bull JW and M Maron. 2016. How humans drive speciation as well as extinction. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 283, 20160600. (doi:10.1098/rspb.2016.0600)

Hewson, I, JB Button, BM Gudenkauf, et al. 2014. Densovirus associated with sea-star wasting disease and mass mortality. PNAS 201416625; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1416625111

Hewson, I, K Bistolas, SI Kalia et al. 2018. Investigating the Complex Association Between Viral Ecology, Environment, and Northeast Pacific Sea Star Wasting. Frontiers in Marine Science 5: 77 DOI=10.3389/fmars.2018.00077

Hume, JP and D Martill. 2019. Repeated evolution of flightlessness in Dryolimnas rails (Aves: Rallidae) after extinction and recolonization on Aldabra. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 186: 666–672,

Schedel, FDB., Z Musilova and UK Schliewen. 2019. East African cichlid lineages (Teleostei: Cichlidae) might be older than their ancient host lakes: new divergence estimates for the east African cichlid radiation. BMC Evolutionary Biology 19: 94.

Schiebelhut, LM, JB Puritz, and MN Dawson. 2018. Decimation by sea star wasting disease and rapid genetic change in a keystone species, Pisaster ochraceus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(27): 7069-7074; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1800285115.

Weeks, BC, DE Willard, M Zimova, AA Ellis, ML Witynski, M Hennen, and BM Winger. 2020. Shared Morphological Consequences of Global Warming in North American Migratory Birds. Ecology Letters, 23(2): 316-325. doi: 10.1111/ele.13434.

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Recommended Reads – For Rainy Days/Covid-19 Isolation Activity Part II

Here is my second installment of books that I have enjoyed reading.

Nature’s Argonaut: Daniel Solander 1733-1782 by Edward Duyker. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press. 1998. 400 pages. Daniel Solander was the de facto naturalist on Cook’s first voyage, although Joseph Banks, who financed the trip, tends to get the credit. Solander is little known largely because of his meagre (non-existant?) publication record, in spite of a large volume of work he did on New Zealand and Australian fauna and Flora. Consequently, he is well known down under, but largely forgotten in Europe and North America. Solander Island, a small island off the west coast of Vancouver Island which is now an ecological reserve was named after him, however. There is also a Solander Point off Banks Island in the Hecate Strait. Solander was born in Piteå, Sweden, where I also grew up – hence my interest in him. He was a disciple of Linnaeus’ but spent his career in England, where he is buried. Duyker’s book details his life, which includes some rumours of espionage, and even that he may have been the illegitimate son of Linnaeus as his birth was 9 months after Linnaeus had stayed with Solander’s parents! This book may not be readily available in North America, but is well worth reading if you enjoy biographical books.

Spillover : Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen. New York : W.W. Norton & Co. 2012. 591 pages. This has to be one of the most relevant books you could read at this time of Covid-19 fears. Quammen details the incredibly difficult work done by scientists to trace the source of zoonotic diseases such as Hendra, Ebola and AIDS, and how pathogens make the leap from animals to humans. Not a book that will cheer you up, but highly recommended anyway.

Spix’s Macaw : The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird by Tony Juniper. London : Fourth Estate. 2002.  296 pages. This book, which I describe as a “certifiably depressing book” in this blog, describes how greed and wildlife smuggling has resulted in the loss of this beautiful, rare macaw species from the wild. It also discusses attempts to re-introduce the species, which eventually failed due to habitat loss etc. A few other books that deal with wildlife smuggling are:

Forbidden Creatures : Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets by Peter Laufer. Guilford, Conn. : Lyons Press. 2010. 250 pages.

The Dangerous World of Butterflies : the startling subculture of criminals, collectors, and conservationists by Peter Laufer. Guilford, Conn. : Lyons Press. 2009. xvi, 271 pages.

Books about birds

As a semi-avid birdwatcher, one of my favourite pass times is reading about birds. Here is a sample of what is available:

Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence by Nathan Emery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2016. 192 pages.

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. London: Penguin Press. 2016. 352 pages.

Being called a bird brain has traditionally been seen as a rather severe insult, but as it turns out, it should be seen as a compliment. Birds have remarkable abilities in spite of their diminutive brains, in part because their neuron density is much higher than in mammals. These books are fascinating reads, and may serve to teach us some humility regarding our place on the evolutionary tree.

The Thing With Feathers : The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker. New York : Riverhead Books. 2014. xiv, 288 pages.

Birding Without Borders : An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2017. ix, 326 pages.

The Wonder of Birds : What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future by Jim Robbins. New York : Spiegel & Grau. 2017. 352 pages.

Feathers : The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson. New York : Basic Books. 2011. xvi, 336 pages.

All of the above books deal with different aspects of birding and birds. A book I found particularly (and surprisingly) engaging was “Feathers” by Thor Hanson. The author has a PhD in biology, and hence he has a firm understanding of ecology and evolution. Yet his writing style is engaging, with amusing personal anecdotes weaved in among scientific explorations. Below you will find several other of his books, all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

Conservation and extinction

The Sixth Extinction : An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. New York : Henry Holt and Company. 2014. 319 pages.

And No Birds Sing : The Story of an Ecological Disaster in a Tropical Paradise by Mark Jaffe. New York : Simon & Schuster. 1994. 283 pages.

The Song of the Dodo : Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions by David Quammen. New York: Scribner. 2004. 702 pages.

Driven to Extinction : The Impact of Climate Change on Biodiversity by Richard Pearson. New York : Sterling. 2011. 263 pages.

The above books deal with different aspects of the sixth extinction, the anthropogenic process we are now in. My favourite is probably “And no birds sing”, the story of how an accidentally introduced snake on Guam eliminated birds, and how the inertia of science  got in the way of the truth (discussed here).


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A miner bee (Andrenidae) in our garden.

Keeping the Bees : Why All Bees are at Risk and What We Can Do to Save Them by Laurence Packer. Toronto : HarperCollins Canada. 2010. 272 pages.

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees by Thor Hanson. New York: Basic Books. 2018. 304 pages.

Our Native Bees: North America’s Endangered Pollinators and the Fight to Save Them by Paige Embry.  Portland, OR: Timber Press. 2018. 224 pages.

All three of these books are highly recommended. The book by eminent Canadian entomologist Laurence Packer is filled with funny anecdotes, and Hanson and Embry, both from the Pacific Northwest but with vastly different educational backgrounds, provide lots of facts in an easy to read format.


The Triumph of Seeds : How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson. New York: Basic Books, 2015. xxv, 277 pages.

I have to admit that I probably would not have picked up this book had I not enjoyed Thor Hanson’s writing so much in the above-mentioned books. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed. You get a new appreciation for how plants have solved the issues of dispersal and competition from reading this interesting book.

I have also read a number of other books that I have enjoyed over the past few years, but I am limiting these blogs to books with a naturalist slant. I am looking forward with anticipation for a few other books, including one in progress by Thor Hanson, and also “The Last Butterflies” by Nick Haddad (reviewed here and here). The books I have mentioned should hopefully get you through the self-isolation until we can return to a normal existence again. Meanwhile, stay healthy.

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Recommended Reads – For Rainy Days/Covid-19 Isolation Activity Part I

As someone with “underlying health issues” and a compromised immune system, I feel that the Covid-19 pandemic has really thrown a spanner in the works of my spring activity-plan. I am sure that many naturalists are in a similar situation. Outdoor activity is of course safe assuming you abide by the physical distancing mandated by the government, and in my case I have confined my activities mostly to our backyard. The swallow bird houses have been set up, and I have built a bumblebee box to see if I can entice a queen to take up residence in our yard. Ideally, I should have put some mouse-urine contaminated bedding in the box, but the pandemic has prevented me from visiting a pet store, so I’ll go without this year. Many bumblebee species establish their colonies in mouse nests, which the queen presumably finds by the odor of mouse urine etc. My mason bees started emerging earlier than I intended because I failed to transfer them from my unheated garage to the fridge in time, so many have been released into a largely bee-suitable flower-less garden. Our yellow plum is starting to bloom, but so far I have seen mostly sweat bees (Halictidae) and various flies on the flowers.

When outdoor activity is not an option, reading a good book may be an option, and so is blogging it turns out (breaking my period of writer’s block!) Over the past few years I have read a number of books of potential interest to naturalists that I thought I would share for those days when outdoor activity is less attractive. Some of my favourite books have been the subject of earlier blogs, so I will provide the URL for the relevant blog in those cases. So, here we go:


Orca photographed at a time when pandemics were not our focus!

 Directly relevant to BC

Basking Sharks : The Slaughter of BC’s Gentle Giants by Scott Wallace and Brian Gisborne. Vancouver : New Star Books, 2006. 92 pages. Every summer BC waters used to be visited by hundreds of the world’s 2nd largest fish, the basking shark. Because they feed at the surface, filtering small organisms while swimming with their cavernous mouth wide open, they tended to get tangled up in fishing equipment, and were therefore considered pests. A government sponsored eradication program ensued, which is why we no longer get to enjoy these amazing creatures. This is a natural history story that we should all be aware of as a lesson.

Orca: How We Came To Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator by  Jason M. Colby. New York : Oxford University Press, 2018. viii, 394 pages. This book by UVic professor Jason Colby details the history of killer whale captures and display in the Salish Sea area from the harpooning of Moby Doll. It shows how as we learned about the social life of these amazing animals, our attitudes changed from deep rooted fear to fascination and ultimately what can only be described as emotional bonds.

Orca: The Whale Called Killer by Erich Hoyt. Richmond Hill: Firefly; Revised Edition 1990. 292 pages. A somewhat dated but still highly readable account of killer whale biology based on direct observations of northern resident orcas.

The Killer Whale Who Changed the World by Mark Leiren-Young. 2016. Vancouver: Greystone Books/David Suzuki Institute. 208 pp. This book shows how the attempt to kill a young killer whale, named Moby Doll, so that a life-size model could be made for Vancouver Aquarium ended up as the start of our transformation from Orca-haters to Orca-lovers.

Return of The Sea Otter : The Story of the Animal That Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast by Todd McLeish. Seattle : Sasquatch Books, 2018. xii, 238 pages. Another book about a charismatic animal driven to the edge of extinction because of its incredible fur. The book describes the attempts at re-introduction, which thankfully have succeeded, at least in more remote places. In addition to biology, the author describes perceived negative effects on coastal communities as the otter populations rebounded.

Books by, or with biographical information about famous naturalists.

Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck by Eric Enno Tamm. Vancouver: Raincoast Books. 365 pages. I have long been a big Steinbeck fan, and one of the characters featuring in his books “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday” was “Doc”, modelled on Ed Ricketts. I have blogged about Ricketts in this blog, where I also mention a second book, Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts, edited by and with an introduction by Katharine Rodgers, followed by a collection of letters written by Ricketts himself.

The Invention of Nature. Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. New York: Vintage Books. 2015. 576 pages. This is a must read for any naturalist in my opinion. We owe a lot to von Humboldt, and he deserves a place in the limelight along with Darwin and Wallace as I describe in this blog .

The Heretic in Darwin’s Court : The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace by Ross A. Slotten. New York: Columbia University Press. 2004. 640 pages. Wallace has mostly existed in Darwin’s shadow, and until relatively recently, his contributions to the theory of natural selection was mostly forgotten. This book shows what a remarkable man he was, and how his timely manuscript sent to Darwin probably led to the prominence of Darwin’s masterpiece. Read more in this blog .

Three Books Entirely or Partially About Mary Anning.

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution by Donald R. Prothero. New York: Columbia University Press. 2015. 408 pages. Covered in this blog.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. London: Penguin Books. 2010. 320 pages. (Novel)

The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling. London: St. Martin’s Press. 2011. 256 pages.

Mary Anning was born to a cabinetmaker and his wife in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset, now part of the Jurassic Coast. At an early age she became a skilled fossil hunter, and during her relatively short life she contributed a number of important fossils to science. She was remarkable in that she gained some level of recognition at a time when women were not at all part of the scientific enterprise. Mary Anning’s name deserves to be remembered, and these books are well worth reading. A bit more about the Chevalier and Emling books can be found at the beginning of the Wallace blog linked above.

Charles Darwin

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin (many different versions)

Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History’s Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough by Rebecca Stott. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2003. 256 pages.

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (many different versions)

Darwin’s lost world : the hidden history of animal life by Martin Brasier. Oxford : Oxford University Press. 2009. xiv, 304 pages.

Darwin’s backyard : how small experiments led to a big theory by James T. Costa. New York: W.W. Norton. 2017. 250 pages. (Including do-it-yourself experiments).

I have listed the first three of these books in a particular order because I think it is important to get a measure of the impressions that shaped Charles Darwin (The voyage) and his preparation and struggles as he formulated his theory (Darwin and the barnacles) before reading “On the origin of species”. Personally, I was simply in awe of his abilities and accomplishments at a time when accumulating knowledge and corresponding with colleagues, things that take very little time today, required months and years of hard work. To do this when ill, as Darwin did (sea sick on the Beagle and later suffering from what may have been Chagas’ disease, acquired in South America during one of his excursions.

In the next blog I will cover some books I have enjoyed on conservation, birds and pollinators,

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Observations by a Backyard Naturalist III: Insects

“Every kid has a bug period… I never grew out of mine.”

Edward O. Wilson

When we consider biodiversity, no single taxonomic group that we can readily observe comes close to the insects. The estimates of the number of extant species ranges from a low of 1.5 million to a high of 30 million, but the latest estimates point to about 5.5 million species (Stork 2018).   It should be noted that there is considerable uncertainty in these estimates because of under-sampling, e.g., northern Canada has been quite poorly sampled, and cryptic diversity, i.e., parasitic species are poorly known and difficult to study (Forbes et al. 2018).  There is no great surprise, then, that our gardens and homes are alive with insects and other arthropods. A recent study discovered hundreds of insect and other arthropod species in urban and suburban homes in Raleigh, North Carolina (Bertone et al. 2016). A similar survey in a single home in Toronto resulted in the discovery of 112 species of arthropods (The Great Wild Indoors). Taking all organisms into account including all three domains, Larsen et al. (2017) in an interesting paper estimated total species richness at between one and six billion (one billion = one thousand million). If you like me learned about biology many years ago, you might not recognize many of the different taxa now. Anyway, they concluded that insects

Larsen et al anewestimate

Estimates of biodiversity by Wilson (1992), Mora et al. (2011) and Larsen et al. (2017).  From Larsen et al. (2017).

comprise less than 8 % of total diversity as do fungi and protists, respectively, while fully 78% of diversity comprise bacteria! Of all these organisms, we have named a measly 1.5 million or so, and with taxonomists seemingly declining so fast that they would likely be categorized as “Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) if they were a species of animal, I don’t see us ever describing and naming all insects, let alone all organisms.

Diversity of that magnitude makes your head spin, but here I am only fortunately only concerned with organisms that can be readily seen without the aid of microscopes, which has plenty of diversity for the casual naturalist to cope with. Thefocus with our garden is to make it ‘pollinator friendly’, and I am pleased to say that we have a vibrant and varied community of pollinators. The obvious way of doing this is of course to plat a variety of favoured flowering plants so that nectar and pollen sources are available throughout the summer. But there are other ways to enhance pollinators as well. For example, those pesky weed flowers in your lawn are actually important for many pollinators – a perfectly manicured lawn is not! For example, a number of solitary bee species nest in the ground, so if you have a lush, weed free lawn, you are depriving them

Garden April 2 2016-2956 cropped

A small bee in the species-rich Family Andrenidae. These bees are solitary and nest in burrows in the soil.

of nesting habitat. If you want wild pollinators, it is important to provide areas where they can nest, e.g., areas with bare soil or sparse vegetation. Our lawn is neglected at best, which leaves it thin enough in spots to serve as nesting sites for mining bees and sweat bees (Family Andrenidae and Halictidae, respectively). I also keep mason bees, so called because they separate their brood cells with a mud wall, and consequently they need a source of mud to create those walls.

Many species of bumble bee use abandoned mouse burrows for nesting; they may

Harewood Plains May 21 2018-9417 cropped

A queen of the striking yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, about to enter a rodent burrow to nest in. This species is now one of the most common species on Vancouver Island

occasionally use artificial bumble bee boxes, but the occupancy rate tends to be very low. A recent student talk out of Gerhard Gries’ lab at my Alma Mater, Simon Fraser University, may offer some hope for improvement, however, so I intend to give some bumble bee boxes a try next year. I won’t give anything away here though – stay tuned for official news from the student doing the work!

The word “pollinator” is generally associated with the word “bee”, which in turn is associated with the non-native, semi-domesticated honey bee, Apis mellifera. In terms of wild bees, there are close to 500 species, and likely more, in British Columbia alone (Sheffield and Heron 2018). Some are familiar to most people, particularly the eusocial species, e.g., bumble bees. The vast majority are solitary or communal, nesting in the ground or in wood. Examples of such bees include the leafcutter and mason bees (Megachilidae), miner bees (Andrenidae), and sweat bees (Halictidae), all of which are common. But pollinators include many other groups of insects. Members of another group of the Order Hymenoptera, the wasps also contribute to pollination to some extent, but not nearly as much as bees as they lack the adaptations for pollen collection. This vast group of Hymenoptera species comprises a plethora of interesting and often beautiful garden visitors. Some are predators, e.g., the yellowjackets and hornets, but most are parasitoids, which means that they use live insects or other arthropods as food for their larvae, but unlike the true parasites, the victim is eventually killed. The bee

Garden May-June 2016-3154

A bee wolf, Philanthus crabriformis

wolf, Philanthus crabroniformis (?), which is common here, uses various bees as hosts. Another common visitor is the American sand wasp, Bembix americana (Crabronidae), which uses flies to provision their nests. Occasionally, a green/blue  jewel will make an appearance.  This may be a cuckoo wasp (Chrysididae), which are kleptoparasites in the nests of other bees. They are heavily sclerotized and can roll up in a protective ball should they get attacked by the host species. There are way too many interesting species among the Hymenoptera, and I have to confess that the diversity is somewhat overwhelming, even to an entomologist.

Flies (Order Diptera) are particularly abundant flower visitors; they may not be as


A hover fly, Family Syrphidae, in the genus Heliophilus.

efficient as bees, but they do contribute. Sometimes you may not realize that you are looking at a fly, rather than a bee or a wasp, because they can be convincing mimics. For example, hover flies (Family Syrphidae) are frequently black and yellow and can fool the casual observer. Non-mimic flies, like blow flies (Calliphoridae), flesh flies (Sarcophagidae), house flies (Muscidae) and parasitic flies (Tachinidae) are also frequent flower visitors, as are any number of smaller species. Another prominent and familiar group is the butterflies (which are even loved, unlike most other insects) and their nocturnal cousins, the moths (Order Lepidoptera). For most people, butterflies are always welcome visitors with their striking colours and dipsy-doodle flight. In our yard, the diversity has been somewhat disappointing. We have all three swallowtails that occur here (western tiger, Papilio rutulus; pale, P. eurymedon; and anise swallowtail, P. zelicaon), and we sometimes see Lorquin’s admiral, Limenitis lorquini, painted lady, V. cardui,

Lorquin's admiral-9487 cropped

Lorquin’s admiral, Limenitis lorquini

and frequently cabbage white, Pieris rapae. On one occasion each we have seen a mylitta crescent, Lycaena helloides, and a pine white butterfly, Neophasia menapia. We also have had three species in the family Lycaenidae (blues and coppers), and lots of woodland skippers, Ochlodes sylvanoides.  A great quick-guide to the butterflies of southern Vancouver Island is available. Finally, there are beetles, ants, and some other groups that may visit flowers more or less regularly. Some definitely contribute as pollinators, e.g., the Yellow Velvet Beetle, Lepturobosca chrysocoma (Cerambycidae, Lepturinae), while others may do little for the flower in the return for the treat.

Apart from pollinators, there are a host of other insects which are more or less welcome in a garden. In our garden, one that definitely falls in the latter category is the western subterranean termite (Reticulitermes hesperus). Builders have an annoying habit to bury

Western subterranean termite-3309

Emergence of reproductive western subterranean termites, Reticulitermes hesperus

leftover wood around construction sites, which in areas with termites is essentially an invitation to the termites to move in. We have annual nuptial emergence events from our backyard lawn, and I have spent about $4,000 and considerable sweat equity to replace a retaining wall and a privacy screen fence which were close to falling down due to these little cellulose-consuming fiends.

Also in the Order Hymenoptera along with bees and wasps, ants are of course ever present. While I have only observed them casually, usually as we dig up a nest when planting something, we have a number of species from several genera in the subfamily Formicinae (Formica and Lasius spp.), a few in the Myrmicinae, (likely Myrmica and or Leptothorax spp.), and one species in the Dolichoderinae. This is the diminutive but pesky odorous house ant, Tapinoma sessile, a native ant that is a frequent home invader, widely distributed, and invasive in Hawaii (unfortunately a hotbed of exotic invaders; see my blog “A naturalist in Hawaii Part III: Attack by the aliens”).

Speaking of invasives, there is no shortage of exotic species in Nanaimo gardens. Some of the most obvious ones are the European paper wasp, Polistes dominula, which most non-biologists would simply call a yellowjacket wasp. These somewhat delicate and (fortunately) relatively non-aggressive wasps build open paper nests in any protected spot they can fine, e.g., my bat house. Another alien that shows up almost wherever you look is the European earwig, Forficula auricularia. While they can be a bit of a nuisance, these insects are actually quite interesting. They are thigmotactic (seek out tight cracks etc.), which led to the idea that they like to crawl into people’s ears, which may explain the odd common name. They have unique hind wings, which are normally folded under the tegmina (=leathery wing covers), which are modified forewings with the same function as the elytra of beetles. Earwig cerci have been modified as pincers, which they can use in defense, male dominance contests, to capture prey, and to help fold the wings. You can tell the sex of an earwig by looking at the pincers; females have relatively straight cerci, whereas in males they are curved.

One of my favourite exotics is the European wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum. This

Lavender bees-3394 cropped

European wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum

member of the Family Megachilidae (leafcutter and mason bees) is rather entertaining as males patrol their favourite patch of flowers such as lamb’s ear, Stachys byzantina, chasing away anything that attempts to land. Lamb’s ear has very hairy leaves, and female wool carder bees collect the hairs to line their nests, which they establish in pre-existing cavities.

A number of beetle species are also exotics. Examples are Rhagonycha fulva (Cantharidae), an introduced soldier beetle from Europe, and Pterostichus melanarius, possibly the most common of all ground beetles, at least in urban and suburban areas. These species are fairly benign, but some new exotics that may cause severe economic damage are on their way, unfortunately. The brown marmorated stink bug, Halyomorpha halys, which has already arrived, and the spotted wing Drosophila, Drosophila suzukii, which is present in the Okanagan, have the potential to severely impact fruit and berry production on Vancouver Island. The stink bug, which is already established on the mainland and has been found on Vancouver Island, is also a significant nuisance insect where it has established in eastern North America. Also, a nest of the giant Asian hornet, Vespa mandarinia, was detected and destroyed recently in Nanaimo. If this species becomes established in BC, it could be very bad news for people and honey bees alike! Among intentially introduced exotics, the Cinnabar moth, Tyria jacobaeae, a biologial control agent of tansy ragwort, Jacobaea vulgaris, is eye-catching as both larvae and adults display aposematic colours. It also has the distinction of having given Cinnabar Valley its name!

I could go on for much longer, but I hope you get the gist – we have a lot of biodiversity right here in our backyard! If you pay attention, you are likely to find a lot more than you thought where you live! Start exploring the little creatures that run the world in addition to the charismatic (but species poor) megafauna!


Bertone, M.A., M. Leong, K.M. Bayless, T.L.F. Malow, R.R. Dunn, and M.D. Trautwein. 2016. Arthropods of the great indoors: characterizing diversity inside urban and suburban homes. PeerJ 4:e1582

Forbes, A.A., R.K. Bagley, M.A. Beer, A.C. Hippee and H.A. Widmayer . 2018. Quantifying the unquantifiable: why Hymenoptera, not Coleoptera, is the most speciose animal order. BMC Ecology  18: 21, 11 pages

Larsen, B.B., E.C. Miller, M.K. Rhodes, and J.J. Wiens. 2017. Inordinate fondness multiplied and redistributed: the number of species on earth and the new pie of life. The Quarterly Review of Biology 92: 229-265.

Mora, C., D.P. Tittensor, S. Adl, A.G.B. Simpson, and B. Worm. 2011. How many species are there on earth and in the ocean? PLoS Biology 9(8): e1001127.

Sheffield, C.S. and J.M. Heron. 2018. The bees of British Columbia (Hymenoptera: Apoidea, Apiformes). Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia 115: 44-85.

Stork, N.E. 2018. How many species of insects and other terrestrial arthropods are there on earth? Annual Review of Entomology 63: 31 -45.

Wilson, E.O., 1992. The effects of complex social life on evolution andbiodiversity. Oikos 63: 13–18.



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Observations by a Backyard Naturalist II: Invertebrates Other than Insects

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

Henry David Thoreau

For as long as I can remember, insects, spiders and other arthropods have fascinated me.

Staffan jagar smakryp

My typical pose as a kid.

Some of my earliest memories include watching huge European fishing spiders (Dolomedes fimbriatus) at a dock on a lake where my uncle had a cabin. Many years later I kept house spiders (Agelenidae) that I found in the basement of our apartment building in jars in my bedroom. I was fortunate to be able to turn this childhood fascination into a career.

In the first installment of this blog topic, I discussed vertebrates in our backyard in south Nanaimo. It is the invertebrates that really dominate in terms of diversity, however, and in this part I will focus on non-insect invertebrates. No matter how often you are out there looking, there are always new discoveries waiting for you. I have never been much of a collector, and in my old age I have developed an aversion to killing living even the tiniest of creatures, so I often cannot identify what I find. The emergence of iNaturalist has vastly improved the odds of identifying plants and animals, even if it often is only possible to Order, Family or Genus.

So what is out there? There are earth worms of course – most of these are actually invasive as most native species went extinct during the last ice age. See the eFauna checklist for specifics. If you look under pieces of wood, rocks and other moisture-retaining features, you will find a variety of organisms that require a moist environment

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Pillbugs, presumably Armadillidium vulgare, showing their ability to roll up. I am unsure what this pair was doing, perhaps mating!

to survive. Sowbugs and pillbugs, which are Crustaceans, i.e., they are related to crabs and shrimp, are very common. Two sowbug species, the European Sowbug (Oniscus asellus), and the Common Rough Woodlouse (Porcellio scaber), are particularly common under any piece of wood (hence one of the other many names, wood louse), and the Common Pill-bug (Armadillidium vulgare), is also relatively common. The latter rolls up into a ball like an armadillo when disturbed, which explains the generic name. All three are introduced. They have evolved behavioural, morphological and physiological adaptations for life out of water, with some groups having evolved several types of primitive lungs. Several species of centipede (Chilopoda) and millipede (Diplopoda) can also be found under rocks and pieces of wood, although one occasional visitor, the Yellow-spotted or Cyanide Millipede (Harpaphe haydeniana) can often be seen in the open. The name refers to defensive secretions, which are advertised by the millipede with its contrasting black and yellow aposematic (=warning) colours. Centipedes are predatory whereas millipedes are scavengers. They are quite easily separated as millipedes have two pairs of leg per segment (Greek diplos = double) whereas centipedes have one pair. The common names refer to their numerous legs, although neither lives up to the count indicated (100 and 1000, respectively). Together they make up the Subphylum Myriapoda.

Similar to the isopods, snails and slugs, the Pulmonates (Latin Pulmo = lung), which comprise a subgroup (previously a Subclass or Order) of the mollusk Class Gastropoda, are much too common. The name refers to the primitive “lung” they possess to enable them to live in a terrestrial environment. If you look carefully on a live slug or snail, you will see a small opening on the right side. This is the pneumostome (Greek pneumo = lung stóma = mouth ), through which air is drawn into the highly vascularized mantle cavity. In terms of species, introduced Grove snails (Cepaea nemoralis) vary from a plain brown

Grove snail

Light phase Grove snail.

shell to a pretty cream with or without dark stripes. Most striking among the slugs are the massive Pacific Banana slugs (Ariolimax columbianus), as well as large slugs in the Arion ater group, which are introduced. These giants can make quick work of plants, so they are usually unceremoniously moved into the field behind our yard.

The arachnid fauna, which has always fascinated me, is very diverse. Among my favourite group, the jumping spiders (Family Salticidae), I have found 4-5 species, the

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Salticus scenicus, the zebra jumping spider.

most common of which are the Zebra jumping spider (Salticus scenicus) and the Flat California jumper, Platycryptus californicus. The latter finds its way into the house with amazing regularity, and I generally leave them or gently move them outdoors. Jumping spiders have numerous characteristics that make them worthy of your attention. They are highly visual, some have shown astounding intelligence for such diminutive creatures, and their courting rituals are both fascinating and entertaining (I highly recommend a google search for ‘peacock spider’ videos by Jürgen Otto). Males in particular sometimes sport some pretty gaudy colours to charm the females, an evolutionary parallel to male birds. Wolf spiders (Family Lycosidae) are ever-present roaming hunters most often seen as they bask in the sun, scurrying into hiding at the slightest disturbance. Like the jumping spiders, they are highly visual, albeit not possessing the visual acuity of salticids. In the summer you may spot females carrying an egg sac around with them, and once the spiderlings emerge, she will let them hitchhike on her abdomen for a short period. This may surprise you, but in fact many types of spiders are very good mothers – the males do not contribute at all after mating, if they even survive that adventure!

The giant house spider, Eratigena atrica, a much less charming and somewhat scary-looking but harmless member of the Family Agelenidae, is another semi-frequent house guest. Females generally stay in their funnel webs, which they build in protected areas, so it is the males that make unwelcome appearances at times. The garage is home to numerous Cellar spiders (Pholcus phalangiodes), which are true spiders in the family Pholcidae, unlike the Harvestman ‘spiders’. False black widows, Steatoda grossa, which share the Family Theridiidae with its more famous Latrodectus species relatives, are generally making their homes in garages or basements. Like the black widows, false widows make tanglefoot webs that are ideal for ensnaring hapless passersby like ants, other spiders, or isopods.

Moving back outdoors, there is no end to the diversity. In the fall, orb web spiders in the family Aranaeidae become extremely common. The specimens we see most often are females, which with their more or less colourful swollen abdomens look more imposing

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An unknown species of orbweb spider in the genus Aranaeus

than they really are. As with many creatures around human habitation, it is an introduced species, the Cross spider, Araneus diadematus, that is the most common species on southern Vancouver Island. Another common (but rarely seen) introduction is the Woodlouse hunter, Dysdera crocata (Family Dysderidae), which sports massive (relative to the size of the spider) fang-armed chelicerae (jaws). This species can be encountered under wood or buried in loose soil, and as the name implies, it specializes on wood lice. Looking a little further up, specifically on flowers, you may find the common Goldenrod spider (Misumena vatia), a sit-and-wait predator that is a member of

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A female Goldenrod spider, Misumena vatia, with an unfortunate victim.

the crab spider family (Thomisidae). They have some limited ability to change colour to match the flower they are on. This species catches pollinators and other flower visitors, but the impact is not significant enough to cause any harm. While doing some clearing

Coriarachne brunneipes

Brown-legged crab spider, Coriarachne brunneipes

up, I recently found a crab spider species I had not seen before, the Brown-legged Crab Spider (Coriarachne brunneipes). This very flat species is associated with wood, where it waits for potential prey. Shortly after I found this species, I also found a female Pacific Foldingdoor Spider (Antrodiaetus pacificus), one of the few mygalomorph spider species we have, which means it is related to tarantulas. They are characterized by fangs that move vertically. All other spiders are araneomorph with fangs that move laterally. The Pacific Foldingdoor spider builds burrows in soft soil or wood. During the day the entrance is covered with a silk door, but at night it is opened and the spider sits at the entrance waiting to rush out at passing beetles or other prey. Having poor eye-sight, it is alerted to the presence of prey by silk threads extending out from the burrow.

When you are small, staying alive is of course a priority. Several families of spider use the strategy of mimicry. Do you see an ant? Look closer, sometimes it may be a spider. Common around our place is one of the ground spiders (Family Gnaphosidae) in the

Sergiolus April 12 2016-3015 cropped

An ant-mimic ground spider, likely Sergiolus columbianus. It may not look much like an ant, but part of the deception is behavioural, so it does a decent job when moving around.

genus Sergiolus (most likely S. columbianus). Some tropical species can be very ant-like, whereas most of our species tend to be less sophisticated.

There are lots of other groups of spiders, of course. In fact, spiders are some of the most abundant organisms on earth. It is said that you are never more than a meter or so from a spider. Fortunately for arachnophobes, they keep themselves to themselves most of the time, and they are completely harmless in spite of the frequent reports of spider bites, which are mostly caused by something else, but at best blamed on some innocent spider that happened to be nearby, and at worst just assumed (Bennett and Vetter 2004; Vetter and Isbister 2008). The largest group, the sheet-web spiders, Family Linyphiidae, were called money spiders in the UK because they were thought to bring good luck. These are generally tiny spiders that can occur in huge numbers. There small webs are often visible in grassy fields during the fall, when dew reveals their presence. The males in the Subfamily Erigoninae, can sport bizarre shapes on the prosoma (front part), including turrets for their eyes.  My point is that spiders deserve some respect. If you get to know them, you may even learn to like them!


Bennett, R.G., and R. S. Vetter. 2004. An approach to spider bites. Erroneous attribution of dermonecrotic lesions to brown recluse or hobo spider bites in Canada. Canadian Family Physician 50: 1098–1101.

Vetter R.S., and G.K. Isbister. 2008. Medical aspects of spider bites. Annual Review of Entomology. 53: 409-29.

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Observations by a Backyard Naturalist I: Vertebrates

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Winter view from our living room.

I am very fortunate to live in a semi-rural part of Nanaimo. From our living room, we look out at Richard Lake, a small, shallow lake surrounded by grass-covered land that gets flooded every winter. Extraction of peat appears to have been done in this area in the past, creating a number of additional ponds, which serve as habitat for various creatures. Our backyard backs onto the edge of this area, providing a naturalist’s paradise. This blog is an attempt to describe some of the animals that we have viewed in or from our property over the past 4 years.

Mammals. In terms of charismatic megafauna, we have our share of visitors. An American black bear (Ursus americanus) visited us two years in a row, scaling and damaging our fence in the process. The purpose of the visit was to gorge on apples, which I managed to capture with my trail camera. We are now more diligent in making sure that the apples are picked up, although climbing is something that black bears do exceedingly well, so we are certainly not completely bear-safe. Along with bears, we also have regular visits from

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Family of Black-tailed deer that took advantage of an open gate.

raccoons (Procyon lotor). Black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionug columbianus), a subspecies of mule deer, cannot get into the yard except when you leave the gate open. They enjoy munching on plants in the front yard to our consternation, however. We also see deer behind the yard on a semi-regular basis. From our yard, we regularly see North American river otters (Lutra canadensis) and beaver (Castor canadensis) on the lake, and on one occasion I also saw a mink (Neovison vison). Less charismatic (and all introduced) animals that use our backyard are eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) (we do not have feral European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) where we live), both Norway (Rattus norvegicus – aka brown rat) and black rats (Rattus rattus – aka roof rat), mice (Mus musculus and perhaps other species), as well as gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) that show up to raid my bird feeders from time to time. A few years ago I set up a bat house, and to my delight, a few bats use it every year. I don’t know which of the 9 or 10 Vancouver Island species frequent our area, but just having them around is good enough for me.

Bats of VI

Excerpt from “BC’s bat species” table published by Community Bat Programs of BC

Bat caveat

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Black-headed grosbeak male, one of the most beautiful species.

Birds. Although I am an entomologist by profession, bird watching has always been a favourite pastime of mine. Luckily, our backyard and the marsh and lake behind our home provides ample opportunity to serve as my private hotspot. At the time of writing, my tally of species seen or heard from our yard is 86, which is very close to 1/3 of the 261 species listed for the entire Nanaimo region (just south of Nanaimo to Deep Bay along the east coast of Vancouver Island) in the recently revised Seasonal Bird

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Sharpshinned hawk resting after an unsuccessful raid of my bird feeders on a very miserable day.

Checklist published by the Arrowsmith Naturalist Club. Considering that a fair number of those are marine or high elevation species, and that as a casual birder I am likely to miss many species that are difficult to identify or are heard rather than seen (I normally get about ¾ or less than what ‘experts’ find), the proportion of Nanaimo region species may be 50% or perhaps even more. The species I have recorded so far (over close to 4 years) can be seen in the table below.

Birds at home table

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Willow flycatcher singing his heart out just behind our yard.

Reptiles and amphibians are rather scarce, but they do show up on a regular basis. Pacific Chorus Frogs (aka Pacific Tree Frog), Pseudacris regilla, can be heard year-round

Chorus frog on Juniper Nov 8 2016 -7009

Pacific chorus frog

when the temperature is approaching 10 oC, but the best time is in May, when they really earn their name by serenading the neighborhood at full volume. The invasive American Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus, rarely shows up in our yard, but its deep call can be heard in late spring – early summer when they breed. We are very pleased to have breeding Garter Snakes, Thamnophis spp., in our yard, although it does make mowing the lawn stressful as we worry about injuring these harmless and attractive snakes. The adults are relatively easy to spot, but the newly hatched snakes are only about 10 cm long, so they are easily overlooked. There are three species of garter snake on Vancouver Island, but the most likely species would be the Western Terrestrial (or Wandering) Garter Snake.


This feisty little Western Terrestrial Garter Snake was found a few km away from our home, but this beautiful specimen deserves to represent the species. It responded to our presence by a rather convincing display of aggressiveness, although it didn’t bite when I picked it up and moved it to a safer location.

In the next installment of this blog, I will cover the invertebrates in our yard.

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