Project 52 No 8. Mayflies & a spider web

27 04 2011

Over the long weekend, Cosmoboy and I visited Prince Edward Point Conservation Area just to check out how Spring was emerging there. What we encountered, instead, were emerging swarms of mayflies!  This picture shows numerous mayflies captured in a spiderweb, with the spider nowhere to be seen.

Mayflies trapped in a spiderweb

Natural history note: Those are tentatively identified as early blue-winged olives of the Baetis genus (if you can help with identification, let me know).  Mayfly larvae and nymphs spend much of their lives underwater, and emerge as adults to look for mates. Their emergence each year are an indicator of the start of fly-fishing season for many serious anglers (and the start of a productive season for hungry spiders and fish). Although, many people do find them a nuisance when they are found on one’s teeth and in one’s hair after a nice bike ride along the lake!

To give an idea of how it must have looked with all the mayflies swarming around us, this is a shot of the sky taken just for fun:

Overhead mayfly swarm


Research and the real world? Putting it into practice.

15 11 2010

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a keynote seminar at the University oCover photo for the PIIP talk (blackboard with geometric diagrams)f Western Ontario (UWO) for their first graduate “Putting it into Practice” (PIIP) conference. The goal of the conference was to encourage UWO grad students to look beyond the confines of their research / graduate program and consider how to put their skills and knowledge to a broader use beyond academia.  There were two keynote speakers, a series of workshops and job-fair booths in order to allow attendees to learn and explore the range of possibilities out there.

My stripped-down keynote presentation is posted at Slideboom if you’d like to check it out. In it, I discuss briefly my research background and how I combine both applied and basic research. Working with lakes,White water rafting image for innovation water quality and fish inevitably leads oneself to consider the importance and impact of that research on people and our environment. Even if I do basic research on how a particular element is transferred through the foodchain, I seem to find myself talking about the ramifications of exposure and sources of that element on an every-day basis. Concerned people, government managers and industry all want to prevent future environmental issues.

I started off with a U Waterloo degreediscussion of the concept of innovation and how research is important for generating capacity for innovation (e.g., ingenuity gap, quoting Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon) in Canada.  Graduate and undergraduate training in both applied and basic research is necessary if Canada needs to develop its human capacity and the ability to adapt to a fast-changing world.  Highly trained citizens with a range of problem-solving and creative skills ensures a country can deal with a fast-emerging issues promptly.  Moreover,  the ability to innovate requires expertise in your chosen field and understanding of key concepts in other fields. Making connections and discussing issues often leads to important solutions and ideas – you want to be “a jack of all trades and master of one trade”. Your degree can just be a piece of a paper — what you do with your expertise and qualifications during and after your degree is what will lead to success.

Universities provide the ideal environment for developing of those skills. Take time to learn more about your department, but also seek out people from other fields and listen to what they have to say. Talk with these people and learn what they are concerned about.  Assess your passion, skills and what you truly want to learn.  Finally, teaching, research and problem solving skills do not have a clear division. Regardless of whether you are in governmenRobin's nest with three blue eggst, business or academia, you will always doing some combination of all three.

Then I discuss approaches and strategies for being innovative, applying your research within your field and beyond the narrow constraints of one’s discipline. It is important to be an expert in your field, expanding your in-depth expertise as much as you can by reading, writing and presenting.  However, understanding how your expertise fits in the big picture and how you can apply your skills across disciplines is a challenge.  Multi-disciplinary approaches are common and often involves various experts working on projects and each reporting independently — this likely is far from ideal.  True innovation can arise from inter-disciplinary approaches where experts talk about their work with each other and attempt to bridge the gaps.  Even better, and far more challenging, are trans-disciplinary work where experts truly learn and understand diverse approaches needed to solve major issues and attempt to synthesize approaches from across disciplines.

Towards the end, I touch upon the challenges becoming a specialized expert in one’s field while still retaining a broad knowledge base and the obstacles which can get in the way of innovative application of your expertise and skills.  Ideas are cheap, but nuturing and establishing a really good idea in the “real world” can be challenging. Networking, collaboration, persistence and a clear focus are important.

I ended on a personal note talking about the frustrations of doing my MSc research on a mountain lake whCosmoboy_Ecogirl_BowLake (Niki Wilson photo credit)ere fish couldn’t be found and there were huge July snowstorms. I explained how Cosmoboy joined me thinking he lucked into a free trip to Banff. He found himself rowing across rough waters and pondering blisters on his frozen hands as he assisted me.  I showed a photograph of us at this lake taken two years ago and explained that we now look back to that time with some nostalgia and how that started off so many good things despite the frustrations of the moment.

ThisDr. Munir's first keynote seminar at PIIP was an excellent opportunity for me to experiment with new communication styles and approaches. I used a more visual style of presentation incorporating photographic images, and then shared the presentation online.  Dr. Munir was the first speaker, so I also had the opportunity to incorporate a bit of “real-time” aspects of the conference in my talk by inserting a photograph of Dr. Munir’s keynote with one of his quotes.  Also I found out that I cannot embed slides on our online wordpress blog! Apparently you must download wordpress in order to take advantage of all the plug-ins, including the one for embedding files.

Overall, it was a great deal of fun! I appreciated the opportunity to meet the students, faculty and staff at UWO, and the chance to experiment with various approaches.

Ecogirl: Tomorrow’s Lake Erie is not yesterday’s.

10 06 2010

Slipping on the metal deck, I step back quickly as the motorized reel hauls the fish net onto the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources boat. Early-morning breath mists the air; gloved hands reach for frantic fish trapped in the net as it is being pulled onto the boat. We eye each fish as it is tossed into a plastic bin filled with ice. Scales are everywhere, sparkling like sequins.

Bin after bin is filled as we continue with the survey along the Lake Erie shoreline. Excitement increases a notch when a metre-long brown trout is added to the bin, but work must continue as the net full of fish is still being pulled onto the boat.

From this first sight, it seems apparent that the lake is full of healthy fish, and all is well. But science says not so. The fish of Lake Erie have changed dramatically, and there is cause for concern for the future.

In the bins, we can see numerous slimy brown fish with bulging eyes
Round Gobywriggling across the crushed ice, each about a hands’ length. Those round gobies are the descendants of a handful transported from across the Atlantic Ocean just 15 years ago. Today, the Lake Erie round goby population is now in the billions.

The round goby is not the only unwanted immigrant to Lake Erie. Its fellow European hitchhikers, zebra and quagga mussels have spread throughout North America since their introduction in the early 1980s. Even now, scientists are wrangling with exponential increases of another European introduction, the tiny bloody-red Hemimysis shrimp, discovered in Lake Erie only a few years ago. Those unwanted invaders are out-competing many native species and are changing the food web dynamics by altering prey-predator relationships.

The costs due to impacts of invasive species are high. In 2008, researchers at the University of Notre Dame, Center for Aquatic Conservation, estimated that invasive species cost around $200 million US dollars a year in losses to commercial and sport fishing, loss of habitat and impaired access to the area’s water supply.

With the addition of new exotic species nearly every year, many seem to think that nothing can disturb the huge commercial walleye and yellow perch fishery, among the largest in the world. However, those fisheries are in steady decline for a while. The disappearance of the blue pike, a close cousin of the walleye, serves as a cautionary tale.

The native blue pike was a tasty expensive treat eaten by restaurant patrons along the Lake Erie shorelines until the 1960s. Due to overfishing and possibly due to increased contaminant exposure, anglers found they no longer were catching blue pike in Lake Erie or elsewhere. Ten years ago, Carol Stepien, a University of Toledo fish geneticist, reported at a meeting that a 37-year frozen specimen was merely a blue pike – walleye hybrid. This confirmed that there couldn’t be any blue pike in the lake. Whispered rumours and pickled specimens in dusty museum jars are the only clues that those commercially valuable fish species ever existed.

Those shifts were why we were excited to catch a prize brown trout this morning. Many of us did not realize that such a magnificent specimen is the direct result of stocking programs. Desirable species have been replaced and supplemented many times over. For example, lake trout nearly disappeared from the lake in the 1940s due to over fishing and other factors. However, through government efforts, the lake trout and its salmonid cousins has been re-stocked every few years, ensuring that a few trophy sportfish will be caught every year by lucky anglers, and the occasional scientist.

The Natural Resources ship returns to its Port Dover dock after a long day ofProcessing fish in the OMNR fish lab at Port Dover collecting fish. We carry the cold bins full of fish back to the laboratory. The next day, the fish will be carefully weighed, processed and counted. Many fish will go into a freezer for genetic and chemical analyses which will eventually provide insights into the complex dynamics in the lake, including the invasions, stocking and disappearances of many species.

This survey is not the first one. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has been conducting similar surveys for the last 30 years. All this work has allowed Natural Resources scientist to build an immensely valuable database on fish and environmental conditions. The database allows us to determine changes in fish communities through time along Lake Erie’s shorelines and see if there are links with ongoing environmental changes. We can say with absolute confidence that the Lake Erie we see today is just not the same lake that existed 40 years ago.

Added: Link to scientific paper.

LM Campbell, R Thacker, D Barton, DCG Muir, D Greenwood && RE Hecky. 2009. Re-engineering the eastern Lake Erie littoral food web: The trophic function of non-indigenous Ponto-Caspian species. Journal of Great Lakes Research 35(2): 224–231.