Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ohio Natural History Conference 2013

 Greg Smith offered opening remarks.

The 2013 Ohio Natural History Conference took place last Saturday and it was a blast! In case you missed it and want to read about what was discussed, check out my live tweeting of the event on Storify. I was joined in my live tweeting by Sam Evans and Rafael Maia and between the three of us, I think we covered the conference pretty well.

This year's theme was "Natural History in the 21st Century and Beyond," which encompassed the broad topic of how today's technology affects how we tackle the study of natural history. Presentations broached some far-ranging topics, from how museums are adapting, to how DNA barcoding is changing our concept of what a species actually is, to the use of smart phone apps for tracking invasive species. Each talk was apropos to what's happening in the field now and brought up good points to ponder, as well as success stories. I highly encourage you to check out the tweets from the conference to read some of the things the speakers said and to check out links to their projects--maybe you'll find something useful for your research or fun ways to get involved.

Scott Loarie's presentation.

This year's theme was a logical continuation from last year, when the theme was "Citizen Science." The development of the Internet and its data infrastructure, along with the rise of smart phones, has helped citizen science initiatives explode in recent years. This holds vast potential for popularizing natural history in a way that hasn't happened before, and apps/websites have already starting popping up to test the waters. Two of the biggest ones that utilize smart phone photos are Project Noah and iNaturalist. It just so happens that this year, the keynote speaker was the co-creator of iNaturalist, Scott Loarie. The Ohio Biological Survey worked with iNaturalist last year to start a project on the site to record Ohio's biota, the Ohio Bio Blitz.

Scott gave an enlightening presentation about iNaturalist and its accomplishments (including helping to identify some new species) and also covered what citizen science as a whole can accomplish and what it means for the future of natural history research. (Again, check out the tweets to read about specifics.) The main hurdle facing citizen science is being able to guarantee that data gleaned from such initiatives are valid, rigorous, and useful. Scott's presentation proved that this hurdle isn't insurmountable, and hinted at a bright future (and present) for citizen science data.

As always, there were interesting poster presentations prepared by scientists (and nervous university students) from all over Ohio, showcasing a sliver of the research being done throughout our great state. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to peruse many of them, but I was able to meet up with Sam and Rafael to interview Jim McCormac for his thoughts about the conference for a segment to be included in a future episode of the podcast Breaking Bio. We're planning to interview Scott Loarie as well--I'll post a link when the episode is finished.

All in all, it was a mighty fine conference. There seems to be two lines of thought on the debate about how current technology (especially smart phones and the Internet) is affecting natural history and public interest in natural history today. Essentially, all these screens will either destroy natural history or save it and propel it to new heights. There are valid points on each side, but I subscribe to the latter view. After being exposed to a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your view) amount of technology in the form of video games, computers, and phones all my life, I've turned out fine and have a deep passion for natural history. 

The way I see it, without the technology I've been exposed to, I wouldn't enjoy natural history as much. I've learned how to identify bugs, better my photography skills, access resources hundreds of years old, and amass a huge portion of my natural history knowledge thanks to the Internet and the exposure into the field it's given me. I firmly believe that while technology can be a two-edged sword, it should be embraced by natural historians and used as a new connection to people, especially young scientists wanting to learn more.

I think Greg Smith summed it up best after Scott's keynote: 
"New technology is not meant to replace natural history techniques, but to enhance them."
And come on, for those of you who study bugs, who hasn't used Bug Guide to get an identification?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What's out there? Compiling a biotic index.

Do you know the insect species that inhabit your backyard? What about a local park or nature preserve? How about your county? These are important questions to think about. If no one knows the animal diversity in their area, then why would they stop to think about protecting that diversity?  Some of the most interesting animals are very specialized and need certain habitats to thrive; without those habitats, they'll disappear. I think we can all agree that nature is important, and having a knowledge of your local species (of insects, mammals, birds, plants, fungi...) is empowering. You can see ecological connections and gain a new-found respect for your fellow organisms, just from being able to identify species and know what's around you.

 A Luna Moth (Actias luna) soon after emerging from the ground. Its wings aren't yet ready to fly--you can see how small they are.

With this topic in mind, I've been working for the past few months on gathering together pictures and information about arthropod species that occur at the Barbara A. Beiser Field Station (BBFS) near Marietta, Ohio. As I've written about before (here and here and in an article for the Marietta Natural History Society newsletter here [PDF]), I conducted a lot of my undergraduate research at the BBFS and found many species. I never quite had the time to identify and write down all the species I found while I was an undergraduate, so I put it off for a while.

Until now.

An Ichneumon wasp, Megarhyssa macrurus, drilling into a dead tree to parasitize a wasp larva.

After months of identification, I've completed the project! (I'm looking for a good way to put this list online.) This is the first biotic index (list) of species from the BBFS, and focuses only on arthropods (it will be expanded to plants and other groups in the future). All in all, I identified 181 species including insects, arachnids, and millipedes/centipedes. This is nowhere near a complete list, but it's a start. I only included arthropods whose identifications I was sure about, so I left out a few species I was unsure of, falling just short of my 200 species goal. But that's okay--the list isn't useful unless it's accurate, after all!

A pair of Euryurus leachii millipedes under UV light. Usually found in decaying logs, these millipedes fluoresce a pretty bluish-green color.

I gained a lot of experience with local insects while working on this project and feel pretty confident about being able to identify many of the insects in Washington County. I now have a much greater knowledge base about insect taxonomy and what a "species" really means. When it comes down to it, a species is someone's hypothesis, and sometimes the hypothesis isn't accepted by everyone. It can be based on tiny characteristics that are a real pain to hash out, especially when you're trying to identify an insect in a group that's not well-studied!

What did I learn after putting together this list? Most importantly, I learned that I still enjoy taxonomy after hours and hours of (sometimes frustrating) work. I also learned that we have some astounding arthropods at the BBFS, and in the county. Throughout this post I've included pictures of arthropods I found there that I never knew about before, with life histories that are seriously interesting and unfortunately too long to include in this post. There's a diversity of life in southeast Ohio I never would have known about before undertaking the research I've done and I'm lucky to have had that opportunity. It's taught me that you don't have to go to the rainforest to find beautiful and interesting animals; sometimes the forests of southeast Ohio can beat out the rainforest!

A male Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus. This spider has many color forms, of which the black and yellow form is especially striking.

I hope to use my experience to encourage others to take a second look at the critters in the area and to truly take pride in them. Why not say "These things are astounding!" and put these animals on a pedestal? Arthropods like the Luna Moth, the Ichneumon Wasp, our UV-fluorescent millipedes, the Locust Borers, the Wheel Bugs: these "bugs" are crazy awesome and should be celebrated!

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio troilus. This unique caterpillar changes throughout its life stages--young caterpillars look like bird poop, while older ones (like this one) mimic snakes!

In order to accomplish this goal, I'm working on completing another biotic index--this time for Washington County, with some input from surrounding counties. I want to adapt this larger biotic index into a field guide to arthropods in the area, with pictures and information about each species. It will introduce people to these bugs and save them some time in trying to identify them. Essentially, I want everyone to have the same pride in our many-legged fauna as I do.

Narceus americanus, the gentle giant. This is the largest millipede in our area and eats dead leaves. Interestingly, it sometimes scales trees.

It doesn't help anyone appreciate our arthropods if I keep my knowledge locked up in my head, so I need to spread it! I have no idea about how long this project will take, nor when it will be done, but it hopefully won't take more than a few years max. If you can help out in any way, please contact me!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Coming Up! 2013 Ohio Natural History Conference

It's now February, and that means it's almost time for the Ohio Natural History Conference! I've attended the conference since 2009 (with the exception of 2011) and it's always an event I look forward to every year. Last year in particular was a great year, as the theme for the conference was citizen science. There were many great speakers talking about their projects, and I presented two posters. I wrote about my experience in a post last year and also live-tweeted all the talks (except for a few that I missed.)

The conference is a wonderful opportunity for anyone interested in natural history in Ohio to learn about research going on in the state and is great for networking. On top of that, there are booths set up where you can get great deals on books and other things. I won a silent auction last year and picked up a great book on weeds for $6!

You can register for the conference here for an early-bird rate of just $20 if you register by February 10. After that, registration increases by $5. It's a stellar deal no matter when you register. This year's theme is "Natural History in the 21st Century and Beyond" and the keynote speaker is Scott Loarie of Stanford University, the co-creator of iNaturalist. Other speakers will talk about the use of apps, natural history museums in the 21st century, using GIS for conservation, and other topics. In addition to the speakers, there will also be many poster presentations covering even more areas.

In summary, the conference is going to be a blast and you should try to be there. If you can't be there, you can follow me on Twitter as I live-tweet the event. I will be tweeting a lot, if last year is any indication.

If you do show up, come say hello! If you don't know what I look like, here's a picture for reference.

  Photo by Rachel Shoop.