FWG volunteers tour AAFC’s plant, fungi and insect collections

by Lynn Ovenden, FWG Volunteer

Volunteers listen attentively and pensively.

On November 2, 13 of our volunteers were treated to a tour of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada‘s plant, fungal and insect collections. In scientific literature, these collections are known by the acronyms DAO (Department of Agriculture, Ottawa) for plants, DAOM (National Mycological Herbarium) for fungi and CNC (Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes).

We began in the Saunders Building, which houses several AAFC researchers who use the specimens in their work. Gisèle Mitrow and Jacques Cayouette showed us the vascular plant herbarium, a room where genera and species are traditionally arranged by classes, in folders, on compactable shelving units. In the folders, are paper sheets, each with one or a few dried plants. Downstairs in the preparation room, Amanda described how plant specimens are dried in a plant press, frozen to kill tag-along insects, then arranged and fastened to a paper sheet.

The label on each collection sheet shows the date, location, collector’s name, initial plant name, and the accession number, e.g. DAO20396. When another scientist uses that collection, for example, to revise the identification or to remove some tissue for DNA analysis, he/she notes this activity on the label; annotations increase the value of the collection.

The DAO collection began with James Fletcher’s 1886 personal collection of 3,000 dried plants. It now contains 1.5 million specimens from about 50,000 mostly North American species. There are 4,000 “types,” i.e., a specimen that was selected to exemplify a species (What is a type specimen?). Overall, the DAO collection is rich in species of agricultural significance, cultivars, pests, and potentially invasive non-native plants. The specimens are actively studied by scientists in Ottawa and elsewhere, via a busy exchange and loan system with other herbaria. The collection is also used to help identify plant fragments submitted by law enforcement and border security officials.

Next, we went upstairs to the fungal herbarium – a chilly room with push-button motorized compacting shelves. The National Mycological Herbarium contains 350,000 dried fungal specimens, which vary from microscopic dots on plant leaves and thin mushroom slices (both of these are stored in paper packets glued to a herbarium sheet) to bulkier mushrooms in cardboard boxes. Scott Redhead and Jennifer Wilkinson showed us a few examples of the diversity in the collection, carefully unwrapping each specimen: dots of a rust species on its host leaves, small boxes containing small brown spheres (puffballs), a polypore that yields an orange dye.

Scott opened one of the exsiccati (a formalized exchange set of dried specimens) from the 1800s, collected by an amateur naturalist in a ribbon-wrapped, book-like binding full of small packets, well-preserved but redolent of whatever toxic dusts were used at the time. The DAOM collection now includes several collections donated by other institutions and individuals such as John Dearness (1852-1954), a remarkable, largely self-taught Canadian naturalist and pioneer plant pathologist. Much of the collection comes from AAFC research programs on plant disease/host relationships in agricultural crops and fungal diversity of national parks.

The fungal collection is arranged in a functional filing system based on traditional morphologic patterns within the different classes. However, fungal nomenclature has been diverging from this traditional system, since mycologists started using gene-sequencing tools to develop phylogenetic relationships. The traditional notion that similar-looking species had a common evolutionary path has not been supported for many groups of fungi. Furthermore, international nomenclature rules now require a single name for both the sexual and non-sexual stages of a fungal species. This will be a significant change for the many species which have had separate names in their different stages.

Donning our coats, we then hurried over to the Neatby Building where we met Owen Lonsdale, one of several curators of the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes. The CNC is huge, at over 17 million specimens, including 11,000 type specimens. It reflects decades of exploration and expertise by AAFC on the northern insect fauna and pests of Canadian crops. The dried insects are stored attached to pins in rows, in small boxes, in large wood trays, on shelves, in row after row of compactable units and storage cabinets in the back wing of the Neatby Building. There is also a wet collection for broader bodied critters that don’t dry well: each little jar contains dozens of specimens in alcohol. Every jar and every dry pinned insect bears a label with written information so tiny it is hard to read. We saw battalions of pinned horseflies, gorgeous “charismatic” moths, forlorn mosquitos swirling in amber-coloured alcohol and much more.

We also saw the research library that supports AAFC research and expertise on cultivars, crop pests, biocontrol and biodiversity of Canada. All of our tour guides consider three things necessary for excellence in their service to Canadians: the library, the collections, and interaction with their colleagues.

Ed: Like many things known only to the academic community, the collections are an amazing knowledge resource funded by tax dollars. However, jars of preserved mosquitos aren’t especially trendy for budget makers, so if you get the chance be sure to let your MP know that you value the work done by these groups and the many volunteers who return after retiring to keep our world-class collection healthy! Another great scientific resource that Canadians can access from the comfort of their homes are publications through the National Research Council Canada.


Through the Lens: A Year in the Old Field

The rototilled section of the old field in later summer, showing the variety of species that appeared, including amaranth, evening primrose, and panic grass, contrasting with the goldenrod and wild raspberry behind.

A dense stand of white sweet clover grew up along the old path through the centre of the field, where DSV had been regularly removed over a period of 6 years.

Lamium appearing before anything else begins to grow. After rototilling the site, the lamium vanished, at least for 2012.

Giant foxtail growing in the midst of the rototilled area. Behind it, maple-leaved goosefoot, amaranth, mustards, panic grass, and goldenrod.

Looking south across the cleared area, a few days after mowing was completed.

Pearly everlasting in the southern (unmowed) section of the old field, on which an american lady butterfly laid eggs. This stand has been expanding over the years and is now four times the size it was three years ago.

Newly planted pearly everlasting, in the rototilled section. These plants, host to several american lady caterpillars, flourished.

Some of the new plants established in the rototilled section, shown in autumn.

I’m the Habitat Manager for the Old Field habitat at FWG, and have observed many changes over time.

Barry’s Report: At the AGM of the Ontario Invasive Plants Council 2012

by Barry Cottam, Chair, FWG Management Committee 

About 120 people registered for OIPC’s 6th annual meeting in Guelph on 16-17 October 2012.  Day one consisted of four plenary sessions with three or four speakers in each. Brendon Lawson was the keynote speaker. He is the author of the recently published Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability: Redefining our Relationship with Nature. The full program is available on the OIPC website — www.ontarioinvasiveplants.ca/index.php/agm2012 — and presentations will be added in the near future.

Topics on the agenda included: buckthorn busters; judicious use of herbicides on a regular, scheduled basis; importance of understanding plant biology before attempting control; importance of understanding the land one is managing (i.e., need for mapping, inventories, soil studies, etc.); predictions of the arrival of new invasives. The results of recent and ongoing scientific studies were also presented. For example, Richard Dickinson talked about the spread of Dog-strangling Vine and biocontrol (the FWG is one of his sample sites). Presentations on the legislative framework for invasive species and the use of social media by non-profits were also particularly relevant to the FWG.

On the morning of the second day, optional tours included one to the Centre for DNA Barcoding, which I visited. Lynn Ovenden (the only other Ottawan there) and I also walked around the Guelph Arboretum, which includes demonstration backyard gardens (the Gosling Wildlife Gardens).

The wildlife gardens at the Arboretum are similar to ours in some ways and different in others. The basic goals are the same: encourage the use of native plants and the creation of wildlife habitat. Variations include the use of stands so viewers can imagine they are looking out their windows into their yards. One garden consists of a lawn with a lone pine and some kids’ toys, illustrating the unfortunate and inadequate norm. Another was created to attract butterflies, moths and hummingbirds.

A view of part of the demonstration back yard at the Gosling Wildlife Gardens.

Signage includes photographs of potential visitors — mammals and birds — with text presented as though these creatures were letting us know why the gardens are important to them. Mammals included cats and humans! Signage was simple: two 4×4 posts set into the ground with 2×4 cross pieces and Plexiglas-covered sign boards attached.

The sign where ‘wild’ visitors discuss their favourite menu items found in the back yard ‘bistro’.

This meeting was an opportunity to network with people of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Questions were raised, new ideas discovered, old approaches evaluated. Perhaps most important for me was learning more about managing land affected by invasive species. For example, an employee of the Bruce Trail Association provided some helpful pointers in this regard. The BTA has over 220 properties, each of which must be inventoried. They use a layered approach, delineating boundaries with GPS, showing key physical features on a map, then noting the main biotic communities. Layers can be added, down to locations of individual species. Such inventories are considered to be an essential preliminary step to any land management activity.

Barry Cottam has been a volunteer at the FWG for just over two years. He started and leads the Tuesday Invasive Species Group, which works to keep our worst invasives at bay. He recently became chair of the FWG management committee and is interested in establishing long-term plans for the FWG habitats.

FWG Nest Box Cleaning – November 2012 Report

Every year we check the various nest boxes at FWG to see how they are faring and for signs of use. This report outlines our findings – and it might be of interest for others who do work with tree swallows, build nest boxes or are curious about who does actually move in! 2013 will see us unroll a project to ascertain which design we find works best, so stay tuned!

General comments: The decline in tree swallows using the nest boxes at FWG continues. While the species is definitely decreasing across its range, along with other swallow species, some tree swallow nest boxes within the Ottawa district had more success than we did. Some things that could contribute to the problem include increasingly unsuitable habitat around the pond (too many trees, not enough open areas), too much disturbance from visitors to the garden (some deliberate, for example, opening the nest boxes (but I have now remedied that), most of it inadvertent), and factors unknown.

Discussion: In 2012, only eight tree swallows nested at the FWG. This is fewer than in either 2011 or 2010. Ten boxes were unused by any birds or animals, and the rest were used by chickadees, house wrens, red squirrels and mice.

Last year, no eggs or dead tree swallows were found in any of the nests. This year, two dead, well-feathered young were found, in separate boxes, while one box contained a broken egg. The tree swallow nests were not particularly well-made, being very poorly feathered and rather sparse in makeup. Only two were typically well-feathered nests. The same thing occurred last year as well. Now, as then, I am not sure why.

One house wren nest and one black-capped chickadee nest were found.

Red squirrels nested in seven boxes, none of them in locations that are particularly appealing or attractive to swallows. I have left these boxes where they are because squirrels do use them and by so doing, they appear to leave the better located boxes alone. Peromyscus mice (probably the white-footed species) made nests in some of the boxes. Nests had also been started on top of some of the swallow nests, probably recently. One nest box had four mice in it, one had two.

I think house sparrow nestings at FWG are a thing of the past, as yet again, there was no sign of the species either nesting or visiting. Although abundant in winter until 2008, only a few pairs ever nested at the FWG, even when they were regularly seen at the garden.

Paper wasp (Polistes dominula) nests were found in four nest boxes.

One nest box was destroyed in the spring, before swallows returned, and several have fallen apart over the last winter. We need more nest boxes and we need to re-locate a few posts and nest boxes.

One nest box at the beginning of the hedgerow by a walnut tree (numbered 1A because we cannot recall when it was put there, or by whom) has always been used by red squirrels.

One nest box was not checked as it was at the far side of a wild raspberry stand and I didn’t want to create a trail by cutting through the dense plants. I will try to check it out later in the winter. In general, it has not been used by swallows more than once, and that was some years ago. Since then, it has been either empty or used variously by mice and red squirrels.

Our last batch of nest boxes were made without screws to lock the doors in place. This has meant that the boxes are more easily opened and tampered with. This year I closed the doors with screws of all but a few.

Nest box cleaning – results: My definition of successful is any nest that was completely built and obviously used and which contained no dead birds or unhatched eggs. The presence of a dead juvenile or of an unhatched egg or two, doesn’t mean a nest was unsuccessful, but neither was it a complete success. I note these as partial successes.

•Eight (8) tree swallow nests.

•One (1) box had a black-capped chickadee nest.

•One (1) box had a house wren nest.

•Six (6) boxes had mouse nests.

•Seven (7) boxes had red squirrel nests.

•Ten (10) boxes were unused.

•One (1) nest box was removed.

Back in 2005, Colin Freebury and I were trying to come up with a good nest box design. We developed a checklist of ideal features with a view towards building a better box, but we never really implemented this because we had a good supply of boxes in 2005. By 2008, when we needed more new boxes, Glebe Collegiate got in touch with us and built a batch of new boxes but they were to the old design we’d given them some years before.

Over the winter we’ll be developing two box designs for testing – very exciting!

Wiggle, waggle, woo: Hey, Bee, Vote for Me!

The recent American election once again highlighted that electoral politics in the United States are very different in structure than in Canada – electoral colleges, simultaneous elections of Congress and Senate, ballot initiatives and the fact that based on remit of powers, an American President has far less influence over his country than a Canadian Prime Minister (PoliSci 101 and a great digression from our topic at hand!)

However, did you know that HONEYBEES also have their own elections, complete with smear campaigns, speechifying and converting as many undecided voters into supporters as possible? This week’s PBS’ Nova Science Now showed how Honeybees decide on a new nesting site. The knowledge was presented as part of understanding how information is shared and how the human brain may function more like a hive mind in and of itself than previously thought. Continue reading

From Yale News: Exhaustive family tree for birds shows recent, rapid diversification

We refer to the ‘birds and the bees’ when we obliquely talk about reproduction, but multi-university research from Simon Fraser, Sheffield and Yale reinforces just how differently the birds and the bees approach their own diversification as species!

Yale News Department, Posted October 31, 2012 at http://news.yale.edu/2012/10/31/exhaustive-family-tree-birds-shows-recent-rapid-diversification

Image from article (A Mooers [SFU], G Thomas [Sheffield] and C Shrank [Yale])

A Yale-led scientific team has produced the most comprehensive family tree for birds to date, connecting all living bird species — nearly 10,000 in total — and revealing surprising new details about their evolutionary history and its geographic context.

Analysis of the family tree shows when and where birds diversified — and that birds’ diversification rate has increased over the last 50 million years, challenging the conventional wisdom of biodiversity experts.

“It’s the first time that we have — for such a large group of species and with such a high degree of confidence — the full global picture of diversification in time and space,” said biologist Walter Jetz of Yale, lead author of the team’s research paper, published Oct. 31 online in the journal Nature. Continue reading