Museum studying insect and spider diversity on B.C.’s coasts

This is one of a series of columns by specialists at the Royal B.C. Museum that explore the human and natural worlds of the province.

I have been in British Columbia for almost two years. I moved here from Ontario in February 2016. My version of coastlines growing up was Lake Erie. I swam in Lake Erie, I ate fish from Lake Erie. I am alive to tell the tale.

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Before moving to B.C., I didn’t really know what oceans were. I did not know how tides worked or why a beach should look completely different from the way it did six hours previously. This personal discovery of marine coastlines has greatly affected my approach to research on insect and spider biodiversity.

This new set of coastal ecosystems is leading to a big new world of science for me to pursue at the Royal B.C. Museum.

Big is certainly the right word to describe B.C. coastlines. Including innumerable bays, inlets, coves and islands big and small, the B.C. coastline from Victoria to the Alaska panhandle is more than 25,000 kilometres long. This is more than 10 per cent of the total coastline of all of Canada.

This also means that B.C. has more coastline than most nations, including India, New Zealand, Mexico and the United Kingdom. The coastline of B.C. is also relatively temperate. Compared with the Arctic and Atlantic coasts of Canada, the coast of B.C. is far warmer and more biologically diverse.

I noticed this diversity during my first walks on beaches in and around Victoria. There were flies and spiders and beetles everywhere, and at all times of the year. Like a good entomologist, I collected some specimens and brought them to the Royal B.C. Museum entomology collection to find out what they were.

I was surprised to find very little had been written about B.C. coastline insects and spiders over the past decades. There were some studies on the species found in California. A couple of expeditions had gone to Alaskan islands and produced scientific studies. But there had been very few published reports of B.C. coastline insects and spiders.

A common phrase that I encountered when reading old reports and insect catalogues was: “This species is reported from California and/or Alaska, possibly present throughout Pacific coast.”

This lack of previous coastal research leaves me in a difficult situation. I cannot answer a simple question such as: “How many insect and spider species are there on B.C.’s coastline?” I, and other entomologists, simply don’t know. As a result, all of the interesting followup questions are also unanswerable.

How many coastline species are found only in B.C.? Are coastline insects and spiders being affected by climate change and marine pollution? Are global shipping and travel bringing new and invasive coastline species to B.C.?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

This uncertainty, however, is a unique opportunity for someone, like me, who works at a museum. Museums are particularly good at collections-based biodiversity research. Most universities and government agencies have some expertise and research interest in biodiversity, but it is never their entire purview. Because I work in a provincial museum, knowing about the insect and spider species in B.C., including its vast coastline, is one of my main jobs.

A lack of existing research means that new discoveries can be made with relative ease. For example, during a walk along the Ogden Point breakwater I found a specimen of the black-headed barnacle fly (Oedoparena nigrifrons). This species has never been reported in Canada.

A quick look in the Royal B.C. Museum collection recovered a few more specimens collected in Tofino by Rob Cannings, curator emeritus of the collection. This species lays its eggs on barnacles. Which species of barnacles? I don’t know.

I am working with Royal B.C. Museum curator of invertebrate zoology Henry Choong to produce a scientific publication about our new records of this fly and the barnacles it preys upon. This is only one example. There are dozens of other species that have not yet been reported for Canada or B.C. that have been collected by Royal B.C. Museum staff and volunteers. There are likely to be coastline species that have not even been described.

In addition to scientific outputs such as papers and reports, my research on coastline biodiversity is also a great way to fulfil my other role at the museum — public outreach. Cool stories about bizarre insects and spiders on beaches make for fun talks with students and families. Discussion of ecosystems unique to B.C. engages people’s desire to learn more about environmental stewardship.

Insects, spiders and beaches can also be incredibly photogenic. We took advantage of this fact in producing our latest pocket-gallery exhibition, Life on the Edge: British Columbia’s shoreline insects and spiders, in Clifford Carl Hall, an area of the museum that’s freely accessible to all.

Engaging with the public has also given me the chance to expand my opportunities to learn more about B.C. coastline biodiversity. I was able to participate in BioBlitzes all across B.C. last year and this year.

These events, organized by Parks Canada, community groups and conservation organizations, bring in experts (like me) and the public to “blitz” an area, recording as many species as possible. These are great chances for me to multiply my observational power and bring insect enthusiasm to the public directly. My goal is to continue participating in BioBlitzes and to encourage more of them in some of the lesser-visited places along B.C.’s coast.

Meeting directly with people in B.C., most of whom have far more experience with oceans than I do, has allowed me to learn and see more on coastlines. I look forward to a long career of identifying and studying the insects and spiders of B.C., especially those found on beautiful coastlines. Will I ever feel that we have learned enough about B.C. biodiversity?

I don’t know. But I doubt it.

Joel Gibson, PhD, has been the curator of the entomology collection since the winter of 2016 and studies the insects that inhabit B.C.’s shorelines, forests, grasslands, mountain tops and urban spaces. He loves the overlap of public outreach, science education and cutting-edge, collection-based research that takes place at large, publicly funded museums.

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