Sino-Canada Eco Dreams or How We Humans Change Plant and Animal Communities in our Rivers and Lakes.

Post by Art Goldsmith

(unless otherwise credited,  photos by Art Goldsmith)

Effects of Human Development on Aquatic Environments and Biodiversity in Canada and China Field Course 2015

Chapter 2 – Student Seminars

Invasive Species Seminar

Environmental and Ecological Impacts of Dams
by Team Scrambled-Egg Slime Mold

Seeing this topic connects me to relevant strong and vivid personal memories. Since World War 2, so much of human enterprise has been about dams, principally those built to satisfy our gluttonous appetite for cheap energy. In the 1970s, I worked with Professor John Spence of McGill University, who took on the role as Science Advisor for the First Nations’ court battle against Hydro Quebec’s massive James Bay development (1972). Those dams are now built, and the environmental and social consequences well known.

Read about it here.

Therefore, it was with more than a little interest that I entered into this discussion with these four students.

Sarah Minnes (sitting left), Zixing Li (sitting right), Fei Jin (standing left), Natalie Wang (standing right)
Sarah Minnes (sitting left), Zixing Li (sitting right), Fei Jin (standing left), Natalie Wang (standing right)

Canada has a large share of hydro development mega-projects, including James Bay (Quebec), Churchill Falls (Newfoundland and Labrador), St. Lawrence–Great Lakes (Ontario), Churchill–Nelson (Manitoba), plus so many more megawatts of capacity on most of our streams in the populated south of the country. When you add water supply, navigation and irrigation dams, finding natural rapids and falls in southern Canada is now a challenge! Some species, like the Rapids Clubtail dragonfly (Gomphus quadricolor), which is dependent on southern rapids for habitat, are now rare and endangered. Hydrological and stream hydraulics changes cause an array of undesirable ecological effects.

Although no southern projects have recently caused major social disruption in Canada, the same is not true for China. In Canada, only the Eisenhower Dam project, which created Lake St. Lawrence, comes to mind. In that 1950s case, three villages were flooded. Most of the homes and businesses were moved to a larger planned village nearby (Ingleside, Ontario) before flooding. Historical buildings wound up at a new interpretive historical village (Upper Canada Village, Morrisburg, Ontario).

In China, when we hear that 1.3 million people lost their homes to the Three Gorges Project, the scale boggles the mind. Already threatened ecosystems and their species are now contending with new development pressures. Just opened in 2003, this dam across the Yangtze River is associated with the largest capacity power station on our planet. The reservoir is a 1,000-square kilometre lake which reached its “final height” in 2010.

One can only imagine the ecological and socioeconomic consequences. But why do that, when, like our four team members, you may easily read the facts yourself.

Oil Spills
Team White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi)

Team Members: Mengxi Wu, Chang Leo, Anyi Tang, Manreet Kaler
Team Members: Mengxi Wu, Chang Leo, Anyi Tang, Manreet Kaler

Team Members: Chang Leo, Mengxi Wu, Anyi Tang, Manreet Kaler

My time with this group was short. I talked with Chang before the other three team members arrived. He started by telling me about the different kinds of oil and oil products which are transported and spilled:

1. very light
2. light
3. medium
4. heavy

Of the four types, very light is the most difficult environmentally due to its volatility and high toxicity. We all know well the results of offshore drilling infrastructure collapse (BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling platform) and transportation accidents (pipeline breakages and shipping accidents, the Exxon Valdez in Alaska being one of the best known and most destructive).

The group also reported on one of the activities on the course blog. On August 3rd, the students participated in a fish seining learning exercise. Seining is one of the most straightforward ways to sample the population of fish along a shoreline. Partners spread out after extending a net to its full length and attaching it to the appropriate foot. The two people at each end then move out, so as to create a pocket with the net. They then envelop the fish by moving toward each other, closing off the pocket. Fish are transferred to buckets for identification, counting, and data collection (age, sex, condition, etc.). This team caught 158 fish, 7 species.

Aquaculture in the Modern Era
by Team Black-shouldered Spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus)

Huck Nelson is from PEI and feels a vested interest, like so many young Maritime biologists, in the burgeoning aquaculture industry. His hopes and concerns were echoed by the Chinese members of this team.

Upon meeting, we immediately entered into an animated discussion about the origins of aquaculture. The team found reference to British Columbia First Nations’ clam farming as far back as 5,000 years. Evidence of fresh water fish farming in Egypt would be concurrent, and carp in china may reach back as far as 4,500 years. So there is a long-term human penchant for stewardship of aquatic animals in addition to terrestrial animals.

At Queen’s, the Bruce Tufts’ lab in Fish Physiology and Fisheries Biology is investigating the effects of different applications on aquaculture fish through their fish physiology expertise. For example, the team learned that a flow-through system is 200 times less efficient than a bio-filtered re-circulation system.

In terms of environmental impact, aquaculture is having a variety of undesirable outcomes; the most concerning being the weakening of wild populations, local pollution (flow-through) and the focusing on mono cultures.

Chinese aquaculture dwarfs our own, as 70% of global aquaculture production is Chinese. Their products do show up in our stores. Asian shrimp production (India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and China) has become big business, as most of the large volumes of shrimp now sold to North America come from that region.

Junshu Li, Yutong Liu, Huck Nelson, Xuewei Wang
Junshu Li, Yutong Liu, Huck Nelson, Xuewei Wang

I learned so much from this and subsequent discussions. For me, that is the big payback. Learning in such an enriched environment is a privilege. Thanks, Xuewei, for the Chinese lesson! “Yu” means fish; “tsing” is please; and Beijing has 24 million people, which is more than the population of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec combined.

spinyleg_the_actual_beastEach team is named for a common and often seen species seen in our aquatic ecosystems. This blog chapter is about the students and their learning. Surely, you miss seeing some great nature shots, so here is my photo of the Black-shouldered Spinyleg taken at the QUBS dock.

Climate Change
Scenarios, Predicted Impacts on Aquatic Ecosystems and
Strategies to Mitigate continued Change
by Team Cherry-faced Meadowhawks, Sympetrum internum,

Here are some highlights from this team’s presentation.

Chiahsing Hsu
Chiahsing Hsu
Fan Wu
Fan Wu
Will Baigent
Will Baigent
Xiaofei Feng
Xiaofei Feng

In the worst case scenario, global average temperature will increase by 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. Ice sheets and glaciers will melt, changing northern climates and causing a significant rise in global sea levels. Our carbon dioxide levels will be 3 to 4 times pre-industrial levels. They are already at 400 PPM as measured by NOAA (USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). How do we know that temperature will increase this much? Paleoclimatology provides the answers, principally from ice core analysis. You can see the data well presented at NOAA, where a chart shows over the last 400,000 years natural CO2 changes and temperature changes. Note that the highest measured concentrations were about 300 PPM over this very long period of time.


Our lake ecosystems will be affected greatly, as ice cover in the Great Lakes drops by 42%, meaning species adapted to ice cover and certain temperature ranges will be pressured. River ice will be similarly affected, affecting species diversity, species range and populations. Temperature increases cause more evaporation, increasing salinity and concentrations of other minerals. Oxygen levels will decrease. Carbon dioxide levels will increase, as CO2 is very soluble in water.

Oceans are also absorbing unprecedented concentrations of CO2, increasing ocean acidity. Sea levels have risen an average of 20 centimetres and may rise an additional 1 metre by 2100.


Here, Will tells us about the current effects of climate change. You can read his full list by enlarging the photo by clicking on it.

Many regions in the world will be affected greatly if these changes come to be. The young presenters will feel the full brunt of change and are very concerned. Just a few months ago, China and the USA signed a ground-breaking protocol on climate change. China is spending $50 billion on alternative energy sources, replacing its coal-fired generators at a very fast rate. Two very vulnerable regions in China are the water-scarce North China Plain, and the flood-prone Poyang lake Region.


This graphic shows simply how ice melt will result in a vicious circle of increased heating and further loss of ice.


Fan explains some of the ways we may be able to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had produced a book-sized report in 2012 on this topic.

I found it appropriate somehow that the seminar room was made uncomfortable by the heat and humidity outside. The facts about climate change are also uncomfortable. Perhaps you have heard Australia’s Will Flannery talking about climate change. He is Chief Councillor of Australia’s Climate Council. It started as a government organization and is now a non-governmental organization financed by donors. If you do want more than a summary, then go to its website.

If you wish to delve into the details of the science around climate change, you may refer to the IPCC web site.

If research interests you, there are great opportunities provided by the Queen’s University Biological Station. Professor Lougheed posted results of his research here in this Blog in 2013.

QUBS hosts a long-term climate monitoring project (since 2009) using web cameras which monitor forest change. The project started with 12 cameras, 2 in Ontario, 1 at Qubs, and 10 more in the northeastern USA.

Biological Indicator Species
by Team Dryad’s Saddle

Lyu Wen Yang, Derek Newton, Qin Lanxue, Xing Kangnan
Lyu Wen Yang, Derek Newton, Qin Lanxue, Xing Kangnan

There are four kinds of indicator species:

  1. Gian Swallowtail
    Giant Swallowtail

    Keystone species which create their own ecosystem. Our Beaver (Castor canadensis) comes to mind. One student suggested that the Anchovy, an estuarine brackish water fish common in Chinese waters, is a Chinese candidate.

  2. Flagship species which act as a social target for conservation action. The Chinese have the Panda. We have the Loon.
  3. Sentinel species are the “canary in the coal mine”. Changes to these species tell us there is an environmental concern. Southern species spreading into our latitudes may qualify. Some dragonflies, birds and butterflies previously unheard of in our region are examples, such as Easter Amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis teneris), Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), and the Giant Swallowtail butterlfy (Papilio cresphontes).
  4. Eastern Amberwing
    Eastern Amberwing

    Umbrella species protect other species through their activities. The beaver qualifies again. Some African/South American termites also qualify as their giant mounds bring nutrients up from the depths, creating significant areas where other species may thrive. Professor Lougheed has written a paper for this blog on these industrious social insects.

QUBS Seminars

QUBS presents a series of seminars through the summer. They are most informative and entertaining. This year’s series ended Wednesday, August 26th with Stephen Lougheed’s favourite species. Some of his early research projects took Steve to southern South America, where he learned to appreciate the Rufous-Collared Sparrow, Zonotrichia capensis. I cannot possibly do justice to Steve’s love of this species in this blog. His enthusiasm has generated motivation to experience these birds personally. For now, I suggest we experience vicariously through the Web: Rufous Collared Sparrow

What follows is another good example of one of these seminars on July 29, 2015.

James Sinclair of Queen’s University:

James_SinclairJames’ topic: Strength in Size or Numbers – disentangling the factors involved in the establishment of non-native species

After dinner in the cafeteria in the Raleigh Robertson Biodiversity Centre, the class, local community members and I convened in the seminar hall in the basement. The hall is set up to accommodate about 75 people, and it was almost full.

James, in quest of an advanced degree, is studying a most pressing topic in ecology: invasive species. Since World War 2, the geometric scale human population increase, combined with ever expanding trade and human migration, has afforded many European and Asian species the opportunity to expand into the Americas (and vice versa!). Most of us have heard about exotic species getting a foothold before this era. The European Starling (Sturnis vulgaris) comes to mind. This feisty, intelligent bird was introduced in the 1890s in New York City by the American Acclimatization Society in its quest to have every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works among us in North America (Starlings are mentioned in Henry IV part 1). These same enterprising souls also gave us the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus).

Scientific American gave us on article on the Starling’s origin in North America.

James’ invasive species research focuses on one of our most recent cargo ship hitchhikers, the bloody-red mysid (Hemimysis anomala) which is a shrimp-like crustacean in the Mysida order, native to the Ponto-Caspian region, which has been spreading across Europe since the 1950s and is now in our own St. Lawrence River.

The theoretical basis for James’ research is the concept of propagule pressure. A propagule is a vegetative structure (bud, stem) from a plant from which new plants of the same species will spread. Therefore it is a way to propagate a species. The Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) has populated the shores of the tropics and subtropics in this fashion.

Propagule pressure is a measure of the numbers of a species introduced into a region where they are not native. Since this is a composite measure, you have to know how many were introduced each time, and then how many introductions occurred and over what area. As you can see from the slides taken from James’ presentation below, this is stated as “The set of individuals introduced” and “The rate of introductions”.

Propagule_pressureThere is a minimum population required to “launch” a species and each is different. Only scientific research which emanates from these theoretical underpinnings will clarify how species get started, and this could help us develop more effective strategies for prevention and/or elimination of unwanted species.

As you can see from James’ summary, we have learned a little and have a long way to go to better understand the invasion process.

Population_effectsJames’ research target, the small crustacean which you can see in the slide below, has already managed to make the St. Lawrence River its home. The port of Montreal seems to be its “drop-off” point, so the intrepid James decided to sample the port waters to collect research subjects. The best time to collect these light-sensitive crustaceans is at night, in a most seedy part of Montreal’s harbour front. Putting his life on the line, like so many courageous biologists, James was successful in bringing back sufficient mysids to conduct his experiments in the tanks at Queen’s.

See more about James’ previous research here.

For a full listing of events at the Station, including the Wednesday evening summer seminar series, click here.

In Chapter 3 we will experience another dollop of ecological learning from Professor Yuxiang Wang, and see some of the field trips which the students experienced. Some of the facilities at QUBS will be featured. This will be the final chapter for this field course. Tree Swallows research is the next topic, and look for stories and photos featuring Professor Emeritus Raleigh Robertson, a long-time Director of QUBS who started Tree Swallow research at Queen’s in the 1970s.

How We Humans Change Plant and Animal Communities in our Rivers and Lakes

Post by Art Goldsmith.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos are taken by Art Goldsmith.

There is little in life more energizing than being amongst great young minds exploring, studying and testing some of the more pressing questions of today’s world.  Such was my opportunity when Queen’s University biology professors Stephen Lougheed and Yuxiang Wang invited me to be with them as they led the Canadian version of the following course at the Queen’s University Biological Station.

Effects of Human Development on Aquatic Environments and Biodiversity in Canada and China Field Course 2015

Aided by research associate Mark Szenteczki, Queen’s grad students Mingzhi Qu and Wenxi Feng,  Lougheed and Wang provide Chinese and Canadian undergraduate biology and environmental science students with an opportunity for intensive learning in the field.  This learning is mixed with a joyful and exhausting itinerary through some of our country’s large and heavily populated aquatic systems.  Learning continues into the evenings with seminars and lectures by course leaders, other biologists and ecologists, and by the students themselves, working in teams.

Partnering with China’s Tongji University, Queen’s University has developed the Sino–Canada Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development, with the Biological Station being the Canadian portion of the Centre.

Commemorative plaque recognizing the Sino-Canadian Centre, and the QUBS Yangtze Environmental Specimen Bank sister station relationship.
Commemorative plaque recognizing the Sino-Canadian Centre, and the QUBS Yangtze Environmental Specimen Bank sister station relationship.

Although it predates establishment of the Centre, the course, which began in 2005, reflects the Centre’s spirit and its goals.  The course is given in summers alternating yearly between China and Canada.

While I experienced only several days of the two-week course at the Biological Station, thanks to material provided by professors Lougheed and Wang, Teaching Assistant Szenteczki and the students, the following includes personal observations, as well as events outside those days when I was present.  I have divided my observations into several chapters.  In no way is this information comprehensive.  Rather, my intent is to provide you, dear reader, with an overview that skims the surface of the wealth of detailed knowledge packed into this very richly composed course.

Course Day 1

The field course provides a rich diversity of experience.  On Day 1 at QUBS, the students enjoyed learning about Eastern Ontario natural history and avian diversity.  They ended the day with a nocturnal field trip around the Station where they experienced owls, frogs and the numerous insect species which emerge after dark.  This blog isn’t intended to give a full annotated itinerary of the course, but rather provide some flavours and snippets of course experiences and content.

First up, a hike at the Station on the Cow Island Marsh Trail.

Cow Island Trail sign at the Opinicon Campus of the Queen's University Biological Station.
Cow Island Trail sign at the Opinicon Campus of the Queen’s University Biological Station.

Any aquatic ecology course has to consider the most productive biological systems—wetlands.

Classification of wetlands is, itself, an interesting and diverse field of study.  For the purpose of this blog, we will focus on four classes: marshes (fresh and saltwater, and those in between); fens; bogs; and swamps.  Wetland definitions are tenuous and these common names differ from place to place.  Much like common bird or plant names, the terms change.

If you wish a more studied and rigorous wetland classification system, I suggest a good textbook, Wetland Ecology: Principles and Conservation, Second Edition, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2010), by Dr. Paul Keddy, who also happens to live in Eastern Ontario.

Another helpful reference is the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Summary on Wetland Resources.


Marshes occur in and along ponds, lakes and rivers; in fact, they occur in and along many aquatic environments.  Defined by rich natural nutrient sources, herbaceous emergent vegetation and a neutral pH, marshes are highly ecologically productive places with a diversity of plant and animal life.  Of course, they are usually wet!  That is, the soils of marshes are usually saturated and overlain by water.  There are tidal and non-tidal marshes.  Marine marshes are a particular favourite of mine.  More about that later.

The Cow Island Marsh is an excellent example.  Like so many local marshes in Eastern Ontario, this one is dominated by Common Cattails, Typha latifolia, seen below.

Common Cattails, Typha latifolia
Common Cattails, Typha latifolia

Look closely, though.  Increasingly, I have noticed another similar species, Narrow-leaved Cattails, Typha angustifolia, becoming more common and even dominant in some marshes.

On July 29, 2015, Instructor Dale Kristensen of Queen’s University led a walk at Cow Island Marsh that focused on his theme: Plant diversity, identification & importance.

Thanks to the members of team “Scrambled-egg slime mold,” Fei Jin (Fudan University), Zixiang Li (Beijing Normal University), Sarah Minnes (Memorial University) and Natalie Wong (University of Toronto), for their write-up on this event.  Thanks go out to Mark Szenteczki as well for the two photos showing Dale leading the students at Cow Island Marsh.

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Some of the plants and scenes observed at this marsh.

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, which is not as familiar as its field growing cousin, Common Milkweed.  It is, though, a favourite also of many butterflies.

Marsh Bellflower
Marsh Bellflower

I had not noticed the Marsh Bellflower, Campanula aparinoides, before.  Dr. Kristensen identified it immediately as a common local marsh inhabitant.  It is sometimes overlooked because of its diminutive size and vine growth habit that often causes the majority of the long narrow leaves to be hidden by other plants

Marsh Bellflower stretched on boardwalk.
Marsh Bellflower stretched on boardwalk.

To the right are the stem and leaves of the same plant stretched across the boardwalk to enable photography.

Note that the plant was not harmed during this process!

Many odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) inhabit the marsh in midsummer.

One common dragonfly is the Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella (photo below).

photo9LpulchellaAt the entrance to the boardwalk, in July, you may see a most symmetrical flower, the Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, a wetland-loving member of the Madder family.

European Frog-bit
European Frog-bit

Invasive species, a subject of a talk given by James Sinclair at QUBS during the China–Canada course, are apparent in the marsh.  Look for another posting featuring Sinclair’s presentation.  Though the Purple Loose-strife (Lythrum salicaria) is now controlled, the plant below, the European Frog-bit, Hydrocharis morsus-ranae, is invading most of our marshes.

About 23 years ago, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF), in partnership with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), established an Invading Species Awareness Program, where you can learn more about this species and how to control it, as well as the growing number of species invading Ontario.

Flowering Rush
Flowering Rush

The lovely, and invasive, Flowering Rush, Butomus umbellatus, Westmeath Provincial Park, Ontario.

Human effects on all wetlands have reduced these important ecosystems both qualitatively and quantitatively.  This photo permits us a more sanguine view, perhaps echoing a previous time when the marsh and its human inhabitants lived more harmoniously.  The marsh is in the foreground, Cow Island on the upper left and Lake Opinicon beyond.

Marsh - Lake Opinicon and Cow Island
Marsh – Lake Opinicon and Cow Island


The course focuses on freshwater systems.  The Queen’s University Biological Station includes properties in the Frontenac Axis, a band of the Canadian Shield that extends from the Algonquin Highlands across the St. Lawrence River into New York State, where the band widens to form the Adirondacks.  Swamps, bogs, marshes and fens are a feature of the rocky forested landscape.  Locally, swamps and marshes are well represented.  One of the best fens in the area is the White Lake Fen, near Arnprior, Ontario.

Fens receive groundwater, and, therefore, are more nutrient rich and biodiverse than bogs which receive only rainwater.  Both are characterized by both herbaceous and woody water-loving plants, including many orchid and carnivorous plant species.

White Lake Fen
White Lake Fen


Cedar grove - Stittsville
Cedar grove – Stittsville

Swamps are characterized by woody vegetation.  Cedar swamps abound in Eastern Ontario.  Eastern White Cedars, Thuja occidentalis, tend to be some of the oldest trees in our country.  Drainage has left a great deal of our cedar swamps with a lowered water table, which has caused a drop in diversity and no cedar regeneration.  Cedars are very adaptable, though, and upland populations are increasing as they invade abandoned farmlands.  This points out a problem with the way we organize our conservation efforts around endangered species instead of endangered ecosystems.  The cedar is definitely not endangered.  Perhaps the cedar swamp is threatened?

Pictured on the right is a cedar grove in Stittsville, Ontario.  Previously, this grove, now a protected area, had standing water most of the year.


Bogs and fens are indeed a northern phenomenon.  In Eastern Ontario, well known large bogs exist and even have moose populations (Alfred Bog and Mer Bleue).  Just for fun, and because your blogger recently completed a lifelong dream trip to a very southern bog, here is a photo from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (southern Georgia, USA).  Bogs’ waters are only replenished by rain.  This makes them nutrient poor, acidic, wet environments characterized by peat moss.  The southern climate produces some bigger trees, and some more diversity than one would get in our local bogs.  Still, Okefenokee is NOT a swamp.

Okefenokee bog
Okefenokee bog

Course Day 2

Each team wrote their own blog about each day of the course.  For the Day 2 content, thanks go out to team ‘Dryad’s saddle’ members, Derek James Newton (Queen’s), Qin Lanxue (Tongji), Xing Kangnan (BNU) and Lyu Wenyang (d’Overbroecks).

Gray Ratsnake encountered at QUBS.
Gray Ratsnake encountered at QUBS.

Before breakfast, the group hiked, working up an excellent appetite, looking for some of the many species of birds resident in the marshes, forests, lakes and shores surrounding QUBS.  Along the way, they learned a little about the Grey Rat Snake, Pantherophis spiloides, our largest snake in Ontario and endemic to the Frontenac Axis.  This threatened reptile is often seen moving through the property.

Indeed, this blogger encountered the snake below on the same road the students hiked (right).

The students heard a Pine Warbler, Setophaga pinus; many black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapillus; and they heard the sharp “chick-chick” calls from a Downy Woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens.  As they left the forest on their way to the marsh, they observed Common Yellowthroat warblers, Setophaga dominica; and Blue Jays, Cyanocitta cristata.  Walking along the marsh boardwalk, the students heard the “prehistoric caw” (note:  the blogger thinks of this loud abrupt call as a “groink”) of the Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias.  They saw a Caspian tern, Hydroprogne caspia, fly over as it fished Lake Opinicon.  The first true wetland resident species encountered was the Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana, which popped up in the bullrushes and cattails.  Other species usually heard or seen around the lake are the Common Loon, Gavia immer; and the Osprey, Pandion haliaetus.

Family of Common Loons.
Osprey flying overhead.
Osprey flying overhead.

During the afternoon, the group learned about Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and applications to environmental science research.  Over the last 20 years, GPS and Geographic Information Systems, in combination with remote sensing, have become fundamental tools for learning about, conducting research on and presenting clear visualizations of environmental topics.

Mingzhi giving GPS lecture
Mingzhi giving GPS lecture

Qu Mingzhi provided comprehensive knowledge on GPS methods and applications.

Following a walk to an upland marsh, dotted with willow and goldenrod, the students were treated to another presentation by a Queen’s grad student Wenxi Feng, who is working on the applications of monitoring for eDNA.  Wenxi also presented his research at the QUBS Open House in June, which your blogger attended.  The idea is simple; the application is much more complex. Wetland organisms, such as fish, turtles and frogs, for example, through normal life processes, exude mitochondrial DNA.  Water samples may be analyzed for this DNA indicating presence or absence, density, and much more information about organisms in the ecosystem, without the need to capture or harvest the organisms.

Wenxi demonstrating eDNA methods.
Wenxi demonstrating peristaltic pump for sampling water for eDNA.

Wenxi Feng showed course participants eDNA methods and applications for environmental research. This is a developing and exciting field, which has great potential for streamlining and improving environmental monitoring.

The day ended with participants watching one of my favourite motion pictures, The Big Year.  Three American “birders” compete to see the most bird species in a single year.  Of course they are all men, who go to great lengths to find that rare bird.

With that, this first chapter of the 2015 China–Canada Field Course ends.  In the next chapter, we will follow the participants as they develop their own seminars and I will give details about several of the student seminars.


Thanks to Janice Tripp for her expert editing assistance.

The Opinicon Natural History Blog has a new contributor

Professor Stephen Lougheed started this blog in 2009.

It is intended to be a vibrant and factual resource for learning and documenting the science and natural history of the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) and surroundings.  As you can see from recent postings, the content also ranges geographically since people who have frequented QUBS now span the Earth. People working at QUBS carry on research in many other lands and ecosystems.

My plan is to add a further dimension to an already successful venture: the people, facilities and the various happenings at the Station. There is a dynamic to the natural history and science that  becomes more real, informative and lasting if we also know more about the people generating all that good science and knowledge. So, look for more postings about the growing buffet of field courses and ongoing research projects.

Submissions are welcome, subject to editorial assessment – send to Stephen Lougheed.

Stephen is always around and involved. His busy schedule as a Full Professor at Queen’s University and Director at the Station doesn’t leave sufficient time for him to always capture all of what is going on at QUBS.  Therefore, I volunteered to take a lead role in producing the blog content.

Allow me to introduce myself. Most of my spare time is dedicated to natural history and environmental knowledge development and communication.

I hold an executive position with the Macnamara Field Naturalists’ Club of Arnprior, Ontario, which is where I live. We have the tallest tree in Ontario there, in Gillies Grove. It is a White Pine (Pinus strobus) with a height of  about 47 metres. The National Research Council of Canada has placed me on their Animal Care Committee, which oversees the treatment and care of laboratory animals in human health research.

I have my own blog, which captures natural history knowledge and more as I make my way through various eco-districts.

It is best to READ the blog rather than describing it, as it will also give you the flavour of future Opinicon Natural History postings.

I worked at Environment Canada from 1980 to 1997, as Chief and then Director of Conservation Service Policy and Knowledge Integration, where some of my achievements included the development of a large portion of Canada’s Green Plan and  Environment Canada’s entry onto the World Wide Web.

Between 1980 and 1988, I developed and advised on water policy and legislation, managed Lower Fort Garry National Historic Park and led social development policy for the Government of Manitoba.

All said and done, I have returned to my first passion—natural history and environmental science. Expect diversity and variety with an emphasis on “interesting.”  Comments are welcome. Please point out errors and omissions. Most of all, keep returning and let me know what you think.

Your blogger communing with a tree in northern Florida.
Your blogger communing with a tree in northern Florida.

In the next few weeks, look for editions about:

1.    Cow Marsh Nature Trail
2.    What’s Up with the Tree Swallow Boxes at QUBS?
3.    Sino-Canada Eco-dreams OR Effects Of Human Development On Aquatic Environments and Biodiversity In Canada And China
4.    The Bug Man Cometh (Field Entomology & Ecology)
5.    Fungi with a Fun Guy (Fabulous Fall Fungi)
6.    And your comments, recommendations and contributions!

Keep in touch!


Arthur E. Goldsmith, B.Sc., B.Ed, MPA

Termites. Termites. Termites.

By S.C. Lougheed
For Ontarions, the word “termite” conjures up a negative image of ravenous insects that cause immense and costly damage to human-made wooden structures because of their propensity to eat dead wood and indeed any material that is cellulose-based (Evans 2011). The beast that we know in Ontario is the eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes), a species native to the eastern USA that has been introduced multiple times into Ontario (Scaduto et al. 2012) – probably first in 1938 (Urquhart 1953).

Figure 1. A particularly impressive cathedral termite (Nasutitermes triodiae) mound estimated to be over 50 years old and over 4 metres tall (Queen’s University Biology alumnus Cam Hudson, provides some idea of scale ).
Figure 1. A particularly impressive cathedral termite (Nasutitermes triodiae) mound estimated to be over 50 years old and over 4 metres tall (Queen’s University Biology alumnus Cam Hudson, provides some idea of scale ).

In other parts of the world, like the savannahs of African savannahs, the pampas of Argentina, or tropical and subtropical Australia, some termite species present another face – that of exquisite natural engineers who create magnificent and sometimes immense structures of cellulose, mud and saliva (Figure 1). These termite mounds afford many benefits to the termite colony including protection from predators and buffering from sometimes extreme environments where they are found. In the Box below I present some basic information on evolutionary affinities and diversity.

Figure 2. A field of magnetic termite mounds in Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia.
Figure 2. A field of magnetic termite mounds in Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia.

One of my favourite examples of beautifully-adapted insect architecture is the mound of the magnetic termite, Amitermes meridionalis, found in Northern Australia. Magnetic termites build their wedge-shaped mounds on seasonal flood plains that are saturated during the wet season (precluding subterranean abodes) and baked in the intense tropical sun in the dry season – an extreme environment indeed! The photo in Figure 2 shows that the mounds are all oriented in the same direction – north-south. The unique shape and orientation mean that one side is shaded and cool as the sun rises and sets, but also that when the sun is at its zenith, only the very top of the wedge receives direct sunlight. Termite mounds can be incredibly important to other organisms. Hollows within them can provide shelter for animals like goannas (monitor lizards), quolls (small marsupials), and snakes. For some species termites form a significant part of their diet (e.g. bilbies – small arid-land omnivorous marsupial) and termite mounds thus a rich foraging ground. Finally termite mounds play a significant role in enriching and cycling of nutrients, with local effects persisting decades after a colony has disappeared.


  1. Evans, T.A. 2011. Invasive termites, pp. 519-562. In D.E. Bignell, Y. Roisin, & N. Lo Eds., Biology of Termites: A Modern Synthesis. Springer, Dordrecht, the Netherlands.
  2. Scaduto D.A., S.R. Garner, E.L. Leach & G.J. Thompson. 2012. Genetic evidence for multiple invasions of the eastern subterranean termite into Canada. Environ. Entomol. 41: 1680-168.
  3. Urquhart, F.A. 1953. The introduction of the termite into Ontario. Can. Entomol. 85: 292-293.

Box. There are over 3000 named species of termites (also called “white-ants”), although undoubtedly there remain many others to be discovered (Krishna et al. 2013). Much of this species richness is centred in the tropics and subtropics, where termites play a major role in ecosystems as detritivores. Originally placed within their own order (Isoptera), recent molecular evidence suggests that termites are most closely allied to cockroaches with suggestions that Isoptera be subsumed within the cockroach order Blattodea (Inward et al. 2007). Termites are eusocial insects where different castes perform different roles within the colony. This phenomenon of eusociality has arisen multiple times both in insects (e.g. Hymenoptera – bees and wasps), in crustaceans (alpheid snapping shrimp), and in mammals (naked mole rats, Heterocephalus glaber).


Inward, D., G. Beccaloni & P. Eggleton. 2007. Death of an order: A comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study confirms that termites are eusocial cockroaches. Biol. Lett. 3: 331-335.

Krishna, K, D.A. Grimaldi, V. Krishna & M.S. Engel. 2013. Treatise on the Isoptera of the world. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist.  377: 1–2704.

A brief digression on parrots.

by Stephen C. Lougheed

The parrots comprise a large order (Psittaciformes) of birds with a mainly pantropical distribution, although some species do inhabit temperate regions in the Southern Hemisphere as well (e.g. the burrowing parrot, Cyanoliseus patagonus, of southern South America). Number of species reported varies but generally is on the order of 340 to 370 distributed across between 78 and 86 genera (Rowley and Collar 1997). Characteristics of parrots will be familiar to most: robust, curved bill, strong legs with zygodactylous feet (two toes forward, two toes facing backward). Many are brightly-coloured although some, like the sulfur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) are mostly white, while others, like the flightless Kakapo (Strigops habroptila) of New Zealand, have muted and cryptic plumage patterns to avoid predators.

Northern rosella taken in Litchfield National Park. Click on thumbnail for larger image.

In my still unfolding peregrinations in Australia I have already seen 10 species of parrot including this lovely northern rosella (photo by Cam Hudson – see his blog  – from some distance – but still showing some of the vibrant colours).

My list thus far includes:

  • Red tailed black-cockatoo, Calyptorhynchus banksii

    Gallah taken just outside Nitmiluk National Park. Click on thumbnail for larger image.
  • Yellow tailed black-cockatoo, Calyptorhynchus funereus
  • Gallah, Eolophus roseicapilla
  • Little corella, Cacatua sanguinea
  • Sulfur-crested cockatoo, Cacatua galerita
  • Rainbow lorikeet, Trichoglossus haematodus
  • Red-shoulder parrot, Diopsittaca nobilis
  • Eastern rosella, Platycercus eximius (see photo)
  • Hooded parrot, Psephotus dissimilis
  • Northern rosella, Platycercus venustus

Carolina_parakeet_JJ_AudubonUnfortunately, at least 80 species of parrot are classified as vulnerable or endangered (IUCN 2013) due to a mixture of habitat loss, collection for the pet trade, and persecution because some are considered agricultural pests (Collar 2007) with some already extinct. Indeed, the only psittacid of Eastern North America went extinct in the early 20th Century. The Carolina parakeet (Cacatua galerita) once ranged from southern New York, south to the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as Nebraska (Snyder 2004). The Carolina parakeet was a lovely species, with bright yellow head, orange face, green body and pale bill (see John James Audubon’s rendering here). One can imagine that, before European settlement (and ensuing loss of the Eastern deciduous forest, persecution because it foraged on orchards, and hunting for the millinery trade – nothing like a stuffed parakeet on your hat I guess – see Saikku, 1990), very occasionally one might even have seen a northern vagrant parakeet in Canada.


  1. Collar, N.J. 2007. Globally threatened parrots: criteria, characteristics and cures. International Zoo Yearbook 37: 21–35.
  2. IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. <>. Downloaded on 22 January 2014.
  3. Rowley, I. and N.J. Collar. 1997. Order PSITTACIFORMES. In Handbook of the Birds of the World – Volume 4. Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal eds.) Lynx Edicions
  4. Saikku, M. 1990. The extinction of the Carolina parakeet. Environmental History Review 14: 1-18.
  5. Snyder, N.F.R. 2004. The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ.

Frog diversity at the University of Sydney Tropical Ecology Research Facility near Darwin.

By Stephen C. Lougheed

I am travelling in Australia funded, in part, by The J. Allen Keast Field Biology International Exchange Fund. Allen, born and raised in Australia, was a long-time professor in Biology at Queen’s and an enduring presence at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). The Fund, as its name implies, facilitates exchanges between Australian and Canadian scientists. As Director of QUBS my hope on this sojourn is to visit a number of facilities and bring back some ideas for our own station on how to enrich the research, teaching and outreach.

I am currently at the University of Sydney Tropical Ecology Research Facility situated about an hour outside of Darwin in the Northern Territory and just outside of Fogg Dam Conservation Area – about halfway between the Tropic of Capricorn and the equator. Most of the work done here is herpetological with a major focus on understanding and countering the negative consequences of the massive cane toad invasion in Australia. Indeed my host (aside from the Facility Director Rick Shine and Manager Dr. Greg Brown who kindly made this visit possible), Cam Hudson, who is both a Queen’s University alumnus and an ex-student of mine, is doing his doctorate on cane toads here.

The surrounding woodlands here are diverse, although having spent time in similar Neotropical and Afrotropical habitats, I can say that there always seems to something familiar like the squawking of parrots (e.g. here red-tailed black-cockatoos, lorikeets or rosellas) or omnipresent cooing of doves of various kinds. The annual rainfall here is markedly seasonal (mean annual rainfall 1729.7 mm) with most rain falling between November and March. We are firmly in the grip of the rainy season as there have been daily deluges since I arrived. Mean maximum annual temperature is 32 degree C although the daily minimum temperature seldom dips below 15 degrees C.

In the mornings I have been taking time to walk along the local roads and trails bird-watching (well really anything watching), in afternoons working on manuscripts, letters and emails, and in the evenings doing some ‘herping’ especially looking for frogs that are now actively chorusing and breeding. In three nights of not particularly intensive searching we have assembled a handsome list of 15 species – a rogues gallery of which I present here (note that 9 of them are in the massive genus Litoria!):

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To put this into perspective on QUBS lands we have documented only 9 anuran species (Chorus frog, Spring peeper, Grey treefrog, American bullfrog, Green frog, Pickerel frog, Leopard frog, Wood frog, American toad), and this list expands to ten if we consider all of Eastern Ontario (to include the Mink frog). Thus in three nights we have assembled a list comprised of 50% more frog species within a single small region.

In February I will be traveling to Cairns in the northeast hoping to spend some time in Daintree National Park – again a very productive, biodiverse, and humid area of Australia.

Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis, on Queen’s University Biological Station Properties

Post by Paul R. Martin, Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON Canada

Figure 1. Sean Thomas Martin, standing over the small creek on the Bonwill Tract where he captured the Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis.
Figure 1. Sean Thomas Martin, standing over the small creek on the Bonwill Tract where he captured the Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis.

The Pygmy Grasshoppers (Tetrigidae) are a large family of grasshoppers (>1000 species worldwide), also referred to as groundhoppers or grouse locusts (Preston-Mafham 1990). The family is poorly known and less commonly seen than many other grasshoppers — most species are cryptically coloured (brown, gray or black) and many species have expanded pronotums (the upper part of the back, just behind the head) that resemble leaves, stones or twigs (Preston-Mafham 1990). Only 9 species of pygmy grasshopper are known from Canada, and these are either placed in the family Tetrigidae, or partially split into the families Tetrigidae and Batrachideidae (Vickery and Kevan 1985). All 9 species are small (usually less than 2 cm long), brown, gray or black (never green), and have pronounced eyes and long pronotums that extend backwards, often ending in a point (Vickery and Keven 1985). Only one species has been described from the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS), the Ornate Ground Locust, Tetrix ornatus (Paiero and Conboy 2010). Here I describe the occurrence of another species on QUBS properties, the Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis.

On 28 April 2013, Sean Thomas Martin (age 5) spotted and caught a female Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper from above a narrow creek that led into the north end of Telephone Bay (Lake Opinicon), just east of the Bedford Road (Bonwill Tract) (Fig. 1). The grasshopper was caught immediately above the stream — Sean Thomas told me that it had been “laying eggs in the water,” but I could not verify this (he had already caught it). No other grasshoppers were seen that day. We collected, photographed, and later released the insect (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. The female Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis from the QUBS properties, April 28, 2013. Note the extended pronotum (the light brown "shield" on the back, extending from behind the head almost to the anus) and the black and brown colouration typical of pygmy grasshoppers.
Figure 2. The female Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis from the QUBS properties, April 28, 2013. Note the extended pronotum (the light brown “shield” on the back, extending from behind the head almost to the anus) and the black and brown colouration typical of pygmy grasshoppers.

Among the pygmy grasshoppers in Canada, our grasshopper can be identified to the two species in the Batrachideidae group by the 16 or more segments of the antennae (Fig. 2a) and the groove on the upper edge of the femor (the largest part of the back leg; Fig. 2b). The Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper is separated from the similar Armored Pygmy Grasshopper, T. armata, by the blunt shape of the pronotum where it reaches the head that lacks a pronounced point (Fig. 2b; Vickery and Kevan 1985).

Black-sided Pygmy Grasshoppers are widespread in southern Ontario and Québec and overwinter as adults (Vickery and Kevan 1985). Adults emerge early in spring (as early as 2 April in Québec) and can occupy a diversity of habitats, from dry sandy ridges to wet areas beside water (Vickery and Kevan 1985). Little is known of the species’ natural history, although it has been described from Manitoba to Nova Scotia, south to Central America (Vickery and Kevan 1985; Capinera et al. 2004). While this species has not previously been documented on QUBS properties, Black-sided Pygmy-Grasshoppers are likely overlooked by most observers over the age of 5.

Literature cited

Capinera, J. L., R. D. Scott, and T. J. Walker. 2004. Field guide to grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets of the United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Paiero, S. A., and M. A. Conboy 2010. List of Orthopteroides at Queen’s University Biological Station.

Preston-Mafham, K. 1990. Grasshoppers and Mantids of the World. Blandford Publishers, London, UK.

Vickery, V. R., and K. M. Kevan. 1985. The insects and arachnids of Canada. Part 14. The grasshoppers, crickets, and related insects of Canada and adjacent regions. Agriculture Canada, Ottawa, ON, Canada.