Planning 2016

First – Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2016 will be awesome.


Just a word cloud for what I’m sure will represent 2016.

Now down to business; I have been very negligent about this blog this past year and I don’t have a good reason for it. The best reason I can give is “I was busy”; something we can all understand. But over the holidays, I decided I want to get back to writing blog posts and continue sharing my observations of natural history, research and (currently) postdoc life.

I don’t want to make this into a resolution because, as we all know, resolutions tend to be quickly forgotten and when we remember them, we feel disappointed in ourselves that we haven’t kept them. SO I’m calling this plan “My 2016 Plan”: I will write a blog post every month (at least), which should be easy: it’s only 12 posts! This one doesn’t count. So please stay tuned and I hope you enjoy them.


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Yukon Goldenrod Rush

In the past few years I have been hearing a great deal about the insect research that is going on in the Arctic (mostly from the NBP project run at McGill University) so when the opportunity came for me to go up myself I couldn’t say no. I am fortunate to be spending two weeks on the Dempster Highway in the Yukon this summer. I’m here for two reasons, to look for leaf miners in goldenrods for my current research and to assist in collecting flies for taxonomic and evolutionary ecological projects. The following is a little about my own Yukon Gold Rush some 118 years after the real gold rush; the search for goldenrods of the Yukon.

First a little background about recognizing the species: There are three species of goldenrod in the Yukon, Solidago canadensis, Solidago multiradiata and Solidago simplex. Solidago canadensis, the Canada goldenrod, is a very widespread species covering most of North America and is even becoming invasive in Europe. It’s a species that most people mistaken for ragweed; they’re found in ditches, roadsides, and disturbed areas and in old-field habitats. They are generally tall with bright yellow flower heads composed of many flowers. Solidago multiradiata (northern goldenrod) and Solidago simplex (dune goldenrod) are evolutionarily closely related and look very much alike; they tend to be small with most of the leaves at the base, getting smaller as you move up and the flower heads tend to look like spikes sticking straight up into the air. The main difference between these two species is the pubescence; the northern goldenrod is very hairy around the flowers and the upper stem whereas the dune goldenrod is not hairy.

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to find an of the known goldenrods in the Yukon and if I did I wanted to know whether their leaves were getting mined and by what. So I prepared myself and brought some rearing vials along just in case.

Solidago simplex on the edge of Miles Canyon near Whitehorse, Yukon.

Pic 1: Solidago simplex, the dune goldenrod, on the edge of Miles Canyon near Whitehorse, Yukon.

We arrived to Whitehorse and spent the new few days around the area. To my delight I found goldenrods on the second day by Miles Canyon, It was both the dune and northern goldenrods (Pic 1). But alas, no mines. I was 2/3 of the way to riches with goldenrod identification but no success with finding leaf miners. I found more northern and dune goldenrods on the shores of Fish Lake outside of Whitehorse being overrun by pollinating flies (Pic 2) and then I just saw them everywhere, especially on the roadsides and rocky slopes.

Pic 2: Solidago multiradiata being pollinated by flies.

Pic 2: Solidago multiradiata, the northern goldenrod, being pollinated by flies.

We went for a day to Skagway and I was happy that my goldenrod rush did not involve all the gear the gold rush stampeders had to bring; a ton of goods! Everything they needed to survive and they had to carry it on their backs across the Chilkoot trail to Dawson city (Pic 3).

Pic 2: What Stampeders had to have with them to make the trek to the Yukon for the 1897 gold Rush.

Pic 3: What Stampeders had to have with them to make the trek to the Yukon for the 1897 Gold Rush. List in window of Skagway information center.

I almost had to wait to get to Dawson city to find the last of the three goldenrods, the Canada goldenrod. I found a little patch at Stewart Crossing, not mined though. But before then I found mined Dune goldenrod at Two Lakes Campground on the Alaska highway. I continued to have success finding leaf miners on Dune goldenrods; I collected two species of leaf miners from Solidago simplex by the Dawson city airport and at Midnight Dome just outside Dawson. So I guess I struck gold in Dawson City!

We also went up the Dempster highway and I kept finding un-mined Dune goldenrod along the roadside until about 20km into the road. As the name suggests the Northern goldenrod is the most northerly goldenrod and I kept finding it up the Dempster although it is very patchy distribution; I found small un-mined plants in the rocky areas by the Tombstone valley lookout and on the trail to Goldensides Mountain, which I think is a great place to find goldenrods (Pic 4): Goldenrods on Goldensides! I did find both the dune and northern goldenrods further North. I identified  dune goldenrods in a rocky pull out by the Blackstone river crossing and northern goldenrods at another pullout with outhouses on the shores of the Blackstone river. Both of the species were mined and the mined leaves are now in my rearing vials so I’ll be able to find out what they’re mined by so far in the North.

Pic 3: Solidago multiradiata on the   slope of Goldensides mountain, Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon.

Pic 4: Solidago multiradiata, northern goldenrod, on the slope of Goldensides mountain, Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon.

Overall the Yukon is a wondrous place for anybody that is a naturalist or enjoys nature. If you’re out here keep an eye out for goldenrods and the huge diversity of plants and insects. But please don’t pick the plants without permission from the Yukon Government and the First Nations.

Acknowlegments: I would like to thank Terry A. Wheeler for suggesting the title for this post.

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New research about water mite parasitism, resistance and proxies of immunity

This is it! All my PhD thesis chapters have now been published. This last chapter was published in PLOS ONE co-authored by Arne Iserbyt, Laura Nagel and Mark Forbes. It’s closely related to a paper that is in Ecological Parasitology and Immunology (Nagel et al 2014). I consider them sister papers, one spearheaded by Laura Nagel and the other by myself. Both have a similar question: can we compare natural parasitism levels, resistance levels and proxies of immunity. The main differences were that we used different taxa: Mlynarek et al (2015) used Coenagrionid damselflies and Nagel et al (2014) used Lestid damselflies. Additionally, Mlynarek et al (2015) used phenoloxidase (PO) activity as a proxy of immunity whereas Nagel et al (2014) used phenoloxidase activity and encapsulation response to nylon inserts. Lestid damselflies. Because the results were similar, I’ll discuss them together.

First I want to introduce each of the characters were compared and how we defined them.

Natural parasitism is the prevalence (number of host individuals of a species infected by at least one parasite) or intensity (average number of water mite individuals per infected individuals) of water mite parasites (Fig 1). Water mite parasitism is observed by meticulously looking over each damselfly individual collected to determine whether it has any globe-shaped entities and how many there are.

Fig. 1 1 A super infected Enallagma ebrium damselfly.

Fig. 1 Measure of natural parasitism – super infected Enallagma ebrium damselfly.

Resistance was defined as the number of host individuals that killed (starved) at least one of the water mite parasites. The water mite damselfly system is ideal to document resistance because starved water mites remain attached to the hosts (Fig. 2).

Fig. 3 Resisted mites on Nehalennia gracilis. You can see the circular outlines between the legs (there are 8 mites on this individual).

Fig. 2 Measure of resistance – starved mites on Nehalennia gracilis

Phenoloxidase (PO) activity is one of the proxies of innate immunity in insects and is constitutive measure of immunity. Without going into too much detail the enzyme phenoloxidase is the last and key in a chain of prophenoloxidase reaction, which leads to the production of melanin.

Encapsulation response of nylon inserts is an induced response by hosts to ‘parasites’. This proxy is measured as the amount of melanin deposited on a synthetic object that was inserted into the host.

Our results show that when comparing natural parasitism, resistance and innate immunity proxies in four Lestid species and in 10 coenagrionid damselfly species (grouped into species pairs based on generic assignment), the host species with the highest levels of phenoloxidase and depositing the highest amount of melanin on nylon inserts were not the ones with highest prevalence or intensity of natural parasitism or of resistance.

In the coenagrionids, PO activity was different between species in to species pairs (Argia and Ischnura) but those species did not show differences in natural parasitism or resistance (Fig 3). In one species pair, Nehalennia gracilis resists all the water mites but none of the Nehalennia irene resist (we explored the evolution of this resistance in another paper – Mlynarek et al 2014). Finally in Enallagma subgenus Chromatallagma, Enallagma vesperum showed higher levels of natural parasitism and of resistance.

Fig 3. Bar graph comparing measures of parasitism, resistance and PO activity (copied from Mlynarek et al 2015 PLoS One)

Fig 3. Bar graph comparing measures of parasitism, resistance and PO activity (copied from Mlynarek et al 2015 PLoS One)

We found the lack of congruence between measures of natural parasitism, resistance and innate immunity proxies interesting because phenoloxidase activity and melanin deposition have been frequently used as proxies but they are apparently not ideal to determine levels of natural parasitism. A potential reason for not seeing these differences could be that melanin production and encapsulation response are used for other things such as host cuticle coloration, wound healing and egg tanning.

I think both of these papers are worth a read (it’s not only because I was involved in writing them).


Mlynarek, JJ, Knee W, Forbes MR (2014) Explaining Susceptibility and Resistance to a Multi-Host Parasite. Evol Biol (2014) 41:115–122 DOI 10.1007/s11692-013-9251-6

Mlynarek JJ, Iserbyt A, Nagel L, Forbes MR (2015) Differential Water Mite Parasitism, Phenoloxidase Activity, and Resistance to Mites Are Unrelated across Pairs of Related Damselfly Species. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0115539. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0115539

Nagel L, Mlynarek JJ, Forbes MR (2014) Comparing Natural Parasitism and Resistance with Proxies of Host Immune Response in Lestid Damselflies. Ecological Parasitology and Immunology Vol. 3 (2014), doi:10.4303/epi/235884

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Taxonomy: discovery or just description?

Recently there was a thread on twitter about whether taxonomy really is discovery because the species were ‘discovered’ or collected before and are currently in a museum collection. The response tweets were pretty interesting in asking the definition of ‘species’ or ‘discovery’ and that there are ‘different avenues to discovery’. This thread concluded with saying that ‘perhaps describing and naming is indeed true discovery’. I agree with that statement but taxonomy goes beyond just describing and naming; you must recognize that it’s something different.

That thread made realize that 1) I miss describing and naming species, haven’t published a taxonomic paper in a few years and 2) the incredible feeling of excitement when I recognize something as a new species or genus. I want to write about the latter. The best way to write about it is going through the process. You can start in the field with collecting specimens but it really starts once you’re looking at the specimens under a miscroscope (I’ll focus on insect collections because that’s where my expertise lies). To take you on this journey of discovery, I’ll use, as an exampled, one of the genera that Terry Wheeler and I described – Allomedeia (Mlynarek and Wheeler 2010).

During my MSc, I was working on the systematics and phylogeny of the tribe Elachipterini; a tribe of chloropid flies that have really cool morphological diversity. I was basing most of my work on already known species and building a morphological matrix to present a hypothesis of their evolutionary relationships. I was armed with literature and descriptions and had access to specimens from three collections (the Lyman Entomological Museum and research laboratory, the Canadian National Collection and the Collection at the Smithsonian).

As I went through these collections, I noticed in one of the drawers an additional label under a series of specimens saying “Elachiptera?”; I picked up the unit tray and had a close look under the microscope. Indeed, they did look like they could belong to the tribe, but something was different about them and I couldn’t place the differences just then. Although based on the label note these were probably new species but members of the species rich genus Elachiptera. These specimens could have easily been overlooked so I think that entitles it to Discovery #1; the discovery of the specimens in the collection that were left there in the past and seemingly forgotten waiting for an eager student. I checked these specimens against descriptions that I already had, against other specimens that they could possibly be, they didn’t match anything so I definitely had new species (Discovery #2). I proceeded to make my measurements and describe the species morphology, their color, and their diagnostic characters from antenna to tip of abdomen. The more I looked at them, the more I was convinced that they were indeed part of the tribe Elachipterini but didn’t belong to a particular genus. Based on the specimen differences, I had 5 species. Once the external descriptions were completed, I dissected the genitalia (as a side note: a dissection of a fly is not as hard as it sounds, you cut part of the abdomen off, and clear it in lactic acid then place it into glycerin to have a closer look at the genitalic structures under a compound scope – I apologize for the crude description to those that do it every day). I placed the slide under the scope and my first reaction to what I saw was “that’s SO weird!” Why? The male genitalia did not look like any of those of any other member of the Elachipterini. The second thought was “maybe this is a mutant male, I better dissect another one”; same thing! All the males of these 5 new species had similar genitalic characteristics. My excitement grew – I have (potentially) a new genus (Discovery #3)! Later the phylogeny of the tribe Elachipterini confirmed that indeed it could be considered a new genus. [A side note: Allomedeia comes from Greek, allo meaning ‘different’ and medos meaning “genitals” (Mlynarek and Wheeler 2010)].

So even though I didn’t collect these specimens, although I would have liked too considering they were collected from South Africa, I re-discovered them in a drawer and, as a taxonomist, recognized them as different from other described species. I think that’s discovery in every sense of the word. Just because somebody put them there and I described and named them doesn’t mean I did not discover them. Taxonomy shouldn’t be considered just description and naming.

When I’m working on a project, I feel like a little kid because, based on my taxonomic experience, I never know what to expect; maybe the next specimen I rear from my goldenrod will be a new species (stay tuned…)! The key is that you have to be attuned and ready for anything – it could happen.


Mlynarek, J.J. and Wheeler, T.A. 2010. Systematics of Allomedeia, a new genus of afrotropical Chloropidae. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 103(4): 465-471.

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Time management/efficiency

Since I defended I have been thinking about whether I could have done things more efficiently during my PhD program and how I would have done it. I think the answer is “I do have room for improvement” (nobody is perfect!) and it mostly has to do with time management. There are plenty of books out there about how to manage your time, just use the search term “time management” in Those may be helpful but sometimes it’s the little things that can make big differences.

So here are a few tips for graduate students starting out, actually they may be useful for anybody (most are obvious but should be put into practice):

  1. Don’t leave what can be done now for later. If you receive a form that needs to be filled out in 5 minutes, fill it out right away, don’t leave it till the day it’s due. You may forget about it or have other critical things to do then that will not allow you to fill that form in. If it’s done it’s done, you can forget about it and move on.
  2. Use a reference formatting program from the start (like Zotero, Refworks, Mendeley, Endnote, …). This will save time in the long run especially when you’re writing your thesis and your manuscripts. The papers for your thesis will be there, organized, easy to find. It’ll help with formatting in your text as well. Although remember to check your formatting very carefully.
  3. Make clear note about data collection and methods. I would suggest you type out your protocols from the start as well as you’re doing your data collection or experiments. When you’re collecting data, you think you’ll remember what you did. But the little details will be lost from memory a couple of years into your program. If you’re methods are written out from the start, then you won’t have to worry about writing them out again.
  4. Get enough sleep. It’ll be hard to make anything work (experiments, lab work, writing) if your brain is tired. So if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere: Stop, Rest (a nap may do it) and Start again.
  5. Have a hobby or do some physical activity. I mentioned this in a previous post because I believe if you can take a short break from your project, you may be able to see it in a different light. (I’m sure you’ve notices that this post relates to point 4)

I won’t say when it’s best to work because that varies from person to person and even changes during the yearly cycle for a person. E.g. If you do your best writing work at night, then do that; if lab work is good during the day, then do that too.

I guess my tips are really to help you save time and be as efficient with your time so that you can enjoy every step of the process and not feel too stressed about deadlines.

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Insects in two languages!

Last week I spent 3 hours of my evening showing insects to elementary kids for the Illuminate! Oromocto event run by Science East. Science East is an outreach association that promotes science to people of all ages through innovative and interactive exhibits in English and French.

The event I volunteered for was Illuminate! Oromocto. With the help of Steve Heard, I was able to put together a little display about insects and have two live walking sticks to entertain and teach kids about the awesomeness of insects. This event happened to be in French. So I practiced the names of the insects and body parts in French before going to make sure I wasn’t going to make any mistakes.

The display for Illuminate! Oromocto outreach event (minus the walking sticks)

The display for Illuminate! Oromocto outreach event (minus the walking stick insects)

It was a great evening. About 40 kids came to see the display and hold the stick insects. They were all very excited; most wanted to let the stick insects crawl on them. Others at first only wanted to touch them on the back but then decided to hold them. The kids and adults also wanted to have a look through the microscope to investigate the tiger beetle I had set up and look at the butterflies in the display drawer. I even had about a dozen kids come back 2-3 times to hold the walking stick insects a second time or look at the insects under the microscope again. They all had a story to tell me about the pet stick insect they had in class the year before or about their monarch release program they had this year where they learned about and saw monarch larvae pupate, eclose into adult which they released. They all had excellent questions and were very eager to tell their parents what they had just learned.

Their interest reminded me of the same enthusiasm of the kids that came to visit the Lyman Entomological Museum, no matter the language of presentation. During my BSc and my MSc at the Lyman, I gave tours in both English and French showing the insects in the collection and letting them hold live bugs. This past week, however, it was mostly in French, but if some kids had a hard time with French, I explained some principles in English and we moved back and forth between both languages. I think this language flexibility made things even more enjoyable for everybody at the event.

I must conclude by saying, most kids find insects fascinating; some sadly lose it as they grow up, others forget that they were keen on bugs. But, last week I noticed while I was talking with some of the parents at Illuminer! Oromocto that they were happy to hold the insects, look through the microscope and marvel at the colors and diversity. I guess, in general (if we’re not entomologists), we don’t lose our fascination for insects but rather forget that we liked them no matter the language!

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Leaf miners part 1

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I started studying a new system – Leaf miners of the Aster plant family. I have been very busy (apologies for not posting anything earlier). So far it’s been an amazing experience and I feel like am becoming a well-rounded scientist and biologist. Since July, I have been focusing on learning about leaf miners by spending a lot of time in the field. I was observing and collecting leaves – I was doing Natural History of Leaf miners on Goldenrods and their relatives.

The System

What are leaf miners you may ask? There’s a group of insects that feed on plant cells within the leaf. I find leaf miners an amazing group to work on. Mostly because this system (leaf miners on Asters) has a very large diversity of leaf miners: flies, beetles and moths, creating neat mines in the leaves (Figs 1-4).

This first image is a blotch mine of one of the beetle species.

Solidago rugosa with a beetle miner

Fig. 1 Solidago rugosa with a beetle miner











This second image is a very linear mine of an Ophiomyia sp. agromyzid fly leaf miner linear mine.

Fig. 2 Ophiomyia sp. fly leaf miner of a Solidago rugosa

Fig. 2 Ophiomyia sp. fly leaf miner of a Solidago rugosa






This third image is of a Nemorimyza posticata agromyd fly leaf miner blotch mine

Nemorimyza posticata fly leaf miner in Solidago altissima

Fig. 3 Nemorimyza posticata fly leaf miner in Solidago altissima






This last image is of a Calycomyza sp. agromyzid fly leaf small blotch mine.

Fig. 3 Calycomyza sp. fly leaf miner on a Solidago gigantea

Fig. 4 Calycomyza sp. fly leaf miner on a Solidago gigantea

See the huge diversity of mines! not only do the mines look different, but they also pupate (change from larva into adult) in different places depending on the species of leaf miner; some pupate in the leaf whereas others leave the leaf and pupate in the ground!

Some cool Natural History

Because I spent a lot of time watching leaf miners developing in their leaves, I was compelled to film them feeding. These following two videos are of just that; leaf miner larva feeding of Solidago (goldenrod) leaves. These videos are in real-time; you can actually see the species differences in the speed of scrapping the cells between the two leaf layers. The darker area that looks like it’s vibrating are the “mouthparts” but you can see the entire larva there. At the time of filming both were close to pupation, and they both pupated. They were filmed with my handheld Canon G15 camera through the eyepiece of a Leica M6 microscope.

The first is of Nemorimyza posticata, a large agromyzid with a broad host range, meaning it can feed on many different hosts. Once it is ready to pupate, it crawls out of the leaf and pupates in the soil. In the video, I poke it at one point with my pencil to show so that you get a sense of its size. I collected this species off of every plant I collected this summer.

The second is of Phytomyza sp., a smaller agromyzid fly. In this one I zoom out, to show the entire mine, but maybe my filming set up unstable so the film becomes a little wobbly at one point. It is believed that it also has a broad host range. although I found this species on fewer than half of the plant species I looked at.

I hope you enjoy the videos as much as I do.

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