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Travels and marvels of Nunalleq’s beetles

June 21, 2016

Hello! It is the bug lady here. I thought that some of you may be impatient to know more about the insects we have been collected in and around Nunalleq from 2014 (see my first post here: https://nunalleq.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/they-call-me-the-bug-lady/). As the insects and I are now back from a research trip that took us from Alaska all the way to Eastern Canada, I feel like it is time to tell you a little more about our adventures.

But before that, just a quick recap! Remember we have been collecting soil samples from the house floors, sod walls and other deposits in the archaeological site, but also from the surrounding peat bog in order to undertake different types of scientific analyses? (if not, see this post: (https://nunalleq.wordpress.com/2015/07/18/season-premiere-wild-and-tough-extremely-ultimate-alaskan-palaeoecology/) I have now been able to recover from these samples the Coleoptera subfossils (bits of old beetles preserved in the soil) that we will use to reconstruct changing temperatures and ecological conditions at Nunalleq during the past few hundred years. In order to be able to decipher the clues these beetle subfossils hold about past environments and climates, it is necessary first to proceed by identifying to which species they belong. As the beetles I am dealing with are not complete like modern beetles, but rather a puzzling collection of pieces (disarticulated heads, pronota (thorax) and elytra (wing cases)), this can be a very challenging task. Thus, in order to identify these subfossils, I have to compare them with modern beetles from a reference collection.

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Some of the beetle subfossils recovered from the Nunalleq samples. Can you see distinguish the heads and wing cases?

As you may recall, in 2014 I begun collecting modern beetles around Nunalleq to begin building a small reference collection and, with the help of Paul and field school students, I have also been able to collect many more specimens during the next field season in 2015. In order for this beetle collection to be of any use, it was necessary to find out to what species these specimens belonged to. Unlike the subfossils, these modern beetles are complete ─ with antennae, mouthparts and legs! This means they are more easily identifiable than the subfossils. I therefore set out to identify them, using identification keys and descriptions in entomology books, but also by visiting several entomological collections in Alaska and Canada. There, I was able to compare my specimens with those from the collections and to get some help from expert entomologists specializing in the study of beetles. You can find out more below!

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An interception trap used to capture flying beetles in 2015.

After the 2014 field season, I visited the Insect Collection of the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, curated by Professor Derek Sikes. There, I pinned and mounted the beetles, in order to facilitate their manipulations and observation under the microscope. Thanks to the beetle collection, entomology books and knowledge of Professor Sikes, I was able to get many of the modern beetles trapped in 2014 identified.

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Mounting beetle specimens from Quinhagak at the Museum of North University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

After having spent most of the following year and a half working in the laboratory and collecting more modern insects from Alaska, I was able to take the beetles on another trip, this time to Canada. First stop of this trip: the René-Martineau Insectarium of the Laurentian Forestry Centre in Quebec City, in order to visit Dr. Jan Klimaszewski, world expert on the Aleocharinae rove beetles (probably one of the most difficult to identify beetle groups, but also one that is predominant in archaeological samples). There, with the help of technician Caroline Bourdon, I was able to microdissect the modern Aleocharinae beetles. This allowed me to look, under the microscope, at the tiny parts that would finally allow me to tell to which species they belong: their genitals! Indeed, for many beetles, these body parts are the most diagnostic, having a particular shape or feature(s) that are characteristic of a species. Thanks to the discontinuous permafrost at Nunalleq, I was even able to recover some Aleocharinae genitalia from the soil samples. Therefore, with the help of Dr. Klimasweski, I was able to put a species name on some of the Aleocharinae subfossils from the site, which is a very rare thing!

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Dr. Jan Klimaszewski (second from left) and his team (Philippe Fortin, Caroline Bourdon and Sylvain Roberge) at the Insectarium René-Martineau .

After saying goodbye to Dr. Klimaszewski and his team, I left for Ottawa, to visit the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes (CNC). There, I was welcomed by a team of coleopterists, each specializing in different groups of beetles and responsible for researching and curating a very large beetle collection. Working at the CNC is like working in a library of insects. There is a multitude of cabinets, each filled with a set of drawers that contains many insect specimens, each bearing labels with their species names and collection data (the date, place, habitat and manner in which each specimen was collected). Thanks to having access to this fantastic research resource and to the help of CNC staff, I was finally able to complete the identification of the modern beetles specimens collected around Nunalleq!

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Entomology technician Karine Savard looking at specimens from CNC beetle collection.

Thanks to all that I have learned during these weeks spent working with the best resources and renowned experts in entomology, I also made substantial progress in the identification of the subfossil beetles recovered from peat and archaeological samples. Soon, I will be able to share with you the interesting clues these small creatures hold about the lives and times of the people that lived at Nunalleq…

To be continued…

I would like to thank all the people who welcomed me in their workplace and were so generous with their time, helping me learn about Alaskan beetles and their identification: Derek Sikes, Jan Klimaszewski, Yves Bousquet, Anthony Davies, George Pelletier, Ales Smetana, Hume Douglas, Patrice Bouchard, Margaret Thayer, Karine Savard & Caroline Bourdon.

Véro

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