Charlene Wood has always been interested in nature – but it was a professor at Simon Fraser University who got her hooked on bugs.
Dr. Gerhard Gries’s “very animated and entertaining lectures with many examples of insect behaviour” inspired her, and soon she got a research position in his lab.
Next stop was John Spence’s lab at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where she earned her master’s degree with her work on beetles that live in dead aspen wood in northwestern Alberta.
That work also led to her discovery of seven beetle species new to science – and another 47 beetle species not previously known to occur in Alberta.
Some of those new beetle species are actually quite abundant in number, and Wood feels they could be more widespread throughout Canada.
“It’s an eye-opener,” Wood said. “There are several species right under our noses that we didn’t know even existed.”
Her study of deadwood – a largely overlooked part of the North American boreal forest – is one of the few projects in Canada focused on the rich diversity of beetles that dwell in decaying wood.
“Most people are not aware,” Wood told The TIMES, “but there are far more species of beetle than any other animal.”
She pointed to their astounding diversity – there are more than 350,000 named species, and it has been estimated that our world is home to more than one million beetle species altogether – and added that she was attracted to the large variety of lifestyles that they exhibit.
Now Wood, in collaboration with fellow scientists, is preparing to describe the beetles for posterity and for science.
All seven of the species she discovered are less than three millimetres in length.
Most beetles studied by scientists are larger and easier to spot.
Wood hopes her research increases the understanding of how beetles contribute to overall forest diversity, and how to preserve their habitats while harvesting resources.
Wood is still fond of her hometown. She spent her first 20 years in Maple Ridge, and her parents still live here.
She attended Maple Ridge Elementary from Kindergarten to Grade 7, and went on to complete high school at Thomas Haney Secondary, graduating in 2000.
She wasn’t all science: she was a member of the Haney Lightning (now the Haney Thunder) girls basketball squad.
Following is The TIMES email interview with Charlene Wood.
MRT – When and how long did you live in Maple Ridge?
CW – I was born in New Westminster and lived in Maple Ridge from the time I was born until I was 20, through most of the 80s and 90s. Then I then resided near Simon Fraser University while studying for my Bachelor’s degree.
MRT – Did you attend school here, and if so, which one(s)?
CW – Yes! I was at Maple Ridge Elementary School for Kindergarten to Grade 7, then attended Thomas Haney Secondary School for high school, graduating in 2000. I played basketball for Haney Lightning (as it was called at the time – now Thunder) for two years.
MRT – What got you interested in entomology?
CW – I was always interested in nature as a child, and grew up camping and fishing, but it wasn’t until my studies at Simon Fraser University (SFU) that I really got into insects. The prof of my 2nd year ecology class, Dr. Gerhard Gries, gave very animated and entertaining lectures with many examples of insect behaviour. His enthusiasm for the subject area inspired me to take a class on insect biology that involved many hours of learning how to identify different insect groups (including beetles) in the lab.
I took an interest in beetles then (2004), due to their varied behaviours, life styles, and large number of different species.
My performance in my insect biology course then led to a research position in Gries’s insect ecology lab. The great experiences I had working in the Gries Lab, assisting in various research projects, helping direct student field trips to collect insects, etc., compelled me to continue my studies as a masters student.
I knew I already had an affinity for beetles, was interested in studying community ecology, and saw the John Spence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton was doing some great work on just that – so I sought out his lab for a Master of Science program on the beetles inhabiting dead aspen.
MRT – Why specifically beetles? And especially those tiny deadwood beetles?
CW – Beetles exemplify diversity. Most people are not aware, but there are far more species of beetle than any other animal. Not only are they diverse in the number of species of beetles (at least 350,000 named species, but estimated more than one million beetle species globally), but beetles are also extremely varied in their life style (or ecology).
Having adapted to life in nearly every major habitat on land, as well as in some aquatic habitats (predaceous diving beetles live in lakes/ponds, for example), beetles come in so many forms, occupy all levels of the food chain, and are a fascinating group to study.
Beetles were a perfect focal group for studying biodiversity of deadwood habitats in forests, as beetles are among the most abundant and most species-rich group of forest-dwelling organisms.
The beetles that live in deadwood contribute to the decomposition of organic matter in these forests, feeding on wood-decaying fungus, bacteria, other small invertebrates, and the wood itself, thus returning nutrients back into forest soils for use by other organisms.
Also, the beetles living in deadwood are receiving increasing attention around the world for conservation concerns.
In Europe, researchers have found that forest harvesting and the resulting loss of deadwood (logs and dead trees) has caused a number of these deadwood beetle species to become endangered and at risk of extinction.
In Canada, we have just scratched the surface on finding out what beetle species we have living in the deadwood of our forests, and have barely begun to reach a level of understanding that would help us determine if these species are being impacted by harvesting and land development.
For these conservation concerns, I really wanted to contribute to our knowledge of deadwood-dwelling beetle diversity and what habitats they require, so that our forests can be managed with this important group in mind.
It just so happens that many of the beetles inhabiting dead trembling aspen trees were quite tiny – many of them under 3 mm in size! As such a large number of beetles in my samples were so tiny, dominated by the group known as “minute brown scavenger beetles,” I wasn’t about to ignore them for their size.
Even though these tiny beetles have been tackled by few people in North America, I spent a lot of time under the microscope in my lab, reading all the articles I could about them, and enlisted the help of the world expert in Germany for confirmation of the new species.
These minute brown scavenger beetles are known to feed on small spores of fungus on decaying vegetation (wood, bark, and leaves for instance), thus it makes sense that they would be tiny also!
MRT – Do you get to name the beetles? And do you get to name them after yourself, or are there conventions that preclude that?
CW – When I publish the new species descriptions with my colleagues, we will choose the species names. They will be latin, and based on the characteristics/habitats of the specimens.
None will be named after myself (I would be listed as the “species authority”).