KBS undergraduate summer researcher Elizabeth Postema is a senior at Denison University. She wrote about her Research Experiences for Undergraduates project working with mentor and LTER researcher Dr. Jen Lau, in her lab at MSU. Postema was funded by an NSF REU site award to the Kellogg Biological Station. ~~~~~~~~~~~~
The best part about working at a field station is getting to, very literally, connect with nature. As a participant in an REU (which stands for “Research Experiences for Undergraduates”) program at the Kellogg Biological Station, I spent most of my summer outdoors – whether I was lounging on the docks of Gull Lake, feeding swans at the nearby Bird Sanctuary, or harvesting plant samples from my field site. With the outdoors, of course, comes everything else that lives there: in particular, bugs, bugs, and more bugs.
Luckily, as an ecologist, invertebrates have never “bugged” me very much. I’ve had a passion for catching all manner of creepy crawlies since my childhood, so my typical reaction to seeing a giant insect is running towards it rather than away from it. While the invertebrates at KBS were typically too fast for my hands, my camera turned out to be my most vital bug-catching tool – at least, in a figurative sense.
Dragonflies were probably the most photogenic of the bunch. Their vibrant colors, intricately patterned wings, and enormous Martian-esque eyes were hard to resist. They drifted about lazily from plant to plant, occasionally pausing just long enough for me to snap a picture. One individual even tolerated my touch; with a little nudging, it crawled onto my finger for moment before zipping off to a distant patch of goldenrod.
However, dragonflies weren’t the only ones flitting around my field site. Lepidopterans (moths and butterflies) and hymenopterans (bees, wasps, etc.) dominated the scene, attracted by the bright yellows and purples of the grassland wildflowers. Fat, fuzzy bumblebees seemed to like the clover most; cabbage moths and tiger swallowtails preferred the frothy white blooms of yarrow or queen Ann’s lace.
Deeper in the thick vegetation, the community composition switched over to a new set of chitinous critters. Jumping spiders, with their surprisingly beautiful iridescence, watched for prey from their leafy perches. Weevils climbed slowly amongst patches of tall grass, looking practically puppy-like with their elongated snouts and big black eyes. I even managed to find a newly hatched praying mantis.
While it’s hard to pick favorites, given the amazing diversity of invertebrates at KBS, I will always have a soft spot for the focus of my research project: the humble slug. Dusky arion slugs (Arion subfuscus),
to be exact. Whoever came up with the stereotype of the lazy slug must have never actually met one in person – they are surprisingly active and fun to work with for such a simple creature. They zoom around their petri dishes, make great escapes from their terrariums, and chow down on leaves from the most precarious positions.
Another thing to know about slugs is that they love beer (a fact that many slug-weary gardeners have already discovered).
The beverage’s yeasty scent seems to mimic the aroma of decaying plant matter, a treat that many slugs just can’t get enough of. I spent several weeks in June and July checking cups filled with Busch’s and paper towels, hoping to find hungry slugs huddled together inside. I’d often find two or three per trap, nestled deep in folds of the beer-soaked towel; in total, I caught more than sixty slugs over
the course of the summer. My research project, which investigated how global warming affects plant-herbivore interactions, made good use of the slugs’ infamous appetites: given the choice between plants grown in warming chambers and plants grown in un-warmed plots, I found that slugs significantly preferred to feed on the former. Although, as I accidentally discovered in the first few preference trials, slugs like eating wet paper best of all!
Despite having worked at several amazing field sites, including those in Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, my program at the KBS was by far the best summer learning experience I’ve had in college. I was in constant contact with the natural world, and was surrounded by peers and mentors who appreciated biology as much as I did. I was encouraged to look closely at the fascinating web of organisms around me – and in the end, I felt completely at home among the bugs and slugs of KBS.