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July 1, 2015

The art of aquatic insects and how bugs keep the world on track– Kate Aitchison, MFA Printmaking, 2016

by kaitchis

As I walked into the Aquatic Insect Lab at Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research/ United States Geologic Survey in Flagstaff, AZ, my first thought was– this is no art studio.  However, in its own way, this laboratory covered in microscopes and full of lab technicians affectionately called “pickers” (because they spend their days picking apart bug samples and identifying and quantifying species and numbers) it is a place with a lot of exciting, innovative, and creative work going on.  This is my main spot for the summer, working with biologist, Anya Metcalfe, to bring art and design into a place where science reigns supreme.  There are two other labs at GCMRC, the Fisheries Lab, which looks at (you guessed it) fish, and the Sediment and Geomorphology Lab which looks primarily at sediment movement through Grand Canyon.  All three are a part of a research and monitoring plan to learn about and look at the health of an ecosystem altered by Glen Canyon Dam.

  But lets get back to the bugs.  Hundreds and hundreds of small sample bottles filled with bugs sit in a storage unit outside the building: these bottles are the data the Aquatic Insect Lab is working with. These samples are all a part of a massive citizen science initiative happening in Grand Canyon that asks commercial and private boatmen on Grand Canyon river trips to collect samples of aquatic insects for one hour each night of their trip.  USGS provides the instructions and materials necessary, and the boatmen provide the leg work.  Here’s how taking a sample works:  each night, within an hour of sunset, a small tupperware is placed along the river’s edge with a black light balanced on top of it.  Then a small bottle of ethanol is poured into the tupperware and left out for one hour.  The bugs are attracted to the light and fly into the ethanol (then the bugs die, but it is a quick and painless death, and its all in the name of science!).  After one hour of collecting, the ethanol is poured back into the bottle and the time, date, weather, and river mile are all recorded and placed with the sample.  After 14-21 days on the water, these samples come back to USGS, a wealth of knowledge for the scientists who wouldn’t be able to get this much data any other way.  All of this data goes into a huge data set that can them be analyzed to look at numbers and types of aquatic insects during specific times of year, when hatched of specific insects tend to happen, etc.light trap 3 A light trap in action!

But really, bugs? Who cares? Why should we put so much effort into studying aquatic insects?  The larvae are so small that you can barely see them and when the bugs themselves become mature you only really notice them when they bite you or fly incessantly around your headlamp. Believe it or not, aquatic insects are essential to the ecosystem.  In their egg and larval form, they are the main source of food for fish.  In their emergent form (airborne form) they are a food source for bats, birds, lizards, and spiders.  They are a very key aspect of the food web and without them, things have the potential to become very problematic.

So now that you have a little background info– back to the art.  Where does the art fit into all this data collection and bug picking madness?  It fits in two different places.  Firstly, it fits into the illustration of different insect’s lifecycles and the food web cycle as a whole.  While general insect lifecycles have previously been illustrated there are insects specific to Grand Canyon that have never been studied before that can now be discussed in scientific papers thanks to large collection samples.  To go along with those papers, illustrations must be made that can visually represent the data in a clear, concise way.  My internship advisor, Anya, and I have been talking a lot about the power of an image and what it can do for science: a good illustration can give all the information in the paper in such a way that the key knowledge is effectively and accurately communicated without needing the paper there at all, while a bad image only serves to confuse.  You add good design to a good illustration, and great things start to happen!

 IMG_5604 Angel Lichen Moth lifecycle in progress

cisthene angelus

Finished Angel Lichen Moth lifecycle

In terms of the food web, there hasn’t ever been a food web illustration made specifically for Grand Canyon.  Making an effective and elegant Grand Canyon food web illustration means that it will become a resource for all the ecological scientists working at GCMRC, not just those in the Aquatic insect lab.  Very exciting indeed!

Now, back to the second place the art fits in:  Art also fits into the public outreach part of the program.  Anya and I are working with USGS partner, Grand Canyon Youth, to develop ways to better integrate art and communication into their science river curriculum. Grand Canyon Youth already does light trapping on all of their youth river trips however, the reasoning behind the light traps isn’t always made clear and often it feels more like chore than an exciting opportunity to describe the ecosystem and all of its components.  It’s also difficult for youth to understand how something so small can fit into a much larger picture of public land management and public policy.  So, we are beginning to develop some ideas of how to visually represent where the science goes once it’s collected, and how science fits into the bigger picture of Grand Canyon Stakeholders and how stakeholders drive critical policy decisions. We are also creating block print kits to take on the river to help kids make personal observations, connect to the place on a personal level, and start to feel a personal stewardship towards wild places that can carry far beyond their river trip.

I think that’s enough overload of information for now.  It’s been an exciting beginning and the momentum is really picking up.  More coming soon!


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