Monday, 30 May 2016 05:12

Researcher studying threatened beetle in Great Sand Hills

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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Aaron Bell was the Saskatchewan winner of the Young Professional Stewardship Grant at the 2016 Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference, Feb. 16-18, for his project on the Gibson’s Big Sand Tiger Beetle. He is pictured with Saskatchewan Prairie Conservation Action Plan Manager Kayla Balderson Burak at the grant presentation. Aaron Bell was the Saskatchewan winner of the Young Professional Stewardship Grant at the 2016 Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference, Feb. 16-18, for his project on the Gibson’s Big Sand Tiger Beetle. He is pictured with Saskatchewan Prairie Conservation Action Plan Manager Kayla Balderson Burak at the grant presentation. Photo submitted

A new research project in southwest Saskatchewan’s Great Sand Hills aims to gather more information about the threatened Gibson’s Big Sand Tiger Beetle.


Aaron Bell, a naturalist and ecological entomologist from La Ronge, is currently carrying out the fieldwork for this project in the Great Sand Hills and other sand dune areas in Saskatchewan where the beetle has been recorded.
He became interested in this beetle because its future survival depends on the availability of suitable sand dune habitat in Saskatchewan.
“The global population of the species is pretty much restricted to Saskatchewan,” he said. “So I think that’s important. We need to preserve that biodiversity and because it’s on our home soil, we’re responsible for that.”
This beetle is found in four major sand dune areas in the province — the Great Sand Hills, the Elbow Sand Hills at Douglas Provincial Park, and the Pike Lake and Dundurn sand hills near Saskatoon.
“So basically wherever there are these large patches of active sand is prime habitat for the Tiger Beetle,” he said.
He noted the Tiger Beetle is an integral part of the unique ecosystem in these sand dunes.
“The sand dunes have a lot of really rare species and the biodiversity around the sand dunes is really quite high,” he said. “Part of that just reflects how unique those ecosystems are, but most of these species are in danger because the dunes are actively stabilizing.”
There can be different reasons for the stabilization of the sand dunes. It might be due to increasing vegetation growth during high rainfall periods. Another factor is the spread of invasive plant species such as leafy spurge into the sand dunes.
“Invasive weeds are really quite capable of stabilizing the dunes themselves and spreading quite rapidly,” he said.
Roads associated with development activities such as oil and gas exploration in the Great Sand Hills can help to distribute invasive plants in this sensitive ecosystem.
“So if you get a bunch of roads into the Sand Hills, you’re going to bring obviously more traffic,” he explained. “Tires are picking up all kinds of seeds and so as soon as you have a road into an area and you’ve got vehicles, that would be a gateway for things like invasive weed species.”
According to Bell the Tiger Beetle and other dune species can actually benefit from the presence of cattle in the sand dunes.
“They they actually serve to destabilize the dunes through active trampling and erosion and obviously feeding on the vegetation on the dunes,” he said. “They’re actually good for the Tiger Beetle.”
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has declared the Gibson’s Big Sand Tiger Beetle to be a threatened species due to the negative impact of dune stabilization on the habitat of this beetle.
Bell is hoping his study will provide more information on the Tiger Beetle’s habitat preference and their numbers.
“They appear to be associated with the active sand but they’re kind of on the periphery of the dune itself,” he said. “I’m told they’re found around the scurfpea zone, which is a type of vegetation that grows around the dunes.”
The findings from the study might assist COSEWIC to review the protection status of this beetle.
“The Tiger Beetle was only listed as threatened and not endangered,” he said. “If we know the actual numbers, then we can better inform the decisions that may potentially lead to a change in the status of the Tiger Beetle.”
The research team will carry out a removal experiment in a designated area to estimate the population size of these beetles.
“The best way to collect them is if you just walk around with a net,” he said. “They’re one of the fastest insects in the animal kingdom, but if you can just catch them in the net. … So what you do is you walk along in the area that you designated and you catch all the beetles that you can see. After you caught them all you put them in a vial for holding and being able to identify them properly, and then you do another pass and try to see if you missed some.”
Bell’s project includes an outreach component to involve students from nearby schools in the fieldwork activities as a means to create more awareness about the importance of this dune ecosystem and its unique species.
The extent of this study and the number of field assistants will depend on the funding for the project. He has received a $2,500 Young Professional Stewardship Grant at the 2016 Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference, which took place in Saskatoon from Feb. 16-18, and he has also applied for other research grants.
The main fieldwork will take place during May and June, when the beetles become more active after their winter hibernation. After their spring mating the female beetles will each lay about 50 eggs in individual holes. There will be another opportunity for fieldwork with the re-emergence of the beetles in August. Thereafter his focus will be on the analysis of the data and to publish the research findings.
“Our hope is to provide our data to the conservation data base, whoever conducts the next COSEWIC report,” he said. “We’d be happy to provide those numbers and one of the best ways to do that would be to of course publish it. We have plans to write up an article for the Entomological Society of Saskatchewan newsletter.”

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