Monday, November 18, 2013

Festival of the Whirligigs (oil on canvas 6 x 8 in.)

18 October finds me painting from the canoe, as whirligig beetles cavort on the mirror-dark water of the south end of Elbow Lake, 5.5 km northwest of Battersea, Ontario.  The canoe is tied to a repeatedly-sprouting Beaver-felled Red Maple in a lee from the wind. The wind is still flexing the regrown brush-like tops of the White Pine across the water. The bay is covered with patches of Nuphar - Yellow Waterlily, with all the flowerheads nipped off and their stems protruding from the water. I am barely able to
indicate with tiny white flecks of paint, the literally myriads of Gyrinidae quietly swimming in the spaces between the lily pads. Suicidal Basswood Butterflies periodically whirl and crash down onto the surface.

The shore that Fred is walking in search of clam shells is shrubby with Myrica gale or vertical with grey-lichened rock, with the pink of the rock showing in washed-clean bands near the waterline. As he steps, unseen frogs jump into the water and don't emerge again to be identified. At the southwest corner of the lake he found lots of Buttonbush and Winterberry Holly, with lots of sign of Beaver work. When he came around to the shore that I show in my painting he found a couple of plants of Cystopteris Ferns down near the water. 

When Minnesotans whoop their state as "the land of 10,000 lakes," Ontarians are likely to roll their eyes at the very idea of being able to count up a total number of lakes. But this means that when it comes to inventorying Unionid mussels and other aquatic Molluscs in Ontario, we feel the imperative to explore every one of these lakes, because each stretch of stream or lakeshore may have a different mix of species, depending on chances of colonization, substrate, water flow and hardness, phytoplankton, movements of host fish, and bottom disturbance, water level fluctuations, or interruptions of flow over the past few decades. While our protocol of visiting bridges works well around home in the lakeless geology of the former Champlain Sea, it's very ineffective on the Shield, with its myriad diversity of inaccessible lakes and connecting channels.

In October 2009, we'd found an intact 102 mm valve and a larger fragment of shell of the endangered mussel Ligumia nasuta in the Zebra mussel-infested  Loughborough Lake at the County Rd 10 bridge. This was a previously unknown population, and while it was presumably already extinct in the open water of Loughborough Lake, our discovery of it roused hopes of finding populations in nearby Frontenac Arch lakes that are not blighted by Zebra Mussels.

The waterbodies adjacent to the other NCC tracts we've been exploring are all invaded by Zebras, but Elbow Lake is still pristine. The Nature Conservancy and Queens University Biological Station have carefully isolated Elbow Lake from sources of infestation, and it still remains free of the invaders. In a visit in 2012 we'd only found Elliptio complanata here, but today we launched the canoe and set out to scan the shore for the piles of shells left by the predators -- Muskrat, Beaver, or Otters -- who do most of our mussel collecting for us.


  1. We suppose that these myriads of Gyrinid Whirligig Beetles are getting ready to hibernate in the bottom here, though like so many autumnal subjects their hibernation is grossly under-studied. Where do they get oxygen if they "return to water and overwinter in mud and debris"? The reason for this under-studying is the set seasons of the academic year, and the way professors and students are so intensely engaged by their studies in the fall. Even agency employables are now coming indoors, with the loss of summer-student help, and attending to paperwork, so the core facts of distinctively Canadian natural history - how species spend the winter - receives only a tiny fraction of the study it deserves, while the facts of spring, when professors and students feel cooped up,and are keen to get away from their desks, are studied in much greater detail.

    Another problem is that "Our system of science is objective on certain levels, it genuinely is, but on the funding level it is highly ideologically directed" (Bruce Alexander, the Walrus, 4(10):38, December 2007), and the current emphasis on Species At Risk and applied research also biases study away from Gyrinid hibernation. A lab we work with, which should be inventorying the species and mechanisms of freeze tolerance of all Canadian taxa, is constrained to fake their grant applications towards work that has presumed medical applications, leaving a trail of partially studied freeze-tolerant species that have had to be investigated on the side.

  2. This has real life and depth as well Aleta. Good for you!


What do you think of this painting, and what do you know about the subject that I have painted?