Beetles as Indicators of Riparian Areas… Um, what?!

Beetles as Indicators of Riparian Areas… Um, what?!

As a fourteen-year-old girl in small-town Montana, you’d expect experiences such as…

1. having to sit on pillows to see over the steering wheel because yes, you did in fact have your driver’s license that young;

2. going to Yellowstone National Park on field trips and spotting wolves (bears were more common and less exciting);

3. having the entire school (& town) shut down when the basketball team made it to state championships.

Of course these things happened to me and if given more than a few seconds of thought, seem likely as a typical high school experience for anyone in the small town of Three Forks, MT (pop: 1800). However, as the local paper reminisced in this month’s issue of “The Lewis and Clark Journal”, I also managed to spend much of my high school career studying…Beetles (yes, two “e’s”).

Hypothesis: Beetles are Indicators of Riparian Areas

I ran across the above newspaper article while at my parents’ this past holiday season, and the potent smell of propylene glycol overwhelmed my senses. You’ve probably seen propylene glycol as an ingredient listed on any number of common foods, but wouldn’t you know it has more than one application as it comes in quite handy for slowly killing and preserving beetles that fall unknowingly to their death.

Looking back on my 4-year beetle study, grant, and ultimate goal to prove that one of the most diverse species on this planet could help us define where the watershed ends/begins seems bizarre, random, and extremely ambitious. But at the time, it was a project that I dove head strong into and it just made sense.

Living in Three Forks, the headwaters of the Missouri River, the boundaries of riparian areas – essentially watershed – is a pretty tense topic when it comes to environmentalists, ranchers, farmers, and miners. The ribbons of life that frame the rivers host a diverse array of plant and animal species, but at the time there was not one single species that could be a consistent indicator of a riparian boundary. So, after visiting a Coleopterist professor at nearby MSU, I decided to see if we could discover an indicator in the beetle world.

The study quickly unravelled into a monstrous undertaking, including weekly treks (mom in tow) to swampy willows in the summer heat, draining buckets of dead beetles (and other unsuspecting characters such as rats, gophers…) into labeled grocery bags, which were then tossed into the freezer for later analysis and pinning.

If you’ve ever stared for hours under a microscope to identify a certain bug species and then carefully pinned them (just in the right spot so as not to crush them) for display in sterile wooden cases, you understand the amount of patience (ahem, pain) involved. Yes, again, this was a high school project.

Did I prove my hypothesis? Well, I certainly found “trends” that I could show were “early evidence” of such a theory. I also left plenty of frozen propylene glycol drugged beetles in my parents’ freezer for the next scientist to pick up where I left off.

What crazy projects did you do in high school?

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