Forest Tent Caterpillars

By Alexis Newman

The Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario have witnessed an explosion of forest tent caterpillars this summer. This type of caterpillar can be found throughout North America, but especially within the eastern region of the continent. These gray, dark brown, or black caterpillars have distinctive white spots down the middle of their bodies that are flanked by length-wise, thin yellow stripes, along with thicker blue stripes. Their bodies are also covered in brown hairs. Forest tent caterpillars are scientifically known as Malacosoma disstria, appearing as only one generation per summer season. These insects hatch in very social groups by the hundreds on trees, with every caterpillar following another in a single file over the same silk strands laid down by those leading the trail. Together, they weave silken mats to rest and molt on, descending the tree with each stage of development (1). Here is a picture of a forest tent caterpillar surveying my backyard from atop one of our patio chairs. Given its independence and full body, it can be assumed that it is ready to cocoon.


Forest tent caterpillars enter life as groups of 100 to 350 eggs. The eggs are deposited as a cylindrical belt around small branches within the upper crown of a tree, totalling one fourth of an inch in diameter and up to half an inch in length. These collections of eggs are stuck together with a glue-like substance that hardens and becomes a lustrous grey or dark brown. Within three weeks of having been laid, the embryos form into larvae within the eggs. Although the eggs are laid in the late summer time, they do not hatch until late spring or early summer of the following year. The larvae then emerge by gnawing off a circular cap at the upper end of the egg shell. Their completely black bodies are a quarter of an inch thick with sparse brown hairs. The larvae typically pass through five stages of molting over five to six weeks, eventually gaining a full body length of two inches. Afterwards, the forest tent caterpillar will begin to spin a silk cocoon, usually within a folded leaf or a crevice of a building or a tree’s bark. The outer cocoon is loosely spun, while the interior is tightly woven, creating a structure similar to parchment paper on the inside. The silk strands originally appear white, but they are coated in a sealant liquid that turns to a yellow powder upon drying. Over the course of ten days, the forest tent caterpillar will transform into a brown, oval-shaped pupae, and then open to reveal a tan-colored moth with feathery antennae and a dark brown stripe across its wings. Male moths appear significantly smaller with broader antennae. These moths live for a rather short time, mating almost immediately and then dying after laying their eggs (1 & 4).

Forest tent caterpillars have been observed in nearly all plant life, such as apple, ash, asparagus, barberry, beech, birch, black tupelo, cherry, clover, elm, ferns, fringe tree, geranium, grape, grass, hawthorn, hickory, honeysuckle, horse chestnut, hydrangea, lilac, linden, maple, oak, peach, pear, plum, poplar, rose, smoke tree, sweetgum, syringa, walnut, and violet (4). The problem with this abundance in range is the forest tent caterpillar’s ability to cause extensive damage by defoliation, capable of reducing a plant’s diameter growth by as much as 90% (1). A study by researchers Cooke and Lorenzetti revealed that forest tent caterpillars have defoliated a surface area of 384, 540 km2 from the year 1938 to 2002 in Quebec, totalling twenty-five percent of the province’s surface area. This damage affects pollination and seed production (2). A forest tent caterpillar outbreak can last from a year up to six years (3). The size of an outbreak depends on climatic perturbations, population cycling, topography, and predators (2). This includes freezing temperatures, flies and wasps depositing parasitic maggots in egg collections, fungal diseases, humans finding and destroying eggs, and predation from ants, beetles, spiders, birds, and small mammals (1). Stable forest tent caterpillar populations pose little threat; however, serious environmental harm can occur during large outbreaks due to humans declining predator population sizes and global warming raising climate temperatures.


  1. Batzer, H. O., & R. C. Morris. (1978). Forest Tent Caterpillar. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.
  2. Cooke, B. J., & F. Lorenzetti. (2006). The Dynamics of Forest Tent Caterpillar Outbreaks in Québec, Canada. Forest Ecology and Management, 226(1), pp. 110-121.
  3. Krichel, Sarah. (2018, June 3). Why there are so many forest tent caterpillars right now. Montreal Gazette. Retrieved from:
  4. Weed, C. M. (1899). The Forest Tent Caterpillar. Durham, N. H.: New Hampshire College Agricultural Experiment Station, New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts.


American Toads

By Alexis Newman

Toad Pic1This Fall, I took a course in Conservation Biology, which provided me with the opportunity to ask my professor, David Green, what species of toad I happened to stumble upon in my yard last summer. According to him, an expert in the field of amphibian research, this is a female American Toad, scientifically known as the Bufo americanus. They can be found across the southern region of Canada from Manitoba to the Maritimes, as well as throughout all of the eastern United States, except Florida. Within this range, the species prefers habitat that contains ‘accumulated leaf litter, sandy or loamy soil for burrowing, moist hiding places, and an abundance of food’ (6). Shallow bodies of water without any fish are used for breeding activity, such as bogs, ponds, and roadside ditches. My yard consists of sandy, forested land, which is thus perfect American toad territory. However, the time at which I had found the toad – mid-June – is rather unusual, as they tend to be active at night to avoid the dryness of the summer heat (6).

In terms of general characteristics about the American toad, their colouring can be brown, grey, tan, olive, or reddish. What makes them distinguishable is their black, spotted pattern and a lighter line marking down their middorsal. They range from 50 to 90 centimetres in length, with females being larger than males (6). As a result, females take longer to mature, which creates uneven sex ratios amongst the population. It doesn’t help that the breeding season is also a short one (5). Unlike most toads, which respond to the scent of algal bloom formation to decipher their breeding time, American toads respond to changes in ground-level air temperature (4). The males then gather at a usual breeding spot, typically within 80 yards, and begin calling the females in a series of chorus vocalizations, each lasting six to 30 seconds (5 & 6). The females will lay 2000 to 20,000 ‘eggs in double, gelatinous stands’, which hatch three to 12 days later (6). The young then spend two months as tadpoles developing into toadlets, when they then transfer from an aquatic environment to a terrestrial environment. They then spend a lifespan of two to three years maturing into juveniles, and then into adults (3 & 6). The American toad diet differs depending on the stage of growth. Tadpoles tend to eat detritus, algae, dead fish, and even other weaker tadpoles; whereas, insects such as ants, grubs, beetles, and moths serve as prey for adult toads (6).

Although the American toad is of least concern from a conservation standpoint, there are several serious threats to the entire Amphibia class cToad Pic3ompared to all other vertebrates. This graph was shown in one of my lectures, demonstrating the much lower mean population trend of amphibians as opposed to other animal classes (2). Industrial waste and farm runoff can infect water sources with contaminants, which can ‘affect feeding, locomotion, development, and survival of amphibians’ (1). For example, nitrate and malathion can strongly influence the growth development, survivorship, and disease exposure of toad tadpoles (1). Climate change is another factor affecting toad populations, such as causing temperature fluctuations that can confuse toads as to when to breed and increases in UV-B radiation that can kill embryos (3). Perhaps the biggest threat is habitat destruction by human urbanization. I happened to find this American toad while my mother was mowing the lawn. I took the toad and deposited her into the forest where she would be safe. However, humans are not the only danger, as adult American toads are the prey of snakes, birds, and mammals. They face predators as tadpoles as well, such as ‘diving beetles, giant water bugs, dragonfly naiads, crayfish, and birds’ (6). Perhaps it would have been safer for the toad to have remained in my mother’s garden, but it goes to show that we, as humans, must be much more vigilant if we are to help amphibian populations from declining in any way at all.

Toad Pic2

Reference List

1.     Krishnamurthy, Sannanegunda V, and Geoffrey R. Smith. “Growth, abnormalities, and mortality of tadpoles of American toad exposed to combinations of malathion and nitrate.” Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, vol. 29, no. 12, (2010), pp. 2777-2782.

2.     Leung, B, Greenberg, D. A, and D. M. Green. “Trends in mean growth and stability in temperate vertebrate populations.” Diversity and Distributions, vol. 23, no. 12, (2017), pp. 1372-1380.

3.     McGill University Lecture: Declining Amphibian Populations. By Professor David Green. BIOL-465-001 Fall 2017.

4.     Oldham, R.S. “Initiation of breeding behavior in the American toad, Bufo americanus.” Canadian Journal of Zoology, vol. 47, no. 5, (1969), pp. 1083-1086.

5.     Oldham, R.S. “Spring movements in the American toad, Bufo americanus.” Canadian Journal of Zoology, vol. 44, no. 1, (1966), pp. 63-100.

6.     Partymiller, Lindsay. “American Toad (Bufo [Anaxyrus] americanus).” Savannah River Ecology Laboratory UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA. URL:

Painted Lady Butterflies

By Alexis Newman

Throughout the late summer and early fall, Montréal was greeted with a gorgeous influx of painted-lady butterflies, also scientifically known as Vanessa cardui of the Nymphalidae family. They were visible fluttering about over nearly every floral surface, with their distinctive brown upper-hind white-spotted wings and beautiful 42 to 66-millimetre yellow and salmon coloured wingspan. These butterflies particularly enjoy the nectar from plants such as blazing star, aster, ironweed, cosmos, sunflowers, milkweeds, buttonbush, and joe-pye weed, which are around three to six-feet tall. It is likely that most of the visible painted-lady butterflies are male, as they usually perch on and search through plants throughout the day for hidden females and food. The male’s behavior will differ depending on the region it inhabits, with those in the east perching in open areas and those in the west perching on higher grounds. Their caterpillar larvae are a mixture of yellow-green, purple, and black, residing in little silk leaf nests.

The Painted-Lady Butterfly has a phenomenal habitat range across deserts, tundra, suburban gardens, open plains, and dense forests, having been sighted everywhere except on the continents of Antarctica and South America. In the case of North America, these butterflies originate in Mexico and migrate northward at 300 to 400 metres in the air to arrive in the United States during the summer months. Although they do appear in Canada, it is only on rare occasions such as this year. They will only make the journey this far if the winds are strong enough and if there has been a surplus of offspring, leading them to require more area coverage to meet all their foraging needs. Here is one of these far-reaching travellers in Southern Quebec, which I had the fortune of capturing in this wonderful image. Hopefully you will have or have had the chance to see some of these painted ladies! Good Photo

Hall, Peter W, Lafontaine, J. Donald, and Ross A. Layberry. (2002). The Butterflies of Canada: Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) (Linnaeus, 1758). University of Toronto Press; 1998. URL:

Parrillo, Felicia. (Sept 18 2017) “Painted lady butterflies invade southern Quebec.” Global News. Accessed: Oct 23 2017. URL:

Unknown, Author. “Painted Lady Vanessa cardui.” Metalmark Web & Data. URL:

View from Mount Royal, Montréal, QC


Montreal Pic

At the end of my first year at McGill, a couple of friends and I decided to hike up Mount Royal on a beautiful spring day. We were greeted with these gorgeous sights of Montréal. Part of the Monteregian Hills, Mount Royal was once an active volcano about 125 million years ago. It was named by the French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535, having written in his journal:

“And among these fields is situated and seated the said town of Hochelaga, near to and adjoining a mountain… We named this mountain Mount Royal.”

As one of Montréal’s largest greenspaces, this is a great place to admire both the city and nature. I hope to hike up it again sometime soon, and should you find yourself in Montréal I suggest you do the same!

Archibald Lampman: The City

Archibald Lampman is a Canadian poet of the late-Romantic period. He is often compared to the poet Keats for his poetry’s sublime and reflective views of nature. A weak heart from childhood illness caused his death at merely 37 years old in 1899. His final and 3rd volume of poetry, Alcyone and other poems, was published afterwards, containing one of my personal favorites, The City. Observing the effects of the Industrial Revolution, he recognized the value of progression as well as its consequences. He admires the extraordinary evolution of architecture, but mourns for humanity’s new lifestyle: fast-paced, busy, noisy, stressful, and constrained. His foreshadowing 19th century perspective highlights the very activity that has humanity aching in today’s 21st century. Caffeine consumption, full schedules, ringing cellphones, and constant fatigue have become essentials to living life. Unfortunately, it is considered shameful to be unproductive, and taking a break to do nothing has become something that must be earned. Taking a note from Lampman, we should  open our eyes and see how humanity is being robbed of this basic right to rest, and plead alongside him for our modern city to loosen its grip on us.

The City by Archibald Lampman

Canst thou not rest, O city,
That liest so wide and fair;
Shall never an hour bring pity,
Nor end be found for care?

Thy walls are high in heaven,
Thy streets are gay and wide,
Beneath thy towers at even
The dreamy waters glide.

Thou art fair as the hills at morning,
And the sunshine loveth thee,
But its light is a gloom of warning
On a soul no longer free.

The curses of gold are about thee,
And thy sorrow deepeneth still;
One madness within and without thee,
One battle blind and shrill.

I see the crowds for ever
Go by with hurrying feet;
Through doors that darken never
I hear the engines beat.

Through days and nights that follow
The hidden mill-wheel strains;
In the midnight’s windy hollow
I hear the roar of trains.

And still the day fulfilleth,
And still the night goes round,
And the guest-hall boometh and shrilleth,
With the dance’s mocking sound.

In chambers of gold elysian,
The cymbals clash and clang,
But the days are gone like a vision
When the people wrought and sang.

And toil hath fear for neighbour,
Where singing lips are dumb,
And life is one long labour,
Till death or freedom come.

Ah! the crowds that for ever are flowing–
They neither laugh nor weep–
I see them coming and going,
Like things that move in sleep:

Grey sires and burdened brothers,
The old, the young, the fair,
Wan cheeks of pallid mothers,
And the girls with golden hair.

Care sits in many a fashion,
Grown grey on many a head,
And lips are turned to ashen
Whose years have right to red.

Canst thou not rest, O city,
That liest so wide, so fair;
Shalt never an hour bring pity,
Nor end be found for care?

Patterns of Consumption

It is public knowledge that a capitalistic system heavily governs North America, prioritizing the needs of a select minority: privatized corporations. This elite class determines the extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of public goods, creating an unjust distribution of power reasoned by the World Systems Theory. First world (developed) countries benefit by exploiting and dominating third world (developing) countries, which then allows for the Dependency Theory to take place – the wealthy encouraging a flow of resources from the poor. Story of Stuff is a brilliant short documentary that breaks down this flow of commodities for our leisurely consumption. Were you aware that approximately 99% of our consumeristic purchases are discarded within 6 months of use? Our world has a long way to go before achieving some level of sustainability, but acknowledging the sheer volume of humanity’s destructive behavior makes becoming more environmentally friendly seem like such a hopeless endeavor.

Story of Change addresses this pessimistic cloud that has pervaded our 21st century population. The truth is that we have become creatures of habit, choosing to remain ignorant of our individual parts in this chain of consumption due to its simplistic accessibility. It is easy to run out to the store and buy things, and it is easy to place things into the trash to be picked up by someone else. We all play a part in this big picture, and we need to stop taking our lifestyles for granted. Humanity created this consumption chain; therefore, we can change it again and make it better. We are meant to progress and innovation is the key. For example, it may have been easier to stick with the first cellphone that was invented, but in time it was drastically improved for the better! Our environment – our world – is improvable, and the first step towards this reality is educating yourself on these issues, seeing that change should be a priority, and sharing the message so that we can develop the collective mindset needed to make a difference.

Story of Solutions further stresses the importance environmental education and cooperation, and outlines how we can begin to make this shift towards global sustainability. Take some time out of your day to check out these great short documentaries and share their message!

Story of Stuff:

Story of Change:

Story of Solutions:


By Alexis Newman

Pic 1 Edited

This is our friendly backyard chipmunk Jimmy (we don’t actually know if it’s a male though). Chipmunks can range from 4 to 7 inches in size with 3 to 5-inch tails, weighing 1 to 5 oz. in total (2). Jimmy comes to see us daily, usually during the afternoon, for peanuts. It runs right up to our feet, completely fearless and extremely adorable. Once having stuffed at least three peanuts in its massive cheeks, it then scurries off to its burrow at the base of a Beech tree in the forest. Chipmunks are not particularly selective with their habitat choice, nesting in burrows, bushes, logs, fence lines, and more throughout Canada to Mexico (2). There are three chipmunk genera, two of which can be found in North America: Tamias, which is the eastern chipmunk with 2 species, and the western chipmunk, Neotamias, with 23 existing species. Of these populations, only one chipmunk species in Nevada called the Palmer’s chipmunk is endangered (1). The last grouping is called Eutamias, comprising Siberian chipmunks found throughout Russia and Northern Asia. Thus, chipmunk territory can consist of deciduous or boreal forests, prairies, deserts, and even mountains. However, the range that they cover is no more than one third of a mile from where their burrow is situated (3).

Chipmunks are omnivores, frequently foraging for nuts, seeds, plant roots, berries, mushrooms, and insects, especially during dusk and dawn. They begin to stockpile their food during the late summer for their winter hibernation, and their large cheek pouches facilitate quick gathering by allowing them to bring more food through less trips (3). This also helps them avoid predation encounters by hawks, snakes, foxes, coyotes, and weasels (2). Instead of storing fat, chipmunks hibernate by periodically waking to eat from their food stash. In their hibernating state, a chipmunk’s heartbeat can drop from 350 beats per minute to only 4 beats per minute, as their body temperature falls to as cold as 4.44 °C (1). In terms of socialization, chipmunks are relatively solitary creatures, only paying attention to one another during mating season in the spring. Females have high pitched mating calls; whereas males are mostly silent, only chirping when attacked or under stress (3). After a 30-day gestation period, females will give birth to a litter of two to eight jelly-bean sized pups, which will stay with her for two months. Female chipmunks are very protective over their young and have a variety of different vocal calls to communicate with them (1). Female chipmunks can also breed again in the summer.Pic 2 Edited

Here is another picture that I took of Jimmy that I happen to love very much. These little critters are actually very difficult to photograph, since they do not sit still for very long, resulting in blurry shots from their rapid darting around. Sadly, chipmunks only live for 2 to 3 years, so hopefully Jimmy has at least another year with us. Chipmunks are a well-known species in Hollywood productions, often animated for their adorable features. Jimmy is definitely a star in our backyard.


References in MLA Style

1.     Bradford, Alina. “Chipmunk Facts.” Live Science. Purch, 9 June. 2015. Web. Accessed: 1 August 2017. URL:

2.     Sartore, Joel. “Chipmunks.” Animals. National Geographic Society Photo Ark. Web. Accessed: 1 August 2017. URL:

3.     Unknown, Author. “Chipmunks.” HAVAHART. Woodstream Corporation. Web. Accessed: 2 August 2017. URL: