What's in your bag? Professor Christine Picard is in the field catching flies

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Video transcript

"What's in your bag? Professor Christine Picard is catching flies" video on https://youtu.be/Rg_b_exQScQ

 

[Christine Picard speaks: I'm Christine Picard. I'm an associate professor in the Department of Biology here at IUPUI.]

[Words appear: IUPUI Presents]

[Words appear: Christine Picard, Assistant professor, biology and forensic and investigative sciences]

[Picard speaks: And my research has been focused on the population genetics and genomics of carrion insects, specifically flies. So some of the research that we've been doing recently with a PhD student of mine is going out and collecting flies in locations with fairly well known vertebrate animal diversity surveys.

So, we've been collecting in some national parks since they have all of that information available and the reason is to try to determine whether or not we can use the blow fly as an ecosystem monitor. Basically, tell us what the diversity of vertebrate animals are in these given areas.

We just came back from Yellowstone National Park to collect and so I'll show you a little bit of what type of stuff we packed in our bag to do that. So of course, first up, permits. We need permits to collect in national parks so that was the very first thing that we did, other items that we need of course, for collecting flies, so we need our insect net.

We bait our flies, so we have stinky meat that has been rotting for a long time in a container and we put it -- I don't have the stinky meat now because it smells -- but we put it in a container like this that has some netting. And that way the air can go through and send those wonderful smells across a given location and the flies are attracted to it, but they don't physically land on the meat.

So, we're basically protecting the meat from the flies landing on it and then we collect the flies from that. This measures temperature and humidity, so those are two abiotic factors that we measure during the collection time. And so we actually attached that to this handy little stick here that is currently in two pieces because we had to fly with this stick.

So, we had to cut it into two pieces, but it would be hanging into the ground close to where we are collecting. So we have this sensor which records wind speed and then using our iPhone as a compass, we determine the direction that the wind speed is coming in and so we take those measurements during the collection times as we're collecting the blow flies.]

[Words appear: IUPUI Fulfilling the Promise, iupui.edu]

 

[End of transcript]

The forensic and investigative sciences assistant professor discusses her research and reveals the tools she needs in the field. Video by Tim Brouk, Indiana University

Those green-backed flies you see at the picnic, by the pool and around your dog's, um, business are much more than a nuisance to Christine Picard, an assistant professor of biology and forensic and investigative sciences.

Those metallic green flies are research gold. The buzzing blow flies could give clues to an ecosystem's health or help tell the story of a fatal crime scene.

Picard studies population genetics and genomics of the forensically important insects. In the lab, she sequences the flies' DNA to understand the genetic control and natural variation in their phenotypes.

The image caption followsView print quality image
Christine Picard holds blow fly specimens that she has collected for her research. The flies could be markers for an ecosystem's health. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

"We are going out collecting flies with fairly well-known vertebrate animal surveys," Picard said. "We try to determine whether to use the blow fly as an ecosystem monitor to tell us the diversity of the vertebrate animals in these areas."

For ecosystem studies, Picard and her students travel to national parks to set up experiments. The parks document their fauna to make the research more controlled. The flies are drawn to the trap and then collected and brought back to the lab at IUPUI, which contains thousands of specimens from the field as well as live specimens bred on-campus. What the flies had for dinner -- rotting carcasses of deceased park animals -- can give clues to the health and diversity of the ecosystem.

Picard packs a large amount of gear to collect her tiny samples.

Here are some staples for her research expeditions across the nation, starting with the top row, from left:

Picard's tools for field researchView print quality image
  • Kitty litter: Kitty litter doesn't only work for Mittens' stench; it works to mask the odor of the rotting meat -- usually chicken -- that is used to lure fly samples in the field.
  • Insect net
  • Bait trap: A plastic container that once held coffee grounds has been turned into a fly lure. The cap and sides have been cut open, and mesh fabric has been added, so the smell of the rotting meat bait wafts through the air to attract the hungry flies.
  • Batteries
  • Tape
  • Pens and markers
  • Insect repellant
  • Snacks: There are no restaurants in the middle of national parks.
  • Sunscreen
  • Latex gloves
  • Safety vest: The vests are go-to garb at national parks to show that Picard and her students are there on "official business."
  • Temperature and humidity sensor and holding stick
  • Insect field guide: There is no cellular phone service to Google fly species out in the field.
  • Various containers, labels and ethanol for preserving specimens: Picard and her team enter the site, date and other vital information on the tubes and containers. She uses a pencil for this, as ethanol dissolves ink.
  • Data entry book: Temperature, humidity, wind speed and other data are entered into the book along with fly information.
  • Wind speed sensor: "The wind speed and direction will tell us what direction the flies are coming from," Picard explained, "because they will fly into the wind as the wind is carrying the smell (of the rotting meat bait)."