Graduate school has a funny way of sucking up all your time. I had so many other hobbies (including a relationship!) the first few years of grad school, and as they continually slip by, I wonder how I ever had time for them at all (though of course, I do still find plenty of ways to waste time…) So we shall see if I can scrounge up a few minutes here and there for this blog again. Here is a quick update on what I’ve been up to, and what I hope to write about soon…
First of all, speaking about hobbies – I’m no longer running my sewing business, but still try to find time to sew things for myself once a month or so. I will put up a post soon with some of the moth and caterpillar dresses I have made.
I’m also, against all better judgement, accumulating more animals. My apartment now contains two rabbits, three snakes, one gecko, one black widow, four tarantulas, four cockroach colonies, two fish, and a shrimp. As well as about 100 caterpillars for my research, since they were getting viruses in the lab. The new additions will make an appearance once I get some good photos of them (the cockroaches and tarantulas mostly hide during the day).
Ok, onto the science!
My second paper has been published! Well, I am third author, but I am proud to have been a part of this project. It was a great collaborative effort incorporating basic life history observations, morphology, and phylogenetics.
Schmidt C, Wagner D, Zacharczenko B, Zahiri R, Anweiler G (2014) Polyphyly of Lichen-cryptic Dagger Moths: synonymy of Agriopodes Hampson and description of a new basal acronictine genus, Chloronycta, gen. n. (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae). ZooKeys 421: 115-137
I helped with rearing the caterpillars, taking photos, describing the caterpillar morphology, arranging plates for publication, and of course editing. I will put up a longer post with a summary of the paper and a bit about its implications for my project.
I have also been doing more of my ant/caterpillar behavior experiments, and I should have some good videos of that to share soon. I have expanded trials to include earlier instars, as well as a forceps “pinch test” to compare to the ant interactions.
Lots of blacklighting trips, lots of moth catching, lots of paper reading. The life of an entomologist.
This is also the start of National Moth Week, with a lot of events planned.
I have lots of fun stories accumulated, fingers crossed I find the energy to share them!
A reminder – it’s still early enough in the year to make buying a 2014 calendar worthwhile. If you like insects (especially insects in Connecticut), please consider supporting the Connecticut Entomological Society by purchasing a calendar. All photos were taken by members, and voted upon in a photo contest. Each month comes with a caption including the species name and locality/date.
Members may choose the “pick up” option to pick up their purchase(s) at a meeting, all others must choose the option that includes shipping (we take PayPal). The shop is here.
If you make a purchase and indicate that you found the calendar via my blog, you might get an extra-special surprise! (I’ll be the one shipping them out).
February 21st was the 509th meeting of the Connecticut Entomological Society. As yours truly is the president of the society this year, I have had the honor of choosing speakers and activities to keep the society humming along. We have monthly meetings throughout the academic year, culminating in a year-end banquet before we disperse for summer activities. It’s not easy to get people to gather for an entomology lecture on a Friday night, but we have had great turn-outs the last few meetings.
Last month’s speaker deviated from our typical focus on living insects, and gave an inspiring talk. Dr. Susan Butts, senior collections manager of Invertebrates and Paleontology at the Peabody Museum (Yale), gave a talk about fossil insects and the Fossil Insect Collaborative-Digitization Project (like them on facebook!). She provided a great overview of insect fossil deposits from a variety of time periods, and had a bunch of Yale specimens for us to see in person.
We all felt inspired to visit the collection (perhaps a field-trip in the near future?), and to help with the project. Since the Fossil Insect Collaborative-Digitization Project is examining so many fossils, they are in need of more entomologists to help with determinations. So if you check out their facebook page, you can check out the photos and provide your best guess. This project is also working with the iDigBio and iDigPaleo initiatives.
If you want to learn more about fossil insects and the evolution of insects, I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s of my favorites: Evolution of the Insects.
When moths emerge from their pupal shell, their wings start out small and shriveled. Over time the wings expand and harden so the moth is able to fly.
Unfortunately, sometimes things go wrong, and the wings aren’t able to expand. We see this periodically here in the lab, and we’re not sure why. Yesterday this little fuzz ball, Proserpinus lucidus, emerged. Perhaps due to the fact that it was not actually due to emerge until spring, its wings never expanded.
For reference, here is a fully formed adult (from Moth Photographer’s Group)
If you have raised moths and/or butterflies before – have you had this experience before, and do you have a sense of why it may have happened? One of my hypotheses is that a moth may spend too much time in the pupal shell once fully formed, and the wings could become hardened before actually emerging. Or in the case of our moth, being kept in a cool room for overwintering, it may have simply been too cold.
When I was younger I had a pink toe tarantula named Tip Toe. She was a wonderful spider, very calm, and she was absolutely gorgeous. I loved watching her grow, and I kept all of her molted skins. Unfortunately she passed away while I was in college, at about 8 years old, during what appeared to be a bad molt.
Somehow I have been able to resist the temptation to bring home another tarantula since then. That is, until I saw the BioQuip table at the ESA (Entomology Society of America) conference in November. They had a multitude of live invertebrates for sale, and a very knowledgeable staff.
I hemmed and hawed and browsed the beautiful tarantulas, scorpions, and other inverts. But I simply couldn’t resist the Avicularia species. Tip Toe was a common pink toe, and I found another little girl who reminded me so much of her. So I decided to take her home, and named her Edith. She is currently about 3 years old.
But some little spiderlings also caught my eye. Spiderlings can be difficult to care for, and they are prone to dying for apparently no reason. You can’t know the sex until they are a couple years old, so you are also taking a chance on whether it will be a male (live about 5 years) or female (live about 20 years). But I decided to go for it, and brought home a little Avicularia versicolor. His name is Austin (I’m calling it a boy until I can determine otherwise). He was about 4 months old when I took him home in November. He started quite small, but he is growing and is probably due for a molt soon. He has a ferocious appetite and has created a wonderful system of webs and tunnels in his vial.
Here is Austin having lunch: a flightless fruit fly. For reference, the vial is 15drams, about 3cm across.
This brings the number of animals in my apartment to… 10. That’s a nice number.
The other day we had a surprise visitor in the lab.
We had a Hyalophora gloveria cocoon sitting around in the lab, with the pupa presumed to be dead (the cocoon had a bird peck-hole, so we thought it was eaten or badly damaged). But the moth pulled through, and emerged as a perfectly formed adult! Here she is posing with a few members of the lab. Having a live fluffy moth in the lab was quite a treat for us this time of year.
She hung around for a few days and laid a few eggs before she was destined to become a specimen. We could not release her because 1) this species is from Arizona so we are outside her native range, and 2) it is below freezing here in CT anyway. I am not sure what the destiny of the eggs will be.
Here are a few of my favorite entomological valentines. Enjoy! And if you come across any others, please link to them in the comments.
Now that I’m single, it’s just me and my pets and my specimens. But when you have a specimen collection, you’re never really alone. I will probably spend much of today working with moth genitalic dissections – romantic, eh?
The last few months have been tumultuous, but with the spring semester has come a fresh start. I’ve been learning how to knit, I’ve started an additional weight-lifting program, I have a couple new pets, and my energy for my research has been renewed. I’m working on re-gaining my focus and resetting my priorities. One of those priorities is to keep up with this blog to track my research progress and share tales of science (and cute bunnies).
The biggest wake-up call I have received recently was the publication of my first paper. It is a species description that my advisor and I have been working on for several years now. It was meant to be a semester-long side project. And boy, was that wishful thinking. I talk about the project in this post from nearly a year ago.
The paper is in ZooKeys, an online open-access publication.
One set of figures from the paper, my larval illustrations of Sympistis forbesi
I learned so much from this process, and I am incredibly thankful to my advisor for giving me this opportunity. It was a childhood dream of mine to name a new species. I didn’t discover this species or choose the name, and it’s not exactly a flashy organism, but to do the taxonomic work has been quite satisfying. Since the adults of the new species and its sister species are very difficult to distinguish, it was a fun sort of detective story, sorting out the larval characters we considered convincing enough to make our case.
I learned how many people it really takes to collaborate on a project like this, how many revisions need to be made on every drawing and photo, how many times specimens need to be reexamined, and how easily one small task can take months to complete. For this paper I reared multiple caterpillars, performed caterpillar and adult dissections, photographed live and dead specimens, illustrated larval and pupal characters, learned how to describe the features of caterpillars and adults (including genitalia), learned how to obtain SEM images, and dealt with the tedious task of typing and triple-checking the locality data for each specimen. Nothing ever went right on the first try. And then of course there was my first experience with the peer-review process, edits, panic while my advisor was away on a trip, page proofs, and the final real-deal publication.
At first I felt glad it was over, but it may never really be over. We found another potential cryptic species from a different locality that may be mixed within these species in collections. I won’t be tackling this project now, but perhaps someday. I would love to get my hands on another new species to describe, and the ultimate satisfaction would come from finding one of my own.
So there you have it, I’m back to blogging, and feeling like a real scientist. For a while I was really doubting my path, but this is where I belong.
Sadly I do not have any carnivorous caterpillars of my own (though some caterpillars in our lab turn cannibalistic in times of stress), but I came across this article on some awesome caterpillars in Hawaii. Some species in the genus Eupethecia have evolved a taste for other tasty insects. Watch the GIFs, learn, and enjoy!
Surprise surprise, right?
The caterpillar lab has been humming along. My advisor was away for a month to explore the southwest and collect a few hundred caterpillars for his next field guide… meanwhile a few lab members and I kept things running around here. Collaborators began sending me more and more material (I currently have about two hundred caterpillars in my care). I even started some real data-gathering experiments!
My advisor returned this past weekend and the lab has been in a frenzy. Jars of caterpillars and bags of plants everywhere. Boiling specimens and trying to not forget about them lest they fry on the hot plate. Urgent requests to run outside and grab a branch of the oak tree out behind the building (or the milkweed down the street, or the birch by the pond, or the alder at the stop sign…).
Here is the lab table right now, actually looking remarkably clean and organized. There are several boxes of caterpillar vials on nearby shelves:
And my caterpillar station:
It is amazing how easy it is to get caught up in the daily grind of feeding caterpillars, cleaning out poop, setting up freshly hatched first instar caterpillars, taking photos, collecting plants, etc. Sometimes I nearly forget exactly what I am supposed to be doing with these guys – experiments! Once I get some pictures organized I’ll let you know what I’m up to… it’s about defensive behaviors. So far so good, and hopefully I’ll have enough data to present something interesting at the Entomological Society of America conference in November. Fingers crossed.