Birthday weekend

I successfully avoided doing any work this weekend to celebrate my climb into my late 20s. This week also held the birthdays of several friends in my department, so we celebrated for a few days. It was a good mixture of all my favorite things: cocktails with the whales event at the Mystic aquarium, a hard workout at the gym, afternoon of crafting with friends, and margaritas with my advisor and lab buddy who just returned from a trip to the southwest. They had some crazy stories, and brought me back a teensy tiny pet vinegaroon. The bottle of bourbon is for scale (also a present from a friend). And yesterday I got to unwind by sewing most of the day.

So that brings my number of pets up to… something. Still don’t know exactly how many cockroaches I have.

Oh and the vinegaroon needs a name. Any suggestions?

Egg cases

Earlier this summer I found a few praying mantis egg cases, of both Mantis religiosa and Tenodera sinensis.  The Tenodera egg cases hatched and my friends and I raised some of the young for a while, however the Mantis egg cases never hatched. I’m not sure why – I never had much luck with these as a kid either!

mantis_1 copy

I found this egg case already ripped open. You can see the eggs on the inside, surrounded by the foam of the case. Too bad they never turned into baby mantises. mantis_2 copyIf you have raised european mantids before, have they required any special treatment (temperature, humidity) in order to hatch successfully?

Monkey Slugs

If you hear the phrase “monkey slug”, your first thought is probably not of a caterpillar. But that is indeed the common name for Phobetron pithecium, a caterpillar/moth in the family Limacodidae.

Limacodidae are collectively known as the slug caterpillars due to their reduced legs and slimy looking underbelly. They even crawl by means of a liquified silk trail that they glide effortlessly across. So that is where the “slug” part of the name comes from. But “monkey”? No one is quite sure. The adults are called hag moths, which doesn’t sound very flattering, though they are adorable little moths.

I have never seen one of these caterpillars in the wild, however a friend of mine (Sam Jaffe of The Caterpillar Lab) was kind enough to part with a few of his fuzzy little charges. I have no use for them in my research, but they have been fun pets.

A few more facts:
They can cause allergic reactions in some people (I have not tested myself yet, but just look at those hairs and spines!). However they have glided across my hands with no reaction, so it would probably require rubbing the hairs into your skin.
They do have a head, but it is usually hidden.
They feed on a variety of trees and shrubs, mine are feeding on oak.
The “arms” can come off, the hairs are in fact embedded in a scaffold of some sort of slime that covers the body. This is a feature common to many limacodids.

Here are some photos I took of these guys today.

slug_3 slug_4 slug_5 slug_6 slug_7

Moth Week Round-up

National Moth Week this year was July 19-27 (I wrote about some of my Moth Week adventures here, here, and here). I’ve come across a lot of great press and articles about Moth Week this year, and thought I’d put together a list of some of the coverage.

Shit you didn’t know about biology. Macabre Moths: The Infernal Nocturnals.
I wish I could write as well as this guy. Love all of his articles.

Wall Street Journal. Seeing the Merit in Moths.
An interview with David Grimaldi of the AMNH.

New York Times. An Exhaltation of Moths, Much-Maligned Kin of the Butterfly.

Charismatic Minifauna (Wired). Moth Week is Coming.
Bug Girl is the best!

This one was fun: Apparently someone at Fox News made fun of Moth Week (they sure do love science, don’t they). But then she apologized! The comments on the first article are gold. “What next, national maggot week?” Why, that actually sounds like a great idea.

And there were so many smaller press releases on blogs and local papers, it was truly heartening to see. I’m hoping to plan even more festivities in CT for National Moth Week next year.

Caterpillar Outreach

I mentioned The Caterpillar Lab in an earlier post – earlier this month I finally got to see them in action at a show. I went up to VINS (Vermont Institute of Natural Science) on August 2nd to visit my friend/college roommate Alyssa, as she has been working there for the summer. She was a year ahead of me at McGill, and had just decided to switch to studying entomology when she met me. I love coincidences like that! We became inseparable weird-os who love bugs, working out, and shopping for shoes. Grad school (and life in general) has a way of wrenching people apart, but whenever we’re in the same region of North America we try to visit.

August 2nd was also the date of the Incredible Insect Festival hosted at VINS, featuring The Caterpillar Lab and a whole day of insect themed activities. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity to see parts of my world collide. And I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have another entomologist on hand for an insect festival.

Here is part of the Caterpillar Lab set up – tables decorated with bouquets of plants, each hosting a handful of caterpillars. Most were content to stay on their plants, while others were kept confined to cages (due to a propensity for wandering away). It’s really amazing that people get to see and interact with the caterpillars like this, and with such a huge variety! Yes the large cecropias are cool, but they also have daggers, monkey slugs, prominents, decorator caterpillars… the ones overlooked in more typical outreach programs and museums. There is also an army of dedicated workers/volunteers who keep the show humming.

catlab_1One really neat feature is their video camera set up – whenever something cool is happening at the tables (there’s always something happening), they can show the live feed on large screens. Could be a caterpillar molting, pupating, feeding, or even with wasp larvae emerging from its body and spinning their cocoons (below).

catlab_4I brought along a bunch of dead insects and some books, including a drawer of my tropical butterflies and a few boxes of insects from CT.

catlab_3

Alyssa showing off a hissing cockroach (an insect outreach staple). catlab_2   Just a couple of nerds. catlab_5

With temporary insect tattoos. Of course. catlab_6

I got to help with story time, games, and (my favorite), a bug hunt in a meadow. We had an amazing time teaching the kids (and their parents) how to catch butterflies and flies and beetles and ambush bugs (even some caterpillars!), and we had so many stories to tell. We were armed with butterfly nets and vials and field guides, answering questions and catching some insects ourselves. catlab_7

Overall the festival was a great success. It also included demos on how to make nest boxes for native bees, lectures on pollinators, and other crafts and games. It was encouraging to see so many people attend, and to see such interest and excitement from the children. You never know who might get inspired enough to pursue entomology as a hobby or a career. I know I would have loved a program like this as a kid.

I’m hoping to do more outreach like this, especially through the Connecticut Entomological Society. Probably not this fall, as the semester is about to start (signalling the end of what little sanity I have at the moment), but I’m doing some brainstorming for the spring and next summer. If you have any ideas/suggestions for outreach events around CT, let me know!

Moth Week 2014 – Copake Falls, NY

I was lucky enough to be invited to be a guest speaker for a National Moth Week event held by the Friends of Taconic State Park in Copake Falls, NY. I grew up in upstate NY, but had never been to that region before. I spent most of the afternoon chatting with my wonderful hosts, eating yummy food, and then I gave my talk and spent the night looking for moths – I’ll hopefully get a chance to go back and explore the park during the day.

My talk was about how every week is moth week in my life, as well as how amateurs can help with our scientific endeavors. I couldn’t do my dissertation work without an army of collaborators around the country and around the world. I’m hoping I inspired a few more people to check their porch lights (or gas station lights). When it comes to basic natural history observations, science is accessible to everyone. And we need all the help we can get!

After the talk a few people stuck around to check out the moths. There were several blacklights, a mercury vapor light, and some bait painted on trees (and soaked into ropes).

mothweek_1One of the first visitors to the blacklight, a Hermit sphinx, Linteneria eremitus.mothweek_2One of the sheets, early in the night.mothweek_3Gathering around the sheet. Poke nature!mothweek_4The new president of the society, Brian Boom, was my gracious and enthusiastic host – and he was well liked by the Pandorus sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus). mothweek_5As usual, I had to pose with a moth on my nose. Darapsa myron. mothweek_6And a few of the other goodies we saw: mothweek_7Top row: Tolype velleda, Acrolophus sp., Herpetogramma pertexalis, Darapsa myron
Middle row: Linteneria eremitus, Haploa confusa, Prolimacodes badia, Lymantria dispar
Bottom row: Haploa clymene, Pantographa limata, Crambus sp., Idia aemula

What a great way to celebrate National Moth Week!

Moth Week 2014 – Keene, NH

Moth Week continued for me in Keene NH, the home of The Caterpillar Lab, run by the caterpillar photographer/whisperer Sam Jaffe. Sam is a wonderful naturalist, who ambitiously has undertaken this caterpillar outreach project. Sam and his minions currently have a physical lab where they keep their livestock (hundreds of caterpillars!), which is periodically open to the public. They do caterpillar shows at farmer’s markets and museums, you can see their schedule on their facebook page.mothweek_1

Here is just one of their charges… a gigantic Citheronia regalis caterpillar. Also known as the hickory horned devil… for obvious reasons. mothweek_2

We help each other out by trading eggs and caterpillars, and that is always a good excuse for a visit. His intern Liz allowed us to blacklight at her place, and so the bug nuts gathered round. This pic of the sheet was pretty early in the night, it was really hopping by midnight!

mothweek_3It is the time of year for Catocala, the underwing moths. This big one is Catocala unijuga, the Once-Married Underwing (I sure wonder how it got that name?)mothweek_4We also got a few female dobsonflies (Corydalus cornutus), they look like they are straight out of a horror movie. And much more vicious than the males, who have larger, but ineffectual, mandibles. mothweek_5
Waiting at the sheet… mothweek_6We also got a few spiders… this fishing spider ate quite a few of our moths!mothweek_7We decided to take a break from circling the sheet for some gas station light hopping. Sam has a few favorite spots. Despite my enthusiasm, I fell asleep on the car ride (though I’m told I was muttering some weird things in my attempt to stay awake and make conversation). Luckily I rallied and arrived well rested and ready to catch some more moths. There was a big Antherea polyphemus waiting for us, as well as a wall covered in wonderful moths. mothweek_8Including this sphingid, the Hydrangea sphinx, Darapsa versicolor. We were very disappointed that it was a male. Still a nice find though!mothweek_9 At the next stop we hit another jackpot – plenty of Acronicta moths for me, and a few other pretties. mothweek_11

I love the patterns on this one, I was excited to finally see one! The lettered habrosyne, Habrosyne scripta, in the family Drepanidae. mothweek_10

A pretty little Acronicta lepusculina. mothweek_12

We ended up back at the sheet, where I snagged a few more moths. All of these vials contained a female Acronicta, pretty amazing for one night! I’m never disappointed collecting in NH. I did learn something interesting, we have noticed a pattern – the female Acronicta moths tend to come out earlier. Once we get to about midnight, it’s almost all males at the sheet. mothweek_13

Eventually we packed up, sorted moths, and got some sleep. Not a bad way to celebrate national moth week.

Moth Week 2014 – Storrs CT

We rang in National Moth Week locally in Storrs, at our favorite spot near the Fenton river. We had a good gathering of UConn’s field entomology class, a few Wagner lab members, and a member of the Connecticut Entomological Society.

Setting up in the field with a pop-up blacklighting sheet (I need one of those!).

mothweek_2We also painted some moth bait on the trees. Everyone has their own favorite recipe – unfortunately it wasn’t a good night, and we didn’t get any customers (or maybe the bait needed more beer?). Moth bait is usually a combination of alcohol (cheap wine or beer), sugar (or honey or maple syrup), and bananas (or other fruit). Put the concoction in a tightly sealed container, leave it to ferment and get disgusting for a while, and try not to forget that it’s in the trunk of your car.

mothweek_1 We had on mercury vapor light, and two sheets with blacklights. The sheets were crawling with mayflies and stoneflies and midges (makes sense, since we were right by the river). However there were only a few moths! It was a calm night, but pretty cool, so perhaps it wasn’t warm enough to get a lot of moths flying. Though the students did manage to snag some specimens for their collections.  mothweek_3

Lucky for me, one of the first moths at the sheet was Acronicta americana. She was a very good girl and laid eggs for me that night. mothweek_4

So while it wasn’t a super exciting moth night, I got some more eggs for my research, so that’s a win! And it was a fun night catching up with friends and students – moth collecting has a way of bringing people (and beer) together.

Back in action

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!

Insect Calendar

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).

Connecticut Entomological Society

Promoting insect research, conservation, and outreach

Saurian Obsessions

Life, love, and limb-reduced fossorial skinks

I spell it nature

Trying to make sense of the world through science and language.

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