Monthly Archives: September 2011

Toad break

And now for the amphibious fauna of Arizona. These were all spotted while driving along desert roads at night. I decided to stick with the typical grumpy toad angle for the photos, but the spadefoots ended up looking rather silly.

Bufo cognatus – Great Plains Toad.

Scaphiopus couchii – Couch’s Spadefoot.

Spea multiplicata – Mexican Spadefoot.

Bufo alvarius – Sonoran Desert Toad.

Caterpillar hunting

If you’re going to hunt for caterpillars, it helps to have extra pairs of eyes (and extra beating sheets). Here was the Lep Course in Arizona, looking for anything we could get our hands on. We stopped on the side of the road, unloaded out of the half-dozen or so vehicles it took to carry us all, and started hiking. We actually didn’t find many caterpillars that day, but it was lots of fun looking (and beating the ocotillo with sticks).

The view. Not bad.

Mate guarding

It’s sort of like how human couples hold hands. Except tiger beetles hold on with their jaws.

Cicindela sedecimpunctata – Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle.

Caterpillars of the desert

Here are some beautiful creatures we encountered while exploring the shrubby desert not far from the mountains in Arizona.

Limenitis arthemis – the Red Spotted Purple (family Nymphalidae). Not exactly a glamorous caterpillar, considering how beautiful the butterfly is! But also consider how useful this camouflage strategy is. Looking like an unappetizing pile of bird poop with fungus growing out of it doesn’t exactly scream “dinner”, now does it?

Hyles lineata – The White Lined Sphinx (family Sphingidae). These guys were everywhere! They were huge, wandering around looking for places to dig into the ground and pupate.

Sphingicampa hubbardi – Hubbard’s Silk Moth (family Saturniidae). WOW!!! This is one of my favorite caterpillars of all time! What is difficult to discern from this photo is just how shiny those silvery spikes are. You can nearly see your reflection in them! This caterpillar is about 2.5″ long, so you would think it’s easy to spot. In fact, all those silvery spikes and brightly colored spots help the caterpillar blend in to its brambly and colorful environment. The adults are fuzzy with pretty pink underwings, but I think the larval stage is the most impressive.

Caterpillar toy challenge

Here is my challenge to you!

Go out and find an ANATOMICALLY CORRECT toy caterpillar, and post a link in the comments. It can either be something you found online, or a photo you took in a shop or your own toy collection (you can say it belongs to your child or little cousin, but we’ll all know the truth). It can be handmade or mass produced, plush or plastic or anything.

So far I have been disappointingly unsuccessful in finding a caterpillar toy that is even marginally close to what caterpillars actually look like. They’re all colorful round blobs strung together, with giant googly eyes, large antennae, and a random number of legs (usually far too many and in all the wrong places, or else none at all!). They more closely resemble centipedes or maggots than anything lepidoptera related.

For those who don’t know, caterpillars look like this:

Not like this:

To be fair, I don’t expect toy caterpillars to have six stemmata (eyes) on each side of the head. I can forgive cutesy eyes. I can even forgive the wrong number of body segments, because most people would give up trying to count them.

My main pet peeve is the number and placement of legs. Insects having six legs is a pretty basic you-learn-it-in-elementary-school concept, and I personally believe it should be there as a reminder in childrens’ toys too. Yes, caterpillars have prolegs, which messes things up a bit, but they are different from the real legs, and on a separate part of the body. It’s been a peeve of mine since I was a little kid, and it surely will be until I die. Even if the real legs and pro legs are not distinguished, there should never be legs on every single segment! And you can fight me all you want on “artistic interpretation”, but I rarely consider that an excuse for being flat-out-wrong. If you want to invent a fantasy creature, fine, but don’t call it a caterpillar (in case you can’t tell, I could rant about this all day, but I’ll hold myself back). Basically… sure I expect some baby-oriented toys to be oversimplified, but there must be SOMETHING out there to give children the chance to have a caterpillar toy that looks like… a caterpillar.

Some other things to keep in mind – caterpillar antennae are tiny, usually barely visible, and arise toward the bottom of the head under the eyes. No toy caterpillar should have giant antennae on the head, it would look more accurate if they were absent. If they do have osmeteria (the fleshy, smelly extensions some use as a defense mechanism), they arise from a thoracic segment behind the head, not from the head itself.

Of course, this is all leading up to why I started my WeirdBugLady business. Only I’ve been slacking on the caterpillars lately. I’ve made a few as mascots for the lab, but not for my shop. I need to get on that. I was really holding out hope that somewhere else on the planet, someone was making reasonably accurate caterpillar toys. So far, from a day of searching online, I’ve come up empty-handed. I don’t expect perfection (even from my own plushies)… but at least an attempt at basic body parts.

So it’s up to you to give me some hope! Let me know what you find!
(And if you find something good, I’ll probably buy it)

Angry moth

Just a hawk moth (Sphingidae), hanging onto some grass near a sheet (it was attracted by the mercury vapor light, but didn’t fly all the way in).


A visitor to the research station

Our first night at the SWRS, we all took our killing jars to the sheets to catch some moths. In the woods surrounding the station (and even right on the porch!) they had sheets hung up with black lights and mercury vapor lights set to attract insects.

We were giddy with excitement, trying to identify moths, all trying to grab the prettiest or most unusual ones. Late into the night, we sat in the lab pinning our fresh catch, occasionally venturing out with headlamps to gather more.

Sometime far past my bedtime (will someone please remind me why I, as a morning person, chose to study moths?), one of the students nonchalantly entered the lab and said “Hey, anybody want to see a snake? Anyone? A snake?”

This is who had slithered right up to the building.

This is the black-tail rattlesnake, Crotalus molossus. What a beauty! I had never seen this species before. Two years ago I did find a shed skin of a black-tail (I was able to identify it by the scale pattern on the head) but that’s it. So it was pretty neat to add another reptile to my life-list.

Once everyone had taken photos, we realized we needed to find a way to move a venomous animal away from the laboratory. No one had a snake hook on hand, so we used the next best thing. A butterfly net.

Hey, it worked! The cute little snake was moved safely away, and we all went back to work.

Unfortunately, I only saw one more snake during the trip. Didn’t have much time for road-driving for herps… that will be on the agenda next time for sure.

The Southwestern Research Station

So now, to formally introduce the lep course.

I spent a bit over a week at the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) in Portal, Arizona this August. The station is run by the American Museum of Natural History. I was participating in the Lepidoptera Course, studying moths and butterflies and caterpillars with some of the best researchers in the field. It was an amazing opportunity, and I learned so much!

The SWRS also offers courses in Herpetology, Ants, Bees, Animal BehaviorBat Conservation, and Species Modeling.

This is one of the signs you’re greeted with when you arrive (after driving down the long bumpy desert road into the canyon).

Of course, as scientists, it was tough for us to actually relax during the course. Every spare moment was spent collecting or exploring or reading or pinning… you get the idea. The first couple days we actually didn’t have that much to do and I started getting anxious! Thankfully, things picked up and I became totally absorbed in learning about leps. I work best when I have a million things to do and not enough time to do it all.

This is a view of some of the buildings at the station – with a typical early afternoon sky in the background. You could almost guarantee rain by 2pm. That’s the wonder of the monsoon season in the southwest – plenty of rain and rumbling storm clouds. I love this location – nestled in the Chiricahua mountains with streams and lush vegetation, surrounded by desert scrub. I was here last year with my advisor just to explore and catch caterpillars, and I’m already looking forward to possibly going back next summer. Some of the species in my study genus live here, so that’s a good excuse!

Of course at this point my mind and photos and notes are a little jumbled, with a big splash of excitement to talk about the adventures we went on. I’ll write a bunch of posts about the trip, not necessarily in order or corresponding to specific days. So let’s see what happens!

Vinegaroon time

I figured I’d start my description of my Arizona trip with one of the first creatures I encountered there (and one of my favorite animals!)

Vinegaroons, also known as whip scorpions, are arachnids related to spiders and scorpions. Unlike scorpions however, they do not have a stinger. Instead, they have a “tail” covered in sensory hairs, and a gland at the base of the “tail” from which they can squirt acetic acid. To a predator such as a lizard or coyote, vinegar in the eyes should come as quite a shock! Luckily, to humans, vingaroons are fairly harmless. They don’t bite, and can’t do very much with their claws.

You’ve heard me talk about my pet vinegaroon, Stanley. He’s doing quite well, eating plenty of grasshoppers and plumping up. While I was in Arizona this august, I saw a whole bunch of his friends!

The first one I found was a juvenile, its body hardly more than an inch long. Note the reddish claws and legs – they turn black once they grow bigger.  And that first pair of really long legs – they actually use those like antennae! It’s funny to watch a vinegaroon explore the landscape by feeling all over with their antennae-like legs (their eyes are small and quite weak).

Throughout the week I found about half a dozen more – some young, some old. Another student on the trip caught a large female who stayed with us as the lab mascot – Vanna the vinegaroon. We delighted in feeding her crickets and beetles until it was time for us to leave.

For anyone who is looking for an interesting invertebrate pet, I’d recommend a vinegaroon in a heartbeat. They should not be handled unless necessary (such as to clean the cage, you’ll probably end up smelling like vinegar), but are fascinating to watch. They are creepy but harmless, and quite active compared to tarantulas and scorpions. They are often bred for the invertebrate pet trade, and sometimes appear in pet stores. If you have any questions about vinegaroons, let me know!

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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