Monthly Archives: November 2011

Bucket of springtails

Yesterday my fish tank needed cleaning, so in between sobbing over photos of my parrot (see previous post) I decided to keep myself busy.

I keep a white bucket outside on my porch, which I use for gardening purposes as well as collecting gross fish tank water. I was about to bring it inside when I noticed something unusual. The inside of the bucket was SWARMING with springtails (creatures in the class Collembola, closely related to insects).

I took a quick video so you can see the way they were jumping – the effect is rather like popcorn.

I shook them onto the ground so I could use the bucket, and watched them crawl and hop towards the garden.

Aren’t they adorable? These springtails are in the family Sminthuridae, known as the globular sprintails. I am not sure why they decided to inhabit my overturned bucket in such large numbers (several hundred, at least, perhaps 1000 or more?). Any ideas?


Yesterday my parents called to tell me my parrot, Pepper, had died. No one is sure exactly how it happened, but it appears a visiting relative’s dog was involved.

Pepper was a rescue bird, a black headed caique (Pionites melanocephalus) who had a rough life before becoming part of our family about 8 years ago. He was stubborn, messy, loud… and I fell so in love with him. Pepper bonded most closely with me, and for years I worked hard to train him and gain his trust. He also enjoyed my mother’s company, respected but avoided my father, and constantly tried to attack my little brother. He tried to attack anyone who visited, even relatives who came over often (like my grandparents). He was especially protective of me. Anytime the front door opened, he had to march over to investigate. He often perched on the family room windowsill surveying the driveway, ready to warn us of any threat (hawk, crow, airplane, etc).

Pepper was a spoiled little bird. He had free reign of the house most of the time, seldom flew but loved climbing curtains. He had his own cabinet shelf in the kitchen where we kept toys, old shoes, paper towel tubes, and newspaper for him to shred. He shared breakfast with my mother every morning, begging his way onto the kitchen table, stealing pieces of toast and fruit.

He loved to play with plastic cups, paper towel tubes, and water bottles. He was a little ball of colorful energy. But he also loved snuggle time in the evenings – Pepper would curl up in my lap and I would pet him, scratching his neck and under his wings. He would coo and purr, closing his eyes in bliss.

I will miss our conversations of clicks and whistles and squeals, our playtime on the kitchen floor, sharing meals, bathtime with a hose outside, snuggling in the evenings, napping together on the couch, the way he tried to pick food out from between my teeth, his courtship dances, the way he would open the christmas presents we gave him, his habit of sleeping on his back, the way he would wrestle with my hands and play bite… Pepper brought so much joy to my life.

He was stubborn, messy, destructive, and caused tension in the family at times… but he was part of the family. I am grateful I was able to share so much of my life and my love with him. Rest in peace, Pepper.



Two great talks

Though I had a lot of work I felt like I should do instead, I followed my labmates across campus (we rarely leave the building) for a few talks this afternoon. I’m very glad I went!

The first was a presentation by Piotr Naskrecki about his latest book, Relics. Piotr is an amazing photographer and scientist who got his PhD at UConn. I had the pleasure of working with him on designing a course last semester; I also saw him give a talk at Harvard about his research on vicious predatory katydids, something I never even knew existed. The photos in today’s presentation were breath-taking and inspirational, and he seemed almost bursting at the seams with stories to tell. So of course, I bought a copy of the book (and he signed it).

Wow… what a wonderful book! I haven’t read much yet, but I have skimmed through all the photos, and already have a dozen ideas for plushies I should make. The book is about ancient/primitive organisms and ecosystems. Piotr has traveled around the world, and has been able to capture images of so many fantastic creatures. There is not much else I can say other than… buy the book, you won’t regret it!

The next talk was a lecture by Naomi Oreskes on her latest book, Merchants of Doubt. I had heard the book mentioned in various internet discussions, but had not felt compelled enough to pick up the book for myself (mostly because there are a million books I want to read, but no time). After her talk, I’m itching to get my hands on it. The book is about how the climate change “controversy” has been created by certain people/organizations with political and economic motives. If any of you have read it, I’d love to hear your opinions.

Between those talks, teaching biology labs all morning, grading quizzes, quick crossfit workout, cooking dinner, cleaning the kitchen, packing lunch and gym bag for tomorrow, feeding the pets, sewing up a quick custom order plushie… I haven’t had much time for all the papers I’m supposed to read for homework and the term paper rough draft due tomorrow. Probably won’t be getting much sleep tonight. I’ll try to sneak in a chapter of Relics though!

Holiday Shopping

For anyone who doesn’t know what to get for that biologist in their life for the holidays – be sure to check out my shop!

I currently have plushies, original artwork, and Christmas stockings. My plushies vary in size, and some could make great stocking stuffers. They are not meant for very small children and are not tested as children’s toys, but they should withstand normal handling.

At this point I will only take small requests as custom orders (that are meant to be holiday gifts), anything complicated will have to wait until after the holidays.

Click here to see my Christmas stockings.

Click here to see my marker drawings.

Click here to see the rest of my shop.

Not only might you find the perfect planarian or tardigrade for your loved one, but you will be supporting a grad student and her research. If nothing else I hope you enjoy browsing through my work!

Scientific illustration

My interests have always converged on the art-and-science combination (as opposed to the math-and-science relationship you always hear about). I have always enjoyed drawing nature, mostly with pencils and markers. Paint is fickle and difficult to tame (especially watercolor), colored pencils are too delicate… for someone who likes bright, bold, in-your-face colors, markers are the way to go. Besides, when you are illustrating insects, those fanciful colors tend to be more accurate (of course, this is all personal preference, other people with more skill are able to master those techniques!).

One of my marker drawings, a scarab beetle. For sale in my shop!

Over the years I have collected hundreds of sharpies, and got myself a nice set of prismacolor markers. I have sold my work at art shows and in my online shop, and have designed a few t-shirts. But aside from a plethora of high school art classes (and some private lessons when I was in 3rd and 4th grade), I have not had any training. All through undergrad I wished I could take a scientific illustration class, but none were available. McGill didn’t even have regular fine-arts, and I didn’t have time to commute to another university. UConn does not have any scientific illustration classes either, but we do have a full time biological illustrator here in my building. I finally got to meet her, and we clicked right away!

I am currently signed up for a few credits worth of scientific illustration independent study for next semester. I’m incredibly excited!!! Learning techniques from an expert, and working toward better images for my thesis.

Here are some practice sketches for a species I am helping describe. I can’t use these because I had touched the paper beforehand, meaning the markers didn’t adhere to where my oily fingers touched. Did not realize it had screwed it all up until I was done. Oh well… more practice!

Entomological rivalries

I love taxonomy. The fundamental organization of life really appeals to me, as does the evolutionary framework we use for the study of systematics. I have always loved identifying insects, though I was also influenced by the theme of my undergraduate degree: “THE WORLD NEEDS MORE TAXONOMISTS” (Mostly due to one professor of mine. His other mantra was “poke nature”… good advice). And with the noble task of organizing all of life, disagreements inevitably arise. Scientists can get rather attached to their study organisms and their way of thinking. The proliferation of molecular techniques are now shaking up morphology-based taxonomy, bringing about changes that make more sense evolutionarily but are upsetting many scientists.

So here I am, pursuing a graduate degree involving a great deal of taxonomy and systematics (I want to do some “shaking up” of my own, with a mixture of morphology and molecular techniques). This surprises some of my friends, who would rather take semesters full of statistics and quantitative population genetics than think about phylogenetic trees. It works both ways though, I think they are rather nuts.

I am writing a term paper for my systematics class (which will be expanded in my thesis)  in which I am reconstructing the taxonomic history of the subfamily Acronictinae. This involves searching through old literature to see how scientists organized these species before, and following the changes up to the present day. If that sounds difficult… yes. Yes it is. The most comprehensive work on this group ever was published in 1898. There are some entomologists in Canada currently working on the taxonomy, and I hope to collaborate more with them, but their work is still in progress.

I am trying to start from the beginning for each genus (and some of the species) involved, which means tracking down papers from the 1700s and 1800s. Luckily many are scanned and published online for free, but some I would have to pay for ($400 for a book? Really?) or are in different languages (I cannot read German, unfortunately). Even in english, though, many papers are difficult to read due to the vernacular of the time. It is tricky to track down spelling changes (accident or a taxonomic reassignment?), and sometimes papers are just impossible to find. Most of the species in Acronictinae were described in the mid-to-late 1800s by a handful of scientists in Europe and the US. Some of these guys took issue with the way their work was used, and they often disagreed on the placement of species and genera. How do I know this? It was not in private letters, but expressed in their publications.

Here are some examples, quotes by A.R. Grote (who described many Acronicta species) about C.V. Riley (a famous entomologist who also worked on Acronicta) (source)

“In the birth of his new species of Acronycta, Mr. C.V. Riley indulges in a burst of wild comparison that betrays rather than conceals his unaquaintance with his subject. In another place Mr. C.V. Riley exhibits a fine sample of that impertenence which has its origin in lack of thought and consideration…”

“I think that the literary Executors of the late lamented Mr. Walsh have cause for an action for piracy against Mr. C.V. Riley for using quotation marks tot he verb eliminate, without due credit to the author of the witticism. But then of course much more valuable property of the deceased is worn and badly worn by our Entomological Elisha.”

Ouch. (For those who don’t know, Elisha in this context means “prophet”).

I still have a ways to go on this journey, but it has been enjoyable so far. Spending half an hour hunting down the citation for a single fact or name change is daunting, yet rewarding. I’m just hoping I stay focused enough to have a rough draft ready by friday!

A close relative

Simyra insularis. In the subfamily Acronictinae (photo taken through a dissecting scope).

Isn’t it beautiful?

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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