Monthly Archives: January 2012

More mandibles

I would give a close-up or show how the pen outlines turned out – but I don’t want to give it away! Hopefully these mandible drawings will end up in a publication soon.

A note about my drawing set-up: The pencil drawings were sketched onto a regular sketch pad by looking through the camera lucida of a dissecting scope. In this photo I am about to start drawing on herculene drafting film with a Roting technical pen, held in a Leroy pen holder* to keep the pen vertical. I am wearing thin cotton gloves, which keep my skin’s oils off the drawing surface and help my hand to move smoothly when drawing curves. The green base you see is from an OTTLite I bought this weekend. Having that natural light makes a big difference when drawing. It is portable so right now it is in my office, and I already feel better (as opposed to sitting in the dim fluorescent light).

*A note about the Leroy pen holder – this is a trick our department’s illustrator taught me. Using a rubber band to keep the pen from wiggling too much (the holder was not meant for these pens) it offers much more control, especially when stippling. I just bought my own on Ebay and had to outbid someone in the last minute, they are quite hard to find!

I don’t think I’ll have too many issues with creating line drawings that are publication worthy, but I have a long way to go with stippling and other pen techniques. If I manage to put together anything interesting (or really bad and worth a laugh), I’ll share.

Busy weekend

Here are some of the things I accomplished this weekend:

Anomalocaris, Opabinia, Euproops, two odonate nymphs, and a baby blanket with a copepod and daphnia on it. In progress are two tardigrades, and I have a long list of custom order requests still to confront. And I managed to do some schoolwork and illustration practice, ran a 5K for crossfit, shopping (I needed some knee high socks for weight lifting), cooking, cleaning, feeding and playing with the animals – it’s amazing what I can accomplish when my boyfriend goes away for the weekend.

I really love the stories behind the orders I receive (the baby blanket was a hoot!). It is gratifying to know I am able to bring such joy to others, and to know that there are lots of other biology geeks out there. Especially since I can balance my business with the rest of my life. I will have to slow down the sewing once my teaching responsibilities and research become more demanding, but for now – any spare moment is spent with my drawing pens or my sewing machine.

Once I catch up on custom orders, I really want to make more caterpillars. I’ll start taking suggestions on species!

This is work?

Got some of my illustration supplies… I’m so excited to do my homework!

Mandible dissection

One thing I’ve learned about caterpillars is that their heads look TERRIFYING under a scope. So many appendages and hairs and spines and eyes… the mouthparts of a caterpillar look like something straight out of a horror movie.

I have never been a big fan of fiction, and it’s because there are so many crazy things in real life. I don’t see much need for making things up. Caterpillars reaffirm that belief.

Here is a shot of my first mandible dissection. I used a species of cutworm, my advisor had a bunch of extras and said I could use them as practice. I first cut off the heads, and soaked them in a solution of KOH to dissolve the soft tissue. I then attempted to hack off one of the mandibles and the hyperpharyngeal complex. Next step will be to try a few more before doing the real specimens I need to examine.

While hunting through one of the junk drawers around the lab I dug up some brand new needle point forceps, which made the process much easier.

Here is the mandible by itself.

If you have any experience with mandible dissection and have any tips, please let me know! At this point it seem to be mostly luck that I find a way to rip things apart without ruining everything.



A non-arthropod pet

I would like you to meet Petunia, my newly adopted dutch rabbit!

She is about 2 years old, litter trained, friendly and super snuggley. I can hardly believe my luck! Photos hardly do her justice, so here is a quick video:

I have been wanting a rabbit since I moved here, but was waiting for the right one. I didn’t want to buy from a pet store, so I kept my eye on craigslist and some shelter websites. I found Petunia (formerly named Bun Bun) through a listing on craigslist. I am glad I was able to help out a family who no longer had the time to care for her. I went from emailing a response to the ad, to having a rabbit in my arms a few hours later. She came with a cage, food, and litter pan – I went to a pet store last night to pick up more of the basics and some treats. What a whirlwind of a day.

Some experiences from her first night home:
– I clipped her nails without any struggle. She calmly sat on my lap as I picked up each paw.
– We took a nap laying next to each other on the couch.
– She licked my hands.

Since I am still technically on my winter break, I’m taking the day off to let her roam the apartment under my supervision. So far she is good about using her litter box and hasn’t tried chewing anything.

She is a much more interactive pet than my cockroaches.


Kind of gross

Caterpillars are much more fun when they’re alive. But since they can’t live forever, and they don’t tend to sit still for very long when you’re counting setae or crochet hooks, they must be preserved as specimens.

Unfortunately, they cannot simple be pinned like adult moths. As you can imagine, their bodies would quickly rot and you would have a tray of smelly goo.

The most popular method is to quickly boil them alive until they stiffen, and drop them into a vial of 70% or 95% (if you want to preserve DNA) ethanol. This process is somewhat traumatizing when you have raised a caterpillar from an egg, but there are plenty of ways to rationalize the act of betrayal.

“You will be helping science!”
“Don’t worry, I still love you.”
“I realize you have a nervous system, but it’s debatable whether you feel pain.”
“Oh, I know those thrashing motions and vomit were innate responses. Of course it doesn’t look like you’re screaming, that would be silly.”

Their colors quickly fade once in the ethanol, which is sad considering how vibrant many caterpillars are in life.

Here is a bag of caterpillars I recently loaned to work with:

A close up:

Now, these guys were not terribly exciting when they were alive, but they had many more shades of brown. If you look closely there is a lot of… stuff… floating around the vials along with the caterpillars. Might be gut contents, bits of the caterpillar falling apart… who knows!

And now I must excuse myself to place a few of these into a dish, creating a sort of caterpillar stew, to examine them under the scope.

A new year

I guess this is what happens when you have term papers, final exams, lots of family and friends to see for the holidays, and then realize you need a few days to breathe. Your blog gets neglected and next thing you know, it’s a new year!

I survived the semester. Whew. And you know what, I’d rather not think on it too much, but move forward and figure out how to tackle the next one. I still have a couple more weeks of “break”, but as a grad student, there isn’t really such a thing. I already feel guilty for not doing any schoolwork for the past two weeks. Before the semester starts I’ve got a species description to work on and hopefully finish, and a DNA-barcoding plate to put together to send out before my advisor leaves on a trip.

There hasn’t been any caterpillar news, as they’re all overwintering as pupae. I’m pretty excited for their emergences in the spring though.

I am in the process of playing with a bunch of ideas and directions my research could go in… I’ll post them here to get your thoughts soon.

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season!

(Polygrammate hebraeicum. Minimally photoshopped, some really do turn pinkish-red in the ultimate instar!)

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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