Monthly Archives: February 2012

Amature baiting

You thought I was going to use a different word, didn’t you?

Yesterday, with the prodding of our advisor, some of us in the lab decided to try winter moth baiting. There are several species which fly on warm winter days in the North East, and there is also the possibility that the strange weather we’ve been having (very warm) has caused some moths to eclose (emerge from their pupa) early.

Many moth species are attracted to fermenting fruit and sugary substances. Painting bait onto trees is a popular method of moth collecting. I hadn’t ever tried it myself, so I decided to tag along.

The bait, which we affectionately called “snot”, was made of old bananas, beer, and brown sugar. Louis and Roger went to a nearby forest in the afternoon to paint some trees with snot.

Looks appetizing, doesn’t it? Maybe a littletoo appetizing. I really hope Roger was just pretending to eat it…

I joined them just after dusk to check the snot covered trees. And look what we found… moths!

Their tongues were furiously lapping up the sugary alcoholic goodness. The moth below with the white spots is Eupsilia vinulenta (family Noctuidae). According to our advisor’s book these moths emerge in the fall and fly all winter, and can gather by the hundreds at beer and sugar baits. So not a terribly exciting or unexpected find, but still fun.

One behavior we noticed was that they would suddenly release their grip and drop to the ground due to the light or sudden movements. Below is Louis’ reaction to several moths dropping from the bait-covered tree in front of him.

I am quite interested in incorporating this baiting technique into my moth collecting this spring and summer.  There are a lot of different recipes and strategies to try, including moveable traps. You can even dip ropes into wine to attract moths! I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has gotten Acronicta moths with bait before.

Caterpillar sprint

Introducing the first caterpillar collected for our lab in 2012! It’s a Grammia species, in the family Arctiidae. They are also known as the tiger moths. If it looks closely related to a woolly bear, it’s because it is!

One of the undergrads in the lab, Louis (we’re going by middle names lately… I’m Valencia, by the way) found this caterpillar crawling on the pavement outside his apartment. He is keeping it fed and happy until it decides to pupate. Whenever he has taken it out to show other lab members it tries to leap off his hand and make a mad dash for safety. So I thought I would get a video clip of how silly this thing looks when it runs. Enjoy.

My disapproving rabbit

After the terribly sad news about my bunny Petunia, I knew I still wanted a fuzzy rabbit friend, but I wanted to wait til I found what felt like the right one. I know I can never replace her, but I have so much love to give and my snakes are getting sick of the attention.

A few days ago I adopted a young male brown/white dutch bunny. He’s 9 months old, already neutered and litter trained. He had a tough life – first few months in a pet store, and the next 6 months were spent in a tiny cage with almost no human interaction. He spent the last few weeks with a woman who rescues small animals, and after responding to her ad on craigslist, he became my new friend.

He is skittish but curious, and is gradually becoming accustomed to me and his new freedom as a house rabbit. I can tell he’s a little trouble maker at heart. I named him Rascal.

Despite his new circumstances (plentiful healthy food, big cozy cage with blankets, room to run around, and yummy treats) he still looks disapproving, though.

Just relaxing

Finally getting around to spreading some Acronicta specimens I collected in Arizona this past August at the Southwestern Research Station. Time flies when you have tons of busy-work and no time to focus on your own research ideas. Ha!

For those who don’t know, spreading moths and butterflies is tricky business. It takes a lot of skill and practice, and your success depends on several factors: how shaky your hands are (one of my friends drinks a ton of coffee and then complains about how difficult it is to pin her insects), how fresh the material is, the size of the specimen, and how strong the wing muscles are. Learning good technique from an expert is recommended (my advisor is one of the best!).

Freshly killed specimens are the easiest to work with, especially when you are dealing with micro moths – they can dry out in a manner of minutes. Thankfully my moths are measured on the order of a few cm instead of a few mm. If you have to let your specimens dry out first you can leave them in an envelope in a freezer, or you can field pin them, like in the photo above. Just leave them in their normal resting position. Then if you want to spread them, you need to create a relaxing chamber. I accomplish this with a series of tupperware containers and paper towels soaked with water. A tightly sealed lid keeps in the moisture.

The length of time varies, you want to wait until the insects are pliable again. If you are too anxious and take them out early, you will be snapping off wings and legs. If you wait too long, the specimens will start growing mold. I usually wait a day or two, and test them by gently nudging the antennae. When the antennae are soft, they are probably ready to go.

I think I’ll take some in-progress photos as I pin these to share some of my techniques. I have been pinning leps since I was about 10, and it is one of my favorite mind-numbing activities.


Moth curation party

On Saturday our lab had its yearly “moth curation party”, where my advisor invites a swarm of lepidopterists into the lab to identify and organize our collection of moths.

I had buried Petunia the bunny that morning so I wasn’t at my usual level of enthusiasm, but the chaos was a welcome distraction. So many people, drawers, labels, specimens… sounds of the printer, paper cutter, drawer lids, shouts of excitement at a correct identification…

I spent most of the day identifying moths in my study genus, Acronicta. With the aid of the collection and help from the other lepidopterists I did a decent job. Some of them are pretty tricky. Here is one of the drawers… as you can see they aren’t exactly the most exciting moths in the world.

And here is some of the pandemonium in the lab:

I also assisted with drawer labeling, which satisfied some of my organizational urges. It feels great when everything is clearly and consistently labeled, if only we had the time to do everything that needs to be done!

Sad day

I struggled for the past few weeks with the decision to get my rabbit Petunia spayed. She was about 1.5 to 2 years old, older than the recommended age of 1 year for getting spayed. She was adopted, and wasn’t spayed by her previous owners. I finally decided that the risk now was worth taking so she would live a longer and healthier life. Female rabbits are pretty much guaranteed to get uterine cancer once they’re more than a few years old.

I dropped her off at the vet this morning. She made it through surgery just fine, but couldn’t handle the effects of the anethesia. She passed away this afternoon.

I am absolutely heartbroken. She was so wonderful and perfect, every moment spent with her this past month was utter joy. I was so happy to start a new chapter of pet ownership, after most of my family’s pets had passed away. I had a really hard time when our parrot Pepper passed a few months ago, I still feel that pang and I’m sure it will never leave. Petunia dying so suddenly is going to really throw me off for a while.

I’m trying really hard not to feel guilty, or think too much about what our life together could have been like… I am happy I was able to give her so much love during the time we had together. I’m really going to miss my little snugglebunny.


This Is What A Scientist Looks Like

This is what a scientist looks like is really cool concept, and my post is up!
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In case you haven’t heard, I’m into crossfit. I started at Crossfit Storrs last August, and I go 4 or 5 days a week. This photo is from a small competition in December during the strength portion: cleans, push press, and overhead squats with 95 pounds (it was my first time trying 95, my previous best before that was 65). I have a long ways to go with my strength training, but I love it. My favorite portion had running, jumps, knees to elbows, weighted pull ups, wall balls, and kettlebell snatches.

Crossfit keeps me sane and gives me an outlet for my frustration after a day of classes, seminars, and teaching intro biology labs. I am going to participate in the Crossfit Games Open, and am training to prepare for the Beast of the East in October.

And hey, it keeps me in shape for field work.


Here is my first attempt at colorizing an SEM image (using Photoshop Elements 8).

This is the micropyle of a moth egg in the genus Acronicta. As you can probably guess, it is not these colors in real life.

And this is the skin texture of Acronicta afflicta. Again… they are not green and orange. This was tougher and I got a little lazy with my selection (and using just the touch pad on my laptop makes it tricky) but the effect is pretty cool.

Caterpillar feet are scary

Today I had my first session learning to use the SEM (scanning electron microscope). It was a blast! I spent the past week preparing some egg and caterpillar samples. I took an Acronicta afflicta specimen, cut it up (because the caterpillar was too large to fit into the scope whole), and came up with a protocol for fixing, drying, and mounting the pieces. I really enjoy the step-by-step precision and organization in the electron microscopy lab. There is something about wearing gloves and pouring things from one vial to another in a fume hood that feels so… science-y.

This round was just for practice, I will be gathering more critical specimens to image throughout the rest of the semester. Here is one of my favorite views, a caterpillar’s proleg, or “fake foot”. These are the fleshy nubs that look like legs on the abdomen of a caterpillar. They have hooks on the bottom to grab onto the substrate. I think this view is rather creepy.

This is a close-up of the texture of the caterpillar’s skin.

And one of my favorite structures to view under the scope, a spiracle. This is how caterpillars perform gas exchange, or breathe. While on most insects the spiracles are less obvious, they are typically big and bold on caterpillars. All those little fuzzy looking structures really increase the surface area for gas exchange to occur.

I am so grateful for my instructors and the advice of fellow grad students so far, and I’m excited to continue learning. I think the trickiest part with imaging caterpillars is going to be figuring out my collection and fixation protocol so that I don’t distort the body shape too much. We did an ethanol series (since they were already in 70%) up to 100%, then a few changes of HMDS. If you have ever dealt with preparing caterpillars or other soft bodied invertebrates for SEM and have any tips to share, I’m all ears! The eggs I imaged were either collapsed and infertile or just the shells after the caterpillars had hatched (air dried for several months), so the images weren’t that great. That will be another trick, figuring out how to preserve fresh eggs so they can be imaged in their usual shape.

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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