Monthly Archives: February 2014


When moths emerge from their pupal shell, their wings start out small and shriveled. Over time the wings expand and harden so the moth is able to fly.

Unfortunately, sometimes things go wrong, and the wings aren’t able to expand. We see this periodically here in the lab, and we’re not sure why. Yesterday this little fuzz ball, Proserpinus lucidus, emerged. Perhaps due to the fact that it was not actually due to emerge until spring, its wings never expanded.

proserpinus_1 copyWe’re also not sure why it decided to stand up like a person.

20140217_134148 copy For reference, here is a fully formed adult (from Moth Photographer’s Group)

This makes me wonder how often mistakes like this happen in the wild. I imagine a moth like this would become a meal for a predator fairly quickly.

If you have raised moths and/or butterflies before – have you had this experience before, and do you have a sense of why it may have happened? One of my hypotheses is that a moth may spend too much time in the pupal shell once fully formed, and the wings could become hardened before actually emerging. Or in the case of our moth, being kept in a cool room for overwintering, it may have simply been too cold.

Hungry hunger spider

When I was younger I had a pink toe tarantula named Tip Toe. She was a wonderful spider, very calm, and she was absolutely gorgeous. I loved watching her grow, and I kept all of her molted skins. Unfortunately she passed away while I was in college, at about 8 years old, during what appeared to be a bad molt.

Somehow I have been able to resist the temptation to bring home another tarantula since then. That is, until I saw the BioQuip table at the ESA (Entomology Society of America) conference in November. They had a multitude of live invertebrates for sale, and a very knowledgeable staff.

I hemmed and hawed and browsed the beautiful tarantulas, scorpions, and other inverts. But I simply couldn’t resist the Avicularia species. Tip Toe was a common pink toe, and I found another little girl who reminded me so much of her. So I decided to take her home, and named her Edith. She is currently about 3 years old.


But some little spiderlings also caught my eye. Spiderlings can be difficult to care for, and they are prone to dying for apparently no reason. You can’t know the sex until they are a couple years old, so you are also taking a chance on whether it will be a male (live about 5 years) or female (live about 20 years). But I decided to go for it, and brought home a little Avicularia versicolor. His name is Austin (I’m calling it a boy until I can determine otherwise). He was about 4 months old when I took him home in November. He started quite small, but he is growing and is probably due for a molt soon. He has a ferocious appetite and has created a wonderful system of webs and tunnels in his vial.

Here is Austin having lunch: a flightless fruit fly. For reference, the vial is 15drams, about 3cm across.

This brings the number of animals in my apartment to… 10. That’s a nice number.

Fluffy moth surprise

The other day we had a surprise visitor in the lab.

We had a Hyalophora gloveria cocoon sitting around in the lab, with the pupa presumed to be dead (the cocoon had a bird peck-hole, so we thought it was eaten or badly damaged). But the moth pulled through, and emerged as a perfectly formed adult! Here she is posing with a few members of the lab. Having a live fluffy moth in the lab was quite a treat for us this time of year.

She hung around for a few days and laid a few eggs before she was destined to become a specimen. We could not release her because 1) this species is from Arizona so we are outside her native range, and 2) it is below freezing here in CT anyway. I am not sure what the destiny of the eggs will be.

Valentine’s day

Here are a few of my favorite entomological valentines. Enjoy! And if you come across any others, please link to them in the comments.

“Gimme some sugar, baby” by Bird and Moon

Praying mantis fabric
The mantis girl is hungry of love

“Will you be my val-ANT-ine?” by Alex Wild

There are also some great twitter hashtags happening, such as #academicvalentines and #sciencevalentines.

Now that I’m single, it’s just me and my pets and my specimens. But when you have a specimen collection, you’re never really alone. I will probably spend much of today working with moth genitalic dissections – romantic, eh?

Feeling like a real scientist

The last few months have been tumultuous, but with the spring semester has come a fresh start. I’ve been learning how to knit, I’ve started an additional weight-lifting program, I have a couple new pets, and my energy for my research has been renewed. I’m working on re-gaining my focus and resetting my priorities. One of those priorities is to keep up with this blog to track my research progress and share tales of science (and cute bunnies).

The biggest wake-up call I have received recently was the publication of my first paper. It is a species description that my advisor and I have been working on for several years now. It was meant to be a semester-long side project. And boy, was that wishful thinking. I talk about the project in this post from nearly a year ago.

The paper is in ZooKeys, an online open-access publication.

A new cryptic Sympistis from eastern North America revealed by novel larval phenotype and host plant association (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae, Oncocnemidinae)

One set of figures from the paper, my larval illustrations of Sympistis forbesi

I learned so much from this process, and I am incredibly thankful to my advisor for giving me this opportunity. It was a childhood dream of mine to name a new species. I didn’t discover this species or choose the name, and it’s not exactly a flashy organism, but to do the taxonomic work has been quite satisfying. Since the adults of the new species and its sister species are very difficult to distinguish, it was a fun sort of detective story, sorting out the larval characters we considered convincing enough to make our case.

I learned how many people it really takes to collaborate on a project like this, how many revisions need to be made on every drawing and photo, how many times specimens need to be reexamined, and how easily one small task can take months to complete. For this paper I reared multiple caterpillars, performed caterpillar and adult dissections, photographed live and dead specimens, illustrated larval and pupal characters, learned how to describe the features of caterpillars and adults (including genitalia), learned how to obtain SEM images, and dealt with the tedious task of typing and triple-checking the locality data for each specimen. Nothing ever went right on the first try. And then of course there was my first experience with the peer-review process, edits, panic while my advisor was away on a trip, page proofs, and the final real-deal publication.

At first I felt glad it was over, but it may never really be over. We found another potential cryptic species from a different locality that may be mixed within these species in collections. I won’t be tackling this project now, but perhaps someday. I would love to get my hands on another new species to describe, and the ultimate satisfaction would come from finding one of my own.

So there you have it, I’m back to blogging, and feeling like a real scientist. For a while I was really doubting my path, but this is where I belong.


Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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