Category Archives: Arizona Lep Course


I’m not very good at this

I’m not very good at relaxing. At least, not in the way that most other people do.

I don’t really like sitting still. I can’t watch tv without doing something else at the same time.

I hate board games like Monopoly because they take forever and are so irritatingly dull. Unless, of course, I’ve got a knitting project I can work on at the same time. I don’t play games, I watch movies rarely, and I feel guilty if I spend too long browsing the internet without actually doing something.

When I was a kid my dad used to always say “do something constructive”, and I think that stuck (I was in a rush and didn’t realize I had typed the wrong word… thanks to my dad for pointing it out in the comments!)

For me, sewing is relaxing. Or working out. Or weeding the garden, or cooking, or taking care of my pets. I have to be doing something with my hands, moving around. It helps if there is an end product I can feel good about. A stuffed animal, sore muscles, dinner, etc. This is why I get really antsy at parties – people want to just stand around and drink and talk. I can only handle that for so long… let’s go do something!

So anyway, here is some pretty water flowing through Cave Creek for those of you who are actually capable of sitting down and relaxing once in a while.  Some people could sit and watch the water. I had to go poke around for bugs and collect rocks.

Eumorpha typhon

Do you ever see something and just have no idea how to react? You start to utter jumbled syllables, unsure of what you’re feeling or how to express it? Awe? Shock? Wonder? Attraction? Revulsion? Love? Panic?

That’s how I felt when I saw this caterpillar.

How is this possible? How is this even real?

What’s with the bright colors and spots? And that ridiculously smooshed face?

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by things like this, but I always am. Caterpillars have such an amazing array of coloration, defenses, postures, patterns, shapes and sizes –  there is always something new to discover.

This big guy is Eumorpha typhon, in the family Sphingidae. It will turn into a beautiful moth one day.

Arizona sky

One thing I miss about Arizona is the beautiful scenery.

On this day we had lightning, rain, clouds, rainbows, sunny blue skies… all at once.

Moth crafting

Remember how we had those giant piles of moths  at the Lep Course when we were sorting? Well… not all of them were kept as specimens. There were plenty of leftover Matigramma moths, so I decided it was craft time.

I carefully cut off their wings and glued them to a piece of cardboard I cut in the shape of a moth. The wings are all from the Matigramma species, while the body was from the wings of a species of geometrid.

I have a few boxes of abandoned specimens in my office from various sources… if I have time I might try some more moth wing crafting.

Moth sorting

If you are interested in ecology or doing some sort of faunistic inventory, you might want to set out a bucket light trap to collect moths. Something like one of these:

That sounds great, right? Black lights, panels and funnels leading into a bucket of alcohol fumes… just set it outside and collect in the morning.

Then you are faced with something like this…
This photo only shows about 1/3 of the pile, though. From one trap.

Let’s go in for a close up.

If you have never reached your hand into a pile of moths… it is surreal. They are so soft and slippery, it is a very discomforting sensation. And did I mention sometimes they are not sufficiently dead and start fluttering around? It was strange.

So, yes, now you have your moths and need to sort them. That was one of our exercises at the Lep Course: trying to sort big piles of moths to family level. It is a task a few of the instructors performed every day, but as a class we only spent one long morning sorting. I think it would have been fun to do a sort at the start of the week and again at the end, to see how we improved!

We mostly found noctuids, geos, sphingids, notodontids, and various microlep families. We sorted them into piles, and divided out some of the species we recognized. There was one noctuid genus in particular, Matigramma, which dominated the catch. The easiest to sort were the sphingids, which look more like fighter airplanes than insects.

And here I am, hard at work. My allergies were terrible that week, so I wore my glasses most of the time.

I don’t think I would get into ecology simply for the sheer number of specimens I would have to work with. I love sorting and pinning, but I have other things to do, too. I did an ecological study as an undergrad, about beetles in the canopy and understory of Quebec forests. I sorted almost 10,000 specimens to family, and a few thousand of those to species. I hope to get that work published eventually. But yeah, I got a taste of that world, I wouldn’t want to do that for a few years solid! Of course, raising caterpillars isn’t exactly easy. Have to pick my battles.


As we hiked higher into the mountains, we were able to grasp just how far the fires had spread in Arizona. There was a patchy burn pattern over the hills and mountains, extending in all directions.

I wonder what sort of succession will emerge as a result? In a year or two I bet biodiversity will explode. Wildlife was rather sparse this summer because of the fires, but I hope to visit again next year to see how the recovery goes.

Antlion says hi

Mermelontidae, from Arizona. I’m having a heck of a time trying to identify this guy… any ideas?

Genitalic dissections

Of moths, not people, don’t worry.

Dissecting genitalia is one of the skills I learned at the Lep Course in Arizona. One afternoon spent poking at the naughty bits of moths is not enough to become an expert, but I’ll get plenty more practice for my own research.

We used average-sized moths, in the genus Matigramma (family Noctuidae). I’m glad they didn’t have us start on microleps! We had to identify which species we each had by examining the male genitalia. Drawings were offered for comparison (yes, that’s beer at my station, it was in the afternoon!).

I don’t remember all the preparatory steps, but we were given freshly prepared abdomens to work with. We had to brush off all the scales, and carefully pull/cut the genitalia out of the body. In the end, this is what I had:

Though its morphology did not match up perfectly (there can be some natural variation), I determined the best fit was Matigramma emmilta.

If we had to preserve the genitalia, the next step would have been to create a slide. That takes much more time and skill, something I hope to learn soon. I will be doing genitalic dissections for the moths in my group, perhaps they will help sort out some confusing species complexes (or add to the confusion).

What do you do with caterpillars, anyway?

Boil them and throw them in alcohol.


(I helped create a line-up of preserved caterpillars for the Lep Course in Arizona. You can see the bagworm (from this post) in the second dish)

I plan to write a few posts about raising and preserving caterpillars soon. I also have some really great “bad hair day” shots of my fuzzier caterpillars. Stay tuned!

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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