Category Archives: Illustration

I Like Caterpillars

IMG_1517 I found this delightful book for sale on (in the vintage category). It was written in 1958 by Gladys Conklin, and was illustrated by Barbara Latham.


I thought it would just be a cute addition to my collection of insect books, but it has really wonderful illustrations featuring a wide variety of behaviors and natural history. The author and illustrator really knew their caterpillars. The caterpillars are all based on real species found in North America. The illustrations feature eggs, first instars, morphological changes, defensive behaviors, molted skins, feeding behaviors – even frass flinging!


That caterpillar in the middle is clinging to the stem face down, and has twisted its rear end over its back in order to shoot its poop. This book was definitely written by an observant nature lover.

I’m calling this my new favorite book, and highly recommend it for anyone who likes caterpillars. I think the target age is about 5 or 6 years old… but… no one will judge you.

Here are a few places you can buy it: Etsy, Amazon.

Gladys Conklin wrote a variety of children’s books on insects and other animals. Some titles include “I Watch Flies”, “When Insects are Babies”, and “I Caught a Lizard”. I want to buy them all!

Lab coat improvements

When I was in my first year of university, I had to buy my very own lab coat. I quickly decided it would not remain clean and white, and that I would draw on it with my beloved sharpie markers.

What started as a few favorite band logos (Queen and Guns N Roses, naturally), the flying spaghetti monster, and handprints on my butt, became a long term art project. Every year I have added a few more drawings. The subjects are mostly pets, colorful designs, and bizarre animals I have learned about in classes.

When I came to grad school, I no longer needed a lab coat. Sure, I wore it to a few intro bio lectures, but it isn’t required for any of the work that I do. So it has hung on the back of my door, sad and lonely, for over two years.

Feeling inspired to break out the sharpies once again, I added a few more drawings over the blizzard weekend (we got 35″ of snow here!). Since the early drawings are representative of “me” in my college years, I figured I should have some that represent “grad school me”. So I added some of my study organisms, and my pet bunnies.

Do you have any suggestions for other little drawings to add? I’d love to keep filling in the white space! I’ll take some pictures of the entire lab coat soon.

lab coat bunnies IMG_1304 IMG_1305 IMG_1306

(the Wag Lab tagline is a bit of a joke around here – “servicing the caterpillars” means feeding them and cleaning the containers, and Dave has been here since 1988)

Wanted: naughty arthropod photography

My friend and I have a brilliant collaboration in progress: he writes dirty limericks about the sexual habits (courtship, mating itself, sexual characteristics and habits, etc) of insect and other arthropods, and I illustrate them. So far they are line drawings, I am debating on how to color them. We are hoping to turn our venture into a blog, and eventually a book.

One of the problems we are running into, however, is source material for my drawings. We would love to tackle things like the bizarre foot nibbling courtship of vinegaroons, but I probably will not get photos of that myself.

My illustrations are all free-hand, so nothing would be a trace or direct copy, but I do not want anyone feeling put-off if they can tell I used their image as a reference. I will be contacting some photographers directly. But if YOU have photos of insects doing what they do best and would like to share, please let me know! We would especially appreciate any little stories or descriptions of what is happening, to inspire us. I know there is a whole world of amazing insect sex out there, and we would love to explore it. You will be credited for your contribution unless you wish to remain anonymous.

Here is an example of some twisted up craneflies mating.

You can send me an email through the contact page of my blog. Thanks!

Sneak peek

My Acronicta falcula illustration is nearing completion. You don’t get to see the whole thing until it is finished!

Caterpillar Mysteries: Systematics, Evolutionary rates, and Mimicry in Acronictinae (Noctuidae)

That was the title of my talk at the EEB grad symposium on Saturday. It sounds pretty impressive, now that I take a step back and think about it. I got a lot of great feedback before my talk to polish it up, and a lot of positive reviews once it was over. I felt like I forgot half the things I wanted to say, which meant I had perfect timing. If you know me, you know that once I get going on a subject I can talk your ear off, so sticking to a 15 minute time limit and leaving a minute for questions was quite an accomplishment.

Anyway, I thought I’d give some teasers as to what my talk entailed. I might delve into a few more as longer posts as I develop more of my ideas and start getting desperate for advice. My biggest problem is having too much material to work with.

First of all, meet some of my caterpillars. These are all in the genus Acronicta, which is in the subfamily Acronictinae in the family Noctuidae. I bet at first glance (and even at a second or third) you would have no reason to believe they are closely related at all! My advisor has called them the “warblers of the caterpillar world”. There are 50+ species in North America, with the highest diversity in the North East. There are about 150 species worldwide. Some closely related genera in the subfamily which may enter into my research are Agriopodes, Cerma, Comachara, Harrisimemna, Polygrammate, and Simyra.

Evolutionary rates – The caterpillars show a huge phenotypic diversity. They extend in all directions in morphological space – different colors, hair types, hair patterns, coloration patterns, camouflage, aposematism, mimicry of other caterpillar species, and even wide variation in behavior. Some rest in a hunch back shape, some sit in a “J” shape, some are conspicuous and some try to hide. However the adults are all dull, gray, unexciting moths. They are growing on me, but drawer after drawer they get a little monotonous. Many species are difficult to distinguish (even to experts), though their caterpillars are distinct. Why is there this apparent de-coupling of evolutionary rates, where the adults don’t deviate much and the caterpillars race into different phenotypes?

I want to address this with a molecular tree (we already created one tree with 25 species to start) and character matrices for the eggs, larvae, and adults. Before we try more molecular techniques I need to collect more specimens, I want to capture as much of the worldwide variation as possible. This will involve some loans and assistance from colleagues around the world, and hopefully some trips.

Taxonomic questions – I don’t want to give anything away by showing our first tree, but so far it has helped address a few small questions we’ve had. The taxonomic history of Acronictinae and Acronicta has involved much shuffling around of species, and I would like to see if we can sort out any more troublesome issues.

Larval description – One project of mine is to fully describe the larva of one Acronicta species to serve as my “atlas” for creating my larval character matrix. It might also result in a publication since it is a species whose larvae have never been described beyond a couple of sentences. I am working with A. falcula, an uncommon species which feeds on Corylus. The description will include a written morphological description, photography, habitus illustration, chaetotaxy (drawing of the hairs), SEM images, and life history information. It’s a charismatic little caterpillar. The drawings are currently underway, and I’ve got a specimen ready for the SEM later this week.

Behavior and mimicry – This part is the most fun! Many Acronicta species are aposematic and/or mimic other caterpillar species Mimicry in caterpillars is supposedly rare, but maybe it is just rarely reported? And why is mimicry so prevalent in this genus? Is it Batesian or Müllerian mimicry? Are the caterpillars chemically protected? Does their resting posture on their host plant offer any insights? Do they flaunt themselves or generally stay cryptic? To address these issues I want to raise several species and observe their behavior on their host plants in the wild or in a greenhouse. I want to try some bird exclosure experiments and use clay caterpillar models to test the effects of bird predation. I might also try offering them to ants to see if they have defenses against invertebrate predators. These experiments offer the possibility of some great collaborations with scientists from other universities.

And that’s enough for now!

Larval description

One of my goals for my research is a complete larval description. Many species of insects are formally described based on their adult morphological characters, and the larval features tend to be secondary or omitted completely. In the case of the caterpillars in Acronicta, some of them have been well documented while others have been largely ignored. A complete larval description will help me learn important characters for my group and practice my photography, illustration, and SEM techniques.

I chose an uncommon species whose adults seldom come to lights, and whose caterpillars have not been described aside from a few lines in some field guides. Of course, being uncommon is going to make my job more difficult, but I do have some specimens and life history data collected last summer that I can start with.

The species is Acronicta falcula, a handsome caterpillar which feeds on Corylus plants (Hazel). Its common name is, predictably, the Corylus Dagger Moth. I have started drawing the chaetotaxy or setal map, in which I look at a specimen under the scope and try to draw the correct arrangement of hairs and other features on each segment. I am also attempting a life-like pen and ink illustration. So far I have sketched out the body plan, and I am adding the hairs as I complete my setal map. It is difficult to get the hairs right from the photo, and I want to ensure my drawing is correct. It currently consists of several layers of tracing paper, which will all be copied down in ink and shaded with stippling.

I also chopped up a specimen, dried it, sputter coated it, and am awaiting scope time next week to get SEM images of its various parts. I think the raised warts and hairs will be quite interesting.

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.

This is work?

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

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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