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Birthday weekend

I successfully avoided doing any work this weekend to celebrate my climb into my late 20s. This week also held the birthdays of several friends in my department, so we celebrated for a few days. It was a good mixture of all my favorite things: cocktails with the whales event at the Mystic aquarium, a hard workout at the gym, afternoon of crafting with friends, and margaritas with my advisor and lab buddy who just returned from a trip to the southwest. They had some crazy stories, and brought me back a teensy tiny pet vinegaroon. The bottle of bourbon is for scale (also a present from a friend). And yesterday I got to unwind by sewing most of the day.

So that brings my number of pets up to… something. Still don’t know exactly how many cockroaches I have.

Oh and the vinegaroon needs a name. Any suggestions?

Back in action

Graduate school has a funny way of sucking up all your time. I had so many other hobbies (including a relationship!) the first few years of grad school, and as they continually slip by, I wonder how I ever had time for them at all (though of course, I do still find plenty of ways to waste time…) So we shall see if I can scrounge up a few minutes here and there for this blog again. Here is a quick update on what I’ve been up to, and what I hope to write about soon…

First of all, speaking about hobbies – I’m no longer running my sewing business, but still try to find time to sew things for myself once a month or so. I will put up a post soon with some of the moth and caterpillar dresses I have made.

I’m also, against all better judgement, accumulating more animals. My apartment now contains two rabbits, three snakes, one gecko, one black widow, four tarantulas, four cockroach colonies, two fish, and a shrimp. As well as about 100 caterpillars for my research, since they were getting viruses in the lab. The new additions will make an appearance once I get some good photos of them (the cockroaches and tarantulas mostly hide during the day).

Ok, onto the science!

My second paper has been published! Well, I am third author, but I am proud to have been a part of this project. It was a great collaborative effort incorporating basic life history observations, morphology, and phylogenetics.

Schmidt C, Wagner D, Zacharczenko B, Zahiri R, Anweiler G (2014) Polyphyly of Lichen-cryptic Dagger Moths: synonymy of Agriopodes Hampson and description of a new basal acronictine genus, Chloronycta, gen. n. (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae). ZooKeys 421: 115-137

I helped with rearing the caterpillars, taking photos, describing the caterpillar morphology, arranging plates for publication, and of course editing. I will put up a longer post with a summary of the paper and a bit about its implications for my project.

I have also been doing more of my ant/caterpillar behavior experiments, and I should have some good videos of that to share soon. I have expanded trials to include earlier instars, as well as a forceps “pinch test” to compare to the ant interactions.

Lots of blacklighting trips, lots of moth catching, lots of paper reading. The life of an entomologist.

This is also the start of National Moth Week, with a lot of events planned.

I have lots of fun stories accumulated, fingers crossed I find the energy to share them!

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.

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.


Texas Day 1: Abilene

To keep costs down, Ben and I decided to camp for the entirety of our Texas trip (aside from two nights at a colleague’s house). This made our trip feel even more adventurous. We’re used to showing up to a research station with dorms, a kitchen, and a laboratory with supplies. This trip was quite different! We brought my tent, and bought some cheap sleeping pads and sleeping bags at Walmart when we arrived. We also bought some batteries to run our lights, and parts to build a light trap.

We arrived in Dallas, loaded up the car with supplies and food, and drove out to Abilene State Park. I truly did not believe we would fit all of our supplies into a compact rental car, but we did.

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Ben at the campsite

The area seemed scrubby, a little dry, and an odd mix of forest, scrub, and almost-desert habitat. The air was hot and humid. There were only a few other people in the campground, as this is not an ideal time to be camping in Texas. As soon as the tent was set up, we set off to explore.

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Adorable little mantis!

We saw a few caterpillars just by walking around – like this little notodontid.

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Lochmaeus bilineata caterpillar

Our daytime caterpillar search wasn’t terribly fruitful though, so we held out hope for the night. We weren’t too impressed with what the light brought in (our campsite had electricity!), but we did have fun (and strained our necks) looking for caterpillars. We were spooked by a few raccoons, but otherwise didn’t run into any trouble.

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Ben at the sheet

Our first big find turned out to be an Acronicta caterpillar! I spotted it sitting on a branch just above my head. I instantly recognized its fuzzy gray body as belonging to Acronicta lobeliae.

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Acronicta lobelieae

But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. After taking this photo, I reached toward the caterpillar to pick it up. It instinctively dropped to the ground, where it landed directly into an antlion pit! It thrashed around as the antlion tried dragging it under the sand. I quickly scooped up the caterpillar but it appeared paralyzed or dead – frozen into a half curled position.

I kept the poor guy anyway, and within about an hour it was back to normal. Whew!

Here are some other pretty caterpillars we came across:

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Ianassa sp.

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Asterocampa sp.

We weren’t blown away by our first night, but I was quite happy to have an Acronicta caterpillar in hand. We stayed one night, and the next day continued our journey west, to Fort Davis.

I survived

I’m back! Hurray!

I have about a million things to talk about, so I’ll spend the next couple weeks trying to catch up on the last few months.

Here are some important updates, in no particular order, all of which will be explained in later posts…

1. I passed my general (oral) exam for my PhD.
2. I adopted another rabbit.
3. My boyfriend moved in with me.
4. Somehow managed to grade the entomology student collections.
5. Actually had a relaxing break at home and in the Bahamas.
6. Visit to the Cornell entomology collection.
7. Started sewing again.
8. At one point, all the guys in the lab grew a mustache.
9. Read “Stranger in a Strange Land” – first fiction book I’ve read in years.
10. Started a daily burpee challenge.

I’m really excited for this semester – less intense TA position, no “real” classes (just seminars and projects). But lots of research and fun work, like working on my illustrations and curating the teaching entomology collection. Trying to get two papers submitted soon. Fingers crossed that I get more publishable work done this semester.

Meanwhile, enjoy this caterpillar on a stick.


Word of the day: Mystax

(The word of the day is taken from the Torre Bueno Glossary of Entomology)

Mystax, hair on upper lip; in certain adult Diptera (e.g., Asilidae), a patch of stiff setae above the mouth, on the lower part of the median facial plate, above the vibrissae.

I chose this word because our class saw a lot of robber flies (Asilidae) yesterday. The first thing I thought of, in terms of a distinguishing feature, was their “mustache”. Now I know there is a technical term!

This is the only photo I have taken of an asilid, you can sort of see that the front of its face is fuzzy.

Check out this link for a great side shot of robber fly mystax.

Need ideas

A friend of mine who works in the lab (the one who let a moth puddle in his mouth) is looking to start a blog. He wants to write about Irish music, and nature (mostly insects and amphibians).

Anyone have catchy ideas for a blog name?

Creepy or cute?

Sawflies, suborder Symphyta, are in the order Hymentoptera alongside bees, wasps, and ants. Their larvae are remarkably caterpillar-like, sometimes confounding entomologists until the larvae are observed up close.

There are some key differences: sawflies have many more prolegs than lepidopteran caterpillars (lep caterpillars have a maximum of 5 pairs, sawflies have 6 pairs or more), and they have only one eyespot on each side of the head (lep caterpillars have 6 stemmata arranged in a half-circle).

For some reason, the eyespots creep me out. I keep thinking that it should make them even more cartoonish and adorable, but I just cannot get on board with loving sawfly larvae. What do you think? Is this guy creepy or cute? Sawfly larvae can be gregarious, and give themselves away with characteristic resting poses. If you see a bunch of caterpillars along a leaf edge waving their rear ends in the air, you are looking at some sawfly larvae. They also tend to have a slimy looking sheen to them.

Oh, and did I mention some species spit?

They spit. At least this one does, in the family Cimbicidae. Many sawfly larvae simply regurgitate their nastiness, but these have the audacity to express fluid in a stream from glands above their spiracles.

Interestingly, in some parts of the world sawfly larvae are called “spitfires”, even though they do not spit forcibly – instead regurgitating fluid or everting it from glands. Only some species in Cimbicidae can actually hit you in the face from a tree branch a foot away (which the one in the video did, before I started filming).

For more information:

Eisner, T. 1994. Integumental Slime and Wax Secretion: Defensive adaptations of sawfly larvae. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 20:10. Link

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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