Category Archives: Wag Lab

The unexpected benefits of powerlines

We’ve all seen them – powerline right of ways, crudely cut into the landscape. They’re typically eyesores, startling reminders of humanity’s impact on nature, especially when they cut through seemingly pristine forests.

However, at least in some areas, these powerline right of ways can actually be a boon to  species which thrive upon early successional landscapes.

Our lab, in conjunction with a cohort of collaborators, has spent the last few years studying the plants and animals living in powerline right of ways in Connecticut. Powerline right of ways are typically not completely mowed, but periodically maintained to remove tall trees. What remains is an open shrubby habitat, which can be more like a meadow, a wetland, or a bramble patch. These habitats are becoming more and more scarce in CT, as fields and farmland succumb to forestation. While at one point (late 1700s/early 1800s) CT was almost entirely deforested, currently 60% of the state is forest. This may sound like a good thing, and in most ways it is. We all benefit from healthy forest habitats, which more closely approximate the landscape before human settlement. However without periodic wildfires and other natural disturbances to maintain natural meadows, dense forests are perhaps taking more than their fair share. 

So what should we do about the species that currently call Connecticut’s meadows and shrubby habitats home? It turns out that powerline right of ways are just what they need. Our lab’s study found twice the species richness of plants in the right of ways than in the adjacent forest, along with a bevy of native bee species.

I highly recommend reading their paper, which includes a multitude of links to other studies which have reached similar conclusions. This one is mostly about the plant species, a paper on the bees and other insects is forthcoming.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but powerline cuts in this area can really benefit biodiversity by maintaining early successional habitats. I can attest that they are great places to catch insects – there is one species I study, Acronicta falcula, that we have only been able to find in powerline right of ways due to the habitat preferences of its host plant.

A typical day

Yesterday my advisor dropped this on my desk.

“Here, bring this to class for show and tell”

20140918_103300 copySphingicampa sp. from Arizona.


Surprise surprise, right?

The caterpillar lab has been humming along. My advisor was away for a month to explore the southwest and collect a few hundred caterpillars for his next field guide… meanwhile a few lab members and I kept things running around here. Collaborators began sending me more and more material (I currently have about two hundred caterpillars in my care). I even started some real data-gathering experiments!

My advisor returned this past weekend and the lab has been in a frenzy. Jars of caterpillars and bags of plants everywhere. Boiling specimens and trying to not forget about them lest they fry on the hot plate. Urgent requests to run outside and grab a branch of the oak tree out behind the building (or the milkweed down the street, or the birch by the pond, or the alder at the stop sign…).

Here is the lab table right now, actually looking remarkably clean and organized. There are several boxes of caterpillar vials on nearby shelves:


And my caterpillar station:


It is amazing how easy it is to get caught up in the daily grind of feeding caterpillars, cleaning out poop, setting up freshly hatched first instar caterpillars, taking photos, collecting plants, etc. Sometimes I nearly forget exactly what I am supposed to be doing with these guys – experiments! Once I get some pictures organized I’ll let you know what I’m up to… it’s about defensive behaviors. So far so good, and hopefully I’ll have enough data to present something interesting at the Entomological Society of America conference in November. Fingers crossed.

Connecticut Entomological Society meeting

Is it the third week of the month already? Time for another meeting of the Connecticut Entomological Society! The meetings are free and open to the public, though becoming a member is highly encouraged ($7/year for students, $15/year everyone else). The meetings involve dinner, a talk, show-and-tell and general entomological gossip. This month’s meeting is being held this Friday evening at Yale.

Connecticut Entomological Society
“Pop-up” Flash Extreme Macro Photography
Arthur S. Vaughan
Vice President and Member of the New England Camera Club Council
April 19, 2013
Room 123, Kline Geology Laboratory Auditorium, Yale University
210 Whitney Avenue
New Haven, CT

Art will introduce his “pop-up” flash macro photography” and show some fascinating pictures of insects and spiders.
This is our annual potluck dinner and silent auction. Please bring a dish to share as well as any items you would like to donate to the silent auction. Insect artwork, specimens, books, equipment are especially welcome. Proceeds go to CES treasury.
Potluck dinner will be held between 6:30pm and 7:30pm.
Meeting will begin at 7:30 pm followed by the featured speaker.
As always, exhibits are welcome!

I’ll be bringing one or two dishes made with insects for the potluck – maybe some spinach artichoke mealworm dip, or some cricket granola bars. And one of my plushies will be offered for the silent auction.

If you come, you’ll recognize our lab – we’ll be wearing our shirts.

Mustache Ride

I’m going to start my catch-up with one of the most monumental events to occur in our lab since I’ve been here.

Dave (my advisor and almighty ruler of the lab) always has a mustache. According to him he’s had that mustache since he could grow facial hair. We call it the “Wag-stache”.

An epic plot was concocted by one of our lab members last fall. Throughout October, none of the guys in the lab shaved. They slowly grew out their facial hair without saying much about it. Then Dave left for Arizona for a week. When he returned to the lab… all of the guys had a “Wag-stache”.

None of us got anything done that day, because we were too busy laughing and taking pictures. One of them used photoshop to create an album cover. The title of their “band” came naturally.

mustache ride

Not much more needs to be said (though we did have to explain to one of them what “mustache ride” means).

Unfortunately, they all shaved the next day. Except Dave. Long live the Wag-stache.

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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