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.

 

Carnivorous caterpillars

Sadly I do not have any carnivorous caterpillars of my own (though some caterpillars in our lab turn cannibalistic in times of stress), but I came across this article on some awesome caterpillars in Hawaii. Some species in the genus Eupethecia have evolved a taste for other tasty insects. Watch the GIFs, learn, and enjoy!

Swamped

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:

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And my caterpillar station:

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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.

Support the Bug Chicks!

The Bug Chicks (Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker) are two talented entomologists, currently involved in a great deal of public outreach. Their website has 50 educational videos and a blog. And now they are trying to raise money for something that I always dreamed of doing myself – a TV show about insects and other arthropods that live in the USA!

I’m glad they’re actually putting into action something that always seemed like a far off dream to me. They are working with the help of Project Noah and National Geographic, but need your help too. They have an Indiegogo campaign going and still have a lot of money left to raise. If you want to see a fun educational show about arthropods that live in your backyard (that you probably didn’t even know existed), please help them out.

My little tigers

My supposed Acronicta hastulifera caterpillars are growing up. And growing into very convincing A. dactylina caterpillars.

I call them my little tigers

A. hastulifera have frosted hairs (hence the common name “The Frosted Dagger”) which these caterpillars do not have. A. dactylina caterpillars have fluffy orange/brown bands, while A. hastulifera have more diffuse orange and gray hairs. They are trickier to distinguish in early instars (see these posts for pics), but at this point, I’m convinced this species is A. dactylina.

Goes to show just how difficult it is to tell the adults apart, that both Dave and I misidentified the mother moth.

Above and below

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Acronicta increta on Beech (Fagus). Collected at Cockaponset State Forest, CT

Stripey

One species on my “must rear because it is so totally awesome” list is Acronicta radcliffei. It is a very close mimic of one or more species in the genus Datana (family Notodontidae), and it appears to be aposematic. Such stark yellow, red, and black markings typically advertise toxicity. This month I got my wish!

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Acronicta radcliffei. Freshly molted, still on molting mat.

I went caterpillar collecting with another lab at Cockaponset state forest two weeks ago. We were all helping to hunt for the various caterpillar species we all are studying. We knew A. radcliffei, a relatively rare species, had been found in the area before. I wasn’t sure how optimistic to be, but sure enough, a group from the other lab snagged two of them! They were both still in their green and red, early instar color form – but by the next day they had both molted into their final instar, colorful vestments.

One of them mysteriously died while I was on my trip to Colorado, but the other thrived.

_DSC0123 copyThis caterpillar pupated before my experimental protocol (for testing palatability) was finalized, so I will have to wait until later in the summer or next year to test whether this species is truly chemically protected. I wonder if those colors are a true advertisement, or if it is bluffing?

For comparison, here is a Datana caterpillar, thought to be noxious to predators.

Photo by Sam Jaffe

 

Hungry caterpillar, as usual

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Acronicta lobeliae, enjoying an oak leaf.

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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