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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.

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Emerging

It’s springtime, and that means the moths in the lab are emerging from their cocoons. Since it is warmer here in the lab, they tend to emerge a few weeks earlier than they would in the wild. This means we get a head-start on pinning and labeling the moths before the field season gets underway.  emergences1 copy

One wall of our “rearing room”

It is bittersweet, sometimes, when I meet an adult moth I’ve raised from an egg. Knowing that it will be added to my collection as a specimen. Advancing science, but putting an end to a small, fuzzy life. It doesn’t help that I get quite attached to my caterpillars.

But in many ways I embrace this aspect of my work, as the act of pinning and spreading a moth involves considerable skill, practice, and artistry. I am also a firm believer in the importance of scientific specimen collections. Monday mornings are currently my favorite part of the week because that is when I work in UConn’s biological collections, helping to curate the moths. Each specimen has a history and tells a story.

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A freshly emerged adult moth

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Some moths on the spreading board

With the emergence of the moths comes the emergence of field gear and enthusiasm. The caterpillar lab can be a dull place during the winter. But this spring/summer promises to be full of adventure, misadventure, and insects. We are starting to receive caterpillars in the mail from collaborators in warmer climates. Moths are fluttering around porch lights at night. Collecting trips are being planned all around the country. I will be breaking out my own collecting lights within the next couple weeks.

For the time being, though, my main duty is pinning my adult moths as they emerge. If you would like to learn more about this task – my friend and I are currently creating an instructional screencast on how to pin a moth – I will post it as soon as it is finished.

Museum caterpillars part 1

One of the great things about being an entomology graduate student is that going behind the scenes at natural history museums is not only a perk – it is virtually required. Visiting a museum collection means new professional contacts, new collaborations and inspiration, examining specimens, and sometimes borrowing specimens to study at home.

Last week, during “spring break” (grad students might get breaks from classes, but never a real break from work) some members of our lab took a trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. We drove from CT to DC, stayed overnight at a cheap hotel, and spent the next two days frolicking amongst the insect cabinets. Well, maybe I was the only one frolicking.

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Plenty of room to frolic. Carefully.

I actually only spent about an hour, on the second day, exploring the public exhibitions. It was much more fun being behind the scenes, especially with the vast amount of specimens available to explore.

The Smithsonian NMNH holds over 35 million insect specimens in drawers, vials of alcohol, and slides – making it one of the largest insect collections in the world. You can read about the History of the United States Entomology Collections here.

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Totally official.

I went to the museum with one major purpose – to see which caterpillars in the genus Acronicta they have preserved in alcohol, and if there are any species I have not yet examined and could borrow for further morphological study. Caterpillars are not often kept in collections (at least not in the same numbers as the more popular adult butterflies and moths) but luckily, the NMNH had what I was looking for.

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My pretties!

There were 24 jars of ethanol holding Acronicta caterpillars, each jar containing up to a few dozen small vials with preserved specimens. I looked at every single vial, feeling the familiarity of old friends and the excitement of species I had not yet seen. Some specimens were collected by the authors of a seminal work on Acronicta published in 1898, Smith and Dyar. How cool is it to examine specimens collected by your heroes? I was amazed by the dates on some specimen labels – the oldest I found was collected in 1886.

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This caterpillar is 127 years old.

With a spot to sit and look at specimens, the first day absolutely flew by. The entire evening of dinner and sight-seeing in DC felt like wasted time – I wished I could have stayed at the collection. Maybe if I had curled up to sleep under a desk, no one would have noticed?

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Science is happening here.

The caterpillars were not just in jars, though. There were also a few drawers of inflated Acronicta larvae from around the world. I took lots of photos, but the memory card from my good camera is currently misbehaving. Hopefully I can recover the photos, though I could always retake the photos on another visit.

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Some of the inflated Acronicta caterpillars.

I also met some wonderful people at the museum, and caught up with colleagues I have not seen for months or years. We had some great conversations about field collecting and project ideas. I learned a lot about collecting cave insects while walking through mountains of bat guano – did you know that rabies can be spread through the air? Sometimes entomology can be quite hazardous.

At one point I noticed a toy caterpillar on a shelf in the work room, and gushed over its accuracy and adorable-ness. Later in the day when I returned to my work station, I noticed it sitting on my laptop. My lab members told me I was given a new friend!

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Cerura vinula, the puss-moth caterpillar, family Notodontidae. It now happily lives in my office.

The second day was as wonderful and short-lived as the first. I took many more photos of inflated caterpillars, which I will detail in another post. I felt so honored to be allowed to visit and explore such a historic institution, and hopefully will have many more visits over the course of my career.

The Etymology of Entomology

You have four days left to listen to this fun program on BBC Radio 4. It is 30 minutes about naming insects, led by Dr. George McGavin, including interviews with several entomologists, even a member of the ICZN (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature)!  Some of them explain their justification for creating silly scientific names, like Pieza rhea Evenhuis, 2002 (say it out loud).

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I particularly like the point at the end, about teaching children scientific names. We already do that with dinosaurs, why not with insects? If a child can learn how to say Pachycephalosaurus, surely they can learn Danaus plexippus (the monarch butterfly). The next time I do outreach with kids, I’m going to make an attempt at teaching scientific names and see how well it catches on.

More winter insects

Continuing the theme of “ok, some insects do come out during the winter”, a couple weeks ago our lab conducted our yearly boreid hunt. Once again, we achieved success!

Boreids are the winter scorpionflies, in the family Boreidae. They are primarily found as adults in late winter/early spring, when snow is still on the ground but the weather is warming up. They are uncommon in collections because not too many people go hunting for them.

We have experimented with various techniques for finding them. We have seen them jumping from moss at the base of trees onto the snow where they become visible. So we went outside and started looking at trees…

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The boreids were elusive at first, despite the perfect conditions. We scraped bark and moss, dug through leaf litter, and scanned the snow around (almost) every tree in the area.

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We kept getting distracted by other little creatures, the winter stoneflies, family Capniidae. They hurried to and fro across the snow, I wonder what they were looking for?

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Finally – the prize!

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A cute little female winter scorpionfly.

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Piotr Naskrecki has also found some boreids in his neck of the woods, check out his blog to see much better photos than mine.

Adventures in taxonomy – Part 1

I am taking a seminar this semester where we discuss the ICZN – the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. It’s basically all the rules for naming animals.

If you think naming species is a simple process, and probably not that important anyway, you are about to be proven wrong.

And if you think there is no way people could possibly get excited and have loud heated arguments about the rules regarding how to name species… well… just wait and see!

I will write posts about what we discuss periodically through the semester. But first, some history. And… why do we need a code, anyway?

I bet you can imagine that if anyone could name a species anything they wanted, we’d have at least two dozen species named “Darth vader” (and there is a beetle named Agathidium vaderi due to its black shiny head and eyes). According to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, “The objects of the Code are to promote stability and universality in the scientific names of animals and to ensure that the name of each taxon is unique and distinct.” There are also separate codes for plants, cultivated plants, and bacteria with the same goals.

Naming a species might seem like a once-in-a-lifetime dream to a child aspiring to be a world-famous scientist (a.k.a. me when I was 10 years old), but in reality it’s commonplace for many scientists, especially those studying insects and other invertebrates. My advisor can’t even remember how many species he has named. Heck, I’m naming one right now, and I’m only a lowly graduate student. There are millions of species out there yet to be discovered, and they are not all in tropical rainforests – you probably have an undiscovered species living in your backyard. It might be a nematode or a gnat, but hey, it counts! And when you discover that species, there are rules that should be followed for the name to be stable, unique, and universal. You might also want to consult naming regulations when splitting one species into two, or when lumping two species together. These decisions are not arbitrary, but done to reflect new knowledge and understanding of the biology, ecology, and evolutionary history of animals.

Animals have been given names for as long as we have had language. However it was not until Linneaus’ binomial (two name) system that species were given permanent, universal names that everyone could use. In 1735 he published Systema Naturae, which was updated until the last edition in 1793. As taxonomy gained momentum in the 1800s, chaos was unavoidable – how do you reconcile the opinions of scientists from different fields, and from different countries around the world? Duplicate names were used, species were moved in and out of genera without realizing (or acknowledging) the work of others, and misspellings were rampant. Just imagine trying to find research from other countries without the internet!

In the 1800s several competing “codes” emerged. the British Association for the Advancement of Science created a committee (Strickland, Darwin, Owen, and Henslow) to come up with the Stricklandian Code (1843). Meanwhile the Kiesenwetter Code was created by Dresden in Germany (1858). American ornithologists created a code based on the Stricklandian Code in 1866. Each had differences and overlap in their recommendations, though no scientists were obliged to use any code in particular (or any code at all).

Finally in 1895 the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature was founded – with the goal of creating a universal code. The first commission in 1897 had five members from five countries (today they are up to 28 members from 20 countries). They started with lists of recommendations, but it took a long time for the first official code to be published, the first edition was not published until 1961! Since then there have been three revised editions; the fourth edition was published in 1999 and is still in use today. The fifth edition is due in the next year or two, in order to address concerns about online publishing.

If you want to read the code yourself, you can find it here.

The next “adventure in taxonomy” will be about types, and some of the fundamental rules in the code.

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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