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Waiting patiently

My caterpillar season is starting to gain momentum. Caterpillars are hatching, eating, growing, pooping. Getting eggs in the mail from collaborators. Running around campus to collect plants. And some of the caterpillars from my Texas trip are approaching pupation.

I was somewhat in denial of this fact until I saw the size of this guy.

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Acronicta sp. (afflicta?)

That is a FAT caterpillar! I’d never seen an Acronicta caterpillar look quite so much like it’s going to pop. It also wasn’t in a terribly good mood.

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This body language is fairly clear.

Today I found out why. I checked on Mr. Angry Sausage Caterpillar and it looked a bit… different.

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Have we met?

The bright reddish orange coloration and jet-black head were an impressive change. I have only seen this sort of change in one other species, Acronicta lobeliae, which also gains a black head and darker coloration before digging a pupal chamber.

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I’m waiting!

I realized this caterpillar had stopped feeding and was ready to pupate. Poor thing was waiting for the right substrate!

I put a piece of soft, spongy wood into the container, since most Acronicta pupate in wood. It found the wood within minutes, and within an hour had chewed a tunnel into the wood. It’s currently sealed up, where it will remain for a couple months until it is ready to emerge as an adult.

I’m still not entirely sure which species this is. It was collected in Fort Davis, Texas. My guesses are either A. afflicta or A. brumosa. What do you think?

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Not a caterpillar

Yesterday someone knocked on my office door. I was momentarily annoyed at being interrupted. But when I opened the door, I saw a man holding a glass jar with parchment paper rubber-banded over the top. Jars with make-shift lids are always a good sign.

He said he was in the area visiting colleagues at UConn, and he noticed my door had bugs on it, so would I be interested in the biggest spider he’s ever seen?

Why yes. Yes I would.

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Not exactly a small spider.

Say hello to Miss Dolomedes tenebrosus, the fishing spider. She looks big and healthy, perhaps preparing to lay an egg sac (which she will then carry with her mouth).

I tried to take a few photos of her with my new camera rig, but she was not very cooperative. Even after a cool-down in the fridge, she was incredibly feisty. Here are a couple shots I managed to snag.

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Legspan about 3″ across.

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What pretty eyes!

I don’t really have a reason for posting these photos… but… do you need a reason to share a pretty spider? I think not.

Photography rig

I love macro photography – who doesn’t? To take a tiny, seemingly insignificant insect and to blow it up to the size of a cat is exhilarating. There are many wonderful macro photographers out there (check out the list of links to the right), whose photographs I drool over every day. However whenever they mention the equipment used, a pit grows in my stomach. It’s all so expensive! So many lenses and flashes and rigs and fancy things I have never heard of. How is a poor/cheap grad student supposed to get into macro photography without a huge monetary investment? How can I ever dream of improving my “take 100 pictures and hope one of them turns out sort-of-ok” strategy?

For a long time I have felt relegated to various point-and-shoot cameras. I had a camera in high school I was able to attach a little macro lens to, but that camera became bulky and obsolete. I considered second hand cameras, but had no idea where to even start.

Fast forward to last year. I was gifted an old Nikon DSLR camera body by a colleague. I was excited, but quickly realized that without flashes (expensive) and macro lenses (expensive) I wasn’t going to get photos any better than with my point-and-shoot. So it sat in my desk drawer.

Fast forward again to this April. One of the invited speakers to the Connecticut Entomological Society meeting was Art Vaughan, a macro photographer. However he doesn’t have the same kind of equipment as other photographers. He specializes in building his own rigs to take advantage of the pop-up flash present on every camera. His rigs include clothespins, screws, bendable book-lights, aluminum foil, and pieces of metal. He finds lenses in garage sale projectors and cameras, and attaches them with bungee cords. I thought – hey, that sounds like something I could do!

To see what he can do with these rigs, check out his flickr page here:

Art’s photo of a wolf spider and offspring.

Impressive, right?

With the help of a colleague (who has the power tools needed to cut and shape metal) I have assembled my own camera rig.

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Nikon D70, Opteka 58mm macro lens, flash barrier, flash rig with book-lights, foil cards.

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My caterpillar photography studio.

The goal of this rig is to redirect the light from the pop-up flash to the two foil cards. This causes the light to act like two separate flashes, resulting in more even lighting across the subject. I finished putting the rig together yesterday, so I tested it out on some caterpillars.

Not bad, eh?

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Acronicta sp. (thoracica?)

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Acronicta sp. (thoracica?)

I’m pretty excited that I no longer have to rely on the availability of the “lab camera” to photograph my caterpillars. My rig is a bit bulky and awkward at times, but considering it cost me $75 (for the macro lens, adapter, and two book lights), it’s worth a bit of trouble.

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If you want to learn how to build your own, Art is amazing and would love to help. You can email him at: thylacine1936[at]verizon.net

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

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