The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Just for fun

The finish line is in sight

Because mole cricket.

Clawing my way to the finish line! (Alternatively titled, “Excuse to post a picture of a mole cricket, which is an awesome animal, period.”)

Fifteen centimeters of snow fell yesterday, we’ve burned through nearly our entire cache of firewood, and there’s not a hint of green life to be found. Nevertheless, it’s just past the first day of spring, and a startlingly short 3 weeks until the last day of classes.

I swear I have not been deliberately neglecting this space, and my extended absence this time ’round is absolutely no cause for alarm.

The simple truth is that I have been having an excellent term and am entirely preoccupied with other things that are firmly at the forefront of my attention as this year rushes by, roaring full-tilt towards what I am grudgingly recognizing as the imminent conclusion of this PhD (*sad face*).

In the last few months I have: a) begun searching, and applying for, postdoctoral positions (another post for another day, but it will probably start with something along the lines of, “womp, womp”); b) started working as an assistant at The University’s teaching and learning services office; c) been blessed with a small army (I’m not exaggerating even a little bit – there are so many) of enthusiastic, intelligent and hard-working undergraduates who are helping me squeeze out the last bit of data for my thesis by volunteering in my lab; and d) having an absolute blast teaching.

Teaching is exhausting. Anyone who says it only takes 3 hours of prep for 1 hour of lecture is a LYING LIE-FACE, at least for the first go-round with a new course. It is challenging as heck: I’m learning/re-learning an awful lot on a daily basis and stepping well outside my comfort zone. It is also enormously humbling. My students are SO FREAKING SMART and I am a flawed human being who sometimes makes dumb mistakes, which they invariably – and delightedly – point out.

Teaching this class has also brought me so much joy I can’t even begin to tell you.

In a few weeks, once the dust has settled and exams are marked and grades are in, I’m going to sit down and write some of my thoughts about this experience, and also about where things stand with my research and “career” progress (and, if this winter ever decides to end, maybe even some new photos of bugs), but in the meantime I just wanted to check in and say, “Hi!”, and “Happy spring!”, and “I’ll see you at the finish line!”

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Close encounters at the ESC JAM photography workshop

This weekend marks the start of the 150th annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada! I arrived in Guelph, Ontario, late last night and have an awesome week of science, networking and catching up with colleagues ahead of me!  😀

The conference started off with a fantastic workshop: insect macrophotography with none other than Alex Wild! As a BugShot alumnus twice over,  I was mostly there as a helper bee, but I managed to find a few moments to sneak in a couple of shots of my own.

I mean, how could I resist this subject?
Black Widow Spider
She was a lovely, compliant, non-threatening subject;  it was really cool to get up close and personal with an animal that has such an ill-deserved bad reputation and see firsthand what they’re actually like.   It’s not my best photo ever, but I love the hourglass marking on her abdomen – this will be a useful image for instructional purposes at the very least 🙂

Sometimes poop happens if you’re persistent.

In my last post (thanks, by the way, for welcoming me back into the fold so warmly), I mentioned that I’d spotted a particular butterfly. I was very, very, excited to see this butterfly. You see, I’d been trying to find one of these butterflies for over three years.

Back in March of 2010, I wrote about my encounter with a very evil plant adorned with sharp, woody spines: prickly-ash (Xanthoxylum americanum). It was mostly a complainy post because the plant shredded my dog and made me a little buttsore (literally).  However, Steve Wilson of Blue Jay Barrens mentioned in the comments that prickly-ash is a common host of North America’s largest butterfly, the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). I did some research and learned that I might just be within the butterfly’s typical geographic range.

I’ve been keeping an eye out for that butterfly ever since. (Seriously, I can’t pass a prickly-ash without looking for one).

Well, on that lovely day last week (when I was having all kinds of feels about nature while out with my dogs) my walk came to a screeching halt when I noticed a large black swallowtail butterfly lazily flapping around a patch of prickly-ash in the tree line just to the left of the road.

Now, I wish I’d been able to get a video of this thing, because it moved unlike any butterfly I’d ever seen. Its wingbeats seemed very slow; languid, really.* I wondered how on earth it was keeping its huge body afloat, and nearly in place, to boot. It held itself  vertically as it stopped to inspect various leaves and branches, much in the same posture as a hummingbird that has momentarily stopped drinking at a feeder to hover inches from the nectar before darting down to feed again.

I tiptoed in closer – it didn’t seem bothered in the slightest by my presence. I held my breath as I watched, wondering if…would it? It DID!  She finally found a suitable spot and delicately touched the tip of her curled-under abdomen on a leaf about a foot and a half off the ground, leaving behind a single, round, orange egg.

OMG!

I came home and chattered to my wife excitedly about my long-desired observation. Then I did some Googling and learned that the caterpillar of the Giant Swallowtail is an exceptional mimic. Like many other caterpillars, P. cresphontes is exceptionally good at looking like something highly unpalatable: poop.  Bird poop, to be precise. How wonderful!

The next day I went back to that little patch of thorniness to see if I could find the egg again: I was thinking it would be cool to keep an eye on its progress. I was able to find it rather quickly:

Egg of Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes)

Egg of Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). (Actual size ~1mm)

Satisfied, I stepped back onto the road and took in a broader view of the shrub.

And saw bird poop on a few leaves.

Wait, wut?

I darted in for a closer look and my three-years-of-searching-persistence was rewarded with some absolutely FABULOUS poop-mimicing Giant Swallowtail caterpillars. They are VERY convincing:

Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes) on Prickly-ash Zanthoxylum americanum)

Not actually bird poop.

Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes)

Proof that there is actually a caterpillar under there.

I  removed one of the caterpillars from its leaf and took it home with me for a studio-style shoot (above), but was sure to bring it back to its proper home the next day.  I reached in the little vial holding the critter, picking it up between my thumb and forefinger, and was  immediately reminded that  swallowtail caterpillars often employ another defence mechanism if the “don’t-eat-me-I’m-poop” schtick fails:

Osmeteria of Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes)

“Behold my terrifying red head thingies! Flee if you value your life!”

These osmeteria are hidden away within the thoracic segment behind the head. When threatened, the caterpillar everts them rapidly, simultaneously releasing  a defensive chemical.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this comic  by the brilliant Rosemary Mosco. The caterpillar’s osmeteria were not very scary. A teensy bit startling perhaps, but honestly, they look like shiny, skinny candy canes.  I noticed the chemical secretion – it had an odour, and not an unpleasant one. I recall it being something a little sweet/spicy. Kind of nice, actually. Maybe it’s revolting if you’re a pecking bird?

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*I looked around on YouTube for a good video of this species – there are several – but what struck me was how fast seemed to fly in each of the clips. This was not what I saw at all. I have two explanations: 1) it was  quite chilly that morning (like, I was wishing I had a toque and gloves kind of chilly), which slowed its motions, or 2) this was an example of one of those trippy moments where time seems to slow down.

Photo Friday: Faves of 2012

Green Lynx Spider, Peucetia viridans [Explored]Bolitotherus cornutus (Forked fungus beetle) 1Phidippus sp. 2Baby corn snake!Phidippus regiusAnisomorpha buprestoides (Southern Two-Striped Walkingstick, Devil Rider, or Musk Mare)
Brown Anole, Anolis sagreiStriped Bark Scorpion, Centuroides hentziMole cricket, Scapteriscus borelliiSnipe fly, Rhagio hirtus (female)Spider sex - Eris militaris Wasp Mantidfly (Climaciella brunnea)
Stratiomys badia (soldier fly, Stratiomyidae)Variable Fan-Foot (Zanclognatha laevigata) # 8340Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer

Faves of 2012, a set on Flickr.

Over at Compound Eye, Alex Wild is curating submissions of nature and science themed “best of 2012” photo sets. If you have some photos you’re proud of and would like to share, why not leave a link in the comments?

While I didn’t spend nearly as much time taking photos this year as I would have like, I still managed to get a bunch of shots I’m really happy with. Here’s my submission: some of my faves from 2012. 🙂

Photo Friday – A horned beauty

I’m still not entirely sure how this little fellow caught my eye – he was resting on the rough bark of a maple tree, blending almost perfectly.

Maybe he sneezed, or something.

Either way, he’s probably one of my favorite finds of the summer, partially because it’s a “new-to-me” species, and partially because…well, just LOOK at him:

Bolitotherus cornutus (Forked fungus beetle) 1

Male Forked Fungus Beetle, Bolitotherus cornutus

Is that not one of the most adorable little faces you’ve ever seen? The little upturned “nose”! But the fancy adornments on the thorax of this male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) are what makes him stand out from the crowd:

Bolitotherus cornutus (Forked fungus beetle) 4

These Darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae) like to hang out on shelf fungi on maple and poplar trees, and are mostly active at night. Only the males sport these fuzzy-tufted “horns”. I have scoured the literature and can’t find a single conclusive answer for their purpose. I suspect they’re partially for fighting with or expressing superiority over other males, but the hairs suggest some kind of sensory function. I really don’t know, and would love it if anyone could shed some light on these structures.

Bolitotherus cornutus (Forked fungus beetle) 3

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An another note, I just wanted to tell you that I’m on the Entomology conference circuit for the next two weeks! I’ll be attending and speaking at the Entomological Society of Canada and the Entomological Society of America meetings. If any of you are coming, I’d love to know! Send me a tweet at @GeekInQuestion 🙂 (Also, once these talks are finished, I’m going to FINALLY get around to updating you all on my research a bit – it’s been a productive couple of months!)

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