The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Tag Archives: Nature

Where and Whither the Monarch?

One phenomenon I can usually count on every late summer/autumn is a sudden swelling appearance of Monarch butterflies as they begin to make their long migratory journey southward for the winter.  During the summer, I see them flitting about in my garden, and spot the caterpillars munching away on their wild host plants (milkweed).

monarch male

Male Monarch butterfly in my garden in September 2011.

This summer, though…nada.  Nothing. Zip.

Honestly, I didn’t see a single caterpillar, and although I remember thinking I might have had a glimpse of one adult flying across my road in August, it seemed small and could easily have been a mimicking Viceroy.

It wasn’t until just a few days ago that I found this:

Monarch pinned

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

I found it lying back-up in the middle of the rarely-used old gravel road where I take my dogs for walks.

It was sad and beautiful: starkly, vividly orange on top of the dirt and scattered brown leaves. It was also dead. I gathered it up carefully in my gloves and walked it home. I felt it would be a waste to leave it there to be stricken by the elements since there was no other insect life out that might otherwise scavenge the body. Frankly, I was quite shocked to see it there at all, given the cold weather and heavy overnight frosts we’ve been experiencing of late.

So now it’s on a pin. Other than a couple of scales scuffed off on the top edge of the right forewing, it’s in excellent shape overall – no tears or tattered wing edges. I’m not usually one to pin butterflies (I find spreading wings fussy – the scuffed scales on the left wing were my own clumsy fault), but the utter absence of Monarchs this year made me think that this one was worth preserving.

Any casual observer of wildlife has noticed that the number of Monarchs in Ontario/eastern Canada has been way down this year.  I just went to ebutterfly.ca, a great new citizen science initiative, and drew up some maps comparing the reported observations of Monarchs in Ontario from May-October in 2012, and in 2013.  The difference is pretty remarkable:

2012-2013 Monarch ebutterfly

Citizen science reports of Monarch butterflies (from http://www.ebutterfly.ca) in southeastern Ontario in 2012 (L) and 2013 (R). There are also a few points to the northwest on the 2012 map that aren’t shown here. You can click to embiggen.

I made sure to add my “dot” to this year’s map.

Researchers suggest that this big change is likely due to a combination of less-than-ideal climate and a lack of habitat, and therefore of host plants. Here in the north, we get the last round of breeding adults; generations of butterflies progressively make their way northward throughout the breeding season, starting way down in the southern US.  Although we’ve previously thought that breeding grounds in the central US were the most critical for their success, new research by a team at the University of Guelph suggests that the entire breeding range is actually quite important. These scientists feel confident that the population will rebound, though perhaps not to the same historically high numbers.

Labidomera clivicollis, a milkweed specialist leaf beetle

Labidomera clivicollis, a milkweed specialist leaf beetle

I live in a rural area with lots of old fields and unmanaged roadsides: perfect places for milkweed to grow and so perfect places to observe its characteristically-coloured red/orange-and-black insect fauna.

One interesting thing I observed this summer was an absolute gangbusters number of specialist milkweed leaf beetles, Labidomera clivicollis.

I usually see a couple of them here and there but the milkweeds were covered in them this summer. Perhaps they were doing better with reduced competition? I’d be curious to know if others elsewhere observed the same thing.

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WiFi in the woods: new article on mobile technology and inquiry-based learning

For the past four years I’ve had the great pleasure of TAing a course run by Chris Buddle, called St. Lawrence Ecosystems. SLE is an undergraduate, field-based ecology class with a strong emphasis on experiential learning.

Last year, students were tasked with designing a research project – start to finish – that they could execute in the arboretum on our campus. They could pick any plant or animal they wished to study, had to come up with a research question, design their methods, pull off intensive data collection during three 4-hour outdoor lab periods, then analyze and present their data.

This project was quite novel, considering that, a) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience outdoor labs in their first year of university education (WHY???), b) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience real, self-directed research, and c) we were loaned a set of WiFi-enabled tablets to “test run” the use of mobile technology in an outdoor class setting.

Students were not required to use the tablets: they were simply presented as another tool.  As such, the tablets were adopted to various degrees by different research teams. For some, they were integral to the data collection process. Others used the internet access to check out online field guides to help them identify their study species. And some groups found they were more useful as a flat surface upon which they could write field notes on a good ol’ piece of paper.

As a component of this project, students were also required to reach out to, and connect with, different online audiences, including the general public as well as scientists, via Twitter and blog posts The tablets let them post some pretty interesting tweets spontaneously and on-the-spot while in the field and doing research. Some of them were surprised (and pleased!) to discover that other people “out there” were interested in what they had to say, and that these people were happy to offer feedback, advice and assistance when asked.

Just a few of the many great tweets by this year's cohort of students! Their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects is infectious!

Just a few of the many great tweets by this year’s cohort of students! Their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects is infectious!

One very cool development with this year’s group was that they (totally unprompted) started to tweet at their classmates in other groups, sharing relevant sightings and asking questions.  This kind of in-the-field communication and collaboration was really fantastic to see (example top left, above).

Another fantastic benefit of the tablet-enabled connectivity was that it let us instructors keep tabs on, and chat with, the students much more easily.  In the past, we’d spend most of the lab running around in this 245 hectare forest, trying to locate the research groups so we could check in on their progress. With the tablets we were a mere text message or a Skype conference away, and we could easily pinpoint their locations using shared GPS coordinates.

Anyways, I’m super-excited because the team I worked with on this project has just published an article about this tablet-trial-run in EDUCAUSE Review, an excellent periodical devoted to exploring the use of information technology in higher education.  You can read the article here: “Tablets in the forest: mobile technology for inquiry-based learning“.

sle screenshot

Screenshot of the SLE class blog

Also, if you haven’t already checked out the SLE students’ blog, “St. Lawrence Lowlands“, I highly recommend it </shameless plug>; it’s chock-full of really excellent natural history! This year’s cohort of SLE-ers are also writing blog posts about their study systems, and first of ten just went live this week, so please consider stopping by and leaving comments or questions.  And, our students are still tweeting up a storm: you can easily check out their great, information-rich posts by following the #ENVB222 hashtag!

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 🙂

Party hats on, please!

It’s my birthday!

I’m 34.

Thirty. Four.  (And still in school, lulz!)

This fun-loving fella is helping me celebrate by wearing his party hat today! 😀

Harris' Three-Spot (Harrisimemna trisignata)

Harris’ Three-Spot (Harrisimemna trisignata)

Seriously, is that not one wild outfit?

The Harris’ Three-Spot caterpillar is a crazy-looking critter.  What I first mistook for a discoloured leaf,  closer inspection revealed to be a caterpillar. Then I thought it was a diseased caterpillar, though, because its shape was all gnarly and twisted and it had a weird white band around the middle (which I mistook for a fuzzy fungus).

Not terrifically healthy-looking, amirite?

Not terrifically healthy-looking, amirite?

But then I poked it (I can’t help myself) and realized that it was NOT diseased; rather, it was quite healthy and also TREMENDOUSLY COOL (though possibly the ugliest caterpillar I’ve ever seen).  Yes, folks, we have another poop-mimic!

Not only is it a poop-mimic, but it is also a poop-mimic that carries around its own molted head capsules! What is this for? What does it do? Presumably it offers some kind of defense – a decoy, perhaps?  We don’t know, really. But we do know they can get a little carried away with this stunt at times.

OH! And also, when you poke it, it does a crazy twist-n-shout kind of wobbly smacking-thrashing that is something to behold.  Mine never cooperated when I had the camera rolling, but The Weird Bug Lady (over at Caterpillar Blog)  managed to catch one in the act.

I’m going to treat myself to a nice long walk in the bush today to see what other weird and wonderful bits of nature I can find 🙂

(Ok, maybe kind of neat-looking. In an ugly sort of way. :P)

Ok, maybe kind of neat-looking. In an ugly sort of way. 😛

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?

______________________________

*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.

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