Sunday, September 8, 2013

Entomologists: Big Kids at Heart

Skipper feeding on Zinnia

 Since being back in the Pacific Northwest, I've been working in school integrated pest management.  Not what I thought I'd be doing; my hope was to build on my graduate research with aquatic invertebrates and catapult my career in a new direction -- research in lotic (stream and river) systems with benthic invertebrates.  But we entomologists take employment where we can find it, and over the past couple of years, I've been making the most of my current employment opportunity.

Taking the "pest prevention" skills I learned while working in IPM in Arizona and applying it to those critters of my native PNW is a bit surreal, though.  This is the land of my childhood, where arthropods were once an intriguing play thing, and only rarely an enemy (e.g., overly attentive deer flies while picking berries with grandma).  I still remember the places I went to chase down insects, clumsily with my net, for my college entomology course.  I still remember the exact moment of when I made my first kill, tearfully.  This is where I fell in love with a love for insects.

By the time I was 25, graduated with a B.S., and traveling the US as a field technician, I was loathe to call anything on six or eight legs a "pest" (except for those deer flies), and held a special disdain for entomologists who did.  I was ideal, and wanted to dedicate my career to insect conservation.  While some entomologists find this niche and pull it off, most of the jobs are on the dark side (as I thought of it then): pest management.  In time, I learned that seeing arthropods as "pests" was the first step in helping people manage them.  And by helping people manage them, fewer pesticides are used for the betterment of both the environment and human health.  I learned to see the bigger picture and how to compromise -- how to work with and conserve insects through public education and awareness regarding their management.

We entomologists are a schizophrenic bunch in our love for chitinous critters.  One moment we're rapt with awe for the little buggars, and the next we are helping you explore the most efficient means of keeping them outside, away from your home, off your crops, and so on.  I have worked in the field of integrated pest management for over 8 years.  Now I may be among those held in disdain.  But I'm still just a kid with a net, a little less clumsy, and a snazzy smart phone with good camera optics in lieu of a kill jar.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A moth for all seasons....or dogs

You may have seen a collection of amazing insect photographs recently on flicker, all of them taken by zoologist Dr. Arthur Anker from Kyrgyzstan while in Gran Sabana region of Venezuela's Canaima National Park.  The photos are not new, but popular media's discovery of them is.  Several of the more amazing photos in the flicker collection are of moths.  One covered in thick white hairs, or "setae", has been popularized as the "poodle moth".  One journalist ventured to extend that title to a male "bulldog moth" since it looked so badass (my word, not his). 

In truth, the poodle moth shown is a male.  Many moth species can be easily sexed by the antennae; males often have plumose antennae, which are often larger and quite breathtaking, while the antennae of females are comparably more slender with less surface area.  The larger antennae surface area of male moths allows them to detect females by their scent, packing in countless chemo-receptive molecules throughout the antennae to pick up the faintest trace of a female in the wind.  ...Perhaps a more apt canine counterpart to a male moth would be the bloodhound.

Anyway, the photos are pretty neat and you won't regret checking them out.  I'm particularly fond of the red and white moth (a Santa Claus moth!).  While butterflies get a lot of attention, and certainly dominate most genres of insect art, much to my displeasure, it is their cousin, the moth, whose form and function I've always found fascinating.  As adults, many of them are creatures of the night, colorful or cryptic, their behavior brilliantly elusive.  As caterpillars, some are so large and adept at using their "horns" as to elicit shudders from even seasoned entomologists (e.g., the hickory horned devil or white-lined sphinx, among many others).  Moths are, in short, pretty darn badass.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A worm in my banana

Today I found a larva in my banana. My first reaction was not unlike most any other's: ew. But the entomologist in me quickly took over, so my "ew" lent itself to curiosity, amusement, and even did choose my banana, after all.

A larva, likely a moth, in my banana.
Kind of cute.

Never having found a larva in a banana, I think I'll rear it out to an adult. It is some sort of moth (order Lepidoptera). Identifying larvae to their order, such as beetle (order Coleoptera), fly (order Diptera), etc.) is easy based on features like the prolegs, body shape, and head. But beyond that it gets dicey, and even accomplished entomologists simply resort to rearing out a larva to the adult stage, at which point wing venation is used to for more specific ID (genus or species level).

The same is true for you...if you find a larva somewhere unexpected and your curiosity outweighs the gross factor, rear it out! Then you can get help with a more specific ID, which will help you learn more about it and allow you to modify the environment so as to deter the critter from returning (as in the case of pantry pests) or encourage it (as in the case of garden beneficials). Keep your rearing environment similar to the conditions in which you found the larva; pay attention to humidity, light level, food source, and temperature. In this case, I simply left the little guy in the banana, folded the peel back over it, and put the whole thing in a terrarium placed away from sunlight (similar conditions to my kitchen cupboard). In 1-2 weeks, I will be the proud momma of an adult Lepidoptera.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ambiguous ends

It's easy to loose yourself in graduate school, especially when you're three quarters done but feels like an eternity yet before you'll finish. And it's easy to forget why you started, or where you're going. Things get lost by the roadside (like blogging). Lately, I feel like no matter what I achieve or sacrifice, I'm failing. So I've been trying to reconnect myself with the inspiration behind why I started back in school and where I am going with this education. And I've been surprised to find it's not what you might think. It's not *all about* the insects or learning a new (aquatic) and exciting system. Not solely, anyway. It's to attain success in life, and to balance that with the wholeness that makes it worth family, friends, a meal worth taking a moment to savor, having the time to enjoy the weekly rituals of chores and visiting my local co-op. Graduate school and research has come to feel like the end-all, rather than a means to an eventual job with aquatic systems that allows me to make a difference in ways I value.

I took a mental break and indulged this weekend in laundry and a sunny-day bike ride to my local co-op. As a reward for hard studying, I gave myself a special treat: blog-hopping. Blog-hopping forces me outside of my self-centered world to peer into the lives of others, sometimes inspiring and sometimes shaming me into a fresh perspective.

Grad school has demanded a lot of late. And while I've hung in there through a tough situation beyond what most students would have, I'm not sure my perseverance has put me any closer to completion. With good reason, only those who can pay the price of sacrifice cross the finish line. I don't know if I'll cross the finish line. But I have learned that every once in a while it's important to put life -- and anything in it that blocks out the sun -- into perspective, to remember why you started and where you're going, and that there are many ways to define success. Thanks for the gentle reminder of all that and the perspective, blogosphere.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Alive, just barely

Ugh, graduate school. It's killing me. No one said it would be this difficult....then again, most of them didn't have such unusual circumstances. Long story short, my committee has dissolved in the past month, and I have hit the ground running to form a new one. With my data and remaining funding (through June) in tow, I have rapidly re-formed a new committee. Almost. A major professor is pending, and on that point I should know next week. A word to the naive: academic departments are important, make sure you belong to one. On campus committee members are key, make sure you have at least one in the same town. And major professors are good, 3-way co-advisors leave a lot of wiggle room. And married co-advisors? Just don't go there.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Fly With Halloween Timing

Cascoplecia insolitis, a never-before-seen fly with long dangling legs and an unusual horn on its head sporting three eyes is being dubbed the "unicorn fly". It's a newly discovered species of fly found in Amber from Myanmar dating back to the Cretaceous period. It was identified by OSU researcher, George Poinar Jr., and published in Cretaceous Research -- just in time for halloween!
See pictures and read more about this unusual creature here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pacific Northwest Scorpion

This may perhaps be the most exciting event in my year to date: I found it, Uroctonus mordax! This is the most common Pacific Northwest scorpion, and I've been looking for it since moving back to my home region last fall. Here she finally is, freshly posed during a recent trip to the California Redwoods:

Uroctonus mordax, a light morph. Humboldt County, CA. June 2009.
Thanks to Dr. P
hillip Brownell, Oregon State University Zoology Dept., for photo ID.

This scorpion was under a large, loose piece of Redwood bark about 30 mi. south of Eureka, CA. I found her at the end of a long hike in which I had flipped bark piece after piece, rolled rocks, dug under litter, etc., in search of any of the dozen or so native (and elusive!) PacNW scorpions. The prize log lay on the edge of an old haul road, about 12' feet away, and I eyed it there for some while deciding whether my blistered feet and disappointed spirit could stomach one more fruitless flip. A pointless contemplation! I can never pass up a flip! She was under a large piece of bark laying loosely on top of the Redwood, no prying required. I lifted it and bingo! This most beautiful critter:


My whoops and hollers could be heard throughout the woods, a few excited expletives laced in. My friends came running, but when they saw the source of my excitement their reaction was considerably less...enthusiastic. Who cares?! My whoops continued. It was a great moment!

According to Dr. Phillip Brownell, who studies neurobiology at Oregon State University using arachnids, this individual scorpion is a "light morph"; U. mordax is typically darker. Her lighter appearance may due in part to her stretched abdomen. Notice how the pleural membrane -- the lighter, stretchy section between abdomenal segments -- is really noticeable, especially from the sides? She either has a very full belly, or (I think) she is gravid ("pregnant").

Most of you reading this have two questions at this point: 1) where do these occur? and 2) is it poisonous? U. mordax occurs in a variety of habitats throughout the PacNW, from under large rocks on gravelly slopes to the more moist and prey-rich habitat of under-bark on decaying logs, among others. "Under" is the key word. For the most part, you'll have to lift, flip, and dig for scorpions in this region, and just plain get lucky (as I did). They do have venom, as do most arachnids, but it isn't going to kill you or send you to an emergency room unless you have some kind of rare allergic reaction. The scorpion with the most potent venom in the U.S. includes species in the Centruroides genus, and you'll find them only in the Southwest. I'm not an expert on U. mordax or other scorpions of the PacNW. My knowledge of them is limited, I'm learning as I go. But I can say this: during several years of handling the more toxic Southwest genera of scorpions on a daily basis, I was NEVER stung. In other words: don't worry about U. mordax!

This and other PacNW scorpions are overlooked, shy creatures. Don't go running from your home or change your daily activities now that you know they exist in this region. If you've never encountered one, you likely never will. And if you ever do, take a moment to enjoy it because it may well be your last.

General info. on scorpions:

I've posted on scorpions here and here. If you want more information, perhaps check out:

The VenomList (U. mordax pictures, information, links)
National Geographic
Bug Guide
Blog post of a PacNW scorpion encounter
UC Davis (addresses desert SW scorpions, not those found in the PacNW)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Respite with Writing

No Pacific NW scorpions were found while at the cabin at Shotpouch Creek last weekend. The habitat just wasn't there for U. mordax, which is associated with rocky slopes. But there were plenty of other critters and plants that kept us busy and writing.

The Trillium Project seeks to connect people with nature, particularly through writing. To do this, the project makes use of a 40-acre nature reserve on which they've built a very nice cabin for guests to stay. A friend and I submitted a proposal to go there and write. We thought it would be neat to provide a dual perspective of nature: 1) a biologist's perspective; 2) an "everyday person's" perspective...both based on the same experiences.

My first response to the cabin at Shotpouch Creek was awe. It blends in with the land like it was always meant to be there. The lawn wasn't "mowed" and the nature around isn't corralled for aesthetics. But somehow it looked loved and well tended. (Above/top: the view out the kitchen, with one of the other cabin guests taking a late morning siesta in her sleeping bag on the deck. Above: a grand piano overlooks a wall of windows...what better place to teach a friend to play Heart and Soul?)

Spearmint grows in abundace just outside, so we helped ourselves and started off the morning right: fresh-picked-spearmint tea.

We only had 24 hours to spare, given work and graduate studies. But it was enough to replenish, restore, write, an of course explore.

Most of what we saw, picked, tasted, and heard fell into the "hey neato!" category. I found the country kid in me taking over, and at times I had to work hard to think like the scientist I went there to represent. (Above: crab spider, family Thomisidae, dangling on dandelion.)

It was so nice to be surrounded by the sounds and behaviors I recall from my childhood, and later as an adult while working as a field wildlife technician. Summer research would always kick off in May in the Pacific NW, and on this May day at the Cabin at Shotpouch Creek there were many of the same birds and plants exactly as I remember them. From counter-calling wilson's warblers, cryptic nest-building winter wrens and swaths of stinging nettle, to the grandiose mating displays of rufous I've missed them! It felt, in a very sweet way, like a family reunion.

My friend, Laura, supplied the "everyday person" perspective. Even though she's a brilliant physical oceanographer, and graduated from MIT, she new to Pacific NW flora and fauna, and is largely unexposed to the study of living things. Plus, living things tend to fascinate and terrify her in ways I can't help laughing at (even starfish are not exempt from her terror factor).

Laura was stoic, without a hint of fear of the birds, bugs or plants. I even convinced her to experience stinging nettle. We rubbed our wrists on the thin spiked stalks and relished the stinging welts that followed, her in awe and I in reminiscence.

In spite of being a native to the Pacific NW and having so much time in the woods, I had never picked fiddleheads...until now. Fiddleheads are the new growths on fern, the soft tops that curl over and look like -- you got it -- fiddles. The sword fern in particular has good-eating fiddleheads I've heard, and it was incredibly abundant in the woods around the cabin. Knowing the reserve was not crawling with illegal trespassing fiddlehead pickers (as I've seen elsewhere), I snapped a small handful and hoped the indulgence would not be noticed by the landscape. Nutty and firm, we added them diced to our scrambled eggs. Check out your local farmer's market if you're interested in trying fiddleheads. Though sword fern are an abundant plant, they're native and are relied on by a variety of native birds for nesting substrate. So I don't want to encourage people to take to the forests for picking.

For more information on the Trillium Project and writers-in-residency programs held at the cabin at Shotpouch Creek, please visit the Spring Creek Project homepage. Thanks to the organizers of the Spring Creek Project for allowing us a very memorable stay.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Scorpion Hunt

Uroctonus mordax is a species of scorpion that occurs in the Pacific Northwest. Now that I am living back up here as a converted lover of all things arachnid, I want to find one. This weekend I will be visiting a cabin to do some nature writing as part of the Spring Creek Trillium Project. A friend and I will visit the 40+ acres the cabin sits on to write about whatever moves us, and as I do so my scorpion feelers will be out. U. mordax...I'm coming for you. I'll be sure to share what I find!!

I'd also like to add this: quite a few people who visit the scorpions links to this blog are looking for information on Pacific Northwest scorpions, and unfortunately I don not (yet) have any information to share. But in my own preparations for this weekend I came across a helpful website which I can at least provide a link to: The Venom List. Please look it over for information abot U. mordax and arachnida in general. As I find more resources to share on scorpions in this region I'll be sure to share.

May Showers...Flowers

You know that saying "April showers bring May flowers"? It is usually no truer than in the Pacific Northwest, except that this year it was reversed. High temps in the April (a whopping 76 deg F one weekend!) had many hopeful for May, but the showers came late this year so here we are in Corvallis, OR: wet, cold, and in May.

No complaints from me (I love the wet and the chilly) and the flowers came out did the insects. :-) It made for some pretty pix, I thought I'd share a few...

I don't know what this purple flower is, and now that I'm in grad school I'll have to admit that hobbyist pursuits like gardening and knowing plant names isn't on the top five priority list. Still...they're so pretty they deserve to be captured here.

Downtown Corvallis has some of the prettiest landscaping.

I think this is a lilac. There was a downpour moments before I took this shot, and seconds after I snapped it...gotta love it.

Sitting in my car across the street, children began shouting "snow! snow!" and snow indeed it did...flower petals from this tree. A series of windgusts nearly robbed it bare, but not before I snapped this scene of a red "bug" and the ground covered in soft pink.

A dogwood tree in front of the veggy house. It now sports a locally-made hummingbird feeder for the migrating Rufus.

I'm never without my camera these days and it's a good thing. Insects are blossoming along with the flowers. Far left: a box elder bug. Immediate left: a stink bug (yes, they can really stink). Both are in the true bug order of insects, Hemiptera, and eat plant matter.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Disappearing Act

Somewhat like me regarding this blog, my research subjects are also pulling a disappearing act...

I've spent this week -- "spring break" as it were -- at the Oregon State University Hermiston Agricultural Research and Experiment Center in northeastern OR. Other than plaguing my advisors with questions out here, I am processing 54 crayfish (Pacifasticus leniusculus) that I collected along the Umatilla River late last summer just after moving to Oregon. My task with the tasty crustaceans this week: digesting. Acid digesting. It sounds so much more benign than what it is: the dissolving of dried flesh in concentrated, heated acids. Creepy, yes. And not just because I'm perpetually afraid of getting burnt.

In a magic elixir of nitric acid, hydrogen peroxide and hydrochloric acid,
these crayfish dissolved in less than three hours.

The purpose of doing this: trace metal analysis. The pure liquid sample of dissolved cray body can be "read" for dissolved metals by running it through a large, expensive machine that I don't yet understand (ICP-MS). I'll measure levels of lead, cadmium, zinc, iron, and copper in each sacrificial, cute crustacean.

I know, I know. I'm an entomologist!! At the very least, a burgeoning ecologist... How did I wind up with a toxicological project? I dunno. There are a lot of scientists who start out elsewhere and somehow wind up as entomologists, so maybe it's the universe trying to balance itself. But I won't go willingly into toxicology. While the crays are a required part of my graduate research, as per my funding source, I'm still hopeful funds will be found for me to incorporate at least ONE insect genus. Hopefully my grant writing will produce, but no luck so far there. Meantime, I go aquatic insect collecting to cheer myself up, and I'm trying not to think about graduating with a MS thesis on freshwater crustaceans (wondering who'll hire me as an "entomologist"). Admittedly, there are worse things to stew over these days than the fate of one's career now aren't there? At least I am in graduate school...

Me collecting aquatic insects along the Salt River
(3.01.09, McCredie Hot Springs, Oregon)
Photo by Yvan Alleau

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thrush Magic

"Cheese n rice, you are a spectacularly majestic bird!"
These are the words that escape me each time I view this:

The Varied Thrush. The brilliant orange-against-black of
this, my most favorite of winter birds, rivals our
occasional sun breaks.
Photo used with permission by Mike Yip

It has been some time since I've seen this bird -- mainly because I've been living in the Sonoran Desert for the last five years. Now back in the Pacific NW, I am treated to the awesomeness of the Varied Thrush whenever I choose to brave the wind and rain.

Delicately curious and always composed (in spite of being a noisy flyer), they flitted in the branches overhead as I crouched and spied with a grin from the Oak woodlands of Bald Hill this past weekend. They knew I was there. Everything did. And in crouching I was promptly visited by a scolding Ruby-crowned Kinglet at arm's length and a Winter Wren full of schmotsy.

You're not likely to forget your first encounter with the song of the Varied Thrush. My first was the summer of 2003. I was employed by the University of Washington as a field wildlife technician surveying birds in the forests of Fort Lewis. After a week of intense training to identify all birds in the area by sound, and several weeks of on-the-job training that followed, I was quite comfortable with every bird song and call in those woods. And to my surprise, the work also familiarized me with the dense variety of underbrush, trees, mammal scat, and the subtle difference between the croak of a tree bough in the wind versus the Pacific tree frog. With long days hiking and working alone in the woods, I could identify and name nearly every living thing around me.

Or so I thought.

One morning, not unlike any other, I stood in the dark, dense woods at pre-dawn waiting for the official minute of sunrise to begin my point count. My clipboard illuminated by the blue light of my watch as the countdown ticked by. That's when I heard it: a sound so completely new, so foreign and so incredibly close it might well have been an alien on my shoulder gurgling salutations. A single steady note like a long metallic trill bore out strong and loud, unyielding through the darkness. Neither in training nor in my weeks of working had I heard or been prepared for anything quite like this. The first note was followed by a pause, and then another long, loud trill of slightly higher pitch...then a second pause in which all the woods seemed to now be listening, and a third final note. Something surreal in the darkness was near me, paying attention to me, and I couldn't imagine what it was -- I, who was so comfortable naming everything around me!

That evening, my crew mates and I were rehashing the excitements and frustrations of our day in the woods, much as we did every evening. From one of them, I learned that the sound I'd heard was the song of the Varied Thrush. It is rare to hear one sing in "our woods", as we'd come to call them, so they were left out of our training. Furthermore, there is apparently a "story" behind the song of the Varied Thrush, so it goes: they choose the listener of their song carefully, for it transports them to another place and time filled with magical and mythical adventures...only to return to the same spot, devoid of any memory of the journey.

I don't know about any adventures with elves or fairies, but as for a magical moment to go with their song? Every time.