Friday, February 26, 2010

Carpet Caterpillar

At this time of year, even here in southern Arizona, I am always a bit surprised to find insect activity. Imagine my shock then at finding a caterpillar on my living room floor today. It was a familiar species, but still a bit early I think.

Tucson is landscaped with a plethora of ornamental fan palms, and it is from these trees that my caterpillar came. Known as the “palm flower moth” or “palm budworm,” depending on its life stage, Litoprosopus coachella is a frequent home invader in urban areas.

The mature caterpillars (roughly 25 millimeters in length) crawl off the tree to find a suitable place to spin a cocoon, and this sometimes takes them indoors. High winds will also dislodge them by peeling bracts off the trunk of the tree and sending them flying across the yard and against buildings. Any attached caterpillars will fly away with those botanical missles.

Despite their abundance, and appetite for the blooms of their host plant, the caterpillars are generally considered more of a nuisance than a bona fide pest. They may do minor damage to carpets once they get indoors and chew off fibers to incorporate into their silken cocoon.

The caterpillars are not terribly attractive, being a dusty greenish or pinkish color, devoid of much hair, and can be mistaken for a beetle grub at first glance. Look at the head. The two tiny spots near the corner of its mouth are one set of eyes. Most caterpillars are nearly blind, though, relying on tactile and chemical cues to navigate their world.

The remainder of the head capsule, that round, hardened area at the front, is filled mostly with muscles to operate the jaws. What jaws they are, too! The first time I found one of these, I made the mistake of trying to simply pick it up. I got a nasty nip out of it, and my reflexes sent the poor creature flying across the room. Ouch! Gila woodpeckers and northern mockingbirds are not as easily dissuaded as I, and feed heavily on these larvae.

Unfortunately, this insect does not redeem its appearance much through metamorphosis. The adult moth is equally dull and drab. Well, I suppose beggars (for signs of spring and the company of other animals) can’t be choosers, at least not in February.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Another Discovery

Perusing the website today, I was prompted to comment to one post regarding the whereabouts of specimens I had lent to the person posting the image. What I learned in his private reply was a delightful surprise.

First off, I must apologize to one Robert Otto for taking our personal business to a public forum. I had misplaced his e-mail, but that is really no excuse. It is not very good ‘netiquette, and it won’t happen again.

Bob was kind enough to write me back straight away, and explained in a very professional manner what had become of my specimens. He and a team of other entomologists are revising the classification of “false click beetles” in the family Eucnemidae. My specimens, and the accompanying data, are part of that effort. They are nearly finished with their work, and then specimens will be returned.

Well, it turns out there is very good reason they are hanging on to a few of mine permanently. Among the common species, like Isorhipis obliqua, were specimens of a species new to science.

My specimens will be “paratypes,” a scientific term for specimens from a particular geographic location that are a subset of a larger series of specimens from which the species will be described and named. The specimens will be deposited in a museum for security, and for the accessibility of scientists wishing to study them.

This marks the third species I have helped to discover. The first two were a species of robber fly in the genus Laphria, and a spider wasp in the genus Dipogon. I collected all three species in parks in Cincinnati, Ohio.

While this is all very exciting, it is also fairly mundane in the world of entomology. Many new species are “discovered” each year. A few of these are discovered in the field while collecting, especially in the tropics where insect diversity is poorly known. Perhaps a greater proportion of “new” species are created as a result of revisions of genera. Specimens once thought to belong to one species are found to actually be complexes of several species. Molecular analysis and other DNA work has revealed that there are often many “cryptic” species within current classifications based solely on morphological characters.

I am often asked “Do you get to name the species?” or “Will they name it after you?” There are strict rules for naming species, genera, and other taxa, set forth by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. That body enforces the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature. It is considered in poor taste to name something after yourself, but honoring a mentor, colleague, spouse, or celebrity is not uncommon.

It is enough for me to know that I’ve made a small contribution to the scientific community by making my specimens accessible to researchers like Bob Otto who are doing serious work, and I don’t say this with any false modesty. I am not a scientist, but find my own niche in bridging the gap between entomologists and the general public. That is my work.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Weird Bug News

I try to make a habit of picking up our local alternative newspaper, the Tucson Weekly; if only for my guilty pleasure, the “News of the Weird” by Chuck Shepherd. His column sometimes has me laughing out loud. Not surprisingly, some of the stories revolve around an entomology theme, as did one this week.

The first entry in his column is entitled “Bejeweled Beetle,” and reads thus:

”In January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers confiscated a live, jeweled beetle that a woman was wearing as an ‘accessory’ on her sweater as she crossed into Brownsville, Texas, from Mexico. Blue jewels were glued onto the beetle’s back, which had been painted gold, and the mobile brooch was tethered by a gold chain attached to a safety pin. Even though the woman orally ‘declared’ the animal, the beetle was confiscated, because she had not completed the bureau’s PPQ Form 526, which is necessary to bring insects into the country. Reportedly, such jewelry is not that rare in Mexico. A spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was, of course, appalled.”

There you have it, folks, your tax dollars at work. I only wish that we were collectively so vigilant when it comes to agricultural and forest pests. There is certainly nothing to fear from the beetle species employed as a living ornament. That would be Zopherus chilensis, an “ironclad beetle” in the family Zopheridae. They are scavengers that feed on organic debris and pose no known threat to the health of humans, pets, livestock, crops, or garden plants. I only wish I could say the same about most of the human characters in “News of the Weird.”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Scientific Illustration

Another pursuit I wish I had a separate lifetime for is scientific illustration. I like the challenge of trying to render an organism realistically. Sure, it takes some talent to do that, but I owe a great deal of my success to teachers and mentors.

I met the late Elaine R. S. Hodges in 1986, while I was on contract at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian) in Washington, DC. She was a staff artist in the entomology department, and took me under her wing. She was the “Founding Mother” of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, the gold standard for professional medical and biological illustrators. She was encouraging, but critical of my own work, and I took her words to heart.

I began doing illustrations to compliment articles I was writing as a volunteer for The Urban Naturalist, a quarterly publication of the Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon). I was further encouraged and inspired by the other volunteer artists on the “staff,” like Martha Gannett, Kris Elkin, and Elayne Barclay.

The Urban Naturalist ceased publication in the late 1990s, but by then had caught the attention of the Oregon Historical Society Press, which published a compilation of articles and essays in the book Wild in the City, edited by Michael C. Houck and M. J. Cody (2000).The above pen and ink illustration of a Snowberry Clearwing moth, Hemaris diffinis, is one of those featured in the book.

The adult “Ponderous Borer,” Ergates spiculatus, shown below, started as a sketch back in the early 1980s. The outline version appeared in the book Cascade-Olympic Natural History, by Daniel Mathews (Raven Editions, 1988). I had been asked by Dan to do the insect illustrations for his book, but did not follow through in a timely manner. He deemed the line drawings acceptable as is, but I was embarrassed.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Mathews got back to me in 2001 and asked if I would do illustrations for his book Rocky Mountain Natural History (Raven Editions, 2003). Dan had been impressed with my work in Wild in the City, and wanted that kind of quality for his own book. This time he had a budget to work with, and I had a much more professional attitude. The result was eighteen pen and ink illustrations for the book, including a finished Ponderous Borer.

I also submitted this illustration for the annual member exhibit of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators in 2005, and it was accepted. It was displayed in the Jacobs Gallery at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon, for much of June, 2005, alongside the work of other GNSI members. My mentor Elaine Hodges complimented me on how far I had come as an artist, and that was even more of a personal honor. The framed picture now hangs in the office of Carl Olson, Associate Curator of Entomology at the University of Arizona. Carl is another mentor, and it was the least I can do to present that as a gift for all the favors he has done for me over the years.

While I am fairly proficient in pen and ink, and graphite pencil (see the pair of Nicrophorus sexton beetles below), I someday hope to learn to render animals in color, and maybe with digital software, too. The field of scientific illustration continues to change, but seems to remain in demand.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Butterfly Magic in Tucson

Last Sunday, January 21, I visited the “Butterfly Magic” exhibit of live tropical butterflies at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. This is the sixth anniversary of what has become an annual event, lasting several months. The current incarnation opened on October 12, 2009 and will continue through April 30, 2010.

Despite being dramatically smaller than dedicated butterfly houses like Magic Wings, the confines of the tropical greenhouse boast a surprising diversity of species. I spent more than five hours there and was finding “new” species right up until my departure. The volunteers for the exhibit release newly-emerged specimens at least three times per day, but many of the butterflies already in the room are cryptic enough to escape detection by the average visitor.

One of the unfortunate aspects of any butterfly display facility is the difficulty in taking images of the butterflies in as “natural” a setting as possible. Some of the insects seem to park themselves at those ugly feeding stations, making for far less than a photogenic opportunity.

Then it never fails that the best shot you could possibly hope for also includes an out-of-focus person in the background wearing bright clothing. How do you politely say “Ma’am, you’re in my shot?” Mostly, you wait for the background personnel to clear and hope the butterfly has waited as well.

The Tucson Botanical Gardens solve part of the photographic problem by setting aside time strictly for photographers, without competing crowds, but it is at the end of the day when the incoming sunlight is not particularly good, and they charge double the normal admission price.

Still, one can’t complain, and you can still get stunning images of a great many species. Just be prepared for the obligatory heat and humidity, and understand it will take your camera lens at least ten minutes to become steam-free. I’ll be sharing more of my own images in the coming weeks for those who want to live vicariously through my blog.

Each trip promises to be different because the TBG has scheduled different shipments of butterflies from different parts of the world each month. October and November of last year featured native butterflies from Arizona and other parts of the southern U.S. December’s butterflies were from Australia. January was for African species, and February will spotlight Asian butterflies. March and April will be a veritable cornucopia of species from throughout the world.

Admission to this special show runs $12.00 US for adults, $6.50 for children 4-12 years of age, and is free for children 3 and under. Hours of the exhibit are 10 AM – 3 PM daily. The gardens themselves are open from 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM, and worth the visit all by themselves. The TBG has been rightly called an “oasis” in the heart of midtown Tucson. Enjoy!

NOTE: I now monitor the comments on my blogs, but have been experiencing browser failure in my Yahoo Mail recently. There may be a substantial lag between when comments are posted and when they are approved. My sincerest apologies for the inconvenience.