Discovering My Inner Darwin

Last week, our mentor, Andy challenged us to discover our inner Darwin. In short, this exercise required each of us to 1) select a 4m^2 plot of ground and 2) spend 4 careful hours observing this plot for insect life, all while documenting and collecting our findings.

Undoubtedly, most people would think 4 hours is an absurd amount of time to be sitting on a rock and staring at a small square of dirt. What could I possibly stare at for 4 hours? Don’t worry — I was thinking the same thing until I read Roberts’, The Power of Patience. In her article, Roberts ran a simulation of the same exercise with her students and unveiled that “access is not synonymous with learning.” In other words, just because something is available to you does not necessarily mean you fully understand how the underlying components function beyond their role in a system. Plots are complex communities that fall under systems. Hence, these areas have a lot to offer and are exhilarating to explore if approached correctly.  

With this in mind, my team traveled to Whipple Dam State Park to conduct our 4-hour individual observational studies. Upon arrival, we all separated ourselves into different habitats in search for plots. In particular, I primarily sought secluded areas for a distraction-free environment and areas containing a variety of soils for its species-rich content. 

Natural area containing a log underneath a beautiful tree, located at Whipple Dam State Park.

What a perfect day to sit underneath a tree and observe nature! A.k.a the plot of my study. Photo by R. Toro (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

Once I found my desired plot, I immediately set down 4 yellow pan traps in order to collect specimens so I could dedicate my focus to being an active observer of nature.

2 Yellow pan traps located at the end of a 3-meter log. Perpendicular to the log are another 2 pan traps, also with a distance of 3 meters in between them.

I set down 2 pan traps at the 2 ends of a 3-meter log. Then I set another 2 (also with a distance of 3 meters) perpendicular to the log, for a total area of 4.5m^2. Photo by R. Toro (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

Being an active observer of nature meant I would set aside all external factors that are not part of the environment (i.e. field notebook, pencil, phone, etc.) and allow my eyes and curiosity to take the wheel. Sure enough, as all external factors were eliminated, I immediately found myself interacting with the environment and questioning aspects of ecology I have never questioned before. For example, as I tipped over a log I noticed a scattered colony of Odontotaenius disjunctus (Illiger, 1800) larvae and a couple of adults. I noticed all larvae had 3 pairs of legs but only utilized 2 pairs for locomotion. It was fascinating to discover vestigial structures also exist in premature organisms! However, what intrigued me even more was, why would a pre developed organism with 3 pairs of legs only utilize 2 pairs when its adult phase utilizes all 3?

Odontotaenius disjunctus on a log, under bark. Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC, USA.

Odontotaenius disjunctus larvae. Notice these larvae only have four functional legs. The third pair of legs is reduced. Photo by Katja Schulz (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

All in all, I was truly impressed by how rapid I generated questions in my distraction-free and insect-rich zone. I was thrilled that my first attempt at this exercise was a success. With that being said, I would like to encourage you all to discover YOUR inner Darwin! Even if you can’t complete the full 4-hours, I would still encourage you to try it because there really is no substitute for going out in the field and experiencing something yourself.

 

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Wings in the Park Festival

A released monarch butterfly sipps nectar from a yellow flower in the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden in State College, PA.

A released monarch butterfly enjoys the bounty of the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden in State College, PA. Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0) Click for source.

On Saturday, July 23 2016 Frost Museum students, faculty, staff, and interns participated in the annual Wings in the Park celebration at the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden in State College, PA. Despite the heat, the festival swarmed with kids and parents dressed up in wings, bug shirts, and antennae. They observed beautiful butterflies and bees in the garden, marched in the pollinator parade, and sang celebratory songs. Pollinator displays and activities ran by local environmental, plant, and entomology organizations lined the pathway that circles the garden.

A curious kid checks out a butterfly and moth display at Wings in the Park.

A curious kid checks out a butterfly and moth display at Wings in the Park. Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

The Frost Museum table showcased a variety of entomological curiosities from live blue death feigning beetles to display cases containing insects of all colors and body structures and from all over the world! In stark contrast, we had some of largest insects (like the Hercules beetle) displayed next to some of the the tiniest parasitic wasps. There was a microscope available through which festival goers were able to critically examine insect muscles. The wasps had been dried via critical point drying so their muscles were easy to see and could be described as looking like cooked chicken breast meat!

We had a great time interacting with visitors and are excited for the next big insect event this September.
Don’t miss the Great Insect Fair! Save the date: September 10, 2016

Some photos of our crew in action are featured in the Centre Daily Times article about the event! Click here to check that out.

A glimpse of our table at Wings in the Park! Kids look at the displays and our crew members interpret

A glimpse of our table at Wings in the Park! Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

 

A group of people of all ages gathers together to hear an announcement before a butterfly release

Addressing the crowd before the butterfly release. Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

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Adventures in Utah!

Emily Sandall and I just got back from a sampling trip exploring the deserts and mountains of Utah. Emily had a productive time attending the Dragonfly Society of the Americas 2016 meeting, while I, the renegade hymenopterist, tagged along to work on filling in the gaps in our research collection of Ceraphronoidea.

We started out in the southwest corner of Utah at Hurricane. Emily waded through narrow water-filled canyons and hiked up ancient lava flows in search of odonates at Zion National Park. Meanwhile, I wandered around in the Mojave desert looking under creosote bushes for velvet ants (Mutillidae).

The northeastern corner of the Mojave desert. Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

I spent time collecting at Lytle Ranch Preserve at Beaver Dam Wash, which is an oasis in the northeast corner of the Mojave Desert. Surrounded by a desolate landscape of creosote bushes and Joshua trees, the stream that flows through the ranch is able to support a host of vegetation, including pomegranate trees. I am thankful to Shawn Clark and to Brigham Young University for allowing me to sample at this unique location!

The stream at the Lytle Ranch Preserve at Beaver Dam Wash, located in the northeastern corner of the Mojave desert. Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

After spending a few days in Hurricane, we drove north to Provo. I was able to visit the collection at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum, where I found several examples of the mutillids that can be found in the deserts of Utah.

An example of a mutillid that can be found in the deserts of Utah. This specimen is part of the entomology collection at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum in Provo, UT. Look at how long the setae are! Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

I also explored the area around Provo to do some collecting. While on the hunt for Megaspilidae, I could not help but enjoy the others insects that were out and about. While sweeping near some coldwater mountain streams, I stirred up clouds of Trichoptera. I also got to observe something I’d only read about before- ants farming aphids. I got to experience firsthand how protective and aggressive the ants can be when you invade their territory– I had to pull several biting ants off of my shoes and ankles.

Ants tending to their aphids. Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

By the end of our trip, Emily was able to catch over 40 odonate specimens to add to the collection at the Frost, and I collected at least 20 sweep net and pan trap samples to sort through for Ceraphronoidea. Overall, I think Emily would agree with me in saying that it was a productive and successful trip!

Emily the dragon hunter, ready with net in hand. Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

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I Watched Water Striders for 4 Hours Yesterday. How About You?

Andy Deans, the director of the Frost Entomological Museum gave us interns (guinea pigs) a challenge this week. Could we observe a 4×4 patch of land and its insect inhabitants for 4 hours and document our findings? Andy calls this experiment, “Discover[ing] Your Inner Darwin”. He told us that he drew inspiration for this challenge by reading an article in the Harvard Magazine entitled, The Power of Patience. In this article, art-history professor, Jennifer Roberts requires her students to engage in a similar practice- focus on one painting for 4 hours. Roberts describes this amount of time as “painfully long”, but crucial to her goal. She states, “What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness”. I think this is what Andy was trying to get at. I might see a beetle or damselfly in a natural landscape but key details of its very existence may be lost if I only give it a brief amount of attention.

So I sat. While sitting I recorded my observations, hypotheses, questions, and sketches in the notebook provided.

Picture shows a field notebook open with the reflections written down.

A few of my thoughts on paper. Pay no attention that I call water striders, water bugs. I am a novice. Photo by R. Davis (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

I sat at a creek in Whipple Dam State Park and watched water striders (and a variety of other specimens) for about 4 hours. As expected, when forced to sit and observe for a long amount of time (without internet), you begin to formulate different questions and hypotheses than if you were to simply look at them and then begin to observe something else- something that I think we have all become very accustomed to in this age of rapid information. Rather than asking myself, “what is that insect?”, I began to ask, “Why is it behaving like that?”. It was hard for me to begin asking myself these questions because my undergraduate education was very focused on memorizing structures and names and not asking creative questions on behavior. During this experiment I even began delving into the big questions such as, “Why was that morphology evolutionarily beneficial and how did it come to be?”.

Water striders on the water.

Synchronized striders. Photo by Steve Corey (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Click for source.

One thing I noticed was how territorial it seemed water striders are. I even wrote in my notebook, “The waterbugs [excuse my basic description] seemed very ‘respectful’ of each others space. If one begins to encroach then the other will usually begin to move in the opposite direction, almost like bumper cars”. I show my rudimentary sketch of this below.

Sketch of how water striders move when another water strider encroaches in on them.

What I think: “Oh, hello sir. Let me get out of your way.” What it also could be: “Ahh, you’re way bigger than me, stay away from me”. Photo by R. Davis (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

I think there is something quite special about this experiment and Andy should be very proud of developing something like this for his students. It allows creative thought to flow freely. It allows students to escape distractions of their everyday life and get outside (perhaps even better than Pokémon Go – as I didn’t have cell service at Whipple Dam). It allows students to get comfortable with the feeling of being uncomfortable. The Internet and the age of rapid technology have absolutely benefitted us of course. Sometimes, however, one just needs to sit down and watch water striders for 4 hours to appreciate our eyes and minds at work.

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Light it up, up, up

A view of the room that stores the entomology collection at the Frost Entomological Museum. The collection is stored in the cabinets and there is a nice workspace near the front windows for curatorial projects and digitization.

Frost Museum Collection Space. On the left are unit trays for organizing and adding specimens to collection drawers. At the center left of the image are the cabinets which house a majority of the collection. At center right you can see that there is a nice work space near the front windows for curatorial projects and digitization. Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0)

This summer I’m digitizing the Syrphidae (Hover Fly) and Aculeata (Stinging wasp and bee) specimens of the Penn State University Collection. It’s my first time imaging insect specimens and their data as a primary focus of work. I’ve enjoyed trying out the gear and set ups here at the Frost Museum.

Below is a photo of the main set up that I use. The red tape lines allow software to sort the sections of the image into different categories: insect specimen, collection information, determination information, unique identifier (unique number and barcode), color and size reference, misc info, and photographer & repository names. The glass dish on the right serves as the unique identifiers pool. I take one out and place it in the photograph with the specimen. When returning the specimen back to it’s place in the collection, I put the unique identifier label on the pin with the original specimen information labels.

Lighting is key to obtaining an ideal image. I surrounded the subject area with white panels to help distribute and soften the light emitted from the fixtures. It doesn’t look very pretty – there are gobs of tape and pins holding different parts together – but it works. It makes a huge difference and greatly contributes to a pretty final image. What ever takes to properly light up the stage!

Pinned insect specimen digitization set up. A camera facing down at a platform. On the platform rests the specimen information and the pinned specimen itself. The area is surrounded with white panels and lit with muted light fixtures

Pinned insect specimen digitization set up. A camera faces down at a platform. On the platform rests the specimen information and the pinned specimen itself. The area is surrounded with white panels to help evenly distribute light and it is lit with muted light fixtures. Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0)

We came across a hurdle when it came to the color reference pad. The one we had was too big! It took up too much space. The focus is supposed to be on the specimen and information yet the color reference pad took up 1/3 of the frame.
The picture below is of one of the larger vespid wasps in the collection. If the color pad made that look small, there would surely be a size issue when digitizing the much smaller hover flies.

Pinned insect digitization layout with large color reference pad.

Pinned insect digitization layout with large color reference pad. Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0)

We ordered a smaller color reference pad. This one is about the size of a penny. Vertical space is the limiting factor when it comes to zooming into the image. I’ll probably readjust the arrangement by rotating the ruler to a vertical position and repositioning it to the left or right side of the color reference pad. That would allow me to shift the lower horizontal red border upwards.

Pinned insect digitization layout with small color reference pad.

Pinned insect digitization layout with small color reference pad. Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0)

 

We have a GIGAmacro robotic imaging system that we will likely use to collect a higher quality, stacked and stitched, image of a representative of each species. More on that system in a future post!

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Check out this Frost Museum Instagram post that features some of the images that are finished and ready for transcription:

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