An Observation

As I began graduate school in the Entomology Department at Penn State, I have reflected a lot about why I’m here and how I found my way. In this reflection and rumination, I have realized that natural history has always been something that ensnared my attention, even when it was unintentional. Similarly, I find the smallest notes attached to specimens in the Frost Museum to cause me to really want to investigate further.

As a child, I was extremely fortunate to spend hours in the woods, just wandering, playing, and thinking. While there weren’t always great opportunities for learning in the classrooms of my very small, rural school, the woods drew me in. I could stare at moss or sketch the way the water flows over a rock or try to imitate the sound of a squirrel or a bird overhead.

A photo of a damselfly next to a sheet of details about its behavior and collection.

“This caught my attention because it was moving differently to any damselfly I have collected”, wrote the Beattys. Note was also taken that it was transported back to camp in a leaf. Photo by Emily Sandall (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

As an adult, it becomes increasingly easy to find oneself so busy that in the past 6 months, 3 years, etc that there are very few solitary moments in nature at all. In the museum, however, I find little fascinating observations are around us daily, if we know where to look.

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Video Games Leveled Up My Love of Nature

A player attempts to catch a weedle outside on a street.
My story begins in high school. I was already set on becoming an entomologist and I had played my fair share of computer and Sega games while growing up. It was in high school when I was going back and forth between the real and virtual world that I had a realization that renewed my fascination, interest and love for the natural world.

Sophomore year of high school, I was addicted to a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) game. I was drawn into a world of made up digital trees, grass, ponds, buildings, resources, and creatures. What drew me? Curiosity, stories, artwork, the multiplayer social aspect, and the in-game competition for power – all paired with satisfyingly spaced leveling up and in-game reward thresholds.

Eventually I reached a saturation point. It took too long to reach the next levels, the world became too large, the story too drawn out, and perhaps there was too much to keep track of in the game. I grew bored and drifted away from playing that or any new video games. Additionally, my high school classes became more challenging and gaming didn’t seem to give me much of a real world tangible benefit.

Computer generated image of tree with trown trunk with owl in the trunk's hole and with light brown leaves.

Computer Game Tree. Image by Might and Delight [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet despite the drawbacks, playing this video game renewed and reinforced my awe and appreciation for the complexity of real world around me. When I step out my door and into my backyard, local park, or nearest state park, I enter a world of both molecular and biological depth. I have the opportunity to explore scarcely known and unknown corners of the world and to encounter situations far beyond the algorithms of a virtual game.

A tree in the game is an artistic assemblage of pixels on a screen. The extent of its detail lies in its relationship to the story line and the time the animator had to create it. It is known, calculated, documented, and able to be reproduced.

When I visit a tree at my local park, I discover aphids, ladybugs, lace wing insects, pseudoscorpions, ants, robins, cardinals, and more. When I grab a microscope to further examine the organisms, the species list expands exponentially. The organismal community interacts and navigates in a way that likely could never be reproduced like the elements of a computer game.

An ovular beetle larvae rests on a leaf with a brown scrappy mass on top of it.

Curious Critter Action shot! Tortoise Beetle larvae are known to craft defensive shields out of their poo and shed exoskeletons. Icky, right? That’s exactly how they want us to react and it works! However along with the gross strategy, the shield is very likely used for camouflage as well. Although this was in Borneo, fecal-shield-making tortoise beetles are not uncommon here in the USA! Photo courtesy of Isa Betancourt. Click for source.

They are yet to be calculated. They will never replay the exact same way. These organisms, their stories, morphologies, and puzzles have taken millions upon millions of years to form! And we’ve only begun, over the last couple hundred years, to study, document and create models of the natural systems – and even then, imperfectly.

There is so much we have learned and have yet to learn about the wild organisms around us. There exists a plant with a flesh that is better at healing burn wounds than any human manufactured ointment (Aloe).  There are flies that fly in ways that humans are not yet able to replicate with technology (your common house fly). These are some of the most basic examples of the richness of the life around us. What else is out there waiting to be discovered? There are organisms out there whose lives are a tangle of exciting stories that you couldn’t even make up.

A bee stuffs its face into a purple thistle flower. On its hind legs there is purple colored pollen.

On a field trip with the Frost Entomological Museum’s director, staff, and students, I encountered bees carrying PURPLE pollen on their legs. Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

I believe that Pokémon Go can help connect people with this fascinating world. I downloaded and have been playing Pokemon Go this past month to check out the hype. As an entomologist, I was curious to see how this game, which was inspired by insect collecting, could affect peoples’ relationships with the nature. Might a side affect of this game that utilizes GPS location be that it connects gamers with the natural world?

This is not a game that can be played alone in your room at home. To make great strides in the game, Pokemon trainers have to get moving out the door to visit Pokestops, visit gyms, hatch eggs, and encounter wild Pokémon. So yes, the word ‘go’ is in the name of the game for a reason.

There is a photo of the Frost Entomological Museum sign with a couple pokeballs and a game potion animated and floting in front of the sign.

The Frost Entomological Museum is a Pokestop! Come on by for some in game goodies. Screenshot by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

I like that the game does not require my constant attention as I walk and play. When I encounter a Pokemon, the game alerts me to its presence through a vibration or a sound. I am given plenty of time to tap to engage the Pokemon before it disappears.

Also a plus, the game does not captivate my full attention as I walk. When it comes to in-game visuals, the virtual game map has pleasing but basic, unchanging scenery as I move from one location to the next. Therefore, I have no reason for my eyes to stay glued on the screen while walking and playing so I am generally aware of my surroundings as I play.

I see the real world around me. I found a beautiful real life duck pond one day when I took a detour to visit a Pokestop. I saw ducks, frogs, and fish and appreciated how truly wild and distinct they are compared to the virtual Pokémon.

My feelings from high school return – I find the detail and depth of the real world refreshing after playing this video game. Do others experience this too?

Players are noticing, photographing, and sharing curious critters that they encounter as they play Pokemon Go. They post photos of their “real life Pokemon” encounters to social media. (Many of these are insects!) The hash tags #Pokeblitz and #PokemonIRL (short for Pokémon In Real Life) were created (by @BioInFocus ) to connect players with experts for identification help.

Down the line I think that virtual reality games have the danger of distancing people from the real world (as some computer games already have). However, I found that Pokémon Go strikes a nice balance of engagement. The more a player is out catching wild Pokemon, the more likely they are to encounter real wildlife too! The game exposes players, who might have otherwise remained inside the house playing games, to the natural world.

The popularity of this animal-capturing game, leads me to wonder if one day we will have a real animal version of this! Already we can take pictures of birds, insects or other animals and maintain a species list in a folder on our computers. One day will there be a game that keeps track for us?! One that lists the species and fills the slots with the photo and provides relevant information as we encounter each one?  We already have a website and app that is close to filling this role – iNaturalist.

Phone screen shot of the augmented reality pokemon go screen. An animated pokeball is at the bottom of the screen and two mallard Ducks walk in the center of the image.

Encountering a Mama duck and her juveniles while playing in Pokemon Go’s Augmented Reality. #PokemonIRL Screenshot by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

With iNaturalist any person can create an account and post a picture of an organism that they encounter. The program encourages the submissions of photographic observations with their associated date and location. Submissions are identified by the user or with help from other users. Some users have even discovered new species!

While iNaturalist is off to a good start, the app has far to go to attract a broader audience. According an article by NPR, the developers are trying to gamify iNaturalist. I am excited about this and will be keeping a tab on the their progress!

I like to think about how a Pokémon-like game that uses real wildlife encounters could operate with future technologies. Will animals, plants, and fungi we encounter be registered and added to our virtual player’s inventory in such a game? Might there be mixing of fact and myth to increase game appeal?

A solid method to confirm that a person actually encountered a particular species would be necessary for a successful game. Might wild birds, reptiles, and mammals be micro chipped and might we humans have a device that can read the microchip to electronically confirm that we encountered a particular species? What a world that would be. Would it help, hurt or maintain human and wildlife relations?

This leads me to think of evolutionary ecologist and conservationist, Dr. Dan Janzen’s vision of one day having a DNA reading gadget that is the size and cost of a hair comb, that can fit in your back pocket. His idea is that a person could have this in their back pocket whereever they go to unmistakably identify organisms. It would increase human “bioliteracy” – human understanding of the natural world because of increased accessibility to biological information.

A device like this could greatly contribute to the fabrication of a real world species checklist game. While this would assist with species identification and confirmation, it might it be dangerous for both wildlife and humans since obtaining DNA may require a close encounter and a snip of the organism for analysis. In some cases, a good reading would requre the entire organism, depending on the size. Still, I’m sure some combination of clever game design and future imaging technologies could overcome this animal welfare challenge.

It would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the institutions with natural history collections which have already to a certain extent been trying to “Catch ’em all”. With there being so much biodiversity in the world, their collections contain impressive numbers of organisms. Each specimen provides valuable information about our planet at different points in time and place. The Frost Museum has 2 million insect specimens with more coming in each year. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University’s Entomology Collection contains about 3 to 4 million specimens and over 100,000 species, which is about 10% of the 1 million known species of insects. The U.S. National Museum’s Entomology Collection contains about 35 million specimens and over 300,000 species, which represent only 60% of the known insect families. There is work to be done to maintain the resolution of information in the collections and I can’t help but wonder if some of these Pokemon players could be converted into “PokemonIRL” collectors who contribute to their local natural history museums!

Lots of different insects - jewel beetles, day flying moths, beetles, violin beetles. Pinned preserved specimens.

An array of insect diversity from the Frost Entomological Museum’s Collection. Photo by Isa Betancourt (CC BY 2.0 ) Click for source.

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North Carolina Collection Trip 2K16

Last week I went on my first true collection trip with Istvan Miko and his boys. It was a long week, it was a tiring week, and it was a very hot week. But it was amazing to see a whole new array of insects along with some I recognize from up here in PA. We would go collect in the day in various habitats around Virginia and North Carolina then swim in the Atlantic to cool off before coming home to sort. While the main objective of the trip was Ceraphronoidea, we didn’t shy away from collecting everything from Odonates to Lepidopterans, and a few more antlions for my tank back home.

We started our journey on Sunday morning heading down towards Gatesville, NC our base of operations for the week. It was a long drive, part of which I got to experience the soul crushing nature of I-95, which I was regularly reminded by Istvan as being, “the busiest road on earth.” Eventually we reached our destination though, along the way I got a crash course in Hungarian party music which I am still whistling to myself a week later.

The game plan for the week was to do a triangle root around the Great Dismal Swamp with the three corners being Gatesville, Outer Banks, and Virginia Beach. We would lay pan traps and malaise traps the first two days on our stretches then collect the last 2 days, finish up some off-the-path pan traps on Friday and head home that night. Our end points of the day were always the beach to try and kill off the inevitable ticks and sweat from the swamps.

The Atlantic Ocean.

Reached the coast! Outer Banks, NC. Photo by Jonah Ulmer. (CC BY 2.0) Click for Source.

I also got to experience my first bout of light trapping at night which may have been my favorite portion of the trip since I really like moths and caught my fair share each night.

A large moth with small eye like dots on its wings and a forked tail.

First Luna Moth I’ve ever caught, light trapping. Photo By Jonah Ulmer. (CC BY 2.0) Click for source.

It should be stated that our yellow pan trapping throughout the day could not have gone as smoothly without the great assistance of Isti and Zalan, who double dutied as both the soap and water pourers and our primary source of Odonates on the trip. Both having proven that a dragonfly can indeed be caught with ones bare hands.

Large, blue dragonfly being held by its thorax.

Our first catch of the trip. Photo by Jonah Ulmer (CC BY 2.0) Click for source.

The swamps were absolutely beautiful in a sort of murky forgotten land kind of way. and depending on which side you were on you could collect antlions in a literal desert, or on the other side what I can only assume to be an evil mosquito and tick refuge.

A river cutting through a densely wooded swamp.

The Great Dismal Swamp. Photo by Jonah Ulmer (CC BY 2.0) Click for source.

The trip all in all went fairly smoothly, we did lose over 100 yellow pan traps to a tractor at one of our collection points but these things are to be expected, and it makes a good story. From what we saw while sorting there, Im very excited to continue our sorting of a few other locations and see what else we managed to catch. Couldn’t have asked for a better group than the 3 Miko’s. I learned quite a bit from this trip, from collection methods to insect identification. This was a solid end to the summer.

Myself and Istvans children sitting on the trunk of the car with the Wright Brothers Memorial in the background.

The crew (sans Istvan). Photo by Istvan Miko. (CC BY 2.0) Click for Source

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Weekly reads 9.vii.2016–14.viii.2016

Okay, we … more like I … got off track a bit on our weekly reads (weakly reads?), so here’s a catch-up post.

Carolyn: A couple weeks ago I read up on Gondwanan species distributions. The general idea behind this is that the two supercontinents Laurasia and Gondwana joined to form Pangaea, then separated and drifted apart. Gondwana then separated into Antarctica, Africa, Madagascar, Australia, India and the Arabian Peninsula. When species are found in these areas but not on the landmasses that were a part of Laurasia (North America, Europe except the Balkans, and Asia except India), the species are said to have a Gondwanan distribution. It seems that there is a lot of discussion about whether species distributions are caused by this or not. Raxworthy et al. (2002) relied on molecular and morphological data, and found that chameleon radiation was facilitated by oceanic dispersal, not Gondwanan separation. Davis et al. (2002) also found that the distribution of angiosperms within the clade Malpighiaceae is due to patterns of migration through Laurasia onto Gondwanan continents after Gondwana broke apart. Upchurch (2008) gives a good overview of the topic, and points out that true Gondwanan species distributions can be distorted by factors including geodispersal and extinction events, as well as sampling error.

While trapped in the airport last month, I also read a book called Networking for Nerds. I heard the author speak a few months ago at the Voices conference hosted by the Penn State Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) , but I didn’t get to read the book until getting stuck with airplane travel and layovers. What makes this book great is that it’s a book for people in STEM fields, written by someone in a STEM field (the author has a PhD in mathematics). The author stresses that most jobs are not advertised, and that the best way to find jobs is by *gasp* talking to people, a simple thing that most people take for granted. The author shows the reader the skills that people in STEM disciplines have and how they can be applied to careers outside of academia. I’ve read other books about networking and finding jobs, but this is the only one I’ve found that is geared towards people in the sciences, as well as the only one that is actually helpful for people in the sciences. Its an encouraging, helpful and hopeful book, perfect for helping anxious grad students escape crushing self doubt about their future, at least for a while anyway.

Emily: After a week where I saw many Pantala flavescens attempting to oviposit on cars throughout the State College area, I decided to check into why that would be. Fortunately there is a paper by Kriska et al. (2006) in which they examined what is driving aquatic insects to be attracted to particular colors of vehicles. Using shiny test surfaces of different colors, they placed them close to water and sampled the species that were found at each surface over a 3-hour window. With videopolarimetry, the researchers were able to measure the polarized spectra that resulted from each surface, which varied in shininess. The reflectance of the cars draws the insects to it, as though it is water, particularly when there is a “sea” of cars. White and other lighter colored cars provide less of a draw for aquatic insects, as they are reflecting back a lower level of horizontal polarization. If one wants to prevent odonates from attempting to oviposit on one’s car, keeping a car dirty would reduce the reflectance that is drawing them in in the first place.

Andy: I spent a bit more than a week last month researching collection management policies (CMP) and writing our own CMP document. The first draft of our CMP is now available if you’re interested, as are two of our new Standard Operating Procedures (Collection environment and etiquette, Social media). We have a long way to go, with respect to discussing and modifying these policies and then getting them approved at various levels, but I learned a LOT from the process. See Malaro (2005) for a good overview of CMPs.

dead dragonfly floats, wings outstretched and legs curled towards body, while a backswimmer bug feeds on it

Dead dragonfly (Odonata) on surface of water. What can we learn about its death and the taphonomic process? Photo (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Darron Birgenheier.

I’ve also worked feverishly on the materials for my Insect Biodiversity and Evolution course. My latest (dumb?) idea: incorporate a taphonomy experiment into the unit on fossils, which is currently quite thin on exercises. Well, really it would be a necrology / biostratinomy experiment. I read this paper by Martínez-Delclòs and Martinell (1993) [Update 16 Aug 2016: This paper by Duncan et al. (2003) was the one I was thinking of originally] ages ago and was inspired. Could something be set up a week or two ahead of time, so that my students could document the positions and dispositions of body parts? Could they toss live insects into aquaria and watch them float, sink, swim, … and die? I’d have to sort of the ethics of that one! But I like the idea of my students really coming to terms with biases and conditions of insects in the fossil record.

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This Will Change Your Life… The Hot New Ethanol Everyone is Talking About

An odonata vial of ethanol before being redone and after being redone- side by side photos.

Life is better in clean ethanol and no acidic topper. Photo by R. Davis (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

Excuse the clickbait title, but you’ve got to see this! For the last few weeks I have been slowly chipping away at digitizing and updating the Odonata ethanol collection. There is an abnormal smell that I expect can only come from 50-year-old ethanol with rubber tops, but I am glad that these little guys can be put in new homes- with a plastic top! Rafa did a great job with the louses and now I am trying to do the same with the odes.

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