Thursday, May 26, 2011


It's time for me to sadly say goodbye to this blog... perhaps just for a while, perhaps forever.

I have decided to focus my blogging energies here:


There I have more pages with fun stuff like galleries and info about me and the lab I work in.
I will be writing mostly about caterpillars, the focus of my graduate research. There will still be forays into the realms of sewing and other animals, but this way I hope to provide more organized, useful information to a general audience.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Just dance

Sometimes you just need to get attention.

Like this little fly. He was less than 1cm long, sitting on a leaf, unperturbed by my presence. He was more concerned with grabbing the attention of another fly, perhaps a rival male or potential mate? His front legs were white, and he waved them around quite dramatically. Slow, swirling movements, distinct from the usual jerky movements of a nervous fly. Hopefully he achieved his goal, whatever it was.
I am not sure if this hopper was signaling to me or the other hopper on the fern. I wonder what the purpose of the headstand is supposed to be?
My favorite dancers were these tephritid flies. It was a hot day in the lowlands, we were waiting in the shade for our driver to return, and I noticed some little flies acting strangely. There were dancers on almost every branch. I'm disappointed my camera would not focus close up enough to get a video of their dance moves, but I did get some action shots. Some were competing with rivals, while others were displaying for potential mates. They would do various combinations of wing flicks, one or both at a time, and running around each other. Have you gotten to see any great courtship or territorial display dances in the wild? If you have your own stories, please link them in the comments, I'd like to see!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Baby food

If you're a tarantula hawk wasp, baby-food for your young is a full grown tarantula.

While walking around the Yanayacu station, I saw a lot of tarantula hawk wasps patrolling for victims. They are beautiful creatures, flashes of metallic blue-green and orange in the sky. One day, crawling across the path was one dragging a full grown tarantula! The tarantula had already been stung, paralyzed and unable to struggle.

I did not stick around to see where the wasp was dragging her prize (she seemed rather nervous with me taking pictures), but there were a lot of tunnels in the mud alongside the path. Hopefully she made it to her tunnel and was able to get it to the bottom where she could lay an egg on the tarantula. You probably know the rest of the story... the young wasp hatches and grows, eating the still living tarantula from the inside out. I was quite pleased to see this interaction in the wild.

I AM A STICK (part 1)

Here I will begin my series of insects in Ecuador which aspire to convince us they are, indeed, a stick. Of course the classic "stick insects" will make an appearance, but they won't be the only ones.

I'd like to start things off with a little guessing game. This insect wants to pretend it's a broken off twig. There is even a hole at the top, that's not just a black spot! Can you tell what it really is? (answer after the fold)

Black-lighting (giant insect edition)

Because bigger is better, right?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black-lighting (moth edition)

A gorgeous moth that came to the black-light at Yanayacu.

One of the great things about entomology is the variety of ways in which you can hunt down, collect or attract insects. Butterfly nets, aquatic nets, malaise traps, pitfall traps, rotting fruit, heck if you defecate in the forest you'll attract something. One way to get the night fliers is to hang a black-light or a mercury vapor light next to a sheet.

Why are insects, particularly moths, attracted to lights at night? This is still somewhat of a mystery to entomologists. The oft-touted response is that they use moonlight to navigate, and that other nearby light sources disrupt their flight paths and cause them to spiral in. This makes for a nice story, but it needs further testing. Many insects are sensitive to blue and ultraviolet wavelengths, and may have a tough time adjusting their eyes to the darkness once they have landed near a bright light. Once they land on the sheet, they are often docile and easy to collect. Perhaps they think it is daylight, and time to sleep? We set up the black-light almost every night we were at Yanayacu - just for fun.

One of the most interesting behaviors I noticed was the defense response of some saturniid moths. When disturbed they would curl up into a ball! Seems rather counter-intuitive for a moth, when flight appears to be a better escape option. But pay attention to the coloration on the abdomen - black and yellow, classic aposematism (warning colors). Luckily I did not handle them much, because I was later told the warning was for the urticating hairs on their abdomen - could be a pretty bad irritant for humans if touched to a sensitive area like the face. Sneaky moths!

Another fun behavior is when moths try to pretend they're something they're not, or simply want to break up the pattern of their body. This pyralid on the left doesn't exactly scream "I'm a moth!", now, does it? With its upturned abdomen and thin, splayed out wings it looks more like a little broken twig. Certainly, it does not fit the typical search image a predator would have for a moth. It even lays out its antennae along the wings so they do not stand out.

A lot of wonderful moth diversity came to our sheet. Mostly arctiids, saturniids, geometrids
and pyralids, with some sphingids, micros, and other families thrown in. Stay tuned for more moth-y goodness.

First Impressions

View from a trail at Yanayacu.

These were some of my first impressions of the rain/cloud forest surrounding the Yanayacu biological station.

- Plants on top of plants on top of plants! Epiphytes everywhere. It felt like such a classic "rain forest" that someone would paint or draw. Large leaves, pretty flowers, ferns and mosses dangling from tree branches.

- Noisy birds. So many ridiculous sounds, all the time. Somehow I expected things to be quieter, that real life wouldn't sound like the background of a nature documentary. But all day long we heard whooping and calling and whistling, really exotic sounds. The student accompanying me was more into birdwatching and was able to identify a few, but I was pretty much lost.

- Wasps everywhere, and very pretty. Brachonids and ichneumonids seemed to be perched on every plant, flitting their metallic wings over their colorful bodies. No wonder they study parasitism at the station! There was also a series of nests dug by tarantula hawk wasps, which busily buzzed around the hiking path.

- While I'm at it, there were beetles and bugs and butterflies and flies everywhere, too. Insect diversity was unbelievable, I had no idea I'd be seeing a different colorful interesting insect on nearly every leaf I walked past. It made it difficult to get anywhere, really, because I kept having to stop to look at something. I sure took a lot of photos!

- Thunder and rain and clouds and rainbows. The sky was always in turmoil and always beautiful.

It is going to be difficult to choose which things to share here, I have enough material to write for months I'm sure! If you'd like a sneak peak at my photos, you can check out my Flickr page.


I spent about half of my time in Ecuador at the Yanayacu biological station and center for creative studies. It is located in the Andes, approaching the cloud forest - meaning cool temperatures (50s to 70s), not a lot of sunlight, and frequent rain. I actually spent a lot of time wearing my sweatshirt, hat and gloves! We were accompanied by the research station staff and two dogs (Beans [on the left] and Rain); after a few days a college class from Colorado joined us. I wasn't sure what to expect from a research station up in the forest, but with a hot shower, warm blankets and three meals a day, I was pleasantly surprised.

Despite the somewhat depressing weather, the scenery was gorgeous and the wildlife was breathtaking. The mountains were in various states of visibility, sometimes disappearing completely behind the clouds. There were plenty of places to hike, allowing us to spend hours wandering through the forest. Luckily at that elevation (about 2000 feet), there aren't too many dangerous animals. No venomous snakes or large wildcats to worry about, so even exploring at night with headlamps was encouraged.

The research conducted at the station varies from birds, to insects, to anything a passing scientist wishes to delve into. One big project is CAPEA (Caterpillars and Parasitoids of the Eastern Andes in Ecuador). It is connected to a series of other projects in other localities involving caterpillar parasitism, focusing on taxonomy and ecology. When I went to Arizona this past summer, they were conducting this research at the Southwestern Research Station. They use the help of Earthwatch volunteers, who assist in collecting and rearing the caterpillars. If you are interested in spending your vacation in a cool place where you can help a research team, you should check out Earthwatch. This is the particular expedition that goes to the Yanayacu station. Or even if you just want a place to relax and experience the wildlife of Ecuador without needing a fancy hotel or a guide, you could contact Yanayacu. It is also a great place for artists looking for inspiration. I will talk a bit about how I got involved in the "creative studies" aspect of the station in a future post.


The view from my room at Yanayacu.

"Don't worry. A bad beginning is a good ending." - Larry of The Three Stooges, Movie Maniacs, 1936

My trip to Ecuador started with the worst travel day I've ever had. I had developed a slightly sore throat the day before we left, but I figured that was from singing too much while playing Rock Band with my friends. Oh, if I only knew what a forewarning that really was.

I awoke, after a few hours sleep, at 3am to drive to the airport. I traveled with an undergrad from our lab, a week before my advisor was due to join us. First flight went smoothly, I was feeling a bit off, but attributed it to lack of sleep. We landed in Miami for a 5 hour layover. That is when things started going downhill fast. I started feeling chilly, despite my layers. That turned into full on "I am getting sick" chills. Coughing. Stuffy nose. And finally a low grade fever. I was absolutely miserable, for hours, unable to concentrate on a book but unable to fall asleep. I watched CNN on repeat and distracted myself with a few walks around the airport. Finally, it was time for our next flight.

Our take-off was so rough, I felt like we might crash. I was seated next to some students who were off to Ecuador for a whole semester abroad. I wanted to be sociable but I avoided talking to them because I felt so sick and just wanted to sleep. I had taken something for my sinuses earlier, but the fever was coming down swift and strong. I slept only for a little while, the chills were too intense. I had a glimmer of hope as the chills retreated... only to be replaced by nausea. I got the attention of a flight attendant who made up some ice packs for my head and ibuprofin, they were really concerned about me. Oh, did I mention the turbulence? Yeah, there was a lot of it. The descent was horrible, and took a long time. Once we were on the ground, I grabbed the barf bag (and used it - my first time!)

I instantly felt much better. Getting off the plane, I refused the wheelchair and doctor visit the flight attendants had insisted upon. My excitement was premature, as waves of nausea accompanied me through the rest of the night. We got a ride to the research station, which was about three hours of sleeplessness and bumpy roads. By the time we arrived my body had miraculously calmed down. I fawned for a few moments over the giant moths that were attracted to the lights, and promptly passed out.

The photo above is the view I was greeted with when I awoke (though it does not do those mountains justice at all). It was all worth it.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Return from the rain forest

I have returned to Connecticut from my trip to Ecuador - quite a change in climate, that's for sure! It is great to be back, and I am enjoying all of the snow, but of course I have tropical stories to tell.

I will be blogging about my trip in the upcoming weeks, I have a lot of photos and videos to share. I spent one week at a research station in a cloud forest in the Andes, and another week or so driving around the lowlands of the Amazon basin. I accompanied a few scientists on an expedition to collect odonates (dragonflies and damselflies), though I was often free to explore on my own.

I started with few expectations, and was overwhelmed by the wildlife each day. Mud boots, an insect net, and my camera were essential gear. I came back with chigger bites, a slight sun tan, and way too many fabulous ideas for research and sewing.

I will also be mixing in updates about my shop and my second semester of grad school. My etsy shop is reopened, and I am working on my line-up of custom orders. Cannot wait until I have time to make some rain-forest-inspired plushies! So keep on the look-out.