Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

How to Increase Blog Traffic

According to my site meter, my blog traffic has about tripled in the past 24 hours. I'm thrilled...people from as far away as Turkey and Albania are clicking in to learn all about farming ants, venomous giant millipedes, and caterpillar bacterial outbreaks. How did word get around so suddenly? Oh wait....all of the new traffic seems to have one thing in common. People have found the site by doing a web search on the word "porno." I guess I'll have to include it in more posting titles.

My Porno Shoot

On Thursday, I have been asked to represent the museum at an interview being given for cable access TV. Ur-Spo frequently makes a point of referring to me as a media whore when I get interviewed for something, but this time it seems especially apt. The filming will take place in a room at the O'Hare Comfort Inn. Why do I feel like I'm about to do a porno film?


Last month, the museum where I work hired a new malacologist. Her name is Stephanie, she’s from Australia, and she most recently worked in Alabama. What’s a malacologist? It’s somebody who studies mollusks- snails, clams, mussels and other shelly creatures with soft squishy bodies and hard shells. Some mollusks, like slugs, squid, and octopi, lack shells but retain the soft, squishy characteristics. Malocologists used to be called conchologists (people who study shells), however as the field has matured, the interest has focused on the entire animal rather than just the shell, so the name got changed.

Last Friday, the part of my department that deals with the museum’s natural history collections took a malacology field trip to Bluff Spring Fen. We went because I knew that there were freshwater mussels in Poplar Creek, a moderately big stream that runs through the western edge of the preserve. For a variety of reasons, freshwater mussels are probably the most endangered group of species on the planet, so we want to know more about what we have at the Fen. Unfortunately we have had a lot of rain lately, and Poplar Creek was swollen to the point that we were unable to check out the mussels.

Since we didn’t have much luck in the creek, we thought we’d see what the fen had to offer. As usual, Bluff Spring Fen did not disappoint. The first thing we encountered was a tiger salamander eating (of all things) a piece of fungus. The weather was fairly chilly so the salamander wasn’t moving very fast and I was able to get some nice shots.

Tiger Salamander eating fungus

But we weren’t there to find amphibians, we were there to find mollusks. And find them we did- about 15 species altogether. One of the streams had dozens of tiny native clams about a quarter the size of my pinky fingernail. I’ve been going to the fen and checking out this particular stream for more than 2 decades and had no idea that they were there. Most of what we found was tiny, but it was so rewarding to be someplace that I know very well in a biological sense and find a whole world of creatures that I was unaware of.

Four tiny land snails

The last stop we made was along the stream that borders the north side of the preserve. We found the remains of a bunch of terrestrial snails that had washed into the stream. According to Stephanie, they were native species found in good wetlands. To the great amusement of all, I ended the day by slipping on the wet board and falling in the stream. Still it was the sort of day that reminds me why I enjoy the field biology aspects of what I do.

(L-R) Steve, Stephanie and Alyse check out a stream just before Doug falls in.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Lab Crisis Update

We have been scrambling trying to get the bacterial outbreak under control. I have been calling colleagues around the country who do this sort of work. We have gone through tons of bleach trying to disinfect stuff. The word from colleagues is that this does happen to almost everyone sooner or later. We are instituting some changes in how we do things. For example, all leaves of caterpilalr food are being given a dunk in diluted bleach, then rinsed thoroughly before being fed to the caterpillars. I am suspecting the aerosol coming from the room humidifier as a source of contamination. So we have removed the caterpillars from the breeding room. The bad news is that we have lost our culture of Aphrodite fritillaries and will likely lose the culture of silver-bordered fritillaries. I think that we may be able to hang onto the regal fritillary culture. Of the three, it is my preference to keep alive, because it's actually an endangered species (gulp). It still sickens me to think of all of the work that went into the silver-bordered fritillary culture, only to lose it. It's time for stiff upper lips, firm resolve, and moving forward. We are not out of the woods yet, but we are making some progress.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Lab Crisis

We are having a crisis in the butterfly breeding lab. We have been caring for over 1,000 caterpillars from the five species that we are attempting to do restoration work with. They are dying at an alarming rate. The good news is that we know what the immediate cause of death is: a bacterial infection. The bad news is that we have a bacterial outbreak in the lab. Posting to the blog may be a bit thin for the next little while here, though I will try provide periodic updates. I have some ideas about how to solve the problem. I hope that we are not too late in the sense that all of our current stock is infected and therefore doomed. More (and, I hope, better) news as I get it.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Hallowe’en Meme

A Hallowe’en Meme has been making the rounds. Butterfly in Disguise invited me to give it a try, and I'm taking her up on it. I'm afraid that some of my answers are pretty boring.

1 – What was the scariest movie you have ever seen?
Neither my partner nor I like scary movies. The last really scary movie that I ever saw was The Omen. The original with Lee Remick, not the recent remake. That will give you an idea of how long ago this was. I remember about 2/3 of the way through thinking "what a horrible movie," mainly from a standpoint of not getting it about wanting to see terrible things like that happen to people.

2- What was your favorite Hallowe’en costume as a child?
My favorite Halloween costume was actually in college. I went as Lamont Cranston. I had the hat, the dark coat, the red scarf over my mouth. I thought it looked pretty cool.

3- Given enough money what would be your fantasy Hallowe’en costume?
It would be fun to do some sort of Celtic shaman thing. Fake tattoos, amulets, antlers. the works.

4- When was the last time you went trick or treating?
Seventh grade. The costume was pretty forgettable. What I remember most was the party that a family up the hill had every Halloween. You would stop by while you were trick or treating, have soda and fried chicken, and move on for more tricks and treats.

5- What is your favorite Hallowe’en candy?
Mini Milky Way bars.

6- Tell us about a scary nightmare you once had.
At the risk of having psychiatrist friends go all Freudian on me (cough **Ur-Spo** cough), I have had a whole series of nightmares about trains. In them I am always walking along railroad tracks in a desolate area when a very malevolent train approaches. Sometimes there are banks of gladioli in funereal arrangements lining the tracks. I wake up sweating and with my heart racing. Not entirely sure why.

7 – What is your supernatural fear?
I don’t believe in the supernatural.

8-What is your ‘creepy-crawlie’ fear?
I work with invertebrates all the time and have no fear of them. OK, that is so not true. My creepy-crawlie fear is giant centipedes. It totally grosses me out that the guy in the picture I linked to is holding one bare handed. These puppies can really hurt you. The front pair of legs is modified into pinchers that can deliver a potent venom. I have heard of somebody regaining consciousness about two hours after being pinched. There are species from all over the tropics, including two in the desert southwest. I once drove a friend down to Sycamore Canyon in southern Arizona to collect them. He got a very nice medium sized one. When we got back to Tucson it had escaped its container. It’s probably still somewhere in the rental car.

9- Tell us a time you saw a ghost or heard something go bump in the night.
I junior high school, I was living in eastern Massachusetts way out in the woods. One night I was sure I heard a werewolf howling. It turned out to be a fox- they can sound really scary.

10- Would you stay overnight in a real Haunted House?
No problem. See #7.

11-Are you a traditionalist or a creative carver of you Jack-o-Lantern?
I’m a traditionalist. It mostly has to do with my lack of artistic talent.

12- How much do you decorate the house at Hallowe’en?
Hardly at all.

13- What do you want on your Tombstone?
Quiet. Pinochle game in progress.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Gladstone Fen

Gladstone Fen

The first time that I was ever in the tropics was on a trip to Peru in 1986. It was an awesome trip, and I’ll probably post a remembrance of it sometime. My fellow travelers were a really interesting bunch of people, and I have maintained friendships with some of them. A year after the trip, I was sitting next to fellow travelers Lee Gladstone and his wife Gertrude at a trip reunion dinner. Lee knew that I was a biologist, but did not know of my work at Bluff Spring Fen. During the meal, he turned to me and asked what I know of fens. Now this is not a typical topic of dinner conversation, and I was a bit nonplussed that he would ask this. It turned out that he had just learned that he had one in the back yard of his weekend house in McHenry County. I wanted to see it, and a few weeks later they had me out.

Oak woodland at Gladstone Fen

People frequently tell me that they own property with a rare ecosystem on it. Generally the ecosystem disappoints, but Lee and Gertrude’s place was the real deal. Their back yard contained about 6 acres of really nice fen. It was suffering from a lot of the degradation that fens in Illinois do- fire suppression, invasion by nonnative species, hydrology issues. Still, there was a relatively intact ecosystem and a surprising number of rare plant species. Eventually, I would also find a bunch of rare butterflies there, as well.

View from the oak woodland into Gladstone Fen

Over the next decade, I would be the steward of this site. Lee and Gertrude used to have a bunch of friends from the city out to their weekend place. Leon and I would give interpretive tours of the fen, and then we’d all troop inside for a fabulous lunch. We held a bunch of workdays involving brush clearing and seed planting. We had several fine burns at the fen. Eventually the site was formally dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. The site flourished under management. Since the late 1990s, I have been less able to participate in active management there.

This weekend Lee and Gertrude’s daughter Lorna invited us up for a special workday. We were joined by about a dozen other people, many of whom I know because they are active in the conservation community up in McHenry County. We were clearing out buckthorn, a very aggressive non-native tree that damages oak woodlands. We lit a bonfire and tossed the sapling trees onto it as they were cut down with chainsaws. It was satisfying work, and we made some great progress. Since her parent’s deaths, about a year apart and nearly five years ago, Lorna has taken up the mantle as site steward and is really doing a fine job.

The bonfire

After the workday and the bonfires, we all went on back to the house and had a great lunch. I had been back to the site once since Lee and Gertrude had died, but this was my first time back in their house. I’ll confess that it put a lump in my throat. It was a different cast of characters, but the feeling was very similar. I had worried about what would happen to Gladstone Fen after Lee and Gertrude died (they were in their seventies when I met them), and I’m pleased to see it in such good hands.

Part of yesterday's work crew. L-R: Will, John, Lorna, Leon

One afternoon about a year after Gertrude had passed on, I was walking through the Museum where I work and happened upon Lee sitting on a bench in one of the exhibits. Lee’s city home was just a few blocks from the Museum. He and his home care nurse had gone for a walk because it was a nice day, and had stopped in. I had no meetings or deadlines that afternoon, and got to spend about a half an hour chatting with him. He seemed much more subdued than usual. One of the things that I had always liked about Lee was his vibrancy as a person, and I remember feeling that his wife’s death had affected him very deeply. I will always treasure that particular conversation, because just three weeks later I would learn of Lee’s death.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Media Madness...Updated

My interview with Channel 2 evening news aired last night and can be viewed online (transcript on left, video link on right). Blink and you miss me. On the other hand, how often will I get a direct jump cut from me to Mick Jagger? There's an unrelated quote in today's Chicago Tribune.

In the theme of news stories about cold weather, winter is arriving way too early. It's snowing as I type this.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Media Madness

Readers in the Chicago area can see me interviewed (briefly) this evening on the 5 PM news on Channel 2 (CBS). Given the subject material (what's going to be happening with the hard freeze tonight) I'm guessing that I'll be on or near the weather segment.


Farming Ants

When you think of keeping ants indoors, you probably think of an "ant farm" arrangement, with a thin layer of soil between two sheets of glass or plastic. Perhaps you even had one. Worker ants are placed in the ant farm, and they create tunnels and galleries in the soil. Museums and insect zoos still use this kind of display for their ants. It’s affectionately referred to as an Uncle Milton display, after the manufacturer who for decades has sold the toy versions.

There are some limitations to the Uncle Milton style display. Even with a very thin layer of soil, the ants are really good at hiding, so it’s hard to see a lot of the interesting activities. Moreover, the most interesting ant activities can never be seen in the version of the kit that you can buy in a toy store. The kit contains all of the materials for the ant farm, plus a mail-in coupon for the ants. When your package arrives, you get worker ants only- no queen, no brood, and none of the most interesting ant behavior.

In the late 1990’s the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI) in Tucson developed a completely new kind of ant display. This display contains no soil at all. It’s a series of Plexiglas boxes connected by flexible plastic tubes. All of the ant activities are in full view. We have maintained such a display since 2001. The live ant colonies are not cheap. They are very unpleasant to collect (more on that shortly), and it can take a long time to build up a robust colony with lots of workers. A good colony can cost several hundred dollars.

The Nature Museum's ant display

We have maintained a SASI style ant colony at the Nature Museum since 2001. It’s always a popular exhibit. Unfortunately, a little over a year ago, the colony was vandalized. A visitor took a knife or a razor and slashed through the flexible plastic tubing. We managed to get the situation under control, but had to kill a substantial number of workers in the process. The queen survived, but the colony has only had a fraction of the number of workers present before the vandalism, and is just beginning to recover.

Closeup of the brood chamber

While at the SASI conference in Tucson last summer, a member of my staff and I collected several new queens to start backup colonies with. This is a good time to collect spine-waisted ants, the species that we are working with, because this is when new queens mate and begin laying eggs. The summer rains stimulate the alalte (winged) members of ant colonies to take flight and mate. At the end of these nuptial flights, their mates bite off the new queens’ wings, and they settle down to begin new colonies. As queens of this species can live for 10-15 years, there is excellent potential for a very long lifetime if you gather them at this time.

Vincent digging into an ant mound

I had thought that the queens would be the hardest, though most vital, part of the colony to get. I had visions of digging into an ant mound and sifting through thousands of biting ants to find the queen- the only member of the colony who can lay eggs and produce new workers. I was wrong. Newly-mated queens don’t tunnel. We found dozens of them in a pasture under cow patties. We tried to collect brood to "boost" the colonies, including our own beleaguered queen back in Chicago. To do this we dug into several spine-waisted ant mounds that we found in the same pasture.

Vincent gets "up-close and personal" with the ants

Collecting brood is not fun. The ground in the pasture was almost rock hard and both we and the ants were only able to dig in a few inches. We had been hoping to dig into brood chambers, where hundreds of grub-like juvenile ants would be found. Alas, the ants here scattered their brood about, and we could only find a few grubs here and there. Meanwhile, we were attacked by thousands of very angry worker ants defending the nests. I was only minimally attacked, because I was doing the all-important photo documentation (it’s great to be boss). Vincent, my assistant, eventually removed his shoes and socks because he found it easier to deal with the ants barefoot.

Ant brood. A pathetically small quantity.

Today, we have two healthy new queens. They are producing brood, and the first of these have become worker ants. It will probably take quite some time to build up sufficient numbers to make a good display, but at least we now have backup colonies should something else happen to our ant exhibit.

One of our new queens with brood

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Autumn Excursion

Woodstock, Illinois

This weekend was absoloutely beautiful in Chicago. It was the kind of clear, pleasant weather that makes me love autumn. On Sunday, we made an excursion to Woodstock in McHenry County for some autumn events. If the picture of Woodstock looks a little familiar to you, that’s probably because the town featured heavily in the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray.

Musical Wallpaper

We picked apples (a bit of a disappointment), and met up with our friends Gary and Gary Lee who were working the Weaver's Guild textile show at the old courthouse. Gary is an old-timey musician and plays a mean hammered dulcimer, among other instruments, for the duo Bear Creek. He provided what he called "musical wallpaper" for the event. Gary Lee is a textile artist who was demonstrating spinning techniques. Several of his pieces were in the show- some even won awards.

"Dr." TJ* Fuffle Fresh spins the hits for you

*Thread Jockey

Textiles at the show. The gray skein of yarn under the chair is Gary Lee's.

Gary Lee's knit shawl. This one won a prize!

After the show we had dinner together. Good food, good friends, good fun- it was a very pleasant day.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Why I am a Gay Scientist

This is an essay, slightly modified, that I wrote several years ago. I was planning on posting it next Wednesday as a celebration of National Coming Out Day. The events of the Mark Foley scandal have left me totally disgusted, and I wanted to share something about taking pride in, and responsibility for, who you are. Foley has done neither, despite the increasingly hollow claims of his spokesman that he takes full responsibility for his actions. So I'm posting this a bit early. Happy coming out day to all.

A few years back, I went to a professional conference for people developing medical diagnostic tests. One company had just developed a new cancer test in which positive results were revealed by the development of a vivid pink color. To promote this new product, the company was giving away plastic test tube racks in the same shocking pink color. I wanted one. As I explained to a (straight) colleague while showing her my new treasure, "it’s what every gay scientist needs—a hot pink test tube rack."

My colleague took issue with my humor. Why, she asked, was I calling myself a gay scientist? In her mind the two phenomena were in no way related. I may be a scientist, and I am most certainly gay, but my friend felt that unless I am actively pursuing some sort of scientific study of sexual orientation- a la Simon LeVay, perhaps- then I have no business calling myself a gay scientist.

Something similar, though more nefarious, happened years ago while I was still in college. I made the mistake of talking with the school psychologist about my struggles to come to terms with my sexuality. Among his significantly unhelpful efforts was the question "when they wake you up in the middle of the night and ask what you are, do you tell them that you are gay or that you are a biologist?" There was, of course, a right and a wrong answer to this question. If my reply had been "I’m gay," the implication was that I was placing too much emphasis on that part of myself, and that I would do better to self-identify more strongly with my prospective career.

My response to both of these situations was similar. I felt as though an uncomfortably schizophrenic existence was being required of me: in this compartment of my life, I’m gay, in that compartment, I’m a scientist, in this other compartment I love cats. In truth, I’m a gay scientist who loves cats-- and who has a bunch of other attributes as well. By identifying two particular attributes and describing myself as a gay scientist, I am integrating two aspects of my life that I consider of greater importance for self-identification.

Believing that it is important to self-identify as gay does not mean that I subscribe to the notion that gay people need to emphasize our differentness- that being alien and out of step with the mainstream are somehow important facets of being gay. Actually, I’m pretty solidly assimilationist. And while I’m not part of the radical crowd, I don’t want to impose my own assimilation on anyone else. Furthermore, I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with attempts on the part of some in the assimilationist camp to minimize the importance of sexual orientation. For example, in an otherwise excellent essay entitled The Fear of Being Ordinary, conservative University of Minnesota Law School professor Dale Carpenter lauds a trend in movies of the 1990’s towards depicting gay characters as ordinary people. Unfortunately, he proceeds to opine that "in a better world, that last attribute [being gay] would be among the least important facts about the characters."

Excuse me? What prompted this drift from suggesting that being gay is one attribute among many to relegating it to the least important of one’s personal attributes? While I remain enthusiastic and optimistic about the progress that gay people have during my lifetime, I also feel that it is important to recognize the challenges that gay people everywhere have risen to in order to achieve happy and fulfilling adulthoods. These achievements are appropriately sources of Pride, and are very much to be celebrated. Suggestions of neglecting to do so feel uncomfortably like invitations to return to the closet, though I am certain that Carpenter did not intend that particular implication.

In my own case, the pairing of my sexual orientation with my scientific viewpoint is important if for no other reason than that the former contributed to my early interest in the latter. In part, nature and science were safe refuges from what was, during my formative years, a Terrible Secret. In contrast to navigating the dangerous social waters of being gay in high school in the mid 1970’s, working with plants and insects meant dealing with things that did not judge me. The most that I risked in studying them was contact dermatitis.

By providing an eminently rational framework for looking at the world, science also provided me with something critical: the ability to consider the seemingly unthinkable possibility that the rest of the world was wrong. The world could be approached through observation, evidence, and analysis. There was a remote possibility that it was OK to be me.

The result of all of this was that I succeeded in transforming a serious challenge- being gay in a highly homophobic environment- from something frightening and difficult into something that pointed the way to a successful and rewarding career. When I insist on defining myself as a gay scientist, it isn’t out of a sense of victimhood, but rather a sense of survival and accomplishment.

Would I have become a scientist even had I not been gay, or had being gay been a nonissue during my adolescence? It is, of course, impossible to say. What is clear is that being gay did have a profound influence on my interest in science. For that reason, I will forever be a gay scientist, and will continue to proudly use my hot pink test tube rack.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Caterpillar Time

We have caterpillars….do we ever have caterpillars. And as with all babies, having caterpillars means dealing with two things: food and poop. The technical term for insect poop is frass, a term that inspired one of our lab volunteers to create a refrigerator magnet design what we enjoy very much.

Frass is happening in a big way at the moment. All three of our fritillary species, the silver-bordered, the Aphrodite, and the regal, have hatched in abunance. We have at least 100 larvae from each species, and have counted over 300 silver-bordered fritillary larvae. They are the easiest to count right now. They hatched first, and they grow the fastest. Caterpillars of all three of these species feed on violets. Fortunately, we have quite a few growing right on the museum grounds, so our food supply isn’t far away. As you can see from the photo, they produce quite a lot of frass at this stage. Their food consumption and growth are amazing. If a human infant were to grow as rapidly as some caterpillars, a four week old baby would be about the size and weight of a school bus.

Silver-bordered fritillary caterpillars

The silver-bordered larvae are currently in the third and fourth instars. Instars are the stages between molts. The first instar hatches from the eggs, begins feeding, and then molts to become the second instar. These caterpillars will all go through five instars before becoming chrysalises. I expect the first pupation to begin next week. I’m particularly excited about having regal fritillary larvae in the lab at the moment. This species is endangered over most of its range east of the Mississippi River. In Illinois, they are a threatened species.

Swamp Metalmark

In other endangered species news, the first adult of the highly endangered swamp metalmark caterpillars has emerged from its chrysalis. This is the first swamp metalmark adult that we have ever raised here at the museum. The only species that really isn’t doing well for us at the moment is the purplish copper. They had a terrible year this year. We only managed to find 2 females, and only got a couple of dozen eggs out of them. Only one egg has hatched. This species overwinters in the egg stage, so I believe that the rest of the eggs are simply dormant for winter. We have popped them into the refrigerator and will try to re-animate them after giving them a period of cold storage. The bright spot here is that the one caterpillar that hatched is doing extremely well for us. They appear easy to rear.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

Spectacular autumn wildflowers at the Fen - Sky Blue Aster

More autumnal beauty - Fringed Gentian

This weekend was a bit of a bust. I did get to have dinner with friends from out of town on Friday. I also, for my own sanity, stopped out at the Fen Sunday afternoon. The autumn wildflowers were spectacular. Most of my weekend was spent editing a grant proposal. But I also managed to do something new that I have wanted to do for a while now: cheese making. I’ve made one small attempt before. I made homemade ricotta cheese from a recipe in Food and Wine magazine. It was tasty, but I wanted to try something a bit more involved. So recently, I checked out the fine folks at New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.

I ordered a beginner’s mozzarella kit. The process is really simple: You acidify milk, in this case with citric acid. Then you heat it and add a mixture of enzymes called rennet. Mine was vegetable rennet, and it came as a simple tablet. The milk is allowed to stand for a bit while the milk solids (curds) separate form the clear liquid (whey). A good separation is called a "clean break", and the result is a custard-like layer on top of a mixture of curds and whey. You decant or filter away the whey, and begin the process of removing moisture (more whey) from the cheese. In my case, this was done by heating the cheese in a microwave, kneading the mass of curds a bit, and decanting the excess whey. The most surprising part was the last step. You knead the mass of mozzarella. It’s a lot like pulling taffy. Form the mass into a round, and dunk briefly in ice water to cool it off. Result: my first batch of mozzarella in 45 minutes. The directions say you can do it in 30 minutes, but then I’m a newbie.

My first mozzarella. I call him Herbie.

What to do with your mozzarella? Pizza, of course, with pepperoni and fresh, sweet red pepper from the garden.

Mondo Pizza