Gossamer Tapestry

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Today's lesson: the digestive system

An illustration of why biology class should never be taught by the home economics teacher.

(Thanks to Altivo and Gary).


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Good Morning America

The Good Morning America piece on cicadas aired this morning. I say about 6 words- don't blink or you'll miss me. It's the Cicadas Come Alive clip.

Hat tip: Rodger Dodger
Correction: Rodger informs me that it was actually Mark who found the clip. So you should visit him instead. Oh, heck, visit both of them- they're great guys.


Return of the Land Lobster

Lord Howe Island, Australia

One of my recent postings talked about island endemism and reminded me of the insect conservation story that most inspires me. It’s from Lord Howe Island, a tiny archipelago off of the east coast of Australia. It’s sufficiently isolated that large numbers of the species that live there are endemic. Nearly half of the plant species (over 100 species) are found nowhere else in the world. The island was once home to 15 native species of land birds, 7 of which were endemic. Nine have subsequently become extinct, however four of the surviving species are endemics. One of the island’s coolest creatures is its native stick insect, the Lord Howe Island phasmid. This flightless species ranges to 6" in length. Its large size gave it the nickname of "land lobster." It was formerly abundant enough that they were used as fishing bait. Curiously, this feature may have saved the species from extinction.

A "land lobster" or Lord Howe Island phasmid

In 1918 the freighter Makambo foundered at the island, and black rats escaping the ship became established there. The rats devastated much of the island’s fauna, including several bird species. The last phasmids were seen just two years after the shipwreck.

Ball's Pyramid

In the late 1960s, rock climbers were exploring an offshore island called Ball’s Pyramid about 15 miles from the main island. Rats had never become established on Ball’s Pyramid. The climbers found a dead phasmid. Rumors of possible surviving phasmid population persisted for decades until an expedition visited in 2001. They found a tiny population surviving under a single bush fairly high on the island. It's not known exactly how the phasmids got to Ball's Pyramid, a mostly unsuitable habitat. Transport from the main island by fishermen is one possibility.

Today, a captive propagation program is underway at the Melbourne Zoo in Australia. The current captive population is about 50 individuals. Lord Howe Island has been cleared of goats and pigs, and there are plans afoot to attempt rat eradication. If the rat eradication is successful, phasmids will be released onto the island to repopulate their former range.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Apologies...and an Explanation

I have posted and updated about all of the media hoopla that has surrounded the cicada emergence. And after two promised showings, the cicada piece on Good Morning America has not aired. Apologies to friends and family who have made a special effort to see the piece. You can see local coverage of the cicada story, including some brief footage of me from yesterday's early evening news on Channel 2 here. A transcript of a story that ran on Channel 5 can be found here. The story has proved problematic for the media for a couple of reasons. A formula, developed to predict the date of emergence of the 2004 brood east of here was applied to the Chicago area and a date of May 22 was calculated. This date was seized upon and repeated endlessly in both print and broadcast media. In some respects, the date prediction even proved to be fairly accurate- the first reports of cicada adults in the southwest suburbs started coming in Saturday evening. I'm anticipating, from early signs, that there will be large numbers of cicadas encountered in parts of the Chicago region (and throughout the range of Brood XII, which centers on northern Illinois). It's in the nature of most species of insects in this part of the world that they begin emerging, increase in numbers, gradually at first and then with increasing speed, over a period of a week or so. Unfortunately, from a media standpoint nobody wants to get left behind on a story. So everyone jumps on the earliest possible time to begin covering the story, and it appears when the phenomenon is still pretty unimpressive. By the time anything dramatic happens, it's old news already. Additionally, nuances like the fact that cicada densities are uneven tend to get lost in the hype. If the 1990 emergence is any guide, some places will see tons of cicadas, while other places even fairly close by will see few to none.

From the standpoint of someone being interviewed as an "expert" on the subject it's challenging- you have no control over what parts of the interview are kept and what parts are left on the cutting room floor. All of the caveats tend to be cut.

Will a piece on cicadas air on Good Morning America? At this point, I have no idea. I'd be willing to bet not. But after two false alarms, I'm probably not going to alert family and friends to take their valuable time trying to catch me on the tube. Again, my apologies to all.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Megamajor Media Madness

I'll get this out of the way upfront. Yes, Spo, this week I'm definitely in media whore territory. The periodic cicadas have begun emerging and it's the talk of the town. In a way, it's unfortunate because in everybody's rush to be first with the story, by the time we have really impressive numbers, it will be old news. At any rate, the Good Morning America segment is now scheduled to air tomorrow morning (May 23). Chicago viewers can see an interview on Channel 2 news at 5:00 this afternoon. Channel 5 news will be here for an interview at 2:30 this afternoon. We've seen enough early indications that it looks like a pretty good emergence can be expected this year.

Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Media Madness

Tomorrow morning, May 22, I will be on Good Morning America talking about the cicada emergence here in the Chicago area. Somebody estimated that the emergence would begin on May 22 (in reality, the emergence will begin when the soil temperature reaches 64°. May 22 was estimated as the date of that). The media have picked up on May 22, and have become a bit dogmatic about the emergence date. There have already been a few sporadic reports of adults, but nothng major in terms of numbers yet. The reporter did not know what time the cicada segment will air. I'll try to provide a link should one become available.

Update: Apparently GMA has noticed the lack of cicadas and is holding the story until some emgergence actually happens. I will pass along the revised air date when I get it.


Individually and Collectively

Last week, I wrote a bit about the ethics of insect collecting. I got some great responses, both in the blog comments and elsewhere. Robin Andrea (seconded by Thingfish23) had some really interesting observations that I wanted to follow up on. From Robin:
It is an important perspective about the tension between species and individual. Because I am not a scientist, I tend to respond to animals emotionally, as individual creatures worthy of my attention and protection. You convey the importance of understanding the success of species, and the individual that is collected for assistance in that endeavor.
In part, I find this observation interesting because it speaks directly to a significant division between the environmental movement and the animal welfare movement. True, many people count themselves to be a part of both- but not everyone is, and the two groups sometimes vigorously clash. To the best of my recollection, the all examples of conflict between these two arise out of conflicts between the interest of species (or sometimes ecosystems) and the interests of individual animals.

For example, one of the greatest sources of species extinction today is the havoc wreaked by non-native animals on isolated islands where they decimate endemic native fauna, typically birds (though plants and insects have suffered badly as well). Rats, mice, pigs, goats, and cats are all responsible for a large proportion of these extinctions. Recent advances have allowed many of these predators to be cleared from increasingly large islands. New Zealand, in particular, has developed technologies to eliminate rats (a creature particularly destructive to endemic island bird fauna) by saturation bombing with rat poison. The technique has proven highly effective. The largest island treated to date, Campbell Island south of the main New Zealand archipelago, was declared rat-free in 2003. Critically endangered species like the flightless Campbell Island teal are already showing signs of recovery.

Campbell Island, NZ

Campbell Island Teal

The removal of damaging animal species from islands has been the frequent target of criticism from animal welfare activists. Goat removal projects on San Clemente Island in California and on Australia’s Lord Howe Island were fought vigorously by animal rights groups. Conflict between the welfare of individual animals and the survival of species and ecosystems was the crux of the disagreements. Even here on the mainland of North America, this debate plays itself out over issues like the control of overpopulated herbivores such as deer.

I have no idea how to resolve this particular conflict. People who articulate the issue especially well, as Robin did, are an important part of the path to resolution. For myself, I have spent thousands of hours of my life attempting to restore both ecosystems and individual species, so it’s pretty clear which position I will usually adopt. I can make lots of statements about the effects of particular non-native species on the ecosystems that they have invaded. There’s lots of information and data out there, and people who want to make the hard choices to control deer or goats or cats (an animal that I am especially fond of) make extensive use of those data.

Unfortunately, some of these same people can at times be overly dismissive of those whose concern is for individuals. I have been guilty at times myself. An important factor motivating concern for the individual- empathy- is in unfortunate short supply in the world today. I can’t bring myself to speak against this particular motivation. Remembering this may not solve instances of conflict, but it can at least keep people of differing viewpoints engaged in constructive conversation.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

10 Things

I was recently tagged by MarkH to do a meme.

  • Simply tell us 10 things about you that we don’t already know or would find interesting.
Well, I don't know if these will be interesting or not, but at least most people here probably don't know:

1. I was a born-again Christian for high school and part of college. I attended a Chirstian coffehouse sponsored by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. We were all reading and discussing writers like C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald (and, of course, the Bible). I was completely committed to that world view until I took a course in Biblical literature in college and was exposed to textual criticism.

2. Although I enjoy music, I am hopelessly un-musical. I have sometimes suspected that I was deprived of music at a critical period of brain development. Some of my tastes in music are fairly pedestrian, but some totally baffle people. I enjoy heavy metal and alternative (the Butthole Surfers rock). My partner is puzzled by my recent interest in country and western.

3. I have never taken a single formal course in entomology. My undergraduate degree is in biology. For my doctoral work, I studied biochemistry. Now people treat me as though I’m a bug expert. Shh…don’t tell anyone, ‘K?

4. I am just completing my fifth decade of life. Three of the decades (first, third and fifth) have been wonderful. I’m hoping that the sixth does not follow the pattterns of the second and fourth.

5. Cats are the most wonderful creatures on the planet. This is not my opinion- it’s an objectively verifiable fact. Just ask the cats.

6. I was painfully shy growing up. Back then, if someone had suggested that as an adult I would be doing lots of public speaking and appearing on television and radio with some regularity, I would have thought they were nuts.

7. I was born on Cape Cod. I offer this one because it appeals to my sense of romanticism.

8. I am extremely glad that the whole "reparative therapy" for sexual orientation fakery was not discussed widely during my adolescence. Although I have been fully out for over half my life, I had lots of trouble coming to terms with my sexual orientation in my late teens (see #1). Had I thought I could be "cured" back then, I might have pursued one of those damaging options.

9. I was 26 before I had my own car.

10. I have wanted to be a scientist since I was 12.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Confessions of a Collector


This posting is in response to a request by Homer that I address the question of ethical considerations in insect collecting. In addition to finding the question interesting, I feel that Homer is a great person to be asking it. He's an archaeologist professionally. Both of our fields sometimes involve making collections of the things that we study, and there are distinct ethical issues involving the collections that we make.

I got my first butterfly net from the Easter Bunny when I was 6. I’ve been collecting off and on (mostly on) for nearly all of my life. When I was young, collecting was the main way that insect enthusiasts and bugs interacted. Every field guide from that era has a section at the beginning about how to make and keep a collection. As I got older interesting new ways of interacting with insects began to emerge: everything from watching them through binoculars like birders do, to rearing them indoors, to gardening for. At the same time, increasing concerns about conservation brought the practice of collecting into question. Where does that leave collecting today?

Leaf Beetle

There are many important exceptions to this rule, but most species of butterflies today are doing very well from a conservation standpoint. The young butterfly enthusiast that collects these species is doing no lasting harm to butterfly populations as long as she limits her activities to those species. It’s generally easy to avoid the species where there are conservation concerns. For one thing, they’re rare. Additionally for most imperiled species, a collector must actively seek them out by specifically visiting (usually protected) locations where they live. Poaching is not a part of ethical collecting. Growing up, the vast majority of my collecting was done in my back yard, along dirt roads near my house, and at roadside rest areas while my family was travelling. None of the species that I collected in those days would today give me pause from a conservation standpoint.

Flea Beetle

As I have gotten older, the focus of my collecting has changed. For one thing, I have branched out beyond butterflies and now collect grasshoppers, moths, and a few groups of beetles as well. I’ve branched out partly because I enjoy the intellectual challenge of learning about new groups of insects. Additionally, I’m no longer collecting for my own personal satisfaction. Everything that I collect today is deposited in the holdings of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. By doing this, I am ensuring that my specimens will be available for study long after I’m gone.

Tortoise Beetle

I collect for a variety of reasons today. I’ve already blogged a fair bit about the aspects of collecting that involve taking live samples of imperiled species, breeding them in the lab, and releasing them as part of ecological restoration. Even with the very conservation-oriented nature of this activity, I must still take precautions. I have to get a permit (typically multiple permits) for nearly every species I work with. I must take great care to avoid damaging the source populations for this work, as well.

Toad Lubber

Other aspects of my collecting do not involve conservation, at least not as directly. By collecting beetles and grasshoppers in order to teach myself more about these groups, I am collecting a snapshot of species diversity and distribution at a particular place and time. This requires that I keep records that are as complete and accurate as possible. The specimens and records assembled by collectors who came before me have been critical to my conservation work. I hope that my records will prove useful to future generations of scientists.

Slant-faced Grasshoppers, Spine-breasted Grasshoppers, and Katydids

I am also beginning to collect material to begin DNA studies on butterflies. I’m using molecular techniques both to compare the genetic diversity of natural and restored populations, and beginning a cladistic study of a difficult genus of butterflies from North and South America. This topic is worthy of a complete blog post, and I’ll probably do one eventually.

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I've not posted much that's political on my blog before, but this was just too good not to pass along. (Hat tip to Bug Girl).


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Spring Dune Butterflies

Springtime is progressing nicely here in the Chicago area. Most of the trees are now in leaf. The daffodils are pretty much finished, and the butterflies are beginning to put in an appearance. Two species of butterflies here in northern Illinois put in a single, very brief appearance at this time of year. Both can be seen at Illinois Beach State Park, a dune habitat on Lake Michigan in the extreme northeast corner of the state.

The Olympia marblewing (Euchloe olympia) loves sandy habitats like the one found here. It’s a small white butterfly, with a beautiful greenish yellow marbling on the undersides of the hindwings. At Illinois Beach, you can see dozens of them, but only for a few short weeks in Late April and early May. The caterpillars feed on plants in the cress family. On this site sand cress (Arabis lyrata) is used. This butterfly is unusual because the adults also depend almost exclusively on sand cress as a nectar source. At this time of year, it’s just about the only nectar-producing plant blooming on this site. The butterfly in this picture is using it.

The hoary elfin (Incisalia polios) is much smaller than the marblewing, and pretty easy to overlook. The caterpillars of this species feed on bearberry (Arctostaphylus uva-ursi), a low mat-forming plant that grows on thee sand dunes. Hoary elfins are listed as an endangered species here in Illinois. In this case, I’m not really sure how necessary this status is. This butterfly was never a common species in the state. Illinois beach is just about the only place in the state where the host plant grows, and is home to the state’s only population of this butterfly. It’s very well protected as a state park. I’ve never gotten a good picture of this species myself, however one of the other volunteers at Bluff Spring Fen recently got a great shot of one at Illinois beach. You can see it here.

I love going out to the state park in the spring to visit these butterflies, however it can be a frustrating experience. The park sits right on the lake, which is still quite cold at this time of year. I have had several experiences of leaving my house on a beautiful day with temperatures in the mid seventies. After driving two hours to the park, I encounter a 20 mph wind directly off of the lake and temperatures in the mid forties. Still the butterflies are sufficiently uncommon, beautiful, and interesting to make multiple trips worthwhile. On a good day, you can see dozens of each species flying low over the sandy plains.


Friday, May 11, 2007

A Dragon (fly) Tale

Dot-tailed whiteface, teneral (newly emerged) form

I’ve been expanding the number of blogs that I read over the last couple of weeks (like I have time for that, but anyway, I have). Several of the new blogs focus on the natural world, and they have been fun and informative. One of my new regular stops is the Dharma Bums, run by Roger and Robin Andrea from Washington State. Robin Andrea had a couple of beautiful dragonfly pictures up this morning, and I thought I’d try to identify them. I have a dragonfly field guide from Oregon that I pulled out, and it remained me of a story.

Two years ago Leon asked me to accompany him back to his old home town for his high school reunion. He hails from Myrtle Creek, a little town in the southwest part of Oregon. We decided to make a week of it and do some travelling in addition to going to the reunion. I was a bit apprehensive about the reunion itself. I wasn’t so much expecting any unpleasantness because we’re a gay couple as I was concerned that I would be bored out of my mind hanging out with a bunch of folks that I didn’t know. The fact that I have never had the least inclination to go to one of my own high school reunions probably also figured in the equation.

The trip was a blast. First off, it was fun to finally get to see Leon’s home town. We had been together for more than 20 years at that point, so I’d heard a lot about Myrtle Creek even though I’d never seen it before. It’s a beautiful little town in the foothills of the Cascades. Leon’s former classmates were pleasant and welcoming people. At one point during the opening pizza party, he introduced me to a friend named Steve Gordon who casually mentioned something about bird watching. When I pursued the topic he said that although he does some birding, his primary interest is in dragonflies. Well that really piqued my interest. When we first built the museum where I work we used a bunch of images from an Oregon dragonfly photographer named Steve Valley. So I asked if Steve Gordon knew him. Steve looked completely nonplussed and asked how I knew Steve Valley. They know each other quite well. Steve Gordon is actually a fairly serious student of dragonflies, and had a new book about to be published called Dragonflies & Damselflies of the Willamette Valley.

I may have had a better time at Leon’s reunion than even he did. Some of Leon's other friends also proved to be very interesting folks. Steve and I had a great time comparing notes about dragonflies and the natural world in general. We even managed to spend a bit of time along the South Umpqua River scoping out the local dragonflies. Steve’s book came out a few months later, and it was my copy that I attempted to identify Robin Andrea’s dragonfly from. My main regret? That I couldn’t get a copy during the reunion and have Steve autograph it for me.

Unfortunately, Dragonflies & Damselflies of the Willamette Valley is not available from Amazon. You can get ordering information here.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

And so it begins...

Being the weather junkie that I am, I note with interest that the 2007 hurricane season is off to an early start. Subtropical Storm Andrea was named just a short while ago.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Weekend Recap

It was a very full weekend here in Illinois. Friday night was the Butterfly Ball, the annual black tie fundraising event for the Museum. We spend months preparing for it. My department becomes especially busy the two weeks prior to the event cleaning, pruning plants both in the butterfly exhibit and on the museum grounds. I have attended all of the Butterfly Balls, nine to date. Occasionally Leon accompanies me, as he did this year. It’s my only foray into the Chicago area social scene (yes, the event is covered on the society pages of the local papers). It has always intrigued my that I’m capable of functioning quite comfortably in this type of atmosphere, even though I’m more accustomed to (and happier) wearing jeans and a tee shirt and working out in the field.

On Saturday, I donned jeans and a tee shirt and worked out in the field. It was a Bluff Spring Fen workday, and we spent the morning attacking public enemy number one- garlic mustard- in wooded areas of the preserve. Garlic mustard is another one of these non-native invasive species that moves into an area and takes over, displacing many native species in the process. The oak trees are in full flower at the moment, which means allergies for me. In the afternoon, Leon went back out to the Fen, and I returned home and crashed hard for the afternoon. That’s often a consequence of allergies for me.

Garlic Mustard

Sunday was a work around the house day. I removed the mulch from the herb garden and replanted some of the herbs growing there. Our vegetable garden is doing well. We have radishes and four varieties of lettuce germinating. I also have flats with two varieties of sweet peppers and two varieties of eggplants coming up (thanks to Ur-Spo and Someone for the Christmas gift certificate to Seed Savers Exchange. This gift will definitely keep on giving). I made two cheeses Sunday afternoon, a mozzarella and a Gouda. The Gouda just finished its brine soak and is now drying. The mozzarella went on a pizza. I used a new crust recipe and was very pleased with the results.

Oh, and one final note on the Butterfly Ball. I mentioned that it’s a fundraiser. This year we had an interesting challenge. If we raised more than $1 million, an anonymous donor would match it dollar for dollar. We actually raised $1.5 million, so the event raised a cool $3 million for the museum. It’s really gratifying to see the institution’s financial situation improving to the degree that it is.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Media Madness

Hmm...my 100th post is a Media Madness. Chicago listeners can catch me on WGN Newsradio 720 from 1:30 to 2:00 discussing periodic cicadas. Or you can listen online here. Sorry for the short notice.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Mark's Burning Questions

Mark H left some great questions in response to my post earlier this week about the fen burn, and I thought I’d respond to them in a full post rather than just replying in the comments. Paraphrased, Mark’s three questions are:

1. You burn annually. Isn’t that a lot?
2. Doesn’t burning remove the ability of decaying vegetation to produce humus and enrich the soil?
3. Does the burning damage other organisms, like animals, on your site?

These questions really get to the heart of why, when, and how we burn.

1. Although we hold prairie burns annually, we do not burn the entire prairie annually. We practice rotational burning, and only torch off a section of the prairie each year. Prior to the burn, we carefully plan which sections of the preserve are to be burned and which are to be left unburned each year. We can control the extent of each burn with remarkable precision. Any given spot on our preserve burns on average once every three years.

2. Part of the answer to the question about humus is also our use of rotational burning The main answer, however, involves differences between prairies and the temperate rain forests around Mark’s home in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike a forest, a significant part of the vegetation biomass in a prairie is actually underground. Dense root systems penetrate 10 to 15 feet beneath the soil. Prairie soils are famously deep and rich- much more so than soils of forested ecosystems. A large part of their formation is the result of growth, death, and decay of these underground root systems. The prairie burn releases a lot of nutrients into the soil, too. The summer after a burn, vegetation in burned areas will be visibly more lush than in adjacent unburned areas. Later this summer, I’ll try to find some good examples of this and post pictures.

3. The effect of burns on animals is a big and complicated question. The concern is greatest where insects are concerned, and therefore is of particular interest to me. A full response is beyond the scope of a blog post. A lot of the work on this issue has been done by my mentor, Dr. Ron Panzer of Northeastern Illinois University. Ron showed that prairie insects are initially strongly suppressed by prairie fires, but that they show great ability to rapidly re-colonize burned areas from adjacent unburned ones. We make use of this information in planning our burns. For example, there are three major remnant habitat types at the fen: fen, gravel hill prairie and bur oak woodland. We never burn all of any of these habitats the same year. We do not go back and re-light patches of unburned vegetation within a burn zone. These are left as insect refugia. And we leave areas where I am doing butterfly restoration alone, particularly while the fledgling population is still small and vulnerable.

Burning is essential for prairie ecosystems, and a useful tool for management. Like all tools, it can be misused and must be handled carefully and with concern for safety, both of the operators and of the prairies that it is being used on.

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