Gossamer Tapestry

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

Monday, April 28, 2008

Greening Up - With Rhododendron

Spring continues a fitful progression here in northern Illinois this year. Sure, it's supposed to snow tonight (a bit) but things continue greening and blooming.

I spent part of the weekend out at the Fen. Partly I was scattering the majority of this year's remaining seeds. Nearly everything is now out, and we can go on to the next task- the beginning of the year's weed control. I also transplanted a few plugs of wetland sedge into a degraded seep. We tried a bit of this last year. It worked so well, that I'm expanding efforts this year. Speaking of which, the sedges in the wetland areas that were burned a few weeks back are charging out of the ground with amazing speed. This photo is a real testament to how quickly the vegetation springs back in areas that have been burned.

My yard is beginning to signs of spring, too. The first of my lettuce has germinated. My rhododendron is in full bloom right now. Rhodies are one of the things that I miss the most about Massachusetts. Where I grew up, we grew lots of them and azaleas in a wide range of colors. Blooming times extended from earliest spring into mid-summer. They just don't do well here in Illinois. There are a few varieties, like the one in my yard, that thrive. The rest just putter along, don't bloom well, and seem very short lived.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dear John,

Ever since you leaked orange coolant all over my lab bench last week, I’ve been reevaluating our relationship. After much soul searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that you are unreliable. My needs aren’t being met. And, frankly there have been performance problems lately. Your inability to bring my PCR runs all the way to completion causes me concern. Your explanation for this, “error 44 unable to sustain temperature,” really sounds more like an excuse than anything else. I know that you aren’t as young as you once were, but I still need you to be able to sustain temperature all the way to the end of the run. My experiments are being left unfulfilled.

As I have considered our relationship, I’ve had to conclude that it’s time for me to move on. It isn’t you- it’s me. I’m not the same person that I was when you first came into my life. My needs have changed. I know they say that size doesn’t matter, but a 24-reaction capacity just isn’t enough to satisfy me anymore. I ‘m looking for someone with at least 96 wells. Not to put too fine a point on it, your footprint is just too big.

So I’m moving on. Right now, I’m playing the field. I’ll be trying out a couple of other thermocyclers. Please don’t feel bad- I’m sure that you will be able to find another investigator with whom you can have many successful experiments. I’ll always remember you fondly.

What more can I say?


Hey baby. Rrrowr. Woof.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Media Madness

Chicago area readers can catch me on this evening's 5:00 news on Channel 7 (WLS). I'll be discussing the Blanding's turtle project with reporter Frank Mathie. I'll post a link tomorrow.

Update: You can see the clip of Celeste and I discussing the Blanding's turtle here.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Bugs Are Back!

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Spring has finally begun to arrive in a big way. Since it was in the 70s and sunny today, a visit to Bluff Spring Fen seemed in order. Everything has been delayed by ur cold spring, so with the arrival of warmer weather, things are popping into bud and bloom with surprising speed. The spring ephemerals are starting to bloom.

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

In a rich oak woodland, there should be drifts of color from the spring flowers. Our woods are pretty beat up, and have only reeived good care for about the last 20 years. Instead of drifts of bloom, we have dots of bloom. I’m beginning to suspect that the appearance of a rich spring flora will not happen fully in my lifetime. Still we have increasingly good species diversity.

Rue Anenome (Anemonella thalactroides)

In the wetlands, the marsh marigolds are in bloom. An English blogger and I were recently surprised to learn that this species occurs on each others’ continents as well as our own. Here’s photo documentation of a North American clump.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) - in America

The burned areas are greening up nicely. Since it’s been requested, here is a shot of the aftermath of the burn. I’ll continue documenting its progress.

Unburned to the left, burned to the right

The bugs are back!! I saw several species of butterflies today. A stonefly posed long enough for me to photograph it. Most excitingly, I saw two species of tiger beetles. The beautiful green six-spotted tiger beetle did not hang out long enough for me to photograph, but I got a decent picture (my first) of the twelve-spotted tiger beetle.

Stonefly (Plecoptera)

Twelve-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela duodecimguttata)

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Murray Canyon

Near the trailhead

Well, if this isn’t embarrassing. On Monday, Leon and I hiked to Murray Canyon, one of the Indian Palm Canyons outside of Palm Springs. It was a gorgeous day, and we saw lots of interesting stuff, including more metallic wood boring beetles in the genus Acmaeodera than I’ve ever seen before. We saw dozens of them, with three species represented. I was able to get no good photos of them. I’m not sure why, but every time that I wanted to take a shot, my autofocus wanted to focus on anything other than the damn beetle.

Not quite in focus longhorn beetle. My best insect shot of the day, unfortunately.

Hello, Lizard

Still, it was a great day. The hike begins in a palm oasis, then veers off into the desert for a while. The desert was in late spring glory this week. Most of the brittlebrush and other flowering plants have gone by in the lowest, hottest spots. But in the canyons and at slightly higher elevation, the spring bloom is still very much on. I was surprised to see such a large diversity of bloom being put forth by various members of the borage family.

Beautiful blue legume

Palms at the entrance to Murray Canyon

Eventually, the trail winds into Murray Canyon. We saw lots of wildlife and blooming plants. I also had a great butterfly sighting. For years now, I have wanted to see the California dogface butterfly. It’s a sulphur that gets its name from markings on the forewing that resemble the profile of a dog’s head. There were scores of them flying in Murray Canyon. They don’t sit still for photos- I did manage to get one blurry shot of a mating pair. That was more or less the story of the day from a photographic standpoint. At least I got two nice pictures of lizards.

Not yellow leaves, but a mating pair of California dogface butterflies.

Lizard under the palms

For me, this picture epitomizes the Colorado Desert of southern California. The palms and lush growth along the watercourse contrast with the stark, arid hills.

The hike ends up canyon at a series of small waterfalls called the Seven Sisters. There was quite a bit of water in the canyon, which made the waterfalls particularly enjoyable. On our hike out, we encountered a horned lizard that had climbed up into a small shrub where it was eating ants. Don’t even ask about a photo. And as for the butterfly that I wanted to collect for a DNA sample? In the entire long weekend, I may have gotten a fleeting glimpse of one individual. Feeling an odd combination of satisfaction and disappointment, we concluded the hike with the obvious: a stop at the trading post for sodas and Carnation ice cream sandwiches. These we enjoyed in the outdoor seating area overlooking Indian Palm Canyon.

The Seven Sisters

Ice cream and a beautiful view of Indian Palm Canyon

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Sunshine and Butterflies

Sunrise reflected on Mt. San Jacinto

I've been in Palm Springs since late friday evening. We have spent the weekend with UrSpo and Someone, who journeyed out from Phoenix on Friday. The weekend has involved a lot of relaxation and visiting. Tody we'll go for a hike. I hope to be able to capture a Wright's metalmark butterfly. It's in the same a close relative of the swamp metalmark, but it's a fairly common butterfly in these parts. I want to extract DNA from it and use it forr tthe cross-amplification study that's a part of my paper describing microsatellite DNA characterization from the swamp metalmark.

It's wonderful to be seeing butterflies and other insects out and about, especially given how bad springtime in Chicago has been so far this year. The desert is still in bloom, which makes for some great scenery. It will be interesting to see what other insects are around, as this is my first spring visit to the California desert sine my entomological interests have expanded beyond butterliies. I'll pictures from today's hike.

California Sister (Adelpha bredowii)

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Monday, April 07, 2008

I'm Burning for You

(With apologies to the Blue Oyster Cult).

At long last, we have had a beautiful spring weekend in Chicago. It was sunny and in the sixties both Saturday and Sunday. What to do with such a meteorological bounty? Of course! Let the world dry out thoroughly on Saturday, and burn Bluff Spring Fen on Sunday. Readers who have been with me for a while will remember the series of posts from about a year ago where I described the whys and wherefores of prescribed burning.

Running the Drip Torch

This year's burn went beautifully. We got fire into all of the areas that we had planned to burn. Our oak savannas had dried out enough to carry fire briskly through them. One section of restored prairie had enough fuel to burn for the first time this year. I even got to run the drip torch for a while (my favorite burning task).

The oak woodlands burned remarkably well

The Forest Preserve District is very serious about personal protective equipment (and rightly so). In addition ot my very attractive mustard yellow Nomex jumpsuit, I wore a hard hat for the first time. For most of the burn, I felt like I was part of the Village People. How often will I be able to get both a Village People and a Blue Oyster Cult musical reference into the same post?


Completely unrelated aside: I saw my first butterfly of the season during the burn- a mourning cloak. Spring is really here.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Turtle Time

One year old Blanding's turtle. Aren't they cute?

Regular readers, please excuse today's foray into the land of the Chordata. Today at work we began a completely new venture. We are participating in a breeding and headstarting program for the Blanding's turtle (Emydoidea blandingii).

Blanding's turtle is an endangered species. It ranges across the upper Midwest from Nebraska to eastern Ontario. There are also populations in southeast New England. They live in sedge meadows, and are endangered mainly due to habitat destruction.

Jamie releases one of the subadult females into the new tank.

The headstarting program is part of an upgrade to the Museum's Mysteries of the Marsh exhibit. The turtles are living in a large tank that is lined with one-way glass. Visitors can see the turtles, but the turtles can't see, nor can they become used to, the people visiting them.

Bucket o' Blanding's

Five turtles arrived at the Museum in a plastic bucket today. Three are yearlings. We will rear them for a year and then they will be released into the wild in DuPage County. The other two turtles are subadult females. We are keeping them until they reach breeding age, when we will turn them over to the DuPage County Forest Preserve District for their captive breeding program. The juvenile and subadult turtles live in separate sections of the tank.

Settling in to their temporary home

We are very excited to be participating in a conservation program for these turtles. I look forward to be working with a vertebrate. These guys are much lower maintenance than giant pandas.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Circus of the Spineless #31

Circus of the Spineless #31 has been posted at From Archaea to Zeaxanthol. There are lots of great invertebrate posts in this month's carnival, including one from Yours Truly. The marine invertebrate folks are fighting amongst themselves. The rest of us can look on and feel smugly superior.


It’s all in the structure

Arid Lands Tiger Beetle (Cicindela marutha)

In response to my tiger beetle post last week, TR expressed admiration for the beautiful metallic green color of Cicindela marutha, the arid-lands tiger beetle and asked
What chemistry creates those patterns and colors?
It’s a fun question, because the beautiful reds and greens of tiger beetles aren’t created by chemistry at all. Color in the natural world can be segregated into two main varieties: pigment and structural. Pigments are chemical compounds. It’s possible to grind up, for example, monarch wings and isolate orange colors from them. In contrast, you can’t isolate a blue chemical compound from a Morpho butterfly wing.

Morpho granadensis
Photo: Jyoti

Structural color is caused by some aspect of the physical structure of, say, a wing or a shell that causes interference or diffraction of the light striking the object. Often the structure has tiny ridges or is composed of multiple layers. A nice technical presentation of structural color in Morpho butterfly scales can be found here (pdf file). If you would describe a color using words like metallic, iridescent, opalescent or even glittering you are probably describing structural color. Colors that change depending on the angle that you view them at are also structural.

Cairns Birdwing (Ornithoptera priamus). Structural green.
Photo: Jyoti

In general, greens blues or purples are structural colors. The obvious exceptions are green plants, which derive their color from the well-known pigment chlorophyll. Blue, in particular is very rare as a pigment in nature. Nearly ever time you see blue in the natural world, be it a butterfly wing, a blue jay feather, or a mussel shell, you are seeing structural color. One of my favorite butterflies in Butterfly Haven, the blue-banded shoemaker (Nessaea aglaura) is noteworthy because it contains a very rare example of a naturally occurring blue pigment. If you look at the butterfly in the photo below, you can notice that the blue band on the butterfly’s wings does not have a shiny, metallic appearance. I think it looks a bit like a stripe of tempera paint that was applied to the wings.

Blue-banded Shoemaker (Nessaea aglaura)
A very rare example of a natural blue pigment.
Photo: Jyoti

Pigments are much more likely to result in reds, oranges and yellows, as well as browns and black. These colors can also, at times, be produced structurally. Consider two tiger beetle below. The shiny metallic cast to the red colors is an indication that it is structural rather than pigmented.

White-lined Tiger Beetle (Cicindela lemniscata)
Structural red

Finally, consider white, a color that is also often the result of structure rather than pigment. This chalk-fronted corporal dragonfly has white on the body and wings. This color is the result of a colorless waxy compound that is secreted as the dragonfly ages. The color is referred to as pruinescence. The most common white associated with nature- although not biological- is also structural. If you melt snow, you don’t get a white pigment, but clear water. The white is simply light scattering off of the irregular surface.

Chalk-fronted Corporal (Libellula julia)
Structural white

Special thanks to Jyoti for letting me use her excellent photos from Butterfly Haven.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Butterflies to Fight Global Warming

A fascinating and unexpected benefit from butterly breeing.

AP, Boulder, Colorado
Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research today announced a bold new plan to fight global climate change. Dr. Beverly Crusher, chair of the Center’s Global Climate Change Task Force, notes that recent advances in breeding techniques now enable large-scale production of butterflies. "The wedding industry alone requires the breeding of tens of thousands of butterflies for release each year. By expanding production by two or perhaps three orders of magnitude, we estimate that a significant cooling could be achieved. The combined flapping of millions of wings could reduce global temperatures by as much as two degrees Fahrenheit." Researchers are currently studying improvements to the approach. "By releasing the butterflies near bodies of water, the cooling effect of the leipdotrogeinc winds could be enhanced by evaporative cooling," notes Crusher. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, Crusher estimates that the first butterfly releases specifically attempting to reduce temperatures could begin as early as 2016.