Empty House

Hornet's Nest
Hornet’s Nest

My parents are remodeling their house, which is one of those processes that will, invariably lead to all kinds of surprises. This is a close up of a very large hornet’s nest that they found inside of one of the south walls — I’ve keyed it out as Vespa.

It’s always shocking to me that insects that people think of as dangerous and aggressive, like these hornets, can establish themselves next to humans and remain unnoticed for years before evidence of their existence is even discovered.

2012

So, 2012 has been pretty crazy. I started the year in Europe, where I had the opportunity to take a geometric morphometrics course and collect data for my master’s thesis. I applied to, and was accepted to a Ph.D. program in Lincoln, Nebraska … and, at the end of the year, I’ve decided to quit the program in order to take time off and focus on myself, because I’m really not sure that grad school is what I want to do with my life.

Oh, and I managed to take some photos during that time. Here are a few of my favorites from the year. I think that I’ve learned and improved a lot over the last twelve months.

Owl Butterfly
Owl Butterfly
Great Plains Rat Snake
Great Plains Rat Snake
Jumping Spider
Jumping Spider
Fiery Skipper
Fiery Skipper
Ringneck Snake
Ringneck Snake

Next year promises to be even more exciting, as I’m going to Australia. I’ve wanted to visit for as long as I remember, and I’m really excited to go. I’m going to be living in western Queensland for at least a few months , working and taking pictures of the local fauna. Afterwards, I hope to spend some time up north, for rainforests and crocodiles, and then spend some time in Sydney and the south of the country in the Spring and Summer. I’m looking forward to discovering a whole new continent of reptiles and arthropods. :)

Samalanders!

Salamanders are probably my favorite organisms on the planet. I know that I posted something this summer about how bombardier beetles are the best organisms on the planet, but I can pick favorites based on other qualities, and salamanders have plenty of those. For example, some mole salamanders (in the Ambystoma jeffersonianum complex) reproduce through a process known as gynogenesis. These entirely female lineages clone themselves in order to produce offspring — but they cannot reproduce without mating. Instead, they mate with males from closely related species, essentially stealing their sperm, without passing on paternal genes. (If anyone wants me to talk about this at length, I totally can, because it’s awesome.) Other salamanders are known for their remarkable ability to completely regenerate limbs that they have lost (axolotls, Ambystoma mexicanum are the model organism in which this has been most extensively studied, but the phenomenon of limb regeneration is well known from many, many salamander species) and their incredible longevity (olms in the genus Proteus can live to well over seventy years). The largest amphibian in the world is a salamander —Andrias davidianus can reach over four feet in length and weigh sixty pounds.

Basically, frogs are boring?

Anyway, the reason that I’ve been thinking about salamanders is that I’m in North Carolina for the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, and because this state has the world’s greatest diversity of salamander species, I took a few days before the conference to go herping with friends. The salamander catch wasn’t great — it’s a little late and a little dry — but poor salamandering in North Carolina is better than excellent salamandering almost anywhere else in the world, so I’m not really complaining.

Red-Cheeked Salamander, Plethodon jordani
Red-Cheeked Salamander, Plethodon jordani

Most people probably go to the Great Smoky Mountains to look at things like bears and foliage, but they are wrong — bears are everywhere, as are trees. If you take the time to flip over a few logs, though, you will almost certainly find one of these guys — and they occur nowhere else in the world. Red-cheeked salamanders are mildly toxic; they secrete a nasty mucus when disturbed, and the red color on their cheeks is generally thought to be warning coloration deterring potential predators.

Imitator Salamander, Desmognathus imitator
Imitator Salamander, Desmognathus imitator

The imitator salamander, Desmognathus imitator shares its range with the red-cheek, and takes advantage of the other salamander’s chemical defenses by mimicking its coloration in order to deter potential predators. This is a biological strategy known as Batesian mimicry, in which a harmless species mimics a toxic or otherwise dangerous one in order to improve its own odds of survival.

Herpetology Class Trips

This semester, I’m taking a herpetology class. It’s a lot of fun — I get to actually learn about amphibians, and the class has a lab and field component that I’m really enjoying. Part of my final grade will be based on how well I keep a field notebook — and while writing down substrate temperatures quickly gets boring (there’s a reason I’m not an ecologist, dammit), the plus side is that occasionally, there are things like snakes and frogs in my life.

For example, on Labor Day, I wandered down to the southeastern corner of the state with my lab mates, and while the herping wasn’t great, we did manage to find this wonderful Great Plains Ratsnake (Pantherophis emoryi) hiding under a rock near the side of the road.

Great Plains Ratsnake
Great Plains Ratsnake

Yesterday, our whole class piled into a couple of vans, and we hit Schramm State Recreation Area. With thirty eyes fixed on the ground, we managed to find some pretty cool stuff — including a young Eastern Racer (Coluber constrictor) caught in the act of eating a neonate Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).

Racer eating a Garter Snake
Racer eating a Garter Snake

I admit it’s not my best photo ever (super natural background, eh?) but that’s just cool.

Other finds included large numbers of Blanchard’s Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi), a juvenile male Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon), adult Common Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), Plains Leopard Frogs (Lithobates blairi), a young Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) — an invasive species in Nebraska, and, finally, a pair of young Cope’s Grey Tree Frogs (Hyla chrysoscelis), who were hanging out in the park restrooms (cool, damp, and full of insects!) — here’s a portrait of one on a slightly more natural background.

Cope's Grey Tree Frog
Cope’s Grey Tree Frog

Gas Station Finds

I love gas stations. This is partly because I drive an SUV with terrible mileage (I know! I am a bad person! But it was an affordable vehicle on my grad student budget.), but also because gas stations have wonderful, bright lights and ready resources of sugary garbage. The net effect of this is that I often find quite good insects at gas stations, especially late at night.

Most gas station attendants are a little weirded out if you just go at it with a bug net, but I try not to let the little things stop me.

So, for example, when I was driving home from Omaha late on Sunday night, I had to stop for gas. The gas station that I stopped at was pretty well deserted (mostly because it was about one in the morning), and the lights were full of little buzzing insects … and one very large, flying insect.

I at first assumed that this insect was a hunting dragonfly that had, for some reason, stayed out past its bedtime … but something wasn’t quite right about its flight pattern. When the insect came in to land, I managed to capture it, and this is what I found.

Mediterranean Mantis
Mediterranean Mantis

This is a beautiful adult male Mediterranean Mantis (Iris oratoria). At first, I wasn’t quite sure what he was, since I didn’t realize that this species got to this size … but while I was capturing, I managed to annoy him enough that he gave me a beautiful threat display, which pretty much cinched my species identification.

Iris oratoria

(This lovely photo is not mine — It was taken by Isidro Martínez, who graciously CC licensed it for the Encylopedia of Life collection — but I figured that you all needed a photo of just how cool this display really is.)

Since Mediterranean mantises are invasive, I didn’t feel a particular need to let him go back into the wild — so he’s currently in a Critter Keeper on my desk at home, voraciously devouring an offering of crickets. I’ve decided to name him Sheldon.

I also went herping today, and actually found stuff, in spite of the awful weather we’ve been having in Nebraska — I’ll post those photos for you all tomorrow.

Black and White

So, I was playing around with backgrounds in my whitebox today, and I think that this one is … interesting.

Blue Dasher
Blue Dasher

I’m not entirely sure it’s successful, mind you.

Male Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis.

I want to be somebody’s buddy

Today, I bought some fresh lavender at the market, because fresh lavender is probably one of the best things in the universe, and also it was on sale, so that was pretty much inarguable. When I got home, I discovered that I had apparently purchased a small friend in addition to fresh flowers.

Crab Spider
Crab Spider

This is a crab spider (family Thomisidae). They’re ambush predators who hide around fruit and flowers, waiting to nab visiting insects.

I am not sure how much prey he’s going to manage to catch inside my apartment, so I’m letting him go outside, even though I was pretty excited to find him.

Photo Details
Konica Minolta Pro Automatic 35mm F2.8 Lens reverse-mounted with 20mm extension tube on a Canon T1i Rebel
ISO 100 at f/22, 1/100 sec
Diffuse flash in whitebox
Image editing in Adobe Photoshop CS5

Gulf Coast Toad

Toads are pretty great animals., and I am very fond of them. There are lots of good, herpetologically sound reasons to be fond of toads, but in my case, they all kind-of boil down to one thing.

Gulf Coast Toad
Gulf Coast Toad

Look at that face! It’s so adorable and grumpy and perfect!

This was an adult female. Adult toads can be sexed fairly reliably based on the presence or absence of a nuptial pad on the forelimb and hand; in adult males, this large, prominent structure is used to hold on to adult females during amplexus (the fancy word for frog sex), while females lack these structures. This photo also shows off one of the key identifying characteristics of this species: tall, thin cranial crests (the bony ridges inside of the eye) that give the skull and face a very angular shape.

Photo Details
Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro Lens on a Canon T1i Rebel
ISO 100 at f/16, 1/100 sec
Diffuse flash in whitebox
Image editing in Adobe Photoshop CS5

Lacewing

Neuroptera is probably my favorite insect order, mainly for their amazing and excellent larvae, but the adults are pretty awesome, too.

Green Lacewing
Green Lacewing

I am guessing that this lovely adult green lacewing is in the genus Chrysoperla, but lacewings are tricky.

Why I love wasps (and you should too!)

Wasp Portrait
Image from Stuart Williams

I was asked to talk about wasps over on tumblr, and I put so much effort into the resulting post that I figured I’d better cross-post it over here, too.

The fear of wasps and bees is an incredibly common phobia. For anyone who’s ever been stung by a yellow jacket or a hornet, this probably seems like a perfectly reasonable thing. Being stung hurts, and some people can have life-threatening allergic reactions to stings. And unlike bees, wasps don’t get a lot of positive press. They don’t make honey, after all, and they’re not the insects that we think of when we think of agricultural pollination.

But wasps are probably some of the most important insects in the world. If we somehow managed to remove all of the wasps from the world, it wouldn’t be inconvenient or a small ecological disaster, but the world would basically stop working.

This post is going to get long, but hopefully by the end of it, I can convince you that wasps are the best animals ever.

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