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MaddAddamites and other futures July 26, 2015

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As usual, I’ve been listening to audiobooks while photographing caterpillars and doing other repetitive tasks in the lab. Some of the first books I listened to this summer was Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy. They’re really good, although some of the characters have a questionable grasp of some aspects of biology. When that happens in fiction, I’m never quite sure whether it reflects on the character or on the author. Regardless, the trilogy is a very interesting vision of a post-climate-change, post-apocalyptic world.

That was the only problem with listening to those books here and now. When everyone’s saying next year will either be a normal year or even drier than this one, the last thing you want to be asking is “what if there are no more normal years?” So since then I’ve stuck to space-based science fiction or classic literature. I’m currently listening to War and Peace, because marching through the Russian winter with Napoleon is about as far away from dried-out Palo Verde as I can get.


The little things July 26, 2015

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June 26, 2015

I ran into the naturalist/graduate student giving a couple a tour this morning. This isn’t unusual, since the easiest way to see lots of different (vertebrate) animals is to go west along the road, and the easiest way to find lots of caterpillars is to go west along the road. Tours often give me a chance to see animals I wouldn’t otherwise notice or see well, since I don’t carry binoculars. In this case, it was a crane hawk perched far back in a tree. It looked like a typical dark-colored hawk except for its long bright red legs so I made the appropriate noises and went on working.

After I finished looking for caterpillars, I rode back to the station with them. On the way back, I spotted a male long-tailed manakin. It was mostly black too, but with a red cap, a bright blue upper back, and two really long tail feathers. Unfortunately, the couple was on the wrong side of the car, so neither one of them got to see it. We tried to get out and find the manakin, but it flew into the forest.

It’s a sad truth that most of the animals here will see, hear, or smell you and take evasive action long before you spot them. Insects are the exception. Here’s the one non-caterpillar I was able to take a picture of today:

You think I'm joking? That fly's not getting identified without a microscope.

A fly (Diptera). To tell you more, I’d have to look at the wing veins and see how many bristles it has on its shoulders.

Frustrations and apologies July 21, 2015

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July 21, 2015

If anyone is still reading despite my erratic postings or lack thereof, my thanks and apologies. My excuse isn’t that I’m totally lacking in self-discipline, but that the vast majority of it is currently keeping me plodding along on a very frustrating project. One part of my research—the part where I’m trying to measure the effects of many different caterpillar shelters on caterpillar survival—is going as well as can be expected given the lack of rain. The problem is another project—to switch caterpillars from two different species into each other’s shelters and see how much differences in survival are just caused by the shelter itself.

Unfortunately, both the plants the caterpillars eat and the butterfly adults are particularly vulnerable to dry conditions. When the host plants first sprouted in early June, I watered patches of them daily so they’d look appealing to the females laying their eggs. Then some big herbivores (maybe deer, maybe iguanas) started eating the plants in one bite. A couple weeks ago, the adults finally appeared and started laying eggs on the plants. But when the caterpillars hatched, they built shelters that were very different from the ones I expected them to build. I spent a few days trying to figure out whether I could still do the experiment if they were building several different types of shelters instead of the one type I’d expected. I decided to give it a shot and switched a few pairs of caterpillars.

That was when the herbivores came back and ate a bunch of my plants, caterpillars and all.


Normal posts will continue soon. I promise to put at least two more up by the end of this week.

Drawing a line July 16, 2015

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June 20, 2015

Today we had mondogo (tripe) soup for lunch. It was well-prepared, tender, and quite unobjectionable. However, there were also some large gobbets of clear gel. It tasted like a combination of unflavored gelatin and a chunk of pure fat, like on the edge of a pork chop. I decided that one bite of this new mystery food was quite enough. So what was it?

After a while, I put together the faint burned smell in the air and bones in some of the other soup bowls and came up with bone marrow. I remember the odor from a time when I helped roast marrow bones, essentially on a dare. I don’t know how bones can still smell burned when they’ve presumably been boiled, but the smell’s memorable and, for me, off-putting. I didn’t try any of the marrow after I helped cook it, and I would have been perfectly happy continuing that.

On the other hand, I can this to the list of organs I’ve eaten the next time I teach a pig dissection in lab. I find it a little disturbing how much credibility telling my students I’ve eaten tripe gets me.

Postscript: A week or so later, I was forced to acknowledge that I’ve occasionally been eating liver here for the last three years. At first, I thought the difference in flavor and texture was a result of marinating beef. Then I realized that the cooks serve some pretty tough cuts of meat without the benefit of marination and decided not to think about it further. This blew up when one of the student researchers here had some on her plate, was told in Spanish what it was, looked disgusted, and put it back in the pan. I didn’t catch the Spanish, but I had a pretty good guess as to what it was. I guess all those pig dissections were good for something after all.

Racing the Red Queen July 8, 2015

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Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen has become a favorite metaphor in biology for anything that is constantly “running…to keep in the same place”. I hoped the timing of caterpillars here might work like that—if the rain is n weeks late, then the caterpillars will be n weeks late. Unfortunately, Palo Verde’s more like a whirligig.

The timings of the weather, the plants, and the caterpillars are interconnected and difficult to follow. To add another layer of complication, each year I’ve arrived at a different time. The only reliable benchmark I have is the timing of a caterpillar I’ve been studying all three years (Calpodes ethlius). In 2013, I started looking for caterpillars June 5th and found my first mature C. ethlius caterpillar the same day. In 2014, the first dry year, I arrived May 24th and didn’t collect my first C. ethlius until June 11th. This year, I didn’t collect a mature C. ethlius until June 20th.

But that nine day difference isn’t the whole story. In 2014, the plants the caterpillars eat had already sprouted when I arrived. This year, I didn’t see any of the host plants until June 7th. So the weather’s messed up, the plants are responding to the weather, and the caterpillars are responding to both. The only good thing about this is that I’ve been able to collect lots of caterpillars from species that were already finishing up when I arrived last year. But don’t ask me to predict when anything will happen next year.

Tabebuia again July 5, 2015

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June 9, 2015

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The forest has lit up with patches of yellow—the Tabebuia trees here are blooming. Since we’ve had rain five days out of the last seven, I was really confused. I even checked whether the trees were really Tabebuia. Someone told me no, they were cortez amarillo, and I became even more confused. A quick check of a tree guide cleared things up: Cortez amarillo is the common name for Tabebuia ochracea and whichever name you call it, the tree blooms at both the beginning and end of the dry season. Normally that would be in April, but this is the most rain Palo Verde has had all year.

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