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Racing the Red Queen July 8, 2015

Posted by stinawp in Uncategorized.
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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.

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