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Caterpillar superheroes, part 2 July 29, 2016

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Caterpillars have hydrostatic skeletons, kind of like water beds. The big disadvantage to this is that if they spring a leak, it’s usually fatal. But one big advantage is that they can contract their entire bodies at once. This can lead to pretty impressive feats of strength:


Caterpillar superheroes, part 1 July 25, 2016

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I’m rather crazily trying to finish the final part of my field research and don’t particularly have the energy or inclination for even mildly insightful posts. Therefore, I will just keep posting goofy caterpillar videos until I run out of them or the work slows down.

This is a caterpillar valiantly defending itself against a parasitoid wasp that wants to lay her eggs in it.

Another fun caterpillar thing July 21, 2016

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Insect circulatory systems are weird. (From the viewpoint of a mammal, at least.) Instead of a comprehensive system of blood vessels, an insect only has an aorta that runs along the top of its body. It’s open at both ends and pumps fluid from the tail end up to the head. A week ago, I collected a big caterpillar that has very little pigmentation on the top of its body. As a result, you can see the heart pumping.

An excellent caterpillar July 18, 2016

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Last Thursday, I spotted this on a leaf:

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When I was showing the photo to everyone back at the station, everyone thought it looked so cool that I agreed to collect it and rear it, even though it has nothing to do with my project. (We’ll release it when it turns into a moth.) It was also an opportunity to take more photos.

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If you’re trying to figure how on earth this is actually a caterpillar, a side view might help:

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This caterpillar belongs to a family of caterpillars (the Limacodidae) that are commonly called “slug caterpillars” because their abdomens are flat and sticky, rather than having little mini-legs like most caterpillars. They also tend to either be very hairy, like this one, or smooth and featureless. On a lot of species, the hairs sting like nettles, but this caterpillar’s hairs are very soft and don’t sting, for which I am appropriately grateful.

The species is Phobetron hipparchia.

Fly-bys July 14, 2016

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July 12, 2016

On the heels of my last post, a nature photographer arrived at Palo Verde. She and her guide arrived in the late afternoon and left before lunch the next day. I guess they got some good photos—apparently a laughing falcon just sat on a branch and “posed” for them—but I’m sure they only got to see a fraction of what they could have if they’d stuck around even a bit longer.

I’ve always been confused by the people who come and go in less than a day, although since I talked a friend into driving from San Francisco to Yosemite so that we could spend twelve hours there, I can’t judge. Instead, it makes me realize how little I know Palo Verde even now. I walk the same stretch of road every day in the morning from June to August, but I don’t know what it’s like in the middle of the night or in November. And I’ve barely seen the rest of this half of park, let alone the other half, which I’ve visited exactly once.

The second-rate photo gallery July 11, 2016

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The problem with trying to take photos for a blog while doing field work is that I don’t really have time to wait for the right lighting for a scene, or hope that an animal will come closer or stop moving. I take one or two photos and they either turn out or they don’t. Here are some from the second-rate gallery—they weren’t totally disasters, but they don’t have enough detail be particularly interesting in and of themselves. I guess they might help prove that I’m not making things up.

Exhibit A:

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This is a moth I saw that looked like the love child of an orange-winged butterfly and a metallic blue wasp. It’s from a family of moths called Sesiidae, which all have skinny wasp-like wings, frequently with clear spots on them. This one kept crawling and flying around, even though it was having trouble getting anywhere.

Exhibit B:

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A pair of praying mantises mating. Honest. Taking photos of anything in a tree backlit by the sky is hard. On my way back, I wasn’t able to find them again, so I don’t know whether the male survived the experience.


Exhibit C:

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Speaking of backlighting, there’s pair of bare-throated tiger herons nesting in a tree right by the lab. Which is cool, except the nest is right over a path and there’s about a five-foot-wide bird poop splash zone. Tiger herons are pretty big.

Informative errors July 7, 2016

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July 7, 2016

Since I started working seriously on my Spanish, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to native Spanish speakers who are generally fluent in English and the mistakes they still make in English. I figure that those persistent mistakes can probably show me where I’ll be especially prone to mess up in Spanish, and what the correct usage would be. For example, the graduate student/naturalist here frequently says “I don’t have nothing”, etc. because double negatives are perfectly acceptable in Spanish.

Because my Spanish is so rudimentary, I can’t provide a comparable sampling of English-language errors in Spanish. However, last week I did wind up providing an informative cultural error. After some people walked into the dining room 15 minutes late, the other naturalist turned to me and said, “You don’t have provecho in English, do you?” I agreed that we didn’t.

Provecho, which I would translate as bon appetit or “enjoy your meal”, is something that Costa Ricans say to one another, not just at the beginning of a meal together but, as far as I can tell, whenever they see someone eating. What happened was that the latecomers walked in, said provecho, and everyone at our table (except me) said provecho or provecho igual (“enjoy your meal too”). I am also really bad at walking into the dining room and offering a provecho to the room in general.

One thing I haven’t really figured out is at what point social anonymity excuses one from wishing someone provecho. People who have just arrived at the station, don’t know any of us will, and are sitting at another table will still say provecho as they walk by. But I think the small size and isolation of the field station may increase the sociality of visitors. I certainly don’t remember people wishing strangers provecho in the roadside eateries the buses stop at. And the image of a waiter and party walking through a restaurant provecho-ing every table they pass strikes me as rather ridiculous. Also quite annoying to the other patrons.

Sorry, Henry July 4, 2016

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After listening to The Invention of Nature, I discovered that the library has Walden as an audiobook and read/listened to it for the first time. I’m a little ashamed to admit that, but that’s not why I’m apologizing to Thoreau. After a discussion of food and what he ate in his cabin, he moves into a metaphysical tangent about how the most spiritual and intellectual people eat very little. He backs this up with a natural history lesson about how caterpillars eat ‘voraciously’, but ‘perfect’ adult butterflies “content themselves with a drop or two of honey”. Ironically for someone who observed nature so frequently, he got this idea from a book: Kirby and Spence’s An Introduction to Entomology. And Kirby and Spence were flat-out wrong:

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This is several butterflies “puddling” on a run-over frog. Butterflies will also drink from rotting fruit, bird poop, urine, and (maybe less objectionably as far as people are concerned) sweat and wet earth.

In short, the idea that butterflies just drink nectar from flowers is nothing more or less than…