Come catch me!

26 Jan

After a five-mile and five-hour trek in the Hill Country of Texas, I netted a dozen and a half butterflies and two diurnal moths. Caught two butterflies in the net with one swipe. Watched two metalmarks twirl and then couple together, the male struggling while flying away and the female hanging underneath.

I missed several  butterflies, caught some replicates, and three escaped my fingers. The most abundant species were gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) and common buckeyes (Junonia coenia). Interstingly, the size of the gulf fritillaries varied more than I expected, and they were all males.

The best prize was a male goatweed leafwing (Anaea andria); a beauty. It escaped my fingers as I reached for my phone from my pocket to photograph it. A four letter word echoed through the junipers. 

This species favors muddy areas in and alongside forest roads. They are different than many other butterflies because their preferred food sources are tree resin and decaying fruit, although they may also visit flowers for nectar.

On my return hike, a common buckeye taunted me by landing on the dirt in front of me and then flying up to land another meter ahead. It did this several times, while I told it outloud that I was not interested in playing its game. It continued this ‘game’, and I then said, “Okay. I’ll play once.” The little bugger would wait till I was close, facing me on the ground, then disappear before my net covered it. 

This continued again half a meter in front of me, facing me and waiting. So I tried to net it again; it would disappear and I had an empty net. “Okay, you little bugger. Game’s on!”

I finally caught it on the sixth try. I pulled it out of the bottom of the net, wings folded, and asked it why the hell it wanted to play, then put it on my arm where it sat for 30 seconds opening and closing its wings, then flew away.

A beautiful day in the low 70’s, sunny, and almost no wind. It was a wonderful day on the trails. All the volunteers (five of us) back at ‘camp’ had happy hour when I returned, with margaritas, peanuts, and popcorn. 

That night I dreamt that I was using two nets at a time and catching 4-6 butterflies in each net, had an assistant to remove and ID them while I picked up two more nets and caught more butterflies. Meanwhile, around us were people mingling at a party drinking margaritas, laughing and wearing party hats. 

All in a good day’s work.

 

To be a butterfly……

26 Jan

I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man? – Zhuangzi

Over the last four years while volunteering at the national wildlife refuges around the country, the two animals that have captured me, and for which I have devoted most of my time, are birds and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). They chose and adopted me, not I them. And we have developed an interesting relationship.

My academic career before retiring was focused on plants, their ecology and pathology, and later, pathopysiology and molecular cell biology. My last ten years was spent in a university academic ‘high tower’ in Dallas, Texas. The typical routine of 14-16 hours of my day in labs and offices, trains and traffic, slowly sucked the life out of me.

I missed the field, the dirt, sweat, the odors of wet soil and plants, and the sounds of all creatures other than Homo sapiens. They were part of my spirit and soul and I was tired of doing time in “the machines”. So I left it all behind.

My contribution to the refuges has involved assisting with the biology programs: bird surveys, banding birds, developing and implementing habitat surveys and management programs, training interns, assisting with outreach education programs, and other tasks that help fill in gaps in each refuge’s biology needs.

During one of my early commitments at a refuge, a butterfly flew by me one late morning. Large red and black wings flapped three times and then glided to alight on my arm. While looking at it, a smile formed on my face, and the butterfly stayed on my arm, slowly folding and unfolding its wings. Although possibly only 30 seconds, it seemed much longer as we both had a conversation inside and between our realities. That was my first intimate monarch butterfly encounter.

Several people have participated in forming my relationship with these animals. Especially a contract lepidopterist that conducts butterfly and moth surveys all over the Pacific Northwest. I still remember well our too-short and too-few excursions in the field sharing our observations and stories of butterflies, and life in general.

Another individual that also contributed at the beginning was a refuge anthropologist. Her excitement over my discovery of a relatively large population of breeding monarchs on the refuge initiated a survey documenting not only presence but also at least two generations of breeding monarchs on the refuge. After the initial disbelief by other staff that monarchs actually ooccupied and used the breeding resources (also said to be of rare presence) on the refuge, she and I provided documentation of presence, resource use and habitat value. That database was circulated to regional resources for future use.

Since then, my commitment at every refuge I have worked at has involved butterflies, especially monarchs. Last summer that expanded to a two-month moth survey in collaboration with lepidopterists at Oregon State University, and the friend and colleague mentioned previously.

Recruiting other volunteers to assist in sorting and identification of the moths was a greater success than I ever anticipated. The weekly sessions, sometimes lasting three to four hours, were eagerly attended. They regretted that the survey ended in late September. The moth samples are now in the hands (literally) of the expert lepidopterists in Oregon for authoritative identifucation and documentation.

Now at a refuge in Texas, I am netting butterflies again.

Several refuge staff, volunteers, and acquaintances have over the past years urged me to write posts about working with birds and butterflies. I shrugged that off because of the plethora of  websites about both on the Internet. Two monarch researchers that I collaborated with also suggested writing and posting observations on monarch natural history, ecology, and critiques of published literature.

A friend and professional writer finally pushed me to follow that through. And this is the first post in that series.

Stay tuned for additional posts.

 

 

Pycnofibers? Or trichomes?

27 Dec

Pycnofibers and trichomes

Before dinosaurs and birds, other creatures like pterosaurs lived on the Earth. They didn’t have hair or feathers. But they had surface filaments on their bodies that can be seen in their fossils. The cellular structures are called ‘pycnofibers’. They had a single empty cylinder inside each filament. Pycnofibers arose from the epidermal cells, not from under the skin like hairs with their hair follicles. Nor like feathers. 

What amazes me, and which I find amusing, is that plants have these structures, too. They are called ‘trichomes’, and are well documented, including electron micrographs depicting the variety of trichome structures and shapes. Yet, nowhere in the literature that includes ‘pycnofibers’ is any mention of trichomes! Perhaps pycnofibers are the animal equivalent of the plant trichome. 

Trichomes can be inert with no chemical activity, or metabolic. Some are single-celled, some are multi-celled. Some are metabolic, some are secretory. Some are visible with the naked eye, others require a microscope. There is even a ‘trichom-ome’ now; the investigation of all the proteins and pathways involved in producing trichomes and their contents. Yet, the content of some trichomes is only air. And I am pretty sure that some of you have had encounters with trichomes. 

A trichome encounter

Last summer, while conducting a waterfowl breeding survey, I had an intimate

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Trichomes on stinging nettle.

encounter with trichomes. The route for the survey was a walk-through on an unmowed dike dividing two marshes. Much of the vegetation – mustards, and other composite plants- was over my head at 5 feet plus four inches. The route was like pushing through jungle vegetation. One hand held my notebook and pencil and the other hand and arm pushed vegetation aside. 

Three-quarters on my way back to the starting point, my left hand and wrist began burning, like dozens of bites by fire ants. When I reached the vehicle, both hand and wrist were burning, red, and itching like crazy. Good thing I always wear long-sleeved shirts.

The culprit was the trichomes on stinging nettle plants. These tiny hair-like structures are on the stems and undersides of leaves. The thin outer portion of the trichome is silica, and it is very brittle. Shaped like a long hair with a fine point, the tip can break off and penetrate the skin of an animal that brushes up against it. When broken, a complex mixture of chemicals inside the trichome is dumped onto and into the skin. 

A chemical analyses reveals that those trichomes contain neurotransmitters: histamines, acetylcholine, and serotonin. Several acids are also in that mix: formic acid (remember my reference to fire ants?), oxalic and tartaric acids. One or more of these compounds can elicit pain or itching. But the cocktail of all those compounds may be the synergy to induce long-lasting pain, itching and inflammation. 

Over the next week, my hand and wrist swelled so much I had trouble moving my fingers and closing my hand into a fist. I had to switch my watch to the right wrist. I usually held my lower arm up, bent from the elbow. If I didn’t, the wrist and hand throbbed in addition to burning and itching. Twice-daily applications of a dermal corticosteroid somewhat alleviated the symptoms, but not enough. Ice also helped, but I couldn’t keep ice on it 24/7. A phone call to urgent care recommended trying an oral anti-histamine and applying a dermal anti-histamine, with icing once every hour if possible. I added a dose of ibuprofen twice a day. The pain subsided before the itching, which was the hardest symptom to  to ignore. 

Why trichomes?

With that anecdote in mind, you may guess the function of some trichomes and why many plants evolved these dermal structures. Not all trichomes are bad, however, Some are merely hair-like, with pigmentation, and cover the leaves. They are inert; no compounds are inside their trichomes. Their functions may be to trap rain and morning dew to cool the surface of the leaves and stems, or to reflect light away from the surface. Many plants in arid climates have these types of trichomes. 

If you do a Google search on ‘trichome’, the most prevalent result is photos of marijuana trichomes. Trichomes on the stems and leaves of hemp plants, including marijuana, are highly evolved deterrents against herbivory by animals. The three different types of trichomes of Cannabis sativa, or marijuana, are “the very factories that produce the hundreds of known cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids” that the plant is known for. Some trichomes -those that look like tall-stalked, bulbous mushrooms- have higher concentrations of the above compounds and cover specific tissues on the plants: the calyx of the flower buds. When crushed, they exude a sticky, odiferous resin that often repulses animals from eating them, except for humans. 

Why did Mesozoic pterosaurs have pycnofibers? Were their pycnofibers the animal version of plant trichomes? Possibly.  A question is, which evolved first? 

What is the story?

19 May

This book should be required reading for all scientists, new and old. No exceptions.

Houston we have a narrative.jpeg

Bunny Blankets

8 Apr

A bunny in bear’s clothing? Yes, it is. A team of researchers in China developed a fabric that mimics the fur coat of a polar bear. A live rabbit was wrapped in a ‘blanket’ made img_6854-1of this prototype fabric and used infrared imaging (thermal imaging camera) to measure the difference between the rabbit’s body and ambient temperatures. The body of the rabbit under the blanket was almost completely undetected. Where the body was exposed to the changing temperatures (14-104 degrees Fahrenheit), thermal imaging detected only those exposed areas. This demonstrates good thermal insulation.

Like the fur of polar bears, the fabric also reflects infrared light. The blanket fabric reflected light up to twice that of commercial textiles and can’t be detected by night-vision scopes and cameras, just like polar bears.

What makes polar bear’s fur so special? A fiber from the fur of a polar bear is a

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Polar bear fiberS

simple cylinder. The interior core of the fibers are hollow, which helps traps their body heat and insulate them from Arctic winters. This hollow trait of the bear’s fibers also reflect back infrared light, but the transparency of those same fibers scatter UV light to neighboring hairs, via light scattering. Their black skin absorbs and stores heat from that UV light. All these factors help insulate the polar bear from cold, even when wet. Think of passive solar energy and storage.
Despite being so porous, the fibers are strong because a thick layer of keratin surrounds the hollow core. Keratin is a protein common in nails and hair. Keratin protein molecules form a helix, and two keratin helixes wind around each other conferring both strength and elasticity. You can think of animal fiber as a thick rope containing many stings of these entwined keratin filaments. In the case of the polar bear, these keratin layers surround the hallow core.

So how did those scientists mimic the fur of a polar bear? They did so through a very complex process of spinning a mixture of compounds found in silk and crustaceans (like shrimp and crabs). A solution of fibroid, a protein in silk, and chitosan, a structural carbohydrate made from chitin, was spun in freezing conditions. Ice particles separated the fibers leaving air spaces when warmed. These resulting fibers, which had both properties of thermal insulation and strength, were aligned and then woven into a fabric, and tested on the bunny.

Being a fiber artist, I wondered how fibers from sheep compare to the properties of polar bear fibers. The variability of fiber between breeds and individual sheep is immense. So many factors influence the characteristics of wool fibers: breed, age, nutrition, and weather. However, the primary composition of wool fibers is fairly consistent.

Because I raised sheep in Oregon (decades ago) and spun their wool, I was familiar with the overall structure – overlapping scales in varying lengths – of wool fibers. However, I wanted more details on its morphological structure. I can quickly draw and label the structure of muscle fibers and fibrils, but not a wool fiber! So I searched online for a diagram and electron micrographs, longitudinal and cross-sectional,  of a typical wool fiber. From these we can see how polar bear fibers are structurally different, but they both have insulating properties.

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Mammal, silk, and plant fibers

Most animal fibers contain exterior scales (except polar bears,  remember). You can see the difference in scales, or lack of, in the image to the right, in both animal, silk and plant fibers. Also apparent are the sizes of the scales, and their distance apart. These are the images most of us are familiar with when we think of fiber structure. But it’s more complex than this.

If we compare the fibers in this image to that of the polar bear fiber, we can see that fiber structure of wool is more complex. You don’t see slightly rough exteriors and hollow centers! Instead, wool has irregular and overlapping scales. But that’s not where the differences end.

Let’s look at the interior morphological structure of wool. Wool fiber contains three

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Morphological structure of a wool fiber.

primary parts: the outer cuticle, the cortex (divided into two sections), and the medulla. The cuticle includes the scales and several layers that surround and protect the cortex.

The cortex is the bulk of a fiber. In that cortex are many macro- and microfibrils, similar to a muscle fiber. A similarity to the polar bear fiber, and that of most mammals, is keratin. The medulla is not really distinct, depending on the mammal species. It is empty space and arranged in a honeycomb fashion within the cortex. That space can be tiny, as in sheep breeds with fine fiber, or larger, which is more typical in medium and coarse fiber breeds.

The structure of the wool fibers, and the fiber ‘community’ (meaning the collective grouping of fibers in what we sheep folks call ‘fleece’), contribute to the insulating properties. Another structural component is fiber crimp. Wool fiber can be long and straight, or short with many crimps. The number of crimps, how they are spaced along the length of the fiber, and how close they are to neighboring fibers, greatly influence how much air a fleece can hold within it. That air also contributes to its insulating properties.

But it doesn’t stop there! At least for humans that shear those fleeces, wash and prepare them to spin into yarn that is eventually knitted or woven into fabric to wear or for other domestic purposes. The natural structure and characteristics of those fibers determine how we process the fleeces, how we spin them, use the yarn for a final product.

We could even knit a blanket for a bunny.

Writer’s Block

27 Mar

I really need to get rid of this block. CA595853-ED63-47D8-9C69-FBBAC89A0B8D

2018 Year of the Birds

8 Feb

Like Jonathan Franzen (author of this article), birds were just simple pleasures in my life until my fourth decade. Watching groups of evening grosbeaks chatter and bully each other in the large feeder outside my cabin’s picture window was often the amusement of my winter days in Maine. As was observing parental red-tailed hawks on fir tree branches teach their fledglings to fly by taunting them next to the pastures in Oregon.

Thinking back, the enchanting swans in the fog that occasionally visited the small ponds of spring melted snow in the field next to the house I grew up in, the majestic snowy owl that often perched on a large tree branch in our back yard looking at me while I sat in my snowsuit and looked at it……. These are still vivid memories that probably contributed to my path to become a biologist so many decades ago.

Learning about their evolution (and ties to dinosaurs), their adaptive biology and physiology, the unique complexity of colorful plumage, the often amusing social interactions with each other and within their ecosystems, their impressing tenacity to migrate thousands of miles, their inherent traits that we covet as amusing (such as the burrowing owls clownish movements), and even ornithologist’s taxonomy, which reveals more about ourselves than the animals; it all deepened my respect and wonderment for the world of birds.

Now, in my retirement and no longer in the whirlwind of academic life, birds have become more personal and intimate, which has increased my passion for them. Holding a six-week golden eagle nestling while working with two USFWS biologists to band and collect data was like holding an angel in my hands. Bird surveys allow glimpses into aspects of their lives: breeding, migrating, feeding, competing, parenting, and housekeeping. Handling birds while banding them with metal ‘bracelets’ is more than just data collection; it is a rare and privileged opportunity to share a moment of respectful interaction between bird and human.

This winter by a lake in west-central New York State has provided me with the same fascination and enjoyment of my childhood. Instead of purposeful counting, naming, banding, and poking, I have been simply a bystander observing and enjoying that simple delight. When the small group of four trumpeter swans expanded to 19 swans, I was out on the edge of the lake with binoculars searching for them every day. When an adult bald eagle swerved down from the air to instantly grab a fish from the water barely 25 feet from the side of my kayak, I was a giddy kid again. Watching the antics of house finches play hide and seek in the weeping elm tree next to the deck made me smile and laugh. While I stood on the edge of the Genesee River gorge this past fall, a male American kestrel flew and kited below me with the sun gleaming off its blue feathers. It was like watching a ballet in the air.

Many people share a passion for birds. For some its about ticking off names on lists, some fans have favorites and spurn other non-favorites, others travel around the world to see exotics, and many colleagues think about them mostly when they are a component of their research. Others delight in watching birds out their windows, and I know a few that give them their own names. Many avid birders organize and participate in bird watching groups, which sometimes amusingly reminds me of bird social behavior.

We all have our own source of what birds bring to our lives. And there is a growing number of us that work towards improving the world in which birds live. In today’s human-contructed world, we attempt in diverse ways to protect them from disappearing. Part of this mission entails educating people on how wonderful and important birds are, part is “boots on the ground” activism, such as volunteering with groups that rescue and rehabilitate injured and orphaned birds, or participating in bird counts that provide numbers from which we can estimate populations and movement. The importance of the latter is information to help us manage and improve habitat for birds.

This year is dedicated to the birds. Learn about birds, all birds. Let birds expand your world and share it with others. You don’t even have to learn their names. It’s just that simple.

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