Friday 5: The Genius of Ed Yong

If you’re reading my blog, it’s likely that you read others. I have a list of over 60 blogs that I follow regularly, everything from insect blogs like mine to other science blogs to cooking and photography blogs. I do have one general science blog that I particularly love. If you’re not reading Not Exactly Rocket Science by Ed Yong, you really should! He is a marvelous science writer and posts clear, concise, and humorous pieces on new scientific discoveries. He has degrees in biology and biochemistry, but he’s quite good at reporting on just about any area of science you can imagine. I enjoy his blog immensely, though I particularly love his frequent insect stories. He likes the strange and amazing stories and the experiments with weird methods that yield interesting results. There are some truly crazy sounding experiments out there and Ed’s (and I’m going to call him Ed and pretend like we’re friends, even though we’ve never met) really good at finding them! He’s posted some great insect stories recently, that include the following:

This dung beetle’s air-conditioning unit is crap. No, really

Dung beetle

Representative, generic dung beetle photograph – not the species in the study

The title alone was enough to make me want to read this one! Insects are exotherms and they have evolved some ingenious means of keeping themselves cool in really hot weather. Take the dung beetle Scarabaeus nigroaeneus, a species that rolls its dung balls in the deserts of South Africa. You should read Ed’s take on this experiment, but the gist of it is this: researchers filmed dung beetles with heat-sensitive cameras to show how climbing on top of the dung ball periodically as they rolled them along was a very effective cooling mechanism. Plus, the experiment involved making little dung beetle socks to protect dung beetle feet from the scorching sands. Click on the link up there and read this piece. You won’t regret it!

The insect that hears like a human, with ears on its knees

Katydid

Representative, generic katydid photo – definitely not the cute little unicorn katydid from the study

This post is great! In it, Ed discusses how humans hear, a complicated series of steps involving several structures in our ears, and then compares it to new structures discovered in a katydid species that allows them to hear in a surprisingly similar fashion. Katydids have their “ears” on their front knees, but otherwise the sound detection structures are quite similar to our own. They even have a structure that is equivalent to our tiny ear bones! This post does a marvelous job of highlighting convergent evolution, how, as Ed put it, “good adaptation are rarely wasted on just one part of the tree of life.” Well worth the three minutes it will take you to read it.

Prisoners do science, help to save endangered butterfly

Variegated fritillary butterfly

Representative, generic butterfly photo – not endangered

I really love stories like this! It features a program in Washington state that gets prisoners involved with conservation efforts by putting them to work in captive breeding programs for endangered butterflies, frogs, plants, and mosses. Apparently these programs are quite successful as the inmates are often producing stronger, more robust organisms than other conservation and scientific groups. The work also has a social impact on the prisoners who participate. According to Ed’s report: “They talk about how it completely changes how they think. Most people are in the prison yard talk about who did them wrong. Then, all of a sudden, guards will tell us they hear people saying, ‘Hey did you see how that moss was growing?’” I don’t know about you, but I LOVE the idea of felons excitedly discussion their mosses! What a great idea, and something I might never have known about without Ed’s help.

Everything you never wanted to know about the mites that eat, crawl, and have sex on your face

(I don’t have any photos of face mites, so here’s a graphical representation of five of them in a group together: • )

I am awed by the diversity of organisms that live on people! There are an unbelievable number of bacteria on humans, and there are also all sorts of little microscopic animals roaming around on us. There are, of course, the species that cause itchy problems like crab lice and head lice, but there are other creatures, such as mites, that readily colonize humans as well. Ed’s post on the subject WILL make you itch as you read it, but it’s an interesting read! It features how one researcher has recently implicated mites as a possible cause of the skin disease rosacea. It’s fascinating to think that a skin problem might be caused by tiny arachnids living in your hair follicles. (At least, I think it’s fascinating! You are, of course, welcome to disagree.)

To find out why this beetle has a spiky penis, scientists shaved it with lasers

seed beetle

Representative, generic dung beetle photograph – not the species in the study

As if seed beetles weren’t cool enough… They have several amazing behaviors, one of which I will get around to sharing one of these days, but I was also recently alerted to the fact that seed beetle males have very spiky genitalia. A team of researchers had studied the spiky seed beetle phallus and could only speculate on what the organ actually did. So, they shaved the spikes off to see how it impacted reproduction. The results generated more questions than they answered and we still don’t know what the leakage of seminal fluids into the female’s bloodstream (the result of that spiky appendage) actually does, but generating new questions is one hallmark of scientific experimentation. Science wouldn’t be nearly as exciting if we did an experiment and suddenly knew everything there is so know!

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that you should read Not Exactly Rocket Science, if you don’t already. I think it’s a great example of science writing at its best, so head on over and see what new and interesting things you can learn about life, the universe, and everything! You won’t regret it! Well, usually you won’t regret it. That face mite post you might regret just a little… *scratch, scratch, scratch*

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Circus of the Spineless! (No. 71)

Ah, the joys of winter!  Snowy, cold weather (at least if you live somewhere other than sunny, warm Arizona like I do!).  The air is crisp, icy, and clean.  Crunchy dead leaves crackle underfoot as you walk.  Weak sunlight filters through spindly, naked tree branches in a feeble attempt to warm the earth.  Everything seems to be frozen in place and time.  And, apparently, hardly anyone has anything to say about invertebrates!  This month’s Circus is compliments of six hearty bloggers, braving the elements to bring you the latest and greatest in spineless news!

Belenois_creona

African Common White, Belenois creona. Photo by Colin Beale at http://safari-ecology.blogspot.com/2012/02/butterfly-migration-out-now.html.

Of course, not everyone blogs in cold places.  For example, there was a fantastic migration of butterflies in Tanzania early in February.  Hundreds of white butterflies flew past the awe-struck Colin Beale each minute, and he gleefully documented the event on his blog Safari Ecology.  A man after my own heart, he decided to collect some data and invited readers to map their sightings, then posted some preliminary results!  Everyone give Mr. Beale a round of applause for taking the initiative to write about an amazing event, then turning the experience into a meaningful scientific data gathering exercise!  I for one think this is completely awesome.

Hermit crab changes its shell

Hermit crab changes its shell. Image courtesy of The BlennyWatcher Blog, Hermit crab changes its shell.

A few other intrepid bloggers from warmer climates posted about their own experiences.  Anna DeLoach of The BlennyWatcher Blog contributed an excellent story about night diving in Indonesia, hermit crabs, and the joy of new experiences.  Ever wonder what the back part of a hermit crab looks like?  Now’s your chance!  Head on over to BlennyWatcher and take a peek at some naked crabs.

Another marine story comes from Zen Faulkes of NeuroDojo who recently discovered a beach full of Portuguese men of war while collecting data.  The description of the pain these creatures inflict with a flick of their tentacles is fascinating and the alien blue color of the animals spread across the beach is just wonderful.  The post also details the trials and tribulations researchers experience in the pursuit of data.  Check it out!

Snow fly

Snow fly. Photo by Rebecca Deatsman at http://rebeccainthewoods.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/snow-fly/.

And then there’s Rebecca Deatsman from Rebecca in the Woods, the one lone, brave soul who ventured out into the snow-covered north woods for her post’s information.  But oh!  Is there anything better than insects that live on the snow?  I think not!  Read about Ms. Deatman’s discovery of snow flies in her fascinating post.  You won’t regret it.

Several other bloggers kept us up to date on the news of our favorite spineless animals.  A giant amphiphod made headlines in February.  Happily, Mr. Faulkes of NeuroDojo was there to fill in some gaps in the news coverage.  While the BBC and other news outlets suggested the giant crustacean was new to science, Mr. Faulkes sets us straight: it’s likely a rare species of deepwater marine amphipod called Alicella gigantea.  However, even if the species isn’t new to science, there are still a lot of unknowns, so head on over to NeuroDojo to read more about the fascinatingly unusual “superprawn!”

jumper

Jumping spider

Ever wonder how a spider moves with its freaky unpaired leg muscles?  Many small spiders contract their leg muscles and then use hydraulic pressure to move the legs back into place because they lack the second set of muscles necessary to do so.  But do bigger spiders do the same thing?  Once again, Mr. Faulkes comes to our rescue, presenting a new paper that suggests that jumping spiders do things a little differently.  Check it out.

Did you hear about the flying squid?  No, this isn’t the start of a bad joke, and boy does Danna Staaf have the story for you!  Some squid species launch themselves out of the water and “fly” occasionally rather than swimming constantly.  Want to know why?  Over on Squid a Day, you’ll learn more about this fascinating behavior, and get to see some of the data from the Ocean Sciences meeting that prompted the recent media frenzy.

You know how creatures around deep-sea vents tend to do crazy weird things?  In another fascinating post over at NeuroDojo, you’ll learn about the Pompeii worm, a denizen of deep-sea vents that supposedly* holds the record for the animal able to withstand the highest temperature.  Head on over to NeuroDojo for a glimpse into the lives of these bizarre worms and how they are able to survive those super hot temperatures.

(*Editorial comment: I disagree with the researchers’ statement about this being the most heat tolerant animal!  Hello?  Tardigrades?  You can BOIL those little guys without harming them, AND they can survive temps close to absolute zero!  I’m sorry, but Pompeii worms don’t hold a flaming hot candle to tardigrades in the heat tolerance category.)

Dicosmoecus gilvipes

Dicosmoecus gilvipes larva. Redrawn from Limm and Power 2011.

My own contribution to science news featured a paper demonstrating how one species of caddisfly, a funky little aquatic insect that builds cases and drags them around, uses Douglas fir needles to help keep the bugs upright in fast flowing water.  Caddisflies are amazing insects.  I think everyone should know at least a few things about them, so I hope you’ll check it out!

And finally, I’ll end this month’s Circus with a fabulous music video, compliments of Deep Sea News.  Thanks for bringing this spineless gem to our attention!

COTS survives because people volunteer to act as hosts.  Next month the Circus is headed over to Deep Sea News, so look for more great spinelessness there in early April!  Interested in hosting yourself?  You can find information at the Circus hub.  Volunteer and help spread the joy of invertebrates to others!  (You know you want to!)  After all, even the spineless need love.

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For my regular blog readers who have NO idea what this is, the Circus of the Spineless is a blog carnival, a monthly collection of posts written by bloggers and submitted to a host blogger, focusing on the backbone-less animals of our planet. These are the posts sent to me by lovers of spineless creatures!  Hope you enjoyed this foray outside of the realm of insects, but we’ll return to our regularly scheduled broadcast on Wednesday.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Friday 5: Benefits of Bug Blogging

I started this blog as part of a requirement for a science communication fellowship at the Biosphere II that I got in 2009.  It worked out well because I had always wanted to start a blog, but I lacked the motivation to keep any of the blogs I started going.  The fellowship meant that I HAD to blog and that was all the motivation I needed!  I quickly fell in love with blogging.  While the other fellows in my cohort were discouraged by the lack of visitors to their blogs and most stopped posting long before their year was up, I was doggedly determined to make my blog work.  By the end of the year I was getting over 100 visitors a day, which I considered good at the time.  But more importantly, I’d developed a blogging habit.  I was hooked and I didn’t want to stop!  As a writer, teacher, and insect lover (aka, massive bug geek), I’ve realized that blogging about insects gives me joy for several reasons.  5 reasons in fact.  You know what that means!  Friday 5!

I love blogging about insects because:

1. It is fun to interact with other bloggers.  The insect blogging community is amazing!  We’re a fairly small group of people, but I’ve found that everyone tends to band together into this tight-knit, mutually supportive network.  The bug bloggers I’ve met in person have all been extraordinarily lovely people and the conversations I have with other bloggers via their blogs and my own are stimulating and entertaining.  Being a part of this community makes being a bug blogger an amazing experience!  If you listened to Bug Girl’s draft talk for the Entomological Society of America meeting next week, you’ll notice that she mentions how bug bloggers should foster a sense of community and collaboration as we’re all working toward a common goal.  I think that’s absolutely true.  I don’t feel competitive with anyone else and simply enjoy being a part of the community – and I think a lot of other bug bloggers feel the same way.  It’s a great feeling!

Toxomerus pollitus hover fly

2. It’s fun to interact with readers.  I hadn’t read many blogs before I started my own, so I didn’t realize that blogging opens up an amazing dialog between blogger and readers!  I really enjoy talking to you all.  I love the stories you share.  I love that you keep me on my toes and correct my mistakes.  I love that I can have short conversations with so many people.  I love that you ask me questions, though I don’t always have all the answers.  And, when I have a chance to meet you in person and exchange more than a few words with you, I am a very happy person!  My interactions with you all make the whole experience so much more pleasant, fun, and exciting than it would be otherwise!  It’s one of the best parts of bug blogging, in fact.

Mantid

3. I can share what I know with the world.    I blog because I feel like I have something to say.  I also have an irrepressible love for insects and it’s difficult keeping that bottled up inside.  I have been known to interrupt conversations to correct insect “facts” I overhear (oh yes, I’m that person!), so it’s better that I send my knowledge out into the void and hope someone, somewhere benefits from what I have to say about insects.  Like I said, I can’t contain this stuff, and blogging is a much more socially acceptable means of sharing what I know with others than eavesdropping.  :)

Cacama valvata cicada

4. I can spread the insect love.  I love insects!  I think everyone should love insects.  Way too few people love insects though.  On the continuum from “Oh-my-god-I-freaking-love-insects!!!” to “Eew-kill-that-terrifying-monster-now!!!”, I know in my heart that most people fall closer to the latter.  However, I’m an optimist.  I believe that if you write/tell interesting stories about insects, share a lot of photos and/or live insects, and write/talk so that people can actually understand what you’re trying to say, people will move a little further toward the Oh-my-god-I-freaking-love-insects!!! end of the continuum.  I might be deluding myself, but I hold tight to this belief and hope that my love for insects is infectious enough to spread to a few people who wouldn’t otherwise appreciate these amazing animals.

Hemileuca hualapai caterpillar

5. I learn new things.  Every now and again I’ll write about something and realize that I need to do more research before I can post.  Out come all the books and internet resources!  Several hours later, I’m usually off on some random tangent and have learned several new and interesting things, sometimes even things that benefit my research.  I also learn new things from comments I get from readers, especially when people ask me questions that I don’t know how to answer.  If the request is reasonable, I often delve into the literature, at least briefly, to try to find an answer.  I learn new things from other bug bloggers too.  In fact, I’ve found that reading the blogs and Twitter feeds of blog bloggers really helps me keep up with insect news!  If you are interested in insect news, I highly recommend the same approach.

Perithemis intensa dragonfly female

There are many other reasons why I think blogging is a worthwhile experience, but these are definitely my top 5.  Anyone want to suggest some other benefits of blogging?  If so, leave a comment below!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

The Dragonfly Woman Turns 2! (And another contest)

Happy blogoversary to me!
Happy blogoversary to me!
Happy blogoversary to DW!
Happy blogoversary to me!

The Dragonfly Woman is two years old today!  Crazy to think that I’ve kept this little blog o’ mine going for two whole years.  When I started my blog back in 2009, I posted once a week and struggled to post that often.  Thankfully, it was a requirement for an academic  fellowship I had at the time, so I stuck it out.  Thank you Biosphere 2 for not only helping me get a blog started (I had always wanted to write a blog), but forcing me to stick with it long enough to create something worthwhile!

Now blogging has become completely routine.  I walk around thinking, “Ooh!  This would make a good blog post!” when I see something interesting.  I notice things in a way I never did before.  I carry my P&S camera with me everywhere, just in case I see something I want to photograph for my blog.  I’ve vastly improved as a photographer with both my DSLR and my P&S and I’m finally getting bug shots that I’m proud of.  In the past year, I’ve also expanded from posting once a week to posting thrice a week.  (Yes, I worded that specifically so I could use the word “thrice” for the first time ever.  What a glorious word!)  I’ve built up a regular following of fantastic people who apparently enjoy the same sorts of bizarre things that I do.  And, last weekend, I topped 100, 000 views!  Overall, I’m feeling pretty good about where my blog is now and where it’s headed in the future.  What a fabulous experience!

My main goal for the coming year is to move my blog over onto my own  website.  I just can’t do some things that I would like to using WordPress.com.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love WordPress, and I heartily recommend it to other bloggers.  Still, I am feeling limited by the system. on WordPress.com  None of the templates make me entirely happy and why pay for a custom CSS upgrade when I can pay for my own site?  I also need to streamline my dragonfly swarm data collection.  Can’t do that on WordPress.com.  Need my own site.

Otherwise, I hope to keep things going as they are now!  I enjoy mixing science, education, and random entomology topics together, so I’ll keep on doing things as I always have.  It seems to be working okay so far!

mug

My aquatic insects mug.

Because I love you all for supporting my blogging habit and I’m in the mood to celebrate my blogoversary, I’m going finish up here with another contest!  Lots of people wanted a mug last time I offered one, so I’m offering another one.  No need to follow me on Facebook or on Twitter this time!  Just leave a comment below and I’ll enter you in a drawing for an aquatic insect mug hand painted by me.  Same rules apply as last time: if you win, you can have the mug pictured at left or you can choose up to 3 aquatic insects of your choice for a custom mug – black ink on a white mug in the style you see in the photo.  I’ll collect entries for one week and announce the winner next weekend!

Thank you all for sticking with me and supporting what I do here!  The very best part of the blogging experience has been forming online relationships with other bloggers and my readers.  I used to scoff at my computer science geek friends in high school and college for forming online “friendships” and swore I wasn’t ever going to stoop to doing it myself.  Yeah…  Sorry high school and college friends!  I clearly didn’t know what I was talking about.  I love feeling like part of a community, even if I haven’t met the majority of the people in my community offline – and I look forward to the day that I get to meet some of you in person!

Now excuse me, but I need to work on my post for Monday.  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Teaching Insect Behavior Using Blogs

There’s been a bit of a delay in getting a post out this week thanks to my coming down with a cold.  Before I continue my series on insect respiration (which requires more energy to finish than I have available at the moment), I wanted to take a quick detour to describe a new project I am using in the class I teach this semester.  Next time, assuming I’m cold-free by then, I’ll jump right back into the respiration series with a post on aquatic insect respiration.

As an entomologist who blogs, I have learned that there are a lot of people in the world who want information about insects.   I have also learned that these people often look up very obscure things.  I try to remember this when I decide what I want to write about and sometimes blog on obscure topics even though I don’t think many people will read them.  I’m constantly surprised by the things that people will read!  When I write new posts, I try to remember that someone, somewhere will eventually want to know what I have to share, so I should always go ahead and post it.  And even if no one reads it right away, at the very least I’m making information available so that people can easily access it later.  I find my blog very fulfilling and I’ve come to believe that blogging is a powerful tool in disseminating scientific information to the world.

Abedus herberti mating

The giant water bug Abedus herberti mating. Photo taken in class last week.

This semester, I am once again teaching the insect behavior lab at the University of Arizona, but I’m trying something new.  Here’s how the insect behavior lab generally works when I teach it.  The students come to lab once a week for close to two hours.   For the first four labs, they do highly directed work that teaches them the basics of collecting behavioral data from insects and how to present their data in scientific paper format.  For the majority of the remaining labs, they are simply given a topic for the day (locomotion, predation, etc) and a goal.  The students then figure out what questions they want to ask to achieve that goal, form hypotheses, and develop a quick experiment to test their hypotheses using the live insects I make available to the class.  The students submit several assignments, including a lab notebook of their observations, lab write ups written in proper scientific paper format, and a longer scientific paper reporting on an individual project they do outside of class.

lab notebooks

Some of my own lab notebooks.

One of the major problems I have with the class is that the information we collect almost never makes it outside of the classroom.  This is an issue for me because some of the students come up with some very interesting information and do really excellent, publishable work.  However, the knowledge my class produces belongs to only a handful of people, often only the group that worked together in class and me.  Who cares if one of my students discovers something amazing?  No one outside the class is ever going to learn of it, so it does absolutely nothing to further science or make others aware of some of the fascinating things that insects do.

In an effort to remedy this deplorable state of affairs, my insect behavior students are being given the opportunity to submit some of their classwork in blog format for the first time.  Students who choose this option may submit their lab reports and their lab notebooks online via science blogs they create.  It is my hope that some of the interesting and/or valuable things that my students learn will finally be made available outside of class for people who are interested in the behaviors we study.  Aside from the benefits to science-loving people outside the class, I also believe that making their classwork available publicly will benefit my students.  Writing something that everyone can read makes you think about things more thoroughly, convinces you to look up that fact you are not completely sure is true, makes you more concerned about embarrassing yourself in public.  Or at least, this is what I choose to believe.  :)

I don’t know how many students will choose this option.  So far, it doesn’t seem popular for submitting lab reports, but I believe at least a few of them are submitting their lab notebooks as a blog.  The lab notebooks are probably more interesting for others to read anyway.  Really, though, I’ll be excited if even a few students take the blogging option.  If they do, I will post links to thier blogs here when I get them.  Some of my current students are likely to produce very high quality work that will be well worth a read.  It’s a really excellent group so far, probably the best I’ve had!

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Text and images copyright © 2010 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Abedus herberti mating

The giant water bug Abedus herberti mating

I find my blog very fulfilling and I’ve come to believe that blogging is a powerful tool in disseminating scientific information to the world.