Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Morning at the Field Site

I am not overly fond of one of my field sites.  It’s in a part of the desert that has been severely overgrazed for way too long, so I travel through scraggly, comparatively desolate desert for 45 minutes to get there.  I’m also not a morning person in any small way, so getting up early to travel through scraggly desert so I get into a stinky, disgusting pond and work isn’t exactly my idea of fun.  However, every now and then I’m there so early that I get to see the sun come up.  Then that overgrazed bit of scraggly desert transforms into something very, very beautiful:

morning at the field site

Morning at the field site

Gorgeous!

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

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Field Stories: Scary Situations

(The post I planned to do today is taking longer than I expected, so it won’t get posted until next Monday.  In the meantime, I give you the following field stories!)

I believe that all entomologists have some sort of horror story from time spent in the field.  I’ve already shared my centipede story and my giant water bug attack story, but I have oh so many more!  Today I’m going to share a few scary stories from my deep treasure trove of memories.

field site

The desert around my field site

Drug Dealers

I live in Southern Arizona.  If you know anything about this area, you know that it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to wander around in the desert.  I don’t worry about the illegals crossing the desert.  Give them some water and they will be so grateful they’ll name children after you!  But the drug dealers…  That’s an entirely different matter.  One of my field sites is in a prime drug running area.  The area is absolutely crawling with Border Patrol agents, but it doesn’t make much of a difference.  Every time I go out to that field site, I hope I don’t see anyone.  I never go alone.  I carry a gun with me.  It’s scary being out there at the best of times, but one time there was this ominous black truck parked along the little dirt road you take to get to the pond.  A really nice truck.  The kind of truck you wouldn’t ever see on a tiny little overgrown ranch road for legitimate reasons.  There was a guy sitting in it.  My companion and I drove past and collected water bug eggs anyway (I would have turned around if it were up to me, but I wasn’t driving), and we were totally on edge the entire time.  We stopped and listened carefully every time we heard a car (extra stressful considering there is a busy dirt road obscured by a small hill just on the other side of the pond!) and prepared to shoot our way out if necessary.  It was incredibly stressful.  It’s hard to convey the fear I felt!  The experience made me so much more cautious than I’d ever been in the past though, so I suppose some good came out of it.

Rattlesnakes

I don’t see many snakes for someone who spends time outdoors in Arizona.  I’ve only seen a total of 9 snakes over the 18 years I’ve lived in Tucson!  The most exciting snake was one I was lucky to see.  I was out sampling a creek in the Rincon Mountains for a project I was doing for one of my jobs.  At one of the sites, there were steep banks on either side of the creek and limited places where it was easy to climb out.  My coworkers and I were just about done sampling and realized we needed to ask our boss a question, so I headed toward the car to get my cell.  I walked up the bank the same way I always did, using this perfect little foothold in the bank to take the last step up to level ground.  I was I just about to slam my foot down on the foothold for that last step when I happened to look down and see this:

rattlesnake

Rattlesnake!

My foot was 3 or 4 inches from the snake when I saw it, so it was a huge challenge to change my momentum sufficiently that I didn’t come crashing down on top of it with my sandaled foot!  I jerked my entire body backwards as hard as I could and essentially launched myself back down the bank toward the creek.  I landed on my knees about 10 feet away and just sat there shaking for a few minutes.  I had nasty bruises.  I was in pain.  But I didn’t get bitten!  And then I used a different foothold, ran to the car, got the phone and a camera, and snapped some photos of the rattler.  What can I say?  I’m a biologist.  That’s what we do.  :)

Dead Bodies in the Lake

the lake

The Lake

Most of you probably know that I worked at an urban lake in Tucson once a week for most of three years.  The lake is in a crappy neighborhood, so we saw lots of crazy things.  Before we started working there, my coworker and I were told that someone once found a dead body in the lake.  We couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Every time we got the anchor stuck on something, we’d worry just a little that it might be a dead body.  Then one week they found a dead body in the lake 6 hours after we finished sampling.  The presence of an actual dead body in the lake made pulling one up with the anchor seem so much more possible!  What if we had been there?  What if we had found it?  Was it in the lake while we were sampling?  The idea disturbed our other coworker so badly that the next time he got the anchor stuck on something, he made me promise that we would quit sampling immediately if it was a dead body.  I have never seen anyone look so relieved to pull up a lawn chair covered in algae and mud!  Poor guy.  He probably still worries about finding a body in the lake…

Bears

At one point, my advisor decided that we should collect some special water scorpions that we have in Arizona in the genus Curicta.  We headed to Ramsey Canyon, a lovely little canyon run by the Nature Conservancy, to try to find some:

Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon. Image source: http://bit.ly/igSoy7

We talked to the people in the visitor’s center when we arrived and they warned us that there had been a bear in the area that day, hanging out around the ponds we were intending to collect.  We promised we’d keep an eye out for it and headed into the canyon with a volunteer as our guide.  As we walked up the hill, a couple came down saying, “There’s a bear!  There’s a bear!”  They pointed up the hill and practically ran toward the visitor’s center.  A minute later, a family told us that they’d just seen a bear and pointed up the hill as they rushed past us on their way out of the canyon.  When we get to the pond and prepared to collect, we fully expected the bear to wander in at any moment.  Guess who had to take her eyes off the surroundings and get into the pond to collect?  Me!  I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared collecting in my life!  I kept looking up to make sure the bear wasn’t coming, which made collecting very difficult.  And then I didn’t catch any of the bugs we wanted!  Nor did I ever see the bear!  Total bust.  The canyon was gorgeous though, and the threat of the bear made it so much more zesty.  As a result, I now remember that adventure rather fondly!

Ah, the joys of bug collecting in Arizona!  I’m sure some of you have some great stories like these.  I’d love to hear them if you want to share them in the comments!

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I’m giving away another aquatic insect mug!  If you haven’t done so already, you can enter here.

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

Friday 5: Five of my favorite experiences with insects

speakIf you can’t tell from reading my blog posts, I am a bit of a storyteller at heart.  I tell people about my experiences with insects in story form most of the time.  Partly, I think it makes the things I’m interested in more palatable to people who aren’t insect lovers and helps me relate to “normal” people, but partly it’s because that’s how I store information in my head.  I experience something, immediately turn it into a story, and pack it away into some dark corner in the basement of my brain for storage.  When a story finds its way back up to the surface, it’s in a format ready to share with others!  Today I’m going to tell five short stories about my experiences with insects.  I hope you enjoy them!

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Collecting Dragonflies

My sister and I were very active in 4-H as kids.  In high school, my favorite project was entomology (go figure) and I collected all the time.  I quickly captured nearly everything in my neighborhood, but I was 14 when I started and my range was limited by my inability to drive.  Enter my dad, the man who took his two daughters mineral collecting or fishing or camping nearly every weekend since we’d been born.  He drove me to the mountains (1.5 hours away) and collected minerals while I collected bugs.  He drove me to the river (an hour away) and fished while I collected.  After 4 or 5 of these trips, he started taking more of an interest in what I was doing and soon we were going on trips specifically so I could find insects.

Dad

My dad, watching bugs and birds.

I collected my first dragonfly in a mountain meadow far from water and we were both enthralled by it.  It was very hard to catch, but it was also amazingly beautiful.  I knew I needed to catch some more.  So, my dad found a lake an hour away and off we went!  I was so happy with my haul on the first trip (10 species!) that my dad took me back a few weekends later.  And again.  And again!  There wasn’t much he could do at the lake, so he’d watch the dragonflies while I hunted and we’d talk about the bugs we saw all the way home.  I loved those trips!  I was already sure I wanted to be an entomologist at that point, but my dad’s dedication to my hobby and his interest in the subject I loved really sealed the deal.

bumblebee

The bee.

The Bee Incident

Ah, the bee incident.  My dad, sister, and I went to visit family in Seattle one summer when I was an undergrad.  We made the two-day drive from Colorado, had a great time in Seattle, and were driving back through Wyoming when my dad started to get tired.  My dad’s always been a bit strange about being The Driver on road trips and he did not relinquish that role willingly.  Being next oldest and therefore the next most experienced driver in the car, the duty of driving was assigned to me.  I took the wheel and after backseat driving for a little while and making it abundantly clear that my driving made him incredibly nervous, my dad fell asleep in the back.

I think I drove about 15 minutes when a bug flew in through the window and slammed into my shoulder at 75 mph+.  I was startled that the bug had hit me, so I asked my sister what it was.  She looked over at my shoulder and all but screamed, “It’s a HUGE BEE!!!!!!!!”  For some reason her reaction struck me as incredibly funny (guess I unconsciously knew it was dead), so I started laughing.  This made my sister laugh too.  Of course, my dad snapped back awake, realized the driving duties were in the hands of a person who was laughing uncontrollably, and insisted I pull over.  I was crammed into the back seat for the rest of the day, but at least I ended up with a really awesome bumblebee for my collection!  I still have it, and I laugh a little every time I see it.

Photinus pyralis

Photinus pyralis firefly. Photo by Yikrazuul from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: Photinus_pyralis_Firefly_4.jpg.

Catching Lightning Bugs

I spent half my childhood in Arizona and half in Colorado and neither place has fireflies that light up.  Luckily, I got to see lightning bugs every year when my mom took us to visit the relatives in the midwest.  My sister and I loved them!  Like most kids, we’d run around the yard collecting them and putting them into jars.  My aunt would poke holes in the lids for us and we’d take our glowing jars to bed with us, staring at the beetles until we fell asleep.  Of course we’d wake up with a jar full of dead bugs the next morning, but that never seemed to detract from the magic of the experience.  :)

Roach in a Hotel Room

When I decided to move to Arizona for grad school, I asked my sister and my mom if they wanted to keep me company on an apartment hunting trip before I moved.  The morning after we checked into our hotel, I was brushing my teeth when I noticed a huge roach on the wall.  They don’t bother me much, but I told my sister and my mom it was there because I knew it would bother them.  My sister insisted I squash it, so I went back in with a magazine ready to do battle with the roach.

roach

A roach similar to the one in the story. I sadly couldn't the photo my sister took of me crawling around on the floor with my butt in the air while I hunted the roach with the room in shambles!

I didn’t grow up around roaches, so I didn’t know how freaking hard it is to kill a them.  I was woefully unprepared!  As I halfheartedly swatted at it with the magazine, it leaped off the wall and scurried out of the bathroom, straight onto the bed I was sharing with my sister.  Needless to say, she was less than thrilled with this development.  So, I chased it around the room for 5 or 10 minutes, ransacking the furniture and our belongings in the process while my mom and sister yelled advice from the other room.  I thought I had the roach cornered at one point, but it escaped – and ran straight into a little hole in the bottom of the mattress!  Out of better options, I slammed the mattress back down onto the box spring and told my sister that although the roach was now INSIDE the bed, it couldn’t get out.  I had no idea if this was true or not, but I wasn’t ripping apart the mattress to get it either.  Thankfully, she accepted this argument (reluctantly) and the roach didn’t show its roachy little face again.

My Sister’s Cricket Presentation

My stories s0 far make my sister out to be seriously entomophobic.  That’s really not true.  She is certainly not as fond of insects as I am and she does have some of the more normal insect phobias (stinging insects, jumping insects, roaches), but she’s taken a few entomology courses, did several research projects with insects for classes in college, and won second place in the state Science Olympiad insect ID event in high school.  She’s pretty good with bugs!  She’s now an educational park ranger who works with K-12 students and is making good use of her entomological skills by helping the Park Service personnel identify some of the insects they find and doing insect presentations for kids.  I end up watching a lot of her interpretive programs or tagging along when she leads educational nature walks for school groups, so I know that she talks about insects a lot.

Sister

My sister, doing one of her nature hike presentations in Yellowstone.

One of my happiest moments as an entomologist came on a trip to visit my sis in Yellowstone and I watched her evening program for kids.  She talked about some of the nocturnal animals in Yellowstone and ended by discussing crickets.  Crickets fall into that jumping insect category she’s particularly disturbed by, so I was thrilled to see her up there entertaining and educating a bunch of little kids as she talked about how crickets make sound to attract mates.  It makes me very happy to know that my little sister is teaching people about insects and helping kids understand the important roles that they play in the environment, just like me!

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These stories always make me happy when I think of them and remind me that I am on the right path in my life.  In an ideal world, I think everyone would have at least five happiness-inducing insect stories to share!  Sadly, this is probably not the case for most people, but I’ll bet it is for the people who read this blog.  Anyone want to share an insect story that makes them happy?  They might be about people you’ve taught or interacted with, insects that you came in contact with, something an insect did that you found funny/bizarre/magical – anything!  I would LOVE to read some of your stories, so feel free to share in the comments below.

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

I loved going on those trips!  I’d spent my whole life tagging along after my parents on their outdoor adventures, but these trips were about my interest and mycollection.

Behavioral Responses of Damselflies to Storms

Fountain Creek Park

The pond where I did my research at Fountain Creek Regional Park, CO.

Last week I talked a bit about how weather affects odonate behavior, my favorite topic in biology. Today I’ll go over the study I did to look at these weather related behaviors more closely. Like the little study I did that focused on damselflies and weather in my first college ecology class, this study was done at the wetlands in Fountain Creek Regional Park outside Colorado Springs, CO.  This research was actually part of my undergrad senior thesis!

pond at Fountain Creek Park

My study site. It extended from the cattails on the left side out to the end of the log in the water and from the dock (not visible) to just beyond the log.

I had to work the summer I collected my data, but I went to the wetland most days after work and recorded observations from 4-5PM.  I plopped down on the dock with all of my weather measuring equipment and watched the damselflies in a 5.5 square meter area along the edge of the pond for an hour.  I divided the hour into 5-minute periods and recorded weather data (wind speed and direction, temperature, light intensity, barometric pressure, relative humidity, and whether it was raining or not) for the first minute of each period.  I then spent the remaining 4 minutes counting the number of damselflies that flew within my study area.  Part of that area was filled with cattails and the rest was over open water as you can see in the photo.

Having spent 14 years of my life in Colorado Springs, I can tell you one thing with certainty: in the summer it rains nearly every day between 4 and 5PM.  This meant that I was out watching damselflies during the exact time the storms were blasting over Pike’s Peak and ripping across the plains.  I would sit there watching these phenomenal storm clouds rolling straight toward me with fantastic speed.  Guess who got rained on A LOT that summer?  Me!  I also got hailed on, was sandblasted in high winds, and was once driven running the half mile back to my car when the lightning got a little too close.  However, the clouds moved so quickly (they have to build up a ton of momentum to make it over Pike’s Peak’s 14,115 feet!), the storms didn’t last long, usually 30 minutes at most.  During that time, the weather would transform from hot, sunny, and still to cold, windy, and rainy in the span of a few minutes.  It would usually rain, sometimes very hard, for 10 minutes or so.  Then the storm would suddenly be over and it would become sunny, warm, and still again.  This whole series of events would take place during my hour at the pond.

Now most sane people go inside during storms.  Rain in Colorado is incredibly cold and the storms can be quite powerful with a lot of lightning.  Call me crazy, but I loved curling my whole body into my enormous rain jacket and getting rained on.  I was rewarded for my insanity too because I got to see some things that very few odonate people get to see.

First, I learned that there was a rather distinct pattern of behaviors that was associated with the weather patterns I observed.  The damselflies were most active in sunny, warm, still conditions, the typical weather central Colorado experiences during the summer.  They flew readily into and out of my study area, hunting, looking for mates, mating, and laying eggs.  As soon as a storm approached, you’d see some pretty interesting things.  As the clouds moved in and it became darker and cooler, the number of flights the damselflies made decreased so that fewer individuals flew during a counting period.  As the wind picked up, the activity decreased even further.  Flight activity ceased altogether if it started to rain.  Of all the many hours I spent at the pond, I saw only a single damselfly flying while it was raining, and it was during a very light rain when the sun was still shining.  Most interestingly to me, the damselflies would start to leave the pond when the weather deteriorated sufficiently.  They were displaying pond abandonment behavior.  However, as soon as the storm was over and the sun came back out, the damselflies would return to the pond and resume their normal activity as if nothing had happened at all.  It was fascinating and I am so happy I got to see this behavior!

pond at Fountain Creek Park

My pond at Fountain Creek Park during a light storm.

The flight activity of the damselflies at Fountain Creek Regional Park was clearly affected by the weather, but I was interested in knowing which of the seven weather parameters I measured were contributing to the flight activity I observed.  I used a statistical procedure (multiple regression for those interested) to determine that light intensity, temperature, wind speed (but not direction), and whether it was raining or not were the weather parameters most closely associated with the flight activity that I recorded.  Of these, light intensity showed the greatest association, followed closely by temperature.  Essentially, the brighter and warmer it was, the more damselfly flights you see.

(Brief aside: Remember how I said last time that I didn’t agree with that Russian scientist who thought that barometric pressure was a major player in shaping odonate behavior?  My results didn’t indicate that barometric pressure had any effect.  This coupled with the fact that the Russian didn’t even measure barometric pressure in his study makes me skeptical of his results.)

So four weather parameters were important.  The statistical test confirmed what I’d observed visually, that damselflies flew more readily in good weather than in poor weather.  “Good” conditions were warm and sunny with little or no wind while “bad” conditions were cold, rainy, windy, and dark.  I definitely observed pond abandonment behavior.

The most important question is this: what does all this mean?  I think my data suggest two things:

pond at Fountain Creek Park

My pond at Fountain Creek Park, right after a storm.

1) The damselflies might be able to pick up on cues in the changing weather that alert them that a storm is approaching.  Think about a damselfly, those big wings on a scrawny little body.  If you’re a damselfly, it could be physically dangerous for you to be out in a storm.  Being blown into the vegetation or the water could be deadly, heavy raindrops could impart a significant blow, and evaporative cooling could cause your body to cool down so fast that you can’t escape if the weather gets worse.  Better to leave the pond before a storm than risk getting caught exposed in one.  I think storms are dangerous to odonates, so the pond abandonment behavior that has been so often reported might be a means of protecting them from harm during bad weather.

2) Pond abandonment behavior might be related to roosting behaviors.  Consider these ideas: Damselflies roost in sheltered areas away from the water at night.  Storms usually result in a drop in the light level and temperature, which are the same things that happen as it gets dark at night.  Damselflies disappear from the water before it starts to rain.  It is therefore quite possible that pond abandonment behavior and simple roosting behaviors might be the same thing: odonates returning to their overnight roosts when it gets dark and cools down.  It is likely also advantageous for damselflies to seek shelter during storms, but this could be a secondary benefit, something they gain by completing a behavior that has nothing to do with protecting them from storms.

Are odonates using weather cues to abandon ponds before storms?  Or are they simply returning to their roosts because it’s getting dark?  Are storms dangerous to odonates?  These are some of the endless new questions I had after I finished this project and would like to answer.  I had intended to study this behavior in more depth in grad school, but then I decided to attend grad school in Arizona.  Colorado’s clockwork storms are perfect for studying these behaviors.  Arizona’s wildly unpredictable storms are not.  So, I changed my focus to the water bugs and have studied them ever since.  I will go back to my beloved odonates someday though!  I also decided a while back that my damselfly study was actually pretty unique and could make a real contribution to the scientific literature on odonates.  Ten years after I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis, my data was published.  If you’d like to read more about my study, look at some pretty graphs and whatnot, the citation is listed below.

I am dealing with some heavy things in my personal life at the moment, so I have no idea what I’ll do for the next few posts.  I’m going to let myself be driven by whims for a week or two.  I hope you’ll all check back to see where my whims take me!

Paper citation:

Goforth, C. L.  2010.  Behavioural responses of Enallagma to changes in weather (Zygoptera: Coenagrionidae).  Odonatologica 39: 225-234.

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

Field Stories: The Stuff of Nightmares

I believe that almost all entomologists have at least one arthropod or other animal that they really don’t like and find disturbing on some primal level.  Several of my best entomologist friends, including one who thinks ticks are the best animals ever, think roaches are the most vile beasts on Earth.  A herpetologist friend of mine gleefully handles rattlesnakes but completely loses her nerve when faced with a scorpion.  I know several biologists who are terrified of grasshoppers and other jumping insects, and even a few who really hate moths.  I personally don’t have any problem with roaches, or most other insects for that matter.  But there is one arthropod that I find incredibly disturbing, and that animal is the centipede.

Something about a centipede screams “This is an unnatural spawn of the devil!” to me.  I really, really hate them.  REALLY hate them.  They terrify me beyond almost any other animal.  I am not a scream at the top of my lungs kind of gal, so there’s rarely girlie shrieking involved when I come across one, but serious chills do run down my spine and I always involuntarily shudder.  Just thinking about them makes me anxious!

Because I dislike them so much, it figures that I live in a place that has some of the biggest centipedes in the world.  Meet Scolopendra heros:

Scolopendra heros

Scolopendra heros

This beast is also known as the giant redheaded centipede, which is yet another example of biologists giving organisms highly descriptive (aka, uncreative) names.  As you can see, this is an arthropod with many legs, but only one pair per segment, which makes it a centipede.  This thing is about 6-8 inches long, so it’s giant.  And it has a red head, hence redheaded.  I feel like I should think this centipede is beautiful and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who does.  The colors really are fantastic!  And the ones in Arizona have even more red on them than the individual pictured here (there are several different color variations in this species).  Still, these are things of nightmares for me.  I think the problems I have with these animals are based on the fact that they are venomous (they’re predators and use their venom to subdue their prey) and they are fast.  Very fast.

Now that you know a bit more about these centipedes, allow me to tell you a story about an encounter I had with one.  If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you’ve probably read about my field site already.  One day a few years ago, my advisor and I were made our daily summer trip to the pond to collect water bug eggs.  I strapped my waders on and climbed out into the pond as usual.  However, the water was remarkably clear that day and I could actually see all the way down to the bottom for the first time ever.  What I saw there, however, was horrifying: a Scolopendra heros sitting on the bottom of the pond, right by one of the sticks I needed to check for eggs.  The conversation with my advisor went something like this:

Me: (Yells to advisor) Whoa!  There’s a Scolopendra on the bottom of the pond here!
Advisor: That’s great!  Pick it up and bring it over here!
Me: Oh hell no!  I’m not picking it up!
Advisor: Chris, don’t be a wimp.  Pick it up!
Me: No!  I don’t think it’s dead.  (Pokes it with a stick to see if it moves.)
Advisor: It’s not moving?
Me: No.  (Poke, poke)
Advisor: If it’s not moving and it’s on the bottom of the pond, it’s probably dead.  Just pick it up!
Me: (A bit of hysteria creeps into my voice) No!!!  I’m not picking it up, even if it IS dead!  I hate these things!  But I really don’t think it’s dead…  (Poke, poke)
Advisor: (Shakes head sadly, conveying his utter disappointment at my squeamishness.  I have clearly failed his test of entomological robustness.)

In a bout of sheer wussiness, I eventually consented to pick the thing up with a stick.  I draped it’s limp body over the very far end of the three or four foot long stick and held it as far away from my body as I could, just in case it suddenly came back to life.  I was terrified I would get stuck in the mud and fall over and I could just see the demon spawn I was carrying flying through the air and landing on my head.  But, I made it to the shore unscathed and made my advisor hold a bag open for me (which he did only after making fun of me again) so I didn’t have to get the centipede close to my unprotected hands.  I was in the process of making an insect collection for a K-12 outdoor education center and knew it would make a good addition to my collection.  My advisor handed the bag to me and I quickly tied it shut.  I carried it back to the car holding it out from my body and grabbing only the tiniest part of the corner furthest from the centipede so I could keep it as far away from me as I could.  I kept looking at it and expecting it to wake up.  I was absolutely convinced that it was still alive.  I happily tossed it in the plastic box with my waders and slammed the lid on, thankful the centipede would be riding home in the back of the truck while I was safely in the cab.

When I got home, I carefully carried my wader box inside and pulled the lid off slowly, carefully peering in and expecting to see a lifeless centipede inside.  What I saw instead was exactly what I had feared!  The centipede was indeed still alive and was now running frantically around the bag.  I imagined that it was now a very angry venomous creature trapped in a very thin film of plastic that I was sure it could find a way out of.  I had to do something and fast!  My worst nightmare was about to come true: a livid centipede bearing down upon me across my kitchen counter while I was paralyzed in fear and helpless to prevent its leaping onto my face.  (Okay, so I have a vivid imagination!)  I grabbed the corner of the bag, the one now holding a squirming, probably unhappy centipede, and tossed it into the freezer, slamming the door shut before slumping against the fridge door and sighing in utter relief.  I conquered the menace that was the evil centipede!  And I was preserving it for a good cause, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

Or I would have been killing two birds with one stone except I’ve never taken it back out of my freezer.  I’m too creeped out by it to retrieve it from it’s frigid habitat.  Knowing it’s in there still is bad enough (and I carefully avoid it when rooting around in there for food), but actually getting it out, facing it’s horribleness once again?  Well, that’s just not going to happen willingly.  The real question is, when I eventually move, will I have the courage to take the centipede out and finally add it to a collection, or will someone from the rental company be in for a very nasty surprise?  I can’t say for sure until that day comes…

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Text copyright © 2010 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Field Stories: Attack of the Giant Water Bug!

Today I’m going to share a story about an experience I had at my field site a few years ago.  It’s about a young scientist trying to do field work for her Ph.D. and a determined father giant water bug who took great offense at her attempt to remove his eggs from the pond for study in her lab.  This particular story has the makings of an excellent bad, B-grade horror movie, so I hope you will enjoy it!

For those of you who don’t know, Arizona is an area of high traffic for illegal immigrants.  We get all kinds of people wandering into our country from other locations, stumbling through the desert looking for a better life in America.  Unfortunately, it means we also get some hefty drug trafficking.  The area where I do my field work is a high-traffic area, so I always make sure I have someone with me when I do field work.  I also like to have another person with me in case I get stuck in the mud in bottom of the pond and need to be pulled out (see my post about my field site if you don’t know why this is important!).  On the day in question, I had a friend with me, another environmental physiologist who works on insect eggs.  I’ll call her K for the sake of this story.

me in Papago in wadersK and I made the 45 mile drive out to the pond.  We chatted about work and our lives on the way there and were in a generally good mood by the time we arrived.  I put on my very stylish chest waders (see image at right), and wandered out into the pond.

When I pull sticks out of the pond, it is common to find the father clinging to the bottom of the stick.  They frequently sit still for only a few seconds before dropping back into the pond.  Occasionally, one will hold on a bit longer and I’ll have to shake the stick a bit to get him off.  The emergent brooders are well-known for protecting the eggs they have fathered.  If you tap a stick with eggs on it, you can frequently get the water bug to rush out of the water and up the stick in an attempt to protect his eggs from predators.   They can actually be rather ferocious.

On this particular day, I pulled a stick out that had a male attached to it.  He didn’t come loose with my usual shaking method, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  I had a handful of sticks with eggs in the other hand, so I couldn’t just push him off the stick.  I poked him with one of the sticks in my other hand, certain that he would be startled and fall into the water.

Instead, he crawled up the other stick.  Fast.  Right toward my hand.  Doing that “How dare you mess with my kids!” behavior.  I started shaking the stick really hard, trying to knock him off, but he still kept coming for me.  Not wanting to be bitten (and not wanting him to screw up the eggs I’d harvested when he crawled over them), I whacked him gently with another stick and he fell into the water with a satisfying “plunk.”  I waded back out of the water with my sticks, and knelt on the bank to trim them down.

If you thought the story was over at this point, think again!  A few minutes into trimming sticks, I felt something scrabbling around my neck area, scrambling over the straps of my waders toward my head.  Something big and strong.  Something that felt suspiciously like a certain angry giant water bug that had already tried to attack me…  I asked K, “Whoa!  What’s on my neck?” as I reached up and flicked whatever was on my neck off.  I was horrified to see that what fell to the ground WAS the giant water bug!  He’d climbed all the way up my waders and had ended up inches from my jugular!  He was clearly out for my blood.  :)  I may have let out a little shriek of horror and K laughed.  She knew full well that she would have done exactly the same thing if it had come after her.

Site of this adventure!

Site of this adventure!

So I grabbed the persistent little guy and tossed him back into the pond, thinking that was that.  I went back to stick trimming and egg counting, but a few moments later, I heard K laughing.  “He’s coming back!” she said.  I didn’t believe her, but I turned around anyway, ready to be a sucker since she’d already made fun of me that morning.  Sure enough, there was the darned water bug, climbing out of the pond, onto the shore, and headed right for me.  Again.  Now this is where I think the B-grade horror movie would come in.  If the water bug was a couple of feet long, it would have been perfect – me sitting on the ground, helplessly scrambling to get up, while the giant water bug bore down on me!  You’d see him crawl onto me and a few scenes later, some random hiker would find my dead body, sucked completely dry, as ominous music played in the background.

In reality, I picked the bug back up and chucked him back into the pond.  AGAIN.  Surely he was finished trying to exact his revenge for stealing his eggs from him.  Hadn’t I clearly demonstrated that I was the bigger, stronger opponent in this confrontation?

Apparently not.  A few minutes later, the bug came for me again.  He crawled out of the pond once more and headed straight for me.  This time, I was finished with my sticks and was watching the shore.  I saw him emerge and let him get a couple feet out of the water, marveling at his tenacity, before I picked him back up, yet again, and tossed him back into the water,  yet again.  If there was an award for the most protective giant water bug father, this would clearly be the winner.  He was quite determined.

K and I packed our stuff up and went back to the car.  Who knows.  The bug may have crawled out again and started looking for me one more time, but we weren’t there to see it.  We joked all the way home about the incident.  We kept imagining the bug clinging to the back of the seat, ready to reach his raptorial forelegs around the headrest as he grappled with me, his sworn enemy, as I drove home.  That was one persistent little bug!

In the horror movie version of this incident, the giant bug would have indeed clung to the back of the seat, then slipped out of the car and into the house while I unpacked my gear.  He would waited until dark, after I’d fallen asleep, then attacked.  Neighbors would notice that they hadn’t seen me for a few days and call the police.  An officer would calmly open the door and jerk back in horror as a gigantic beast rushed past him, eager to find new victims as he wandered the streets of Tucson…

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Text and images copyright © 2009 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Field Stories: Collecting Giant Water Bug Eggs for Study

I’ve found that there are two types of field biologists.  There are those that have cushy, fabulous research positions that everyone is jealous of.  The husband of one of my good friends works with squirrels in Arizona.  He spends a good part of the summer on top of a gorgeous mountain hiking through the forest studying adorable little frolicking squirrels.  If you’re an outdoorsy person, this job is one little slice of heaven.  His wife, on the other hand, is my coworker for one of my jobs.  We are on the other end of the spectrum – field biologists who tell people what we do and watch them cringe in horror or utter disgust.  We’re the ones that get questions like, “Ugh!  Why would anyone want to do that?”

In order to stay sane, I find that biologists like us revel in the intensity or relative digustingness of our work.  We share stories and try to one-up each other so that we can convince people that we have the worst field assignments ever.  We are martyrs to science, gosh darn it!  Many of our conversations involve the words, “You think that’s bad?  Let me tell you about MY field site!”  So before I get to my post on why brooding is bad for male water bugs, allow me to tell you about my lovely field site and my experiences there.

This is the pond at my field site:

My field site!

My field site!

Isn’t it lovely?  Let me tell you about this pond.  This is what’s considered a “cattle tank” in Arizona.  If you’re not from AZ, you probably think a cattle tank is a round metal container that is filled with water from which cattle can drink.  I certainly did before I moved here.  No, in Arizona, cattle tanks are little man-made ponds.  Farmers basically pile up dirt at the low point of a natural depression to create a pond that fills with water during rains.  My particular pond collects an amazing amount of overland flow.  It can go from almost empty to completely overflowing in a single rain event, so it’s a great example of a cattle tank.

All that green stuff on top is algae.  Because it is fed by overland flow, the water brings a lot of organic materials, soil, and nutrients with it as it flows into the pond.  When the pond first fills up, the water is opaque brown from all the dirt.  But when you have a body of water with a whole lot of nutrients in it, you get algae.  LOTS of algae.  If you get into my pond, you come out green!

And then there’s the livestock.  This pond is used by cows and horses.  They don’t seem to have any problems with using the pond as both their drinking water and their toilet.  If you get into the water, you have to watch for floating road apples and cow patties and you smell like urine for the rest of the day, sometimes even after you shower.  It’s lovely.  And all that stuff the livestock dump in the pond contributes to the algae growth, making it even more green!

Finally, there is the mud.  Between the cow and horse “contributions,” the dirt flowing into the pond with the rainwater, the algae that dies and falls to the bottom, and the decaying plants and wood that fall in, the mud in the bottom of the pond is sticky, stinky, and deep.  Every time you take a step, you sink into the mud, almost up to your knees.  It’s hard work moving through this sort of mud.

Did I mention the tempature of this pond?  The water is really warm, a lot warmer than you would expect it to be from the air temperature.  All the cows and horses and other lovely things that are in the water promote the growth of bacteria.  The water is so hot in part due to the fermentation and other bacterial processes that are occurring in the water.  All those chemical reactions produce heat, so the water becomes warmer than it would be if it were clean.

There’s nothing  quite like getting into hot, stinky, opaque green-brown water and sinking into putrid mud, let me tell you.  I dread getting into my pond.  If I have to meet with people after I go to my field site, I have to warn them that I’m going to my field site in case I show up covered in mud and scented with urine.  I complain about it to my collagues and definitely drag out the list of offenses my field site provides in those one-upping conversations – and often win!  So, why do I do it?  This is why:

Lethocerus medius

Lethocerus medius brooding eggs

My pond is a fantastic place to collect Lethocerus medius eggs!  If you recall from my post on giant water bug parents, Lethocerus are emergent brooders and lay their eggs on emergent vegetation.  This means the bugs require emergent vegetation if they want to reproduce, and Lethocerus medius is no exception.  It is worth putting up with the nasty conditions of my pond for this reason: there are tons of Lethocerus medius, but almost no emergent vegetation!  This means there are lots and lots of bugs looking for places to lay eggs, but almost nowhere to lay them. This creates great conditions if you need to collect eggs from a Lethocerus species, which are notoriously hard to breed in the lab.  All you need to do to get eggs is provide artificial emergent vegetation.

We use sticks clipped from desert broom bushes, strip the leaves off, and then I wade into the pond and stick them into the mud:

Artificial emergent vegetation

Artificial emergent vegetation

Once you’ve put the sticks in, the bugs are more than happy to use them for mating.  During the right time of the year (monsoon season for this species and location), if you come back the next day you are likely to find clutches of eggs attached to the sticks.  I pull the sticks out and bring them back to the lab with me so I can do experiments with the eggs.  Then we go back the next day to get some more.

In spite of the general ick factor of my field site, it is completely worth it to use this pond.  There are very few ponds that have this little emergent vegetation and collecting eggs anywhere else would be a whole lot harder to do.  It is also definitely easier than setting up a brooding operation in the lab.  It might not be glamorous and I’m waiting for the day I fall in head first, but the results of my experiments are exciting enough to keep me going back.  Hooray for the thrill of scientific discovery!

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Text and images copyright © 2009 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com