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Citizen Scientists: Entomology Specimen Curation

Citizen Scientists: Entomology Specimen Curation

“Through Calbug, any volunteer with Internet access can help read and transcribe hand-written field notes accompanying a million insect specimens, many dating back more than 100 years.”

If I do this, can I put UC Berkeley on my CV?  No?  Still – it’s science, from the comfort of your bunny slippers and Aeron chair.

Below are specimens I photographed from Taiwan National University’s collection.  You can read the labels, but many of them are in German.  Good times.

(Link discovery via pterostichini blog)

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What I do during the not-field season

dsc_0050 On the one hand, I want field season to start up again, like today.  On the other, I still have so many specimens to process, so much data to analyze, so many journal articles to read, I could actually skip spring and summer this year and be busy for the next 12 months.

In the field biology realm, as it takes place in the upper latitudes, you have a field season and a lab season.  Depending on what your organism is and where you are, it could be 3-months and 9-months, or 6-and-6, which is how it is where I am.  For 6 months I’m almost never indoors and I’m cut up, bitten, sunburned, sweaty, stung and weary.  For the other 6 months, I’m rarely outdoors and I’m tunnel visioned, analytic, pasty, caffeinated, restless and nocturnal.

While I’m inside these days, with the sun low and cold and the rain ever present, I’m longing for the bucolic field days of summer.  When I’m traipsing around the back forty with vials tucked into my underwear, chasing my subjects and alternately being chased by them, those winter months sound downright cozy.

Dung beetles and the scarcity of scat

This is a good review of an article in Neotropical Entomology (Jacobs, 2008 ) about phoresy and poo-diving strategies in dung beetles: How to Find a Turd in the Woods.

“Elsewhere, we hear of a research assistant who “reported that a fecal pellet from a bald-faced saki monkey, with dung beetles attached, fell directly into his shirt pocket as he was observing monkeys in the canopy overhead.” Fieldwork doesn’t get any better than that, y’all.”

True true.  I have a subset of specimens that I unknowingly sat on in the field and later peeled off my jeans – they’re still good specimens.  A bit flat.

Fang: a love story

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Now that’s what I call an Orb Weaver. This female was so enormous that when we released her later, she had trouble navigating and actually walking with that huge abdomen. We had found her in a large web built between two trees nearly 5 feet apart. She was as shy as a virgin bride and hunched every time we pet her through the bag. Petting spiders is a scientific procedure performed by trained arachnidologists and should definitely be tried at home. Pet the top part, not the fang part.

The site was also teeming with Argiope spiders with newly hatched young and they are some businesslike parents. We spent at least an hour watching one feed her wee spiderlings right over the top of our water cooler.

Confession: A couple weeks ago I talked to one of the other students I was traveling with in Taiwan and admitted I had sprayed the entire perimeter of my dorm room entrance with DEET on the day we arrived. For your information, spiders are unimpressed by DEET.

Massospora and You

I found this cicada in the Taiwan forest, hanging out on a branch, dead. Apparently infected with Massospora, he was eaten by the fungus from the outside in, leaving this empty exoskeleton, wings, and the dried fungal body oozing out from all of his cracks.

The cicadas in Taiwan were of two obvious phenotypes: the car alarm type – LOUD! ALARMING! 24/7! (but you get used to it rather quickly) – and the Rainbird type – cchh-cchh-cchh-cchh ccccccchhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! These were in the mountains and the city, respectively. I enjoyed them immensely.

Here’s a batch of the Car Alarm variety (as yet without a real species, but I’ll get them identified eventually) in my field pinning station – the desk in my dorm:

Collecting in the subtropics is not like what I’m used to. In the PNW, specimens are sometimes dry before I can get a pin in them, and I rarely use any type of preservative beyond periodic deep freezing of specimen boxes to kill dermestids. In Asia, however, the humidity is such that nothing dries. During pinning, the cicada’s legs would be flopping around, which is mildly unsettling. Then I’d get everyone pinned and placed and run them through the oven for a few days, take them out, and they’d all slack out on me again. Sadly, this cycle resulted in an interesting sweet, rot smell. Now that the collect is back in the states and everyone’s dry, they still stink. But I love them anyway.

Part of the stink may be the various Hemipterans and Coleoptera perfumes – some smelled like cucumbers, some like oily death. That could be such an interesting addition to the Linnaean games: identify the insect by smell. I’d know what bees smell like, and bumblebees and honeybees smell completely different, but that’s probably information most other people aren’t terribly interested in.

In anticipation of the collection being seized at security, immigration, or customs as I went through 3 airports to get home with my drying lovelies in my carry-on, I photographed them carefully.

Alas, I did make it home with the bugs feeling like I was drug running even though I had all my permissions in order. It only takes one officious asshole to destroy 4 days of collecting and careful preservation from an exotic locale. I was ingratiating and extremely cooperative every time I interacted with airport personnel.

Success.

(Click the collection image and then zoom-click to see everyone up close and personal. If you have ID information, I’d love it if you’d share it. Thanks!)