Day 27, Diary of a Research Assistant

by Leon Tran

I’ve been at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory close to four weeks now. I’ve taken shelter in the cabin they call “Schofield,” with four other RAs, surviving on pasta and leftovers… During the day I leave my refuge to study whether or not female availability determines mate-locating strategy in the Gillette’s checkerspot butterfly, Euphydryas gillettii.

Leon gillettii
Euphydryas gillettii

My work entails patrolling the area known to harbor these creatures, observing the mate-locating behavior of the male butterflies. They can perch—a sit-and-wait strategy—or patrol—actively search for female butterflies—when pursuing Lepidopteran romance. However, these creatures don’t have the greatest sight among invertebrates. When they perch, I commonly see male butterflies pursuing other male butterflies and re-pursuing the same butterfly within seconds of realizing it is not the she-butterfly they seek. Sometimes they’ll even pursue the pinecones or flowers I occasionally throw into the treetops.

I also take temperature measurements in the treetops with a device called a HOBO—which in fact, is not homeless—to see if perch height temperatures affect the butterflies’ mate-locating strategy. One day in the field, I deployed my temperature HOBO into the treetops, only to discover that 30 minutes later, some mystery creature pilfered my temperature logger! I searched all over to no avail and while I was looking for said HOBO, the dead butterfly I was using to obtain body temperature measurements was also stolen! To my dismay, I looked up to find a bird perched in the tree to my right, singing what seemed to be a song of victory. I have no evidence this bird stole my butterfly, but if he did, he would soon learn that eating Gillette’s checkerspot butterfly will only bring him discomfort due to its distasteful nature. I can only hope my next butterfly survives the terror birds of Gothic—or else I’ll put a cage on it.


Breaking Diapause…

editor’s note: following an anything but quiescent academic year, the lab has emerged for field work.  With this post, we start up our blog again.

by Nicole Kish

Happy #PollinatorWeek, a celebration of the many insects that help to pollinate plants, thus providing us with fruits, seeds, and other crops! Unfortunately, pollinators also face a variety of threats ranging from habitat loss to insecticide misuse to disease. Populations of many pollinator species across the country have declined in recent years; for example, widespread honeybee losses due to colony collapse disorder were first reported in 2006, and the migratory monarch butterfly is facing threats due to habitat loss on both the overwintering and summer breeding grounds.

This summer, our lab has a contract with the South Carolina Army National Guard to conduct pollination network surveys at the McCrady Army National Guard Training Center. The South Carolina Army National Guard is committed to environmental stewardship, and because much of the land at the McCrady is undeveloped, the site hosts a wide variety of wildlife and acts as a refuge for several threatened and endangered species.

Twice a week, two undergraduate assistants and I make our way out to the fort, drive an ATV across the back roads to our study sites, and survey pollinator numbers and visits to flowers.  Because of the diversity of pollinating insects, this project is an opportunity for us as Boggs lab members to expand our knowledge of species identification: in addition to butterflies, we’re surveying beetles, bees, wasps, and flies. (And distinguishing between two species of bumblebee is tricky; they all look similar, move quickly, and females are armed with a stinger).

Even distinguishing between butterfly species while they are on the wing can be challenging.  For example, the larval diet of pipevine swallowtail, Battus philenor, makes the larvae and adults unpalatable to predators, and several other species, including the spicebrush swallowtail, red-spotted purple, and dark form eastern tiger swallowtail have evolved to mimic the pipevine.  All of these species can be found at McCrady, which prompted a lighthearted but frustrated “Not fair!” from one of my field assistants.  

We also have one more butterfly-centric goal: determining if, where, and how many monarch butterflies visit the McCrady Training Center. Monarchs typically pass through the region during early autumn on their southern migration, and to prepare for their arrival, we’ve located patches of their larval host plant (milkweed, various species of the genus Asclepias), which we examine periodically for eggs and larvae. We’re also setting up time-lapse trail cameras to catch any visits that might take place outside of our surveys.

Focus on a lab member: An interview with Alison

Alison Ravenscraft is interviewed on the CEHG blog this week.  CEHG stands for “Computational, Evolutionary and Human Genetics at Stanford”.  Alison is a CEHG Fellow, as she finishes up her doctoral dissertation work.

The blog focuses on Alison’s research, how she got into science (and it’s a great “only Alison” story!), important mentors, and advice for grad students.



The Mothia

by Carol Boggs

mothia poster

What would Halloween be without a departmental costume contest? The School of the Earth, Ocean & Environment’s second annual contest was this past Friday, Oct 30. Prizes were awarded for the best group costume and best individual costume. The best group costume award included a snazzy trophy, to be held by the winner until next Halloween, when it goes to the new winner – sort of like the Stanford/ UC Berkeley Axe trophy for football, and including the same competitive spirit!

This summer, our in-house punster, Rachel, nicknamed our lab group at RMBL “The Mothia”. So there was no question as to what we would do for the group costume. The presentation included a small skit on stage. We were missing a few undergrads, along with lab members who are at other universities. But the Mothia was still formidable, subdued only by the Field Marshal herself.

the mothia 2015 halloweenThe Mothia.
(Austin Clarridge, Nicole Kish, Rachel Steward, Angie Korabik, Miranda Hannah)

the mothia and field marshal backside 2015 halloweenThe Mothia, with the Field Marshal

Unfortunately, we were narrowly defeated based on the “clap meter” by a group of zombie legos (aka, the Z-lab; aka, Lori Ziolkowski’s lab). We’re plotting the comeback for next year!

Puddling and Problems

by Angie Korabik

As a Biology major in a Business Fraternity (long story), most of my friends are business majors, so when I explain to them that I am studying the nutrient preferences of native Lepidoptera, I am met with a blank look. To avoid vacant stares, I’ve started summarizing my research with the pithy phrase, “I force feed butterflies.”

In reality, my research in the Boggs lab is not nearly that violent. I am conducting a variation of Alison’s study that she describes in her post from August, “Why do some butterflies eat fruit instead of nectar?” In Alison’s study, she hypothesized that adult tropical butterflies seek nitrogen and salts when they feed on fruits, but as the density of fruit trees around Columbia, South Carolina is rather low, I wanted to investigate how else they might obtain these nutrients. Maybe, say, through puddling? For those who are not familiar with butterfly behavior, puddling occurs when butterflies feed on, well, mud puddles. Hopefully, this project will allow me to answer questions such as what nutrients butterflies are looking for when they puddle, whether there are any interspecific differences in nutrient preferences, and whether there is a specific gender-based preference for each of these nutrients.

To simulate puddling activity (and beware, this is where the force feeding comes in), I collected butteflies from various places around Columbia, SC and brought them back to the lab, where I kept them for a maximum of forty-eight hours. Four solutions were used to test feeding preferences: 0.01 M NaCl, 0.1 M NaCl, 10-4 M albumin, and 0.01 M casein. In the lab, each butterfly was held with their wings pinned by forceps and their abdomen resting on the surface, and with a pin, I unrolled their proboscis to place it into the solution. Each butterfly was offered each solution one at a time in random order. If the butterfly drank the offered solution, it was termed accept, if they did not, it was termed reject, After offering the butterfly each of the four solutions, I offered them water, which they were allowed to drink to satiation. If they accepted the water, I discarded the results of the previous trial and redid the experiment. After they were done being picky about what they ate, I placed them back into their breathable envelopes and released them back into the wild where they could frolic in peace. (Well, peace from me at least. I can’t make any guarantees about other predators or avid lepidopterists.)

The set up
The set up

I first started this experiment last September as a sophomore. Being my first time working with butterflies, I spent most of last fall learning how to catch a butterfly, how exactly I was going to set up my experiment, and how to get over my fear of breaking a butterfly while handling it. I managed to catch about 40 butterflies last fall with the help of my darling friends, Ash and Miranda, who were/are also part of the Boggs lab.

This year, however, I’ve been encountering problem after problem as far as collecting is concerned. Last year a meadow-y spot off Gervais on the Columbia side of the river hosted an enormous colony of Agraulis vanillae, and on any given day I could go there and not only have few issues finding butterflies, but have to hurry to capture one butterfly before the four others that it was flitting about with got away. However, when I went to their colony this year, I discovered the site surrounded by orange construction mesh. Goodbye butterflies, hello parking lot. 😥

The release of the Agraulis vanillae!
The release of the Agraulis vanillae!

Not only did the loss of my wild Agraulis colony set me back as I had to search for new collection areas, but a few weeks ago, as I’m sure most of the country is aware, Columbia flooded due to massive storms from Hurricane Joaquin. I had been planning on trying to collect at least three days that week, but due to the fact that USC cancelled classes for the entire week and I ended up stranded in Chicago for a good portion of that time, it was simply not meant to be. Alas!

Fortunately, the butterflies survived the floods and I finally managed to go out collecting with Dr. Boggs and Nicole the following week. While most of the waters had receded by then, the fields we ended up visiting still had standing water remaining, and you could clearly see the level to which the flood waters had risen on the surround trees. It was quite astonishing. We ended up having a productive day though, catching nearly 20 butterflies including multiple Eurema, Pheobus, and other species.

Remaining water and the flood line.
Remaining water and the flood line.

I’ve been out a few more times since then, but the collecting continues on. So far I have about 74 butterflies in my data set, and hopefully by the end of this season, I’ll have enough data to start running some analyses. Until then, the local Lepidoptera will continue to fear ending up in my captivity. Muahaha!

Sustainable Carolina…and Rocky Mountain butterflies?

by Justin DuRant

This week, at Sustainable Carolina’s annual “Sustainability Showcase,” I presented a poster for a project that I did with Dr. Carol Boggs over the summer at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic, CO. By analyzing old monitoring data from the past decade, we found that Euphydryas gillettii egg clusters have much higher survival to diapause if they are alone on a leaf compared to egg clusters that are layer right next to each other, merging into a single larval web.

Sustainable Carolina is the student branch of the University of South Carolina’s Office of Sustainability, and I have worked with them for the past two years. This fall, I was chosen to lead the Zero Waste Team. My group of interns manages the tailgate recycling program at home football games and works on other waste-related projects across campus. Other students in our organization plan and run events such as the Green Networking Breakfast, Reclaimed Runway (a fashion show using discarded materials), and the Green Career Fair.

Justin showing off at the Sustainable Carolina poster session.
Justin presenting his project at the Sustainable Carolina poster session.

Overall, the poster session was a satisfying experience. I spent some time talking with other folks I knew who were presenting, and I learned about some research on new battery technologies, aquaponics projects, permeable concrete, and more. I think I saw one person read through the entire poster (while I was not standing right next to it), so in this type of setting, images and captions might be the most important elements of a poster. By the end of the evening, I had a fairly effective elevator speech describing my project and another one for the question “So how does this relate to sustainability?” Standing for three hours at the end of a full day was pretty exhausting, but the coffee and bagels kept me on my feet.

The version of my poster that ended up being printed was missing a few important additions, like Dr. Boggs’ name as an author and some formatting adjustments. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice.

Field haikus and other poems…

By Rachel Steward

Anyone who has worked with me in the field knows I occasionally compose haikus and other short poems on the fly. I’ll contend it is endearing, though my field assistants say otherwise. I tend to be a bit lenient with the syllable count, as one might if one had spent the last several hours hunting for butterflies or surveying plants for signs of herbivory, so withhold your judgment. The poems below are only a small selection. Enjoy!

Here, beneath Gothic,
A scattering of cabins,
science hideaway.

Gothic, the first week of June

How to spot science:
Giant forceps, ninety-one
Centimeter stick.

We go forth with nets.
With clipboxes and forceps,
To meet our fortune

Hunting butterflies.
But dammit, I have missed one
Distracted by another

Butterfly mothia:
The Speyeria await,
We will catch them all!

To which god does one pray
To keep larvae from turning
Into tubes of mush?

First instar (molt stage) Pieris macdunnoughii caterpillars.
First instar (molt stage) Pieris macdunnoughii caterpillars.

Mate, you dummies, mate!
You have nothing else to do.
Why do you spite me?

And a limerick to close things out:

There once were some Thlaspi ecologists
Who thought they could count all of it,
In one day they got
Through just 2.5 plots
And that evening felt far less confident.

But they continued their scientific endeavor,
Even as it promised to take them forever.
The density they lamented.
Ceci, in Mexico, they resented.
Still they went out no matter the weather.

Never did they succumb to negativity,
Chanting ‘1 basal, stage 5, no activity’
Now looking back on those days
Spent on those surveys
they question their standards of productivity…

IMAG00010 (2)
Ceci returned from Mexico and worked diligently on the Thlaspi surveys, so was forgiven.