Love Letter to the Earth

Aside

SaltSp2A quick break from amazing tiny things, autumn nights remind me of beautiful big things, of nights spent in nature. For a sensitive and shy little kid, there was no happier place to spend childhood hours than gazing up at the sky while laying on a day-warmed bed of granite. On nights like that thoughts fell like the sound of cold water rushing down the mountain, disappearing deep into the rocks and roaring against a sky so black I felt at once tiny yet infinitely embraced. 

I am so thankful to my parents for giving me that gift, and for everyone I’ve been able to share one of those moments with, sitting side by side, breathing the same timeless air as the trees.

The Art of Discovery

I’ve been hearing lots of jubilation lately for the little fuzzyfaced Olinguito, a new species that was discovered by comparing unusual-looking museum specimens of what was once thought to be a single species, the Olingo. Researchers found that there were smaller specimens among the Olingos that were, in fact, their own species: the Olinguito (or, small Olingo!). Armed with this information, scientists set out into the Cloud Forests of the Northern Andes in search of a live specimen. And they found him! I particularly like this black-and-white shot, he looks like an old movie actor. I could imagine him starring in “From Olinguito to Eternity”:

o-OLINGUITO-900This story is particularly interesting because it demonstrates how archived museum specimens can (and often do), lead to new discoveries. It is also interesting to point out how rare it is to find a new species of mammal, especially compared to other groups of animals. According to Mongabay.com, 41 new species of mammal were discovered in 2008, most of which were rodents (unlike the Olinguito). However, during that same year, an astonishing 8,800 species of insect were discovered! The sheer number of insect species already known to science (over a million), is made even more incredible when you consider that this is less than half of what scientists estimate is still hiding out there among the bramble, leaf litter, and treetops around the world.

Even in Europe, which is mainly known for its jam, the rate of insect discovery is actually still increasing!: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/new-species-old-world.html

Academy scientists recently came back from the Philippines with a startling diversity of insect specimens, many of which could be new species. Here are some highlights:

Pentatomidae_nymph_PH0009_dorsalCurculionidae_sparkly_lateral_FinalTetrigidae_Lateral_PH0001From Left to Right: “Shield Bug” nymph (family Pentatomidae), A glittery as a disco ball weevil (family Curculionidae, subfamily Brachycerinae). And finally, a buffalo-shaped grasshopper in the family Tetrigidae (genus Hymenotes).

Even more exciting, this small yet fascinating universe awaits discovery for both PhD and amateur entomologists alike. It’s the wild west out here on the frontier, and discovery awaits around every corner!

Here at the Academy of Sciences, our John Wayne of Arachnology is an intrepid spider-wrangling scientist named Charles Griswold. He identifies roughly 10 new species of spider a year, mostly collected from expeditions to South Africa and Madagascar. But in order to publish a description of a new species, he needs some illustrations. This is where I come in.

Often, on a macro level different species of spider can look almost identical. However, because spider pedipalps fit like a lock and key with females of the same species, they are much more useful useful for identification. But, what ARE PEDIPALPS??! Well, in sexually mature male spiders pedipalps are complicated structures that are used to transfer sperm to the female during mating. Pedipalps are actually located near the head. They are the boxing-glove lookin’ thangs! Pow pow pow!

spider palpIllustrations tend to work better for pedipalps than photographs because the translucent/complicated structure is often hard to interpret without highlighting edges artificially. Most pedipalps are quite small, so I use a microscope to draw them. Sometimes this makes me crazy. Here are three pedipalp views from two new species of what are known commonly as “Lace Web Spiders”:

Xevioso sp:

Xevioso n_smallXevioso n.sp Mariepskop_9017130_ventralXevioso n_retrolateral_small

Lamaika sp:

Lamaika bontebok_retrolateral_smallLamaika bontebok_smallLamaika bontebok_prolateral_small

I don’t recall ever seeing “spider junk illustrator” booth at any career fairs, but, life works in mysterious ways, and the natural world can be so mesmerizing that it’s sometimes hard to know where science ends and art begins. It is inspiring to know that there are millions more tiny pieces of art all around us just waiting for scientific discovery!

They’ve Lost Those Lovin’ Peelings

Somewhere, perhaps on the island of Mindanao, Philippines, a very special species of eucalyptus is loosing it’s bark, and with each flaking strip, living artwork is being created. This, fellow travelers, is the rainbow eucalyptus:

rainbow eucalyptus unknown 1

These colors of the rainbow eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta), may look like the stuff of unicorn dreams and of hypno-toad-induced euphoria, but they are created naturally as layers of this amazing bark peels away in strips at different times and different parts of the tree.

rainbow eucalyptus unknown 3

While the newly exposed bark is bright green, as it ages this color turns to dark green, then a bluish/purplish (and when I say blue I am super serious!). Can you imagine walking through a grove of blue trees?!

RAINBOW_unknown 4

From there the colors change again to pink, orange-red, and finally a maroon-ish brown before the bark is ready to exfoliate itself once more.

Rainbow Eucalyptus Chris

The rainbow eucalyptus is the only species of eucalyptus native to the northern hemisphere, occuring naturally in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. However, it is widely grown as an ornamental tree in wet and humid places all over the world, and in the Philippines it is farmed for use as pulpwood to make paper. I know what you are thinking, “that’s gotta be the most awesome paper on the planet!” But eucalyptus trees in general are very fast-gowing and have an inner core with fibers that are pefect for making WHITE paper. Dissapointing, I know.

rainbow eucalyptus 5rainbow eucalyptus 7rainbow eucalyptus 2

Eucalyptus trees are thirsty! So thirsty, in fact, that they are often planted in malaria-prone areas of Africa to dry up the swamps, thus eliminating mosquito larva habitat. And beacuse they are so water-saturated, eucalyptus wood must be allowed to dry slowly, or it risks cracking and warping. In extreme climates differing from it’s native habitat, eucalyptus wood is also susceptible to expansion and cracking. But if properly dried and kept at the right humidity, eucalyptus is extremely durable and strong, and can be used in furniture, boatmaking, and didgeridoos! Yay!

rainbow eukalyptus unknown 2

Your best bet for seeing these trees without buying a ticket to Indonesia or taking massive amounts of drugs and wandering through your local park is to go to the windswept and astoundingly green Hana coast of Maui, Hawaii. There you can see these 240 foot trees growing along the highway!

rainbow eucalyptus 3_chris

In conclusion, even if it was as useless as Pauly Shore at a comedy convention, the rainbow eucalyptus would still be one of those amazing species that reminds us how much beauty there is in the world. It makes me so happy to know things like this exist, I hope it makes you happy too! rainbow eucalyptus 8

Thank you so much to Christopher Martin for allowing me to use some of his beautiful images! More of his work can be found here: christophermartinphotography.com

The New Butterfly

In the insect world butterflies definitely get all the good press, they are the charismatic microfauna, the tiny pandas, the gleaming ambassadors of our field. And for good reason, BUT there are other, less well-known species that are equally extravagant. Imagine, for a moment, a creature with colorful, butterfly-like wings AND a comically large snout, sound too good to be true?

BAM!

Pyrops pyrorhynchaCan you hear Gonzo weeping with envy?? I can! But to be fair I hear he’s really emotional. Nevertheless, Planthoppers from the family Fulgoridae are a fascinating group of insects. Like their cicada and aphid relatives, fulgorids have mouthparts that are designed for piercing plants and siphoning up the fluids, yum! But fulgorids are quite uniqe in having these ridiculously elongated heads, called “protuberances”, and some of them have wings that look like a neon jaguar…

Saiva gemmataThe protuberance is actually hollow inside, and it was once believed, most noteably by the 18th-century entomologist and scientific illustrator, Maria Sibylla Merian, that it could emit light at night, earning fulgorids the common name “lanternflies”. What a whimsical idea! Almost as whimsical as her lovely illustrations:

maria sybilla

Sadly, no evidence of this light-producing ability has ever been found, however Carl Linnaeus adopted the theory without question, giving several genera of fulgorids such lovely names as laternaria, phosphorea and candelaria. It’s easy to imagine those big snouts lit up like lanterns!

Fulgorid 1Pyrops viridirostrisAphaena submaculata consanguinea

In reality the protuberances probably serve as a survival mechanism used to confuse pretadors. With a head that looks like it could be an abdomen, predators literally do not know which end is up, likely attacking the wrong end and giving the fulgorid a better chance at escape. It is still somewhat of a mystery, however.

Fulgorid 3

Species belonging to the genus Fulgora have got to be the most bizarre looking of all, as their head processes are hugely enlarged, earning them the nickname “peanutheads”.

Fulgorid 4And some species of fulgorid have short noses, less silly, but still gorgeous! The variety and patterns of color in the world of entomology seems endless, especially in the tropics, where most fulgorid species are found.

Aphaena submaculata consanguinea

Many thanks to Victor Smith at the California Academy of Sciences for taking these amazing photographs!

Crouching Predator, Hidden Scarab?

Take a good look at this golden scarab beetle, Chrysina resplendens…DO it!

Chrysina resplendens

Probably the most ridiculously golden beetle ever, right? Now what if I told you that this beetle (and several other species of beetle in the family Scarabaeidae), actually shine brighter than they appear, the result of a light trick that only a few animals on the planet can accomplish? You’d be like “what!? Tell me more, especially if physics is involved, because I looooove long-winded physics explanations.” Ok great!

So what is this light trick? Hidden within the microstructure of the beetle’s exoskeleton there are helical twists and turns that enable certain species of scarabs the rare ability to create and reflect CIRCULARLY polarized light! Say what now? While many animals can create and even see LINEARLY polarized light, there are very few examples of the creation of circularly polarized light in nature, and Chrysina gloriosa, a particularly adorable species of scarab, is one of those special few:

chrysina gloriosaQuite a derpy little chap! Hard to believe it can create one of nature’s rarest optical tricks. How do they DOOO itt??? Well, a light wave behaves like a beam of energy that can oscillate in many directions. Polarization is a property of waves that describes the direction of these oscillations (left, right, up, down), perpendicular to the direction of the wave. Pure white light is unpolarized, meaning that this light has oscillations in many directions. Light is said to be polarized when one of these directions of oscillation is removed or blocked, such as when a polaroid filter is used (thus blocking off either the up/down or left/right oscillations), or in the natural world, when light reflects off of surfaces, such as Chrysina gloriosa, whose helical exoskeleton microstructure creates the circular oscillation of light.

polarizedlight03Circularly polarized light can travel in a left-handed or right-handed corkscrew. Looking at Chrysina gloriosa under a left-handed filter (so that only left handed oscillations pass through), it pops with luminescence! But under a right-handed filter (where only right-handed oscillations can pass), it turns totally dark! From this we can conclude that Chrysina gloriosa reflects only left-handed circularly polarized light.

chrysina polarizedSo far only one animal on the planet has been proven to actually SEE circularly polarized light, the technocolor dream explosion that is the mantis shrimp:

mantis-shrimpsmall

But there aren’t a lot of mantis shrimps around in the juniper scrub habitat of Arizona where Chrysina gloriosa lives, so what is this extra shininess for? Perhaps, as scientists have hypothesiezed, Chrysina gloriosa can see circularly polarized light too, in which case these beetles would look even brighter and luminescent to each other than they do to us. This would give them a tremendous survival advantage by allowing the beetles to easily see and communicate with each other while simultaneously hiding from predators that cannot see circularly polarized light. While the jury is still out, scientists have gathered enough data that we can tentatively place Chrysina gloriosa (and perhaps other scarabs too), among the ranks of the circularly polarized light perception club, a truly elite club with a secret language all their own.

Further sciencey reading:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20302426

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22155007

http://sites.sinauer.com/animalcommunication2e/chapter05.02.html

I Got 99 Problems But a Midge Ain’t One

cacao pods bulk

mmmmmmm chocolate, just the thought of it is enough to make me float off to my happy place, a magical land full of cacoa nib fairies, loose pants, tropical breezes, and…..wait…is that a freakin fly??! How did a fly get into my goldang happy place?! Sigh…

midge

Well, as it turns out, if it weren’t for flies, there would be no chocolate for anyone’s happy places! It’s tough to be an obscure little pollinator in a honeybee kind of world, especially when you don’t have the cute fuzzy thing going for you, you are no bigger than the head of a pin, and most of your relatives are bitey jerkfaces. Indeed, most members of the family Ceratopogonidae, commonly called “midges” or “biting midges”, feed on the blood of other insects, reptiles, and mammals that forget their deet. Surprisingly it’s only the famale midges who do all that biting, as they require the extra nutrition for their eggs. However male midges are super sweet, and feed exclusively on nectar! Most importantly, they have a taste for the nectar from the flowers of the cacao plant:

cacao flowers 1

Cacao flowers are smaaaaall, about the size of a nickel, and structurally complex. Luckily midges are small and agile, and like a miniature Magellan on a nectar expedition, they navigate the tricky flowers with ease. But the cacao plant is complicated not just in design but also in behavior. It fruits year-round, and has the unusual quilaity of having flowers and fruit on the tree at the same time! You would think this would make it very productive, however, it takes 5 to 8 months for the blossom bud to ripen fully, and although the flower posesses both male and female parts, they cannot fertilize themselves, and so must rely on our little pollinator friends to transport pollen between them.

cacao flowers and pods

The cacao-pollinating midges are unionized, and they have demands! Their biggest gripe is that they require humid shade with a wide range of plant species and decaying matter on the ground, which is the natural habitat of cacao. However, on most cultivated plantations, the habitat is more open, sunny, and dry. And the bigger a cacao plantation, the less likely a midge will venture into this unnatural habitat. It has been estimated that on these plantations on average only 3 out of 1,000 flowers are pollinated and progress to fuit!

cacao podscacao pod open

To combat these issues chocolate manufacturers increase prodcutivity by growing their cacao plants in a more natural way that midges enjoy, in fact many Fair Trade and organic Cacao farmers are cultivating more wild plantations that are better for the trees and the midges who love them. So in the name of deliciousness, I say, good job little fellas!

cacao plantation

Many thanks to the talented photographers who post their photos on Flickr Creative Commons:

EverJean –http://www.flickr.com/photos/evert-jan/with/5526911147/#photo_5526911147

Eric Hunt – http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericinsf/with/677318379/#photo_677318379

Christopher S. Rose – http://www.flickr.com/photos/khowaga/2890251482/

Tropical Color

So many shiny beetles! How to choose which one to draw? As you can see below I am often forced to make tough, life-altering decisions like this! But you can never go wrong with a majestic horn, so I chose the center species pictured below, the elegantly ostentatious,  Theodosia westwoodi.

IMG_4855IMG_4845IMG_4844

Theodosia westwoodi belongs to the mind-bogglingly large family of beetles known as the Scarabs, or Scarabaeidae if you’re fancy. Roughly 30,000 species belong to this family, which includes such charismatic members as Scarabaeus sacer, famously known as the sacred scarab of Egypt. Far from rolling dung balls across the desert however, Theodosia westwoodi is a tropical species of scarab belonging to the subfamily Cetoniinae, which are commonly known as flower beetles due to their habit of feeding on pollen, nectar, or even munching on petals. Unlike many scarab beetles which have nocturnal habits, members of this subfamily bumble around during the day, which explains their amazing coloration!

Theodosia westwoodi is also special because of it’s limited distribution in the rainforests of Borneo. This area is increasingly under threat due to habitat destruction, making these amazing little guys quite rare indeed.

Ok, now that I’ve made you feel bad, let’s start drawin!

theodosia_step 1

Theodosia lateral 1

 

 

I always start colored pencil drawings by shading in the darkest parts first and leaving the highlights white.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there I add layers of lighter shades of colors on top, blending the light and dark colors together.

Theodosia_step 2

Theodosia lateral 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once I have all the shades of color richly layered together, I blend everything evenly together using a white pencil. This eliminates most of the pencil marks and gives the colors a watercolor-like feel.

Theodosia lateral 3

And now that your wrist feels like it wants to fall off, go ahead and go BACK over all the colors again, making them very bold and vibrant. Now is also the time when you want to add the very dark shadows using a black pencil. As you may have noticed I have slightly exhagerated the colors, buuuut, I do what I want.

theodosia lateral 4

Fin!

Theodosia westwoodi smaller