Robberfly early morning. (Diptera, Asilidae; Cairns, Australia)

Silhouetted lady mantis above the coral sea. (Mantodea, Mantidae; Fitzroy Island, Australia)

Silhouetted lady mantis above the coral sea. (Mantodea, Mantidae; Fitzroy Island, Australia)

Neat ant, not a subfamily you see very often. (Formicidae, Rhytidoponera; Fitzroy Island, Australia)

Neat ant, not a subfamily you see very often. (Formicidae, Rhytidoponera; Fitzroy Island, Australia)

Holy crap an echidna!! This mammal lays eggs. (Monotremata, Tachyglossidae; Fitzroy Island, Australia)

Holy crap an echidna!! This mammal lays eggs. (Monotremata, Tachyglossidae; Fitzroy Island, Australia)

First day in Australia, so here’s the quintessential Australian ant. I reserve the right to update this with different pictures as I inevitably take many more. (Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Oecophylla smaragdina; Cairns, Australia)

Ant “business cards” that I’m going to give away at the conference, laser cut and engraved out of black and white plastic sheets. (Hymenoptera, Formidicae, Cerapachys biroi; New York, New York)

Ant “business cards” that I’m going to give away at the conference, laser cut and engraved out of black and white plastic sheets. (Hymenoptera, Formidicae, Cerapachys biroi; New York, New York)

The injektor. I’m doing a poster session in Australia, so I made this stylized image of the injection microscope I use. You can see the microscope slide containing eggs, with the injection arm (which would be holding a needle) poised to inject. Then you have the joystick-looking micromanipulator. A click of the mouse actually injects the liquid. Pretty sci-fi, eh? ( - , New York, New York)

The injektor. I’m doing a poster session in Australia, so I made this stylized image of the injection microscope I use. You can see the microscope slide containing eggs, with the injection arm (which would be holding a needle) poised to inject. Then you have the joystick-looking micromanipulator. A click of the mouse actually injects the liquid. Pretty sci-fi, eh? ( - , New York, New York)

Heartbeat of a baby zebrafish (~3d old), fluorescently labeled. Yesterday, my friend Molly and I took zebrafish eggs fertilized right at 9am and watched them for 21 hours, until 6am the next day. In that period, the fish went from single cells to moving embryos, with eyes and ears, a circulatory system, and a beating heart. It was astonishing - we saw, in real time, division of a single cell to thousands, which spread to cover the entire yolk of the egg, then a notochord rose up out of a mostly spherical egg surface and slowly accumulated cells around it until it became the elongate body of a fish, grew organs, and started to move. Here’s a video of what we saw (Cypriniformes, Cyprinidae, Danio rerio; New York, New York)

Heartbeat of a baby zebrafish (~3d old), fluorescently labeled. Yesterday, my friend Molly and I took zebrafish eggs fertilized right at 9am and watched them for 21 hours, until 6am the next day. In that period, the fish went from single cells to moving embryos, with eyes and ears, a circulatory system, and a beating heart. It was astonishing - we saw, in real time, division of a single cell to thousands, which spread to cover the entire yolk of the egg, then a notochord rose up out of a mostly spherical egg surface and slowly accumulated cells around it until it became the elongate body of a fish, grew organs, and started to move. Here’s a video of what we saw (Cypriniformes, Cyprinidae, Danio rerio; New York, New York)

Just got a new book. Homologous traits are things like insect wings or eyes - they may be slightly different in different organisms, but they are clearly the “same thing” on some fundamental level. Whether an insect’s front wing is getting specialized into a hard shell, a device for aimless fluttering, or shriveled into nothing, it is still bears homology as a wing; it is a modified descendant of the wing of the original winged insect. This book attempts to provide a genetic theory of homology, ie, when a wing is retained over long stretches of evolutionary time, what genetic features are also retained? This issue is trickier than it seems. The existence of two sexes (male and female) is a homologous trait in all insects (except clonal ones that have lost males), for example, but the mechanisms that determine sex vary a lot, between normal XX/XY to ZW/ZZ to haplodiploidy and even nutrition-based mechanisms that have no genetic basis. The book argues that while the trigger of sex determination change, and the nature of the sexes themselves might also change (ie, male butterflies are different than male ants), there is a core “gene regulatory network” that can be discovered which is the fundamental unit of homology. If it’s right, this could go a long way toward the “big question,” understanding how a largely shared genetic architecture has given rise to the diversity of life on earth. The secrets to the universe may be found for $47.95, folks! (paper; Princeton, New Jersey)

Just got a new book. Homologous traits are things like insect wings or eyes - they may be slightly different in different organisms, but they are clearly the “same thing” on some fundamental level. Whether an insect’s front wing is getting specialized into a hard shell, a device for aimless fluttering, or shriveled into nothing, it is still bears homology as a wing; it is a modified descendant of the wing of the original winged insect. This book attempts to provide a genetic theory of homology, ie, when a wing is retained over long stretches of evolutionary time, what genetic features are also retained? This issue is trickier than it seems. The existence of two sexes (male and female) is a homologous trait in all insects (except clonal ones that have lost males), for example, but the mechanisms that determine sex vary a lot, between normal XX/XY to ZW/ZZ to haplodiploidy and even nutrition-based mechanisms that have no genetic basis. The book argues that while the trigger of sex determination change, and the nature of the sexes themselves might also change (ie, male butterflies are different than male ants), there is a core “gene regulatory network” that can be discovered which is the fundamental unit of homology. If it’s right, this could go a long way toward the “big question,” understanding how a largely shared genetic architecture has given rise to the diversity of life on earth. The secrets to the universe may be found for $47.95, folks! (paper; Princeton, New Jersey)

High-resI guess insect eyes are becoming something of a theme now! I’ve already posted about the presence and absence of eyes in Cerapachys pupae, but here’s an image of the variation in adult workers. As I emphasized in the post about the Cerapachys male, our ants are clonal, so all members of the colony are genetically identical. The three individuals you see above, that go from a large eye to absolutely no eye at all, are genetically identical. The difference in eye development is completely a product of gene expression, based on how larvae are fed. Ain’t that something? (Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Cerapachys biroi; New York, New York)

High-res

I guess insect eyes are becoming something of a theme now! I’ve already posted about the presence and absence of eyes in Cerapachys pupae, but here’s an image of the variation in adult workers. As I emphasized in the post about the Cerapachys male, our ants are clonal, so all members of the colony are genetically identical. The three individuals you see above, that go from a large eye to absolutely no eye at all, are genetically identical. The difference in eye development is completely a product of gene expression, based on how larvae are fed. Ain’t that something? (Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Cerapachys biroi; New York, New York)

Super slow-mo of me scaring off some lubber nymphs from a leaf. Notice how chewed up that top leaf is. (Orthoptera, Romaleidae; Monteverde, Costa Rica)

Super slow-mo of me scaring off some lubber nymphs from a leaf. Notice how chewed up that top leaf is. (Orthoptera, Romaleidae; Monteverde, Costa Rica)

"This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome-there’s no limit to the human capacity for the horning sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space. For myself, I’ll take Moab, Utah." - Edward Abbey 

For myself, I’ll take Tappahannock, Virginia. I had the privilege of returning to the woods of Johnville, my dad’s farm, this weekend and stirring up some trouble. I saw woodpeckers, blacksnakes, heard quail, and of course found some ants. Here is a massive battle of Tetramorium ants, the outcome of which will determine territorial lines between neighboring colonies for the rest of the summer. (Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Tetramorium caespitum; Johnville Farm, Tappahannock, Virginia)

This is a shriveled-up specimen of a Springtail, perhaps not the most striking photograph I could show you. But I urge you to look closely at the eye. Springtails are very, very small, and when you collect them in the field you can often see these dark, oval shaped eye-patches. But until I got one into the lab, I had no idea that the eyes atop the patch look like this! Rather than a single simple eye or a compound eye, it is a cluster of simple eyes, reminiscent of some spider or scorpion eyes. This absolutely blew my mind. Why? Springtails have an interesting position on the phylogeny - they are “hexapods,” that is 6-legged arthropods, but they are not considered insects. The fact that a springtail has a unique eye form (reminiscent of other, more distantly-related arthropods) tells us something; this could be a transitional step toward the compound eye of modern insects. (Collembola; New York, New York)edit from the future: a quick glance at a book about insect eyes told me that my transitional step idea was totally wrong.

This is a shriveled-up specimen of a Springtail, perhaps not the most striking photograph I could show you. But I urge you to look closely at the eye. Springtails are very, very small, and when you collect them in the field you can often see these dark, oval shaped eye-patches. But until I got one into the lab, I had no idea that the eyes atop the patch look like this! Rather than a single simple eye or a compound eye, it is a cluster of simple eyes, reminiscent of some spider or scorpion eyes. This absolutely blew my mind. Why? Springtails have an interesting position on the phylogeny - they are “hexapods,” that is 6-legged arthropods, but they are not considered insects. The fact that a springtail has a unique eye form (reminiscent of other, more distantly-related arthropods) tells us something; this could be a transitional step toward the compound eye of modern insects. (Collembola; New York, New York)

edit from the future: a quick glance at a book about insect eyes told me that my transitional step idea was totally wrong.

Very silly. It’s a hemipteran that was running across a tabletop, but every time it got to the light it did a backflip into the shadow, only to run into the light again. (Hemiptera; Monteverde, Costa Rica)

Very silly. It’s a hemipteran that was running across a tabletop, but every time it got to the light it did a backflip into the shadow, only to run into the light again. (Hemiptera; Monteverde, Costa Rica)

The man. Went to a great seminar this spring, and the whole lab got to meet Bert Holldobler. I can look at three of his books sitting on my shelf, including the old testament, The Ants. An inspirational dude. (Primates, Hominidae, Homo sapiens; Newark, New Jersey)

The man. Went to a great seminar this spring, and the whole lab got to meet Bert Holldobler. I can look at three of his books sitting on my shelf, including the old testament, The Ants. An inspirational dude. (Primates, Hominidae, Homo sapiens; Newark, New Jersey)