The Black Petaltail of Butterfly Valley

I have returned from an epic nature adventure with many friends, combining events celestial and botanical! The timing of the annular eclipse of the Sun coincided with the blooming of native pitcher plants in Butterfly Valley, a place my wife has been yearning to visit for years. And that was right near the town of Quincy, a beautiful mountain town where we could get prime latitudinal (and fog-free) sun-viewing. And I hoped we would get a chance to encounter very unique dragonfly, Tanypteryx hageni, the black petaltail.

Butterfly Valley Botanical Area

Our friends are a rabble of plant-fanciers, birders, rockhounds, star-gazers, artists, engineers, historians, insectophiles, and general lovers of science geekery. Give us a 10 foot square of land, and we'll dawdle for hours, exploring and admiring the natural and constructed world. An advance group of us raced up to Quincy to meet up with Jim Battagin, a knowledgeable botanist who gave us a personal tour of the nearby Butterfly Valley Botanical Area.  This region of the Northern Sierra Nevada forest is full of unique orchids, lilies, and amazing native carnivorous plants.  It was Battagin who mentioned that Butterfly Valley had a "very unique insect" some weeks back. I deduced that he was talking about the beautiful T. hageni, and devoured all the information I could online. The black petaltail is a large and striking dragonfly. Petaltails are so named because the males often have large flat cerci on the ends of their abdomens. They are remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, the Petaluridae are known as "ancient dragonflies".  That is, of all the living dragonflies, they have the longest fossil record. And since dragonflies have been around before the dawn of terrestrial vertebrates, that's a pretty long lineage. The second reason petaltails are strange, and why they're so hard to find, is that they exist only in bogs that are fed by fresh seeps, known as fens. Fens have a continuous supply of fresh water running through them, and are never entirely still. But they're muddy and shallow, and instead of living in a proper river or stream, the black petaltail's aquatic nymph spends its life in a watery mud-burrow, leaping out to catch prey when it ambles by. Most dragonflies live a year as a nymph, crawling up out of the water on a branch, then bursting out as a winged adult. And that's where the black petaltail is really bizarre. Tanypteryx hageni lives up to five years as a nymph. Researchers still don't know fully why, or whether it varies at all, but that's a freaky-long time to stay in nymph-school. The adults still don't last more than a few months, eating insects on the wing, then mating and expiring before the year is out. Sadly, when we arrived in Quincy, our guide informed us that we were about a month too early to see the adults emerge. We didn't mind, because we spent several days re-visiting the region and geeking out over the insanely bizarre carnivorous plants! It was on one of these return trips that my wife noticed the Really Big Damselfly near the ground.

How Not To Be Seen (unless your'e Mrs. Swarm)

I knew right away it might be something special- first off, it was clearly a dragonfly, but its wings were still upright, so it must have just molted. Secondly, there was no stream or lake nearby- where did it come from? A small water-soaked mud flat was directly under it. I immediately made a gentle grab for the dragonfly, and got a close-up look.

A thoroughly terrified female Tanypteryx hageni.

Ready for takeoff

Even though its greyish colors were still darkening, there was no denying it- we'd found a black petaltail! Cradled in my wife's hands was a five-year-old insect, ready for its final stage of life. Once its wings and skin had thoroughly hardened, the dragonfly snapped them into place into a lateral position, gave a test vibration, then took off. Had we been 30 minutes later, we would have missed the whole spectacle.  We found her exuviae on a stalk below, and friends found at least 2 others in the region. So clearly we'd arrived just as they were emerging, a wonderful chance event! We were elated, and ready to explore more of this amazing region. Next post I'll blab more about insect-eating plants, promise! z end
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This Silverfish Will Melt Your Heart

Some insects are an easy sell. Butterflies. Dragonflies. Honeybees. But for me it's all about promoting the beauty inherent in the lesser-loved creatures on this planet, the ones who get no attention, or worse are vilified for having the temerity to exist in the first place. So this silverfish portrait by Matthias Lenke makes me super happy. Because BEHOLD:
Matthias Lenke, Silberfischchen, 2011

Matthias Lenke, Silberfischchen, 2011

How can you not love this? Close up, its scales become resplendent plumage, as iridescent as any butterfly. Little guy, you can have all the book-binding you want, so long as your coat keeps its iridescent sheen! Lenke's photostream is filled with glorious portraits of invertebrates both revered and reviled. Here's a few of my favorites, but it's worth it to check out his collection.
Matthias Lenke, Mehlwurm, 2012

Matthias Lenke, Mehlwurm, 2012

Matthias Lenke, Wasserläufer, 2012

Matthias Lenke, Wasserläufer, 2012

Matthias Lenke, Heimchen, 2012

Matthias Lenke, Heimchen, 2012

Matthias Lenke, Mayfly, 2012

Matthias Lenke, Mayfly, 2012

What's up with this guy's head? Read all about 'turbinate eyes' on Matthias' Flickr site. The images are all giddily ginormotastically huge, allowing our human eyes to appreciate the incredible forms of often overlooked organisms. Everything's wonderful when you get close enough to it. z end
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Chart Art

BibliOdyssey posted recently about a beautiful series of Entomological and Phytopathological Wall Charts up at Wageningen UR's special collections site. Though BibliOdyssey does a fine curation, I couldn't help but share some of my favorites as well.

Recently a friend saw one of these spider anatomy charts for sale in the Bay Area, and kindly sent me a pic. Sadly it's a bit out of my range, but oh so beautiful. Wouldn't you want this in your living room?

I super heart insect comparative anatomy charts, showing mere slices of the stunning diversity of insect morphology. I also heart making them in cardboard.

That there? That's a maggot. Damn fine looking one too.

Galls! A lovely bizarro diagram of gall-making insects.

I love this seemingly random collection of artworks, all depicting internal anatomy of a beetle.

I think what appeals to many people about old biology wall charts is not just what information they convey, but what mysteries they seem to hold.  Either through lack of text or the incongruous juxtaposition of imagery, science charts removed from the classroom become giant mysteries, promising important information but actually revealing little (to the untrained eye at least). Doubtless such charts were accompanied with detailed explanatory text, but without them they become as opaque as a page from the Codex Seraphinianus, and become objects of wonder. A poster of beetle larvae can be seen as abstracts and grotesques with tantalizing numerics orbiting at close range. Thankfully knowing the facts behind these works of art doesn't diminish them, but makes them even more wonderful.  z end
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The Bottled Bugs of Colleen Paz

Last week at Oakland's Art Murmur I got to play with some of these enthralling bug jars made by artist and designer Colleen Paz. A button awakens a frenetically oscillating insect inside each one. I'd love to own one of these- they're simple yet very satisfying and tactile. the movements are lifelike and the vintage bottles evoke memories of childhood nature expeditions. As an insect-obsessed person, I am constantly presented with friends and perfect strangers who abashedly confess to me their childhood insect-related indiscretions. Often these tales revolve around the indiscriminate killing of invertebrates as a youth, but sometimes I am told how they used to put fireflies or other insects in jars as a kid, and do I think they're a monster for having done so. Which is odd, because I and probably every curious future entomologist and naturalist alive today has done the exact same thing- it's how we grow to learn and appreciate insects, instead of ignoring them or recoiling in fear. I'm never quite sure why people feel compelled to reveal their ento-incarceratory crimes to me.  I suspect it must simply be the result of their brains in a hurry, trying to dig up something suitably insect-ish to talk about with me, and then well, that's what bubbles forth. In any case, I do my best to reassure everybody that they won't be shunned by me for such youthful acts. After all, I still do it as an adult! z end  
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The Eagleman Stag

  The Endless Swarm has been held hostage to some really horrid server issues, and has been mostly down, or crippled, or slow, for over a week now. It is maddening!  I am seizing upon a sudden burst of connectivity while it lasts, just so I can post this beautiful and haunting stop motion film by Mikey Please. Gleefully, a look at his site reaveals another invertebrate-filled ad spot, all crafted from bits of carved foam. Enjoy, and with any luck this blog will be able to spread its wings again- so much to share!
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The Insect Art of Kristen Rieke

Now through the end of April, Mission Pie in San Francisco features a beautiful collection of insect paintings and sculptures by local artist Kristen Rieke. I happened to find them by accident while meeting Mrs. Swarm after work one evening for chai and pie...

Picture of Rieke's works I hastily took, in between shoving pie-laden forks into my face

Kristen Rieke, "Disappearance." Oil on Panel, 2011.

Kristen Rieke, "Remain", 2011. (Photo by Katie Simmons)

Kristen Rieke, "Gone", Oil on Panel, 2011

Kristen Rieke, "Termites", Oil on Panel, 2011

Check out more honeycomb-laden work at her site. Much of her work focuses on humanity's connection to honeybees and the tragic consequences of colony collapse disorder.  In addition, moths, beetles, and termites also receive attention and adulation. Here's hoping more of her work pops up around the Bay Area! z end  
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Epic Insectus

Neil Craver, 2010

Neil Craver, 2011

Neil Craver, 2011

Neil Craver, 2010

Insectus is an amusing set of photographs by Neil Craver, where arthropod body parts fall in and out of frame, a purposeful play on what must be the bane of any live insect photographer. I find myself more attracted to his Epic series, where tentative insect and arachnid explorers trespass on the sensitive landscape of the human face.  z end
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The Insect Art of Monique Ligons

Monique Ligons, Bertran de Born, 2010

Using Gustave Doré's iconic works as a starting point, Philadelphia artist Monique Ligons  created a series of paintings where humans have been replaced by insects and arachnids, entitled the Biblical InsectariumBertran de Born, (a baron and poet whom Dante and Doré depicted in Hell holding his head like a lantern), is replaced by a Jerusalem cricket.  The cricket's human-like head is made all the more uncanny when held by an upright insect on two legs. Other Jerusalem crickets and beetle grubs cower or lie dismembered, and the face-palming Dante and Virgil are replaced by two somber cicadas.  Don't know why they're so upset- insects can live just fine without their heads! z end
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The Larvacean Art of Rebecca Hutchinson

Rebecca Hutchinson, "Natural Inclinations", 2008

Rebecca Hutchinson, "woven collection", 2009

Rebecca Hutchinson, Racine installation view, 2011

Rebecca Hutchinson builds delicate biomorphic forms out of fragile unfired paperclay, hangs them in an art gallery, and then destroys them after the show. Many of them look like ant nest casts or caterpillar cocoons, but what they really remind me of are small creatures known as larvaceans.

Larvacean in lab: srsly without hap.

Larvaceans are tiny hapless tadpole-like things that live by the zillions in the open ocean, constructing elaborate "houses" out of mucus which they use to filter particulate matter. They were a source of frustration to marine biologists on plankton surveys, mainly because instead of dancing happily with their fellow planktonic pals under a dissecting microscope, they expired rather quickly inside their pea-sized tomb of slime. During an expedition in 1971, Alice Alldredge took up these hard-to-study creatures.  But her suggestion to observe them in their natural habitat was met with blank stares, as the scientific culture at the time was stodgily laboratory-based.  Undaunted, she launched herself into the warm waters off the coast of Bimini, tethered herself to an anchor and waited, trying to get a glimpse of larvaceans in their natural habitat. She didn't have to wait long.

Larvaceans in ocean: Can you handle their combined hap? You cannot.

So much damn hap

Not only were they everywhere, but their mucus houses were larger and more refined. It seemed that the act of dragging plankton nets into the lab ruined their tiny structures, and only by watching them in their natural environment could one get the full effect of their intricacies. Furthermore, once the mucus-houses get filled with particulate matter, they are quickly jettisoned, and the larvacean builds another. Alldredge used her observations to help make groundbreaking studies on how sinking larvacean houses form an important part of the abyssal ecosystem, studies that were only possible by stepping out of the lab and diving into their ephemeral world.

"Sile Bloom" by Rebecca Hutchinson, 2009, Clay and mixed media.

Unlike so many sculptures that are built to last eternally in collections and museums, the paperclay forms crafted by Hutchinson are temporary and ephemeral. Once the artist gives up the idea that these forms will last, they cease to become an object and instead become a visible verb caught in the act.  And the only way to really experience structures like these is to dive in and float amongst them, before they sink away into the abyss. z end
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