Amateur arachnology (and why I fear I may no longer be fit to have a normal job)

You know you’re a biologist when:

(in increasing order of severity–some of these pertain to myself and others to my labmate, whose desk recently became the next-door neighbor to a sparrow’s nest, and who has just left to take a shower)

-you are happy to have a bird’s nest outside your window

-you think the half-plucked-looking naked baby birds inside are adorable

Baby sparrows outside my labmate’s window

-you are not unduly distressed when the bird’s nest becomes fairly obviously infested with some sort of tiny bug

-you are only mildly distressed when it becomes clear that the bugs have made it inside the window.  You carry on writing your dissertation.

Ookaay. Once the bugs make it inside the window things are less cool. 12 point “G” included for scale.

-you relent and decide to head home only when the bugs start actually crawling on your person.  You notify the lab manager, who calls pest control (see–we’re totally normal and responsible), and your lab mate down the hall (me) who…

-does not avoid your bench like a normal person.

-captures some of the bugs to look at under a microscope

-shares the view with her labmate, who would rather look at them than go home and wash up right away, and her baymate, a former arthropod specialist who declares they’re “kinda pretty.”

-then browses the internet with her baymate and labmate to identify that they’re some kind of bird mites (duh).  Labmate, still totally calm but succumbing to common sense, goes home to shower and continue writing, while I…

-use the break offered by an hour-long incubation period to take better-quality microscope photographs and browse the internet for another half an hour or so to try to find out their species name.

I think they must be some kind of Ornithonyssus, possibly Ornithonyssus bursa, but if there are any arachnologists who know more I’d really love a stronger ID.

Bird mite, Ornithonyssus bursa (possibly). 20x, inside a 12-point font G.

As I write this, I’m wondering to myself if “arachnologist” is a real thing.  Certainly bird mites are arachnids (subclass Acari, order Mesostigmata), so entomologist seems inappropriate.

Lest you think we’re unusually bonkers, I think Haeckel made a decent case that arachnids were kinda pretty, in one of my favorite books, “Forms of Art in Nature.”  You can get id’s to the various creatures here on Wikipedia.

“Arachnida” from Forms of Art in Nature, Ernst Haeckel, 1904


Geeking out

I’m back in CA now, but before I left the MBL I had to make a quick visit to the library (very quick, sadly: I only got in 10 minutes before I had to run for the bus).  And yes, since you’re wondering: I did head directly for TH Morgan, and yes: once there I did look directly for the amphibian lineage tracing experiments:

Thomas Hunt Morgan’s “Experimental Embryology,” a developmental biology classic. Original 1927 edition.

Morgan’s descriptions of Vogt’s experiments on urodele embryos, which used vital dye labels to track the movements of cells.  They showed the mechanics of gastrulation (Embryology class motto: “gastrulate or die!”) and convergent extension (loosely packed round groups of cells nudge between each other to become a long skinny group of cells, stretching the embryo out).  These experiments also showed which parts of the early, ball-of-cells embryo (blastula) contributed to which parts of the later differentiated tadpole: “fate-mapping,” shown at right.

This guy was also there:

But I ran out of time before I could determine if any of this blog’s patron saint’s work was there.  Sorry, Gregor!

And while I didn’t get to browse the botanical illustrations like I had hoped, botany was still very much in evidence my last few days in Woods Hole, manifested in the extremely potent honeysuckle perfume everywhere.

A favorite childhood edible. The honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) was so thick you could smell it along the whole length of the bike path. I sampled a few of the flower bases for their nectar, of course.

At the MBL

I’m in Woods Hole MA for the next 10 days, TA’ing for the Marine Biological Laboratory’s summer Embryology course.  Since lecture starts at 9am and lab finishes around 2-3am, I’ll probably be an irresponsible blogger.  I am hoping to get a chance to mill around the libraries and peek at all the old botanical illustrations, so hopefully I’ll have some old-school paintings and lithographs to share at the end of it all.

In the meantime, here’s some of the preposterously bright blue hydrangeas I always look forward to out here:

…and an equally preposterously adorable rabbit.  We saw at least a dozen of these on our walk yesterday evening; they were extremely casual about having us walk right up to them.

Sure I’m a wild animal. Why do you ask? Hey, do you by chance have a carrot I could nibble on in a charmingly tame fashion? Or should I just curl up in your lap?


Side note: transit of Venus is awesome

Hey all, sorry I’ve been an irresponsible blogger the past week.  Plant posts are coming, but in the meantime, I just got back from a jaunt down to the Stanford oval, where the weather was surprisingly optimal for a little mid-day stargazing.

Why yes, actually, I am going stargazing right now. You can see the little cluster of astronomers in the middle.

The Stanford Astronomical Society (SAS) was putting on a little show, with a couple of great telescopes entrained on Venus’ transit across the sun.

I was somewhat surprised that the whole campus didn’t turn out to see this won’t-happen-again-till 2117 show, but it meant we all got enough time to take a good long look.

Big thanks to Josh Chan, who set up the event, and to Michael (I think?  Tall guy in a green shirt?) who took this fabulous photo on my iPhone:

How awesome is this? Pretty darn awesome. As several people commented, the very tiny arc size of Venus mostly serves to illustrate how frickin’ huge and very bright the sun is. I mean, on a moonless night, Venus is the brightest thing in the sky.  For looking at the sun, the scopes had filters on them that blocked 99.99% of the light, so that you could actually see the details of the transit. Plus look: you can see sunspots elsewhere on the sun’s face, too! (Photo by Michael of SAS).

Here in CA the transit is still going until sunset, so if you have time, hustle on down to the oval or grab your eclipse specs, or try one of these projection strategies and check it out!