It’s about time, you two!


Making more water striders


My water striders (family Gerridae) have been mating like crazy. Like, for 8 hours one day. I wasn’t there the whole time, but I suppose it’s possible they didn’t even stop. Given our differences in lifespan, that scales (very) roughly to about a solid month for us without getting out of bed (8 hours times 100 strider life spans is 33 days). Only they’re cruising around on top of the water the whole time.

And finally, finally… I gazed at the surface of the water Monday, deep in thought about something else entirely, and I sat up a little straighter and asked myself, “What is that?”

It was a tiny little blip and that blip was moving. Moving like it was hopping. In tiny little hops.

I eventually discovered not one, not two, but four baby water striders in my tank! I imagine they lay more than four eggs at a time (many insects do), so I wonder what happened to the rest of them. Maybe the backswimmers or even their own parents had some easy snacks over the weekend as they hatched. It happens.

In the meantime, I have moved the blips over to their very own kiddie pool, given them some rocks and some sticks and leaves to hide in. It looks much lovelier to me without the murky algae, but maybe they find the clear sterility of the water unpleasant. It would be an interesting hypothesis to test, allowing them to chose between habitats.


The kiddie pool.


What am I doing raising aquatic insects in my hidden underground laboratory? (Besides being creepier than just having a hidden underground lab?) I may have mentioned my research interest once or twice: biodiversity. Specifically, why we have so much of it to start with. I may also have suggested I am currently working on a theoretical research project which has been a real challenge and taught me a lot.  The basic question of it is: does hiding from a predator effect whether two competing species can live together?

I’ll explain more about the framework and the techniques later, but I’m thinking about how to test it in real life, and I am thinking about aquatic insects (after all, they are little, with short life spans, relatively simple neural networks, etc.). I posted already about my field trip with another student to count the backswimmers and water striders in pools on Mount Lemmon, and to collect them (yes, we have a Forest Service permit for both). I have kept a few, just to observe their behavior and formulate intelligent (well, I hope) hypotheses. That’s these guys. And now there are more of them. I’m so proud.

Step 1 to being America’s Next Top Biologist

Excerpt from my field journal.

Being a respected biologist these days usually requires a little more training than natural historians of the past would have encountered. We have to learn stories at the molecular and cellular levels, up through what we can touch and feel and see, and above to the population and ecosystem levels. There are statistics and politics and grant writing skills.

But I propose that Step 1 to being America’s Next Top Biologist is to keep a field journal. This is hardly an original idea. Most biologists in the past did so, and most do today. Charles Darwin, arguably one of the most famous biologists ever, published his field notes as a book titled The Voyage of the Beagle. It is full of maddeningly narrow-minded commentary, especially at first, but it is a fascinating read about an adventure and a world that today we can only approximate.

I have one quibble with Darwin’s journal, too, which is the lack of drawings included. I suppose he may have done them, and just not have included them in the final version. I can commiserate. I’m more than a little embarrassed about the quality of my field journal drawings.

But the point of field drawings for a biologist is not just the aesthetic quality of the finished image. It is the process of looking more closely at a plant or animal. It is the difference between noticing or missing that every flower on this plant has five petals, or that something has been chewing on the leaves.

All our fancy statistics and abstract theory come to very little use without the details of what is happening, and being done by whom and how and where in the natural world. To be a big picture thinker, you still have to remember to look at the details once in a while. And there is no better time than while watching bugs in your classroom, strolling around your neighborhood, or backpacking through remote and wild territories. It’s something everyone can do, whether or not you are a professional.

I’ve shared a few images of my journal here. I mostly included the pictures because they’re more interesting to look at than my hurried handwriting. In the trade-off between being more organized and being more accessible, I tend to the immediate and hence lack some recording detail and standard format. That’s something I might work on.

Do you keep a field journal? Who knows, you could be America’s Next Top Biologist. What have you recorded lately?