2014 Photography Retrospective

A waterfall in a basin of columnar basalt.
Abiqua Falls, near Scotts Mills, Oregon. April 11, 2014.

I haven’t quite abandoned this blog, but 2014 has been a year of many changes—the biggest being my decision to start a graduate program based in Budapest, Hungary. In the last year I’ve seen a lot of new places and met a lot of new people, I’ve learned a fair bit (although not enough) of Hungarian, I’m excited about changing career directions, and my photography has improved immensely, thanks primarily to Scott Carpenter‘s bird photography class through the Audubon Society of Portland and some fantastic visits with A. Jaszlics of Snake Photographer. I can wholeheartedly recommend both as photography instructors.

I also bought a new camera—a Canon 6D—and replaced my lenses except for my Tamron 90mm macro, and ventured into the worlds of macro flash and reverse macro. I tried a lot of new techniques for both shooting and post-processing, with a variety of results.

So without further ado, here are 16 of my favorite images from 2014, with a little bit about how I took them and the new skills I learned in the process:

A waterfall in a basin of columnar basalt.
Abiqua Falls, near Scotts Mills, Oregon. April 11, 2014.

Canon EF-S18-55mm @ 18mm, f/22, 2.5 s, ISO 100.

One of the things I started doing this year was carrying a beanbag. Although I did briefly have an old tripod, carrying it is something of a pain and not always practical. A beanbag and some creativity in finding surfaces can go a long way towards making long exposures possible. Sometimes the unusual angles this requires can provide a slightly different perspective from the usual eye level tripod. For this photograph of Abiqua Falls in Oregon, I used a small aperture and a polarizing filter to reduce the later afternoon light, since I didn’t have neutral density filters.

Image of a sleeping octopus
A Red Octopus (Octopus rubescens) sleeping in the Rocky Shores exhibit, Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, Oregon, USA. April 15, 2014.

Tamron 90mm macro, f/11, 1/125 s, ISO 200, off-camera flash in softbox. Composite of two exposures.

The mystery of how to take good photos in an aquarium solved: off-camera flash. We couldn’t find a photography policy for the Oregon Coast Aquarium, so A. and I figured it was worth trying and no one told us us to stop using flash. We used a manual Canon flash with a softbox and shoe cable and got some pretty great results, although it’s definitely something where it helps to have a second person to hold the flash and holding the flash at a good angle is more of an art than a science. This Red Octopus was asleep, making it a cooperative subject. I combined two exposures, one for the arm and one for the head and body. You should be aware that many aquariums do prohibit flash photography by visitors, so check the photography policy before you bring out the gear. (On a later visit, the OCA did have a sign warning visitors not to use flash on the octopus as well.)

Mating stoneflies
Mating Golden Stoneflies (Hesperoperla pacifica) at the Deschutes River Boat Launch outside Warm Springs, Oregon, USA. May 25, 2014.

Tamron 90mm macro, f/13, 1/400 s, ISO 200, Sunpak flash with softbox.

A. also managed to get me hooked on flash for macro, beginning with an old Sunpak flash I picked up for $25 or so at a thrift store. While it could only fire full power and thus recharged slowly, it was enough to get me hooked on the new possibilities. A homemade softbox from cardboard, masking tape, and white plastic bags softened the light, allowing me to capture these mating stoneflies. I had also started shooting in RAW (which I should have done years ago), which allowed me to recover a dark band from incorrect flash sync. I have also started gently using Photoshop to reduce blown-out highlights, which subtly but markedly improves a lot of photos.

Image of two owl nestlings
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) nestlings at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, USA. 27 May 2014.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 400mm, f/11, 1/400 s, ISO 400.

Scott Carpenter’s excellent bird photography class was very useful for both technical and behavioral aspects of bird photography. Since I had decided to buy a new full-frame camera and my old lenses would no longer be compatible, I rented the Canon 100-400mm zoom for the class field trip and also took it down to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where we were lucky enough to find these Great Horned Owl nestlings. One of the useful takeaways from the class was that even if you don’t have the equipment for a tight portrait of your subject, you can still take interesting photos of them within their habitat, so I wasn’t very disappointed that a river and a large tree prevented me from a closer approach.

A chickadee at a nest holding a fecal pellet in its bill.
A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) removing a fecal pellet from the nest after a feeding, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge in Portland, Oregon, USA. May 30, 2014.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 400mm, f5.6, 1/400 s, ISO 5000.

I never would have found this Black-capped Chickadee nest close to the trail at Oaks Bottom without Scott’s advice on looking for cavity nests. Since the nest was located close to the trail, the chickadees were used to humans and not disturbed by my activity, although since they are very fast, it took a long time and many photos to capture this moment as the chickadee removes a fecal pellet from the nest after feeding. I also wouldn’t have had the confidence to try such a high ISO without Scott’s advice and the wonderful performance of the Canon 6D, which has opened up a lot of low-light photography possibilities.

Image of a yellow-crowned night heron.
A Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas, USA. June 14, 2014.

EF300mm f/4L IS USM, f8, 1/400 s, ISO 800.

Although the 100-400mm is a nice lens, I ended up buying the slightly cheaper 300mm f/4 L-series prime, since my main interest is not birds but dragonflies. In my opinion it’s a sharper lens, and it’s definitely lighter, which is a bonus since I like to be able to fit all of my camera gear in a carry-on backpack for air travel. However, with larger birds like herons, it’s a quite adequate bird lens. In general this year, I’ve become much more aware of light, particularly the warm light of early morning and late afternoon (or the entire short winter day in northern latitudes). Although I still hate getting up early, sometimes it’s worth it.

A green heron hunting for fish among giant American lotus plants.
A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) hunting at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas, USA. June 14, 2014.

EF300mm f/4L IS USM, f8, 1/125 s, ISO 400.

Another example of a subject-in-habitat photo, since I wasn’t able to get closer. But I think I actually like the sense of scale provided by the giant American lotus plants.

Image of a tiger beetle on a white background.
Most likely an Eastern Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis venusta), Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, USA. June 18, 2014.

Tamron 90mm macro, f/11, 1/180 s, ISO 100.

One of the new techniques A. taught me was using an off-camera flash in a homemade whitebox for small animals. This produces wonderful portraits which focus on the the animal itself, although there is some soft-shadowing rather than the completely crisp backlit look of the Meet Your Neighbours project (a technique I’d like to learn someday but lack the gear for at the moment). While I still generally prefer a good in-habitat shot, whiteboxes are a useful tool for creating soft, even lighting, and sometimes it’s nice to focus fully on the organism. One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make to a full-frame camera is that extension tubes are almost mandatory for all but the largest macro subjects, although they also further reduce the depth of field.

Image of a paper wasp
A paper wasp (Polistes exclamans) at her nest, Hornsby Bend, Austin, Texas, USA. June 11, 2014.

Vivitar 35mm F/2.8, reversed with a 12mm extension tube, f/8, 1/160 s, ISO 200, off-camera flash with softbox.

My first attempts at reverse macro (mounting an old wide-angle lens in reverse) were pretty dismal, but with Lee’s advice and help holding the flash, I got some wasp photos that I’m really happy with. While this method is something of a pain since after you stop down for depth of field you can hardly see through the viewfinder, it produces fantastic results for far cheaper than, say, the Canon MP-E. I haven’t yet figured out a good way to use the flash on-camera for reverse macro, so unless I get another arm, I suspect a flash bracket is in my future.

Image of a shield bug and a camouflaged spider
A Red-black Shield Bug (Graphosoma lineatum) and a crab spider at the University of Debrecen Botanical Garden, Debrecen, Hungary. August 7, 2014.

Tamron 90mm macro, f/11, 1/125 s, ISO 1600, natural light.

I experimented a little bit with focus-stacking this year, mainly by manually blending two images to slightly expand the depth of field. In this case, I had a bit of serendipity—I didn’t notice the camouflaged crab spider on the left until after I got home, but fortunately I had an image with the spider in better focus, allowing me to blend it with the image focused on the shield bug. I had also forgotten my flash that day, but the 6D allowed me to push the ISO to 1600 and get great results anyway.

Image of a crab spider on a flower.
A camouflaged crab spider (family Thomisidae) at the University of Debrecen Botanical Garden, Debrecen, Hungary. August 12, 2014.

Vivitar 35mm F/2.8, reversed with a 12mm extension tube, f/8, 1/160 s, ISO 200, off-camera flash with softbox.

Here I combined a two-image focus stack with reverse macro, which was a huge pain and would definitely have been easier with a third arm, but I like the result.

Closeup of a potter's hands shaping a wet clay vase.
K. Nagy József, a potter, shaping a vase. Nádudvar, Hungary, August 2, 2014.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 18mm, f/4, 1/125 s, ISO 400.

While I don’t foresee becoming a portrait photographer any time soon, I did take a lot more photos of people in 2014. While many of these were of student events, I found that I do enjoy photographing people engaged in performing arts or craft work, and I look forward to exploring these areas of photography further.

Image of an insect nymph emerging from old exoskeleton
A Southern Green Stinkbug (Nezara viridula) nymph emerging from its old exoskeleton, Budai Arborétum, Budapest, Hungary.

Tamron 90mm macro + 32mm extension, f/11, 1/160, ISO 200, on-camera flash with softbox.

After I got frustrated with the Sunpak flash, I invested in a Yongnuo 560 iii manual flash, which many macro photographers use. While they may not be as reliable as Canon’s, I know enough people with broken Canon flashes that for 1/3 of the price, it seemed like a good gamble—so far, no regrets. Automatic flash isn’t very useful for macro, and manual flash is pretty simple with a little trial and error. And now that I don’t have to wait 30 seconds between recharges, it’s much easier to capture slightly more “action” shots, like this emerging stinkbug nymph. (Unfortunately, I spent the first part of fall semester catching every European virus I came across, so I didn’t get to do as much macro as I’d hoped—here’s to spring.)

A photograph of the Hungarian Parliament building lit up at night
Hungarian Parliament from the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest, Hungary.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 96mm, f/11, 3 s, ISO 100.

The remainder of the year, with nature photography options limited, I got really into dusk cityscape photography, since it was easy to pop over to the Danube for an hour or so around sunset. There’s something magical about long exposures, and I can’t think of a city with better views. Plus the “blue hour” (or blue 30 minutes, sometimes) just after sunset is fairly reliable even if clouds obscure the actual sunset. As with other long exposures and the following blended exposures, I used a beanbag to steady the camera rather than a tripod.

A view of Budapest at sunset.
A view of Erzsébet Square from St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary. November 19, 2014.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 32mm, f/8, 1/8 s, ISO 400. Composite of two images.

Another serendipitous image, since I had no idea when I decided to climb the tower of the basilica that night that the sunset would be spectacular—this image gave me a change to try out “luminosity masking,” a technique for manually blending multiple exposures for greater dynamic range. I encountered this technique through an article by Jimmy McIntyre, who also provides a free set of Photoshop actions that greatly speed the process. I ended up buying his full tutorial, although I haven’t yet had time to work through it. This image is a composite of two images, manually blended in Photoshop. While I still have a lot to learn about this technique, I like the results a lot more than traditional tone-mapped HDR.

Image of the Chain Bridge at sunset.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge at sunset, Budapest, Hungary. December 4, 2014.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 32mm, f/8, 1/8 s, ISO 100. Composite of two (?) images.

Finally, my last new composite technique for the year. It’s an unfortunate fact that while cities generally look best after lights have come on for the night, the lights don’t tend to turn on until after sunset. It’s pretty simple in Photoshop to stack a sunset image for the sky with a post-sunset image showing bright city lights using the “Lighten” blend mode, following Jimmy McIntyre’s tutorial. The one drawback to this method is that you really have to commit to your composition, leaving the camera in place from sunset to blue hour so the images will align correctly. Since I hadn’t waited long enough to get a really dark sky, I also had to do some manual masking and blending, but I think the result is not bad. I know some people are really opposed to composite images, but I personally feel that as long as the composite work is disclosed, there’s nothing unethical about them—and sometimes they can capture the “feel” of a scene better than a single exposure.

All in all, I feel like I learned an incredible amount about photography this year, and the upgrade to my equipment has also made a huge difference—rather than fighting my equipment to get acceptable results out of it, I can work with it to try new techniques. Not everything I tried was a success—I had a pretty disappointing evening shooting firefly light trails (I know what to do differently next time, but I don’t know when I’ll have access to fireflies again), I’m still puzzling over how to best light dragonflies when using a long lens, and I never managed to get myself to a good dark sky area to really try night sky photography, one of the reasons I decided on the 6D despite its drawbacks for certain kinds of wildlife photography. I’m looking forward to another year of learning more about my camera and about post-processing. Who knows, I might even start updating this blog again!

The first spring trip to Sawhill

Pasture Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus)
Pasture Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus), Sawhill/Walden Ponds, Boulder, Colorado, USA. May 12, 2013.

Not surprisingly, almost the first place I manage to get out to once the weather shifts–although this year we’ve almost skipped straight into summer–is Sawhill and Walden Ponds in Boulder. Just about every time I go there I see something new and interesting, whether it’s insects, reptiles, or birds, and today was no exception.

Since Lee gave me the T1i, my partner and I were both able to take pictures, which was a nice change from me taking pictures and him getting impatient. We had a pretty hot, sunny day, so the insects were quite active. I was hoping to see some early odonates (of course), but unlike last year, due to April being full of snow, this year’s ode season is starting slowly. Other local ode-watchers have just begun to report Plains Forktails (Ischnura damula) in the last few days, and they were the only species we saw.

Here’s a male with a nice meal:

Plains Forktail (Ischnura damula), male

And a female (teneral, I think–I didn’t see any mature-looking females):

Plains Forktail (Ischnura damula), female

I then spent a frustrating period trying to photograph a large and adorable Phidippus jumping spider, probably P. audax, which seemed convinced I might eat it and sidled around the other side of the cattail stem no matter where I moved. Eventually I managed to get a couple kind of decent shots.

Jumping spider (Phidippus audax?)

Jumping spider (Phidippus audax?)

My partner spotted a fairly large Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), a species I’ve seen a few times at Sawhill before; like before, it wasn’t very cooperative, so this was the best picture he could get:

Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

I attempted some photos of a very tiny Pasture Grasshopper nymph (Melanoplus confusus), with pollen covering its tiny face:

Pasture Grasshopper (Melanoplus confusus)

And spotted a handsome weevil (Notaris puncticollis):

Pale-spotted Gray Weevil (Notaris puncticollis)

Pale-spotted Gray Weevil (Notaris puncticollis)

The most exciting insect we saw, though, will be getting her own post. Stay tuned!

Thanks to v belov for the weevil and César Nufio for the grasshopper identifications.

Green Claybank Tiger Beetle (Cicindela denverensis), first of the season

Green Claybank Tiger Beetle (Cicindela denverensis)
A Green Claybank Tiger Beetle (Cicindela denverensis), White Rocks Section of the East Boulder Trail, Boulder, Colorado, USA. April 13, 2013.

I have no real excuse for not updating all winter other than laziness, but spring has finally (sort of) arrived. The last month or so in Colorado has been a thrilling roller coaster ride of beautiful sunny warm weather punctuated by heavy snowfall, turning into rain this last week. But a couple weeks ago during one of those sunbreaks, we managed to get out for a short hike on the White Rocks section of the East Boulder Trail. I’m not sure I’d recommend it in general–it’s mostly a muddy track through farmland and not very exciting–but we did see a lot of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), as well as some really fascinating wasps (sadly out of focus video here, if anyone has any idea what they are–the peculiar rasping noise they made while digging especially intrigued me).

Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus)

Further down the trail from the fields, the ground got marshier, and we saw some shorebirds in one flooded area, although I didn’t get a good luck at them.

whiterocks bg2-11

The trail eventually crosses a river and reaches some ponds, but it was getting close to lunchtime and the ponds were sadly devoid of waterbirds, so we started heading back.

whiterocks bg2-14

But by far the most exciting find of the day for me was a gorgeous and remarkably cooperative, bright metallic green tiger beetle, hands-down the most cooperative tiger beetle I’ve ever encountered:

Tiger beetle (Subfamily Cicindelinae)

Naturally I had not brought my macro lens, thinking it too early in the year for exciting insects, so these photos I took with my cheap kit telephoto. Despite this (and heavy cropping), I think they came out better than my last attempt at photographing tiger beetles with a telephoto (the best of which were this one and this one, which I think I might actually have taken with a point-and-shoot–I’ll have to head back to that site this year to look for Cicindela scutellaris again). I’m not sure whether this was due to improved skills or the Rebel T1i body Lee passed onto me before heading off to the thrilling wilds of Australia. Either way, it is nice to see that I am getting slightly better at this, although I still have a long way to go!

Eric Eaton and Dave Rogers on BugGuide kindly identified it for me as a Green Claybank Tiger Beetle (Cicindela denverensis), a species I haven’t seen before.

All in all, a good way to start off the 2013 bug-hunting season. I have a few goals for this year, most of which I probably won’t meet:

  • Experiment with the exciting video capability of the XTi.
  • Rig up a cheap diffuser/reflector for one of my cheap flashes and see if I can get decent results with it (if not, try to save up for a better flash).
  • Possibly experiment with whitebox photography, just because. It’s not my personal favorite style, but seems like a good skill to have.
  • Field trip to find Ebony Jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata), the other species of Calopterygidae found in Colorado.
  • Find more tiger beetles.
  • Continue my insect collection.
  • Finish that Iceland travelogue.

What are your photography or nature expedition goals for 2013?

The Paleontological Gulf

A fossil carabid beetle from Colorado.
“Harpalus” redivivus (USNM-63444, holotype), a fossil ground beetle (Family Carabidae) from the late Eocene Florissant Formation of Colorado, USA. Photo: Herbert W. Meyer/U.S. National Museum of Natural History.

Today’s post is something a little different. Normally I avoid weighing in publicly on the business of doing science; I just have a Master’s in Museum Studies, and not a single paper to my name. But I came across an illustration today of a scientific issue near to my heart. I’m very interested in other people’s thoughts on this issue and–perhaps–ways to solve it in the interest of better scientific communication and collaboration.

A coworker recently pointed me at Yves Bousquet’s new monograph on the Geadephaga (comprising three–or two, depending on who you ask–families of beetles), Catalogue of Geadephaga (Coleoptera: Adephaga) of America, north of Mexico, an incredible and delightfully Open Access resource that I am very grateful for, especially as it came out at a really useful time for me at work [1].

But I’m going to pick a little paleontological nit, because it provides an apt example of the disconnect between the two disciplines most connected to paleontology: modern biology and earth sciences. In Appendix 1, Bousquet provides a list of known fossil species of Geadephaga. And I came across this:

Nebria occlusa Scudder, 1900a: 17. Type locality: «Florissant [Teller County], Colorado» (original citation), from the early Oligocene period. Holotype [by monotypy] in MCZ [# 1755]. Note. 1. Although noted originally as from the Miocene period, most authors agree that the shales of the Florissant Basin are from the Early Oligocene (Wilson 1978: 17). 2. According to Kavanaugh (1978: 275), the holotype probably belongs to the genus Amara.

“Most authors agree”? I thought, with some shock. You see, I spent three years working part-time at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, and another three years in graduate school working on Florissant plant fossils for part of my thesis. I’ve read a large chunk of the Florissant literature, and since my thesis in particular dealt with the estimated temperatures and ages of the Florissant Formation and several other Colorado fossil deposits, I can say with confidence that most authors now agree that the Florissant Formation was deposited 34.07 million years ago, at the end of the Eocene Epoch [2].

I looked up the reference: Wilson MVH (1978) Paleogene insect faunas of western North America. Quaestiones Entomologicae 14: 13-34.

And that explains why the reference is from 1978–it’s not a reference to a geoscience article about stratigraphy or radiometric dating, as I would expect in a paleontological context, but a reference to an entomological journal. In the early days of taxonomic work at Florissant–and on many fossil floras and faunas–a lot of workers who described non-vertebrate fossils were both paleontologists and modern taxonomists, and often the latter first. Consequently, they published in general science journals or in botanical and entomological journals, and this trend continued well into the 20th century.

At some point however, a great deal of the paleontological literature shifted to earth science and specialized paleontology journals. Paleontologists began collaborating more and more with stratigraphers and other geoscientists; many have relatively little experience with the modern analogues of their fossil organisms of interest. These days, I get the impression that more paleontologists come from geology backgrounds than biology backgrounds. In one sense this is good: today’s paleontologists tend to have a much stronger grasp of stratigraphy and geological context, as well as taphonomy (how fossils are or are not preserved). On the other hand, less background in biology comes with drawbacks; paleoecologists have not adopted quantitative methods as quickly as their counterparts working on living species, and taxonomy of fossil organisms is often an afterthought in need of major revisions.

I am not surprised that a taxonomist who works on modern groups might not have searched geology journals for more recent publications on the age of the Florissant Formation; I suspect many paleontologists wouldn’t necessarily think of digging through back issues of biology journals for information on fossil species.

In the case of Florissant, a number of things have happened since 1978 that make that paper not the best choice to cite for the age of the Florissant fossils.

  1. In 1993, the stratotype (in biology, a type specimen defines a species; in stratigraphy, a type section of rock defines a geologic boundary) for the Eocene-Oligocene boundary was formally defined by Premoli Silva and Jenkins in Massignano, Italy, with the boundary itself estimated via radiometric dating at 34 million years ago [3]. The boundary is more precisely understood than it was in the 1970s.
  2. Paleontologists (particularly paleobotanists) and other geoscientists have produced a lot of papers trying to pinpoint the Eocene-Oligocene boundary and describe the transitions of floral and faunal communities across it. Most of these papers have been published in paleontology or geoscience journals.
  3. Specifically, a number of different methods have been used to determine the age of the Florissant Formation itself. Radiometric dating using 40Ar/39Ar produced a date of 34.07 ± 0.10 million years ago [4, 5]. This was the first radiometric age published for the deposition of the Florissant Formation since Epis and Chapin 1975 (an age of 34.9 million years ago, which I believe at the time was considered early Oligocene) [6]. Examination of the fossil mammal assemblage indicated a North American Land Mammal Age of Chadronian, latest Eocene [7, 8]. The latest Eocene age for Florissant has also been corroborated by some paleomagnetic work, but I can’t find the reference at the moment.

I don’t think anyone currently working on Florissant would argue that it’s an early Oligocene deposit: the floral and mammalian assemblages fit pretty clearly into what you’d expect for late Eocene North America. The plants of the slightly younger (33.7-30.5 Ma) Antero Formation, while not as abundant for comparison as I would have liked when I was working on my thesis, are already showing some shift towards a more temperate-adapted flora, corroborated by recent pollen evidence [9]. Certainly they are very different from the solidly Oligocene Creede flora (26.9-26.3 Ma).

But why does this matter? We’re only talking about a couple million years, not much in geological time. Is the difference between latest Eocene and earliest Oligocene really that important?

Yes. The Eocene-Oligocene transition marked a time of relatively abrupt global cooling, according to marine records (terrestrial records, at least in North America, may indicated slightly more gradual cooling, geologically speaking–but there’s a reason this has been such a major paleobotanical research topic in the last 30 years). So if, for example, someone wanted to look at how composition communities of carabid beetles in North America changed during this transition, perhaps trying to correlate this with climatic shifts, it would be important to know whether a particular fossil assemblage was deposited before or after the Eocene-Oligocene boundary.

In addition to the old citation for the age of the Florissant Formation, Bousquet did not appear to be aware of Frank M. Carpenter’s 1992 contribution to the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, covering Hexapoda, which might have provided some additional information about the most recent thinking on the taxonomy of the Geadephaga of Florissant and other North American fossil localities. While I don’t have this publication myself, Florissant paleontologist Herbert W. Meyer, in his 2003 book The Fossils of Florissant, does discuss Carpenter’s 1992 compilation of fossil insects, and notes that Carpenter questioned the generic assignments of many of the fossil insects at Florissant, including nearly all of the carabids [10].

I don’t blame Bousquet for not digging into the more recent paleontological literature for a footnote to an appendix; science has become a network of subdisciplines that are often opaque to scientists in different subdisciplines, and the art of literature searching doesn’t necessarily carry over from one to another. I think it’s great that Bousquet decided to include an appendix of known fossil species at all; I don’t think this is standard practice in monographs of this nature. I wonder, though, if he might have missed some other species, or more recent paleoentomological papers, perhaps ones hidden in geoscience journals outside his scope of expertise. His appendix of fossil species is a fine starting point–but what if there’s more?

I think it’s unfortunate that paleontology has become so embedded in the geosciences that there’s less communication with modern biology–unfortunate for both disciplines. Modern ecological and taxonomic techniques have a great deal to offer paleontology, which at least in some subdisciplines has been slow to adopt quantitative methods. At the same time, fossil evidence can provide another set of data to phylogenetic research, complementing taxonomic and molecular studies of living species. The gulf between biological study of living species and paleontological study of fossil species isn’t ideal for either field.

In order for information and techniques to be exchanged, scientists have to be able to access each other’s literature, to have cross-discipline discussions, to share methods and figure out how to adapt them to different scenarios–and this doesn’t seem to be happening as well as it might.


[1] Bousquet, Yves. 2012. Catalogue of Geadephaga (Coleoptera: Adephaga) of America, north of Mexico. In: ZooKeys, volume 245, special issue, 1-1722 p.

[2] Barton, Melissa A., and Dena M. Smith. 2009. Floral diversity and climate change in central Colorado during the Eocene and Oligocene. In Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, Vol. 41, No. 7, p. 561.

[3] Premoli Silva, Isabella, and D. Graham Jenkins. 1993. Decision on the Eocene-Oligocene boundary stratotype. In Episodes, volume 16, number 3, pp. 379-382.

[4] Evanoff, Emmett, William C. McIntosh, and Paul C. Murphey. 2001. Stratigraphic summary and 40Ar/39Ar geochronology of the Florissant Formation, Colorado. In Fossil Flora and Stratigraphy of the Florissant Formation, Colorado, Proceedings of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Series 4, number 1, pp. 1-16.

[5] McIntosh, William C., and Charles E. Chapin. 2004. Geochronology of the central Colorado volcanic field. New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources Bulletin 160, pp. 205-237.

[6] Epis, R.C., and C.E. Chapin. 1975. Stratigraphic nomenclature of the Thirtynine Mile volcanic field, central Colorado. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1395-C, 23 p.

[7] Worley-Georg, M. P. and J.J. Eberle. 2006. New additions to the Chadronian mammalian Fauna, Florissant Formation, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado. In Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology volume 26, issue 3, pp. 685-696.

[8] Lloyd, Karen J., Marie P. Worley-George, and Jaelyn J. Eberle. 2008. The Chadronian mammalian fauna of the Florissant Formation, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado. In: Paleontology of the Upper Eocene Florissant Formation, Colorado, Geological Society of America Special Paper 435, p. 117-126.

[9] Meyer, H.W., E.B. Leopold, D.M. Smith, and M.A. Barton. 2012. Paleobotanical and pollen evidence from the Antero Formation (Colorado, USA) for climate and floral change during the Eocene-Oligocene transition. In: Abstracts, 13th International Palynological Conference and 9th International Organisation of Palaeobotany Conference, Japanese Journal of Palynology, Special Issue 58, p. 150-151.

[10] Meyer, Herbert W. 2003. The Fossils of Florissant. Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 258 p.

Note: Herb Meyer and Dena Smith have both been my supervisors at various points; Smith was my graduate advisor and Meyer was on my thesis committee. I have also met or corresponded with a number of the other authors I cite. The opinions in this blog post are my own, and do not represent those of my employers past or present or those of any of the authors cited here.

I believe, as a photograph of a specimen owned by the U.S. government, taken by a U.S. government employee on official duty, that the fossil carabid image at the top of the post is free to use for non-commercial purposes. If I am incorrect, I will be happy to take it down.

Sunburst Diving Beetle (Thermonectus marmoratus)

Sunburst Diving Beetle
A Sunburst Diving Beetle (Thermonectus marmoratus) in captivity at the Butterfly Pavilion, Westminster, Colorado, USA. November 10, 2012.

This last month has been very busy for me (partly due to my awesome entomology class), so here’s a quick interlude before I return to the Iceland photos. Today I stopped by the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado, to see the newly remodeled Crawl-A-See-Em exhibit. The Butterfly Pavilion, in addition to butterflies, also exhibits many other invertebrates, ranging from ocean invertebrates like lobsters and jellies to terrestrial invertebrates like bees and probably the most famous resident of the Butterfly Pavilion, Rosie the Chilean Rose-haired Tarantula (or rather, an army of Rosies). The Crawl-A-See-Em focuses on terrestrial invertebrates other than butterflies, and I was excited to see the changes.

While the old Crawl-A-See-Em was always a mixture of animals on permanent exhibit and rotating special exhibits according to what the zookeepers were able to collect in the wild or order from dealers, it didn’t really have a coherent theme. Parts of it were habitat-themed; others were taxonomically themed.

The new Crawl-A-See-Em is arranged by habitat type, which I think gives the room a much better flow. While many of the same familiar animals were there, the most exciting change for me was the addition of a tank highlighting aquatic insects, containing Sunburst Diving Beetles (Thermonectus marmoratus) and some fantastic giant water bugs (family Belostomatidae). I’ve never seen either of these species in the wild, and the tank made them easy to observe.

Predaceous diving beetles (family Dytiscidae) are one of my favorite beetle groups. They have several adaptations for their aquatic lifestyle, including fringed hind legs that work something like oars, as well as a physical gill for respiration. In the picture below, you can see an air bubble at the tip of the abdomen, which is the physical gill. Diving beetles have to surface regularly to renew this air bubble.

Sunburst Diving Beetle (Thermonectus marmoratus)

Apparently as larvae they also have eyes with two retinas and two focal planes, effectively functioning as bifocals–the only known example of bifocal vision in insects.

I kind of want some now, although after my ill-fated attempt at dragonfly larva-rearing this fall, I’m not sure I’m ready to attempt to keep an aquarium again.

Suburban wildlife comes inside

Darkling beetle (Family Tenebrionidae)
A darkling beetle (Family Tenebrionidae) runs for freedom, Westminster, Colorado, USA. July 12, 2012.

I found this beetle scampering along in my apartment the other evening, fortunately before my cats found it and everything turned into a scene of destruction and chaos. So I plonked it into my terrarium overnight so I could attempt to take pictures the next day. Alas, it was not very cooperative, and this was the best I could do (how do people get all those clear pictures of beetles apparently holding still?).

Joseph Fortier on BugGuide kindly identified it as a darkling beetle (Family Tenebrionidae), possibly something in the genus Eleodes (the desert stink beetles). As these guys eat fresh and decaying vegetation and I do not keep houseplants, it is a bit of a mystery to me what it was doing in my apartment, but they do seem to make their way inside sometimes.

As I released it outside, I spotted another beetle that looked to my eye the same, so I imagine it will do better out there.

Why milkweed is the best plant: wasps!

Potter or mason wasp (Subfamily Eumeninae)
A potter or mason wasp (Subfamily Eumeninae) feeding on milkweed nectar, Barr Lake State Park, Colorado, USA. July 1, 2012.

Not only is milkweed food for adorable monarch butterfly caterpillars, but the right patch of milkweed can attract a host of interesting pollinators. After we checked out the burrowing owls the other weekend, we stopped at Barr Lake State Park for brunch, and I had to check out this fine stand of pink milkweed in full flower.

I’m kicking myself now for not taking some pictures of the actual plant. For one thing, it might have helped with identification, as some milkweed-loving insects are adapted to specific species, plus it’s generally a good habit to get into. In my defense, I was really excited about the wasps.

Because really, look at this gorgeous green-eyed square-headed wasp (Tachytes sp.). Who wouldn’t get excited?

Square-headed wasp (Tachytes sp.)

There was a thread-waisted wasp (Prionyx sp.) gamely flying around feeding despite missing at least one and a half legs (it’s rough sometimes, being an insect):

Thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae)

And a bunch of attractive yellow-spotted scoliid wasps, probably Scolia nobilitata:

Scoliid wasp (Scolia nobilitata)

But the mystery was this milkweed beetle (Tetraopes sp.):

Milkweed beetle (Tetraopes pilosus)

Most milkweed beetles are bright red and black–like many insects which feed on milkweed, including monarch caterpillars and milkweed bugs, they exhibit aposematic coloring. Milkweed contains toxins that make it unpalatable to many animals, and aposematic coloring indicates to predators that insects like milkweed beetles are also unpalatable.

There are a few species of milkweed beetle that sometimes exhibit pale forms, but the only one I know of that’s this pale is Tetraopes pilosus. T. pilosus does live in Colorado…so what’s the catch? Remember, earlier I mentioned that a lot of insects that eat milkweed are host-plant specific, and milkweed beetles may fall into this category. T. pilosus feeds on Asclepias arenaria and A. tuberosa, both white-flowered, less showy species, that are commonly found in sandhills.

While I can’t identify this milkweed for certain, I think it was probably A. speciosa, and definitely not either of the host plants for T. pilosus. It was growing at the edge of a grassy meadow near a lake, about as far from sandhill country as a habitat can be.

But the beetle really can’t be anything other than T. pilosus, and was identified as such by Michael C. Thomas over at BugGuide. So my best guess here is that milkweed beetles are not quite that host- or habitat-specific. If anyone has some insight on this, I’d love to hear it!

(Thanks to John S. Ascher, Michael C. Thomas, Ken Wolgemuth, and Eric R. Eaton at BugGuide for identification help. Remaining errors are mine.)