Interview with a Western Tent Caterpillar

Photo by Andrew Reding. Western tent caterpillars. 2014. CC.

Photo by Andrew Reding. Western tent caterpillars. 2014. CC.

(This post was inspired by my father, who saw tent caterpillars in July and told me I should write a blog post about them. Merry Christmas Dad!)

Me: What a lovely June day. The bees are buzzing, the flowers are blooming, the caterpillars are swarming. Wait, why are caterpillars swarming my Aspen tree? Get off of there!

Western Tent Caterpillars: Make me. I’m a native species, and I’m not doing anything wrong.

Me: You’re a gross creepy crawly mass of caterpillars, that’s what’s wrong.

W: Well we can’t all be hairless apes like you.

Me: And look at what you’re doing to this poor tree! You’ve eaten half of its leaves. How is it supposed to survive?

W: I wouldn’t worry about it. Trees are pretty good at bouncing back. Our population explosion will be over soon anyways. Maybe another four years or so.

Me: Four years? You mean I’ll have to stare at hundreds of wriggling caterpillars for another four years?

W: That’s what it looks like, yes. These explosions happen every decade or so.

Me: That is not very comforting. Why does your population explode anyway?

W: What can I say, sometimes the world needs more caterpillars. The cycles depend on weather, predators, pests and other factors. You guys haven’t cared to study us very much, so I’m not giving anything away.

Me: Will my poor aspen tree end up dead as a result of your munching?

W: It’s a pretty healthy specimen, so probably not. Healthy trees don’t usually die from infestation, it just make them weaker and more vulnerable to pests and drought.

Me: That’s not very comforting.

W: If it’s any consolation, the tree’s fighting back. It can make its leaves less nutritious next year, so fewer of us will survive. Anyways, getting rid of some leaves in the canopy actually helps the environment.

Me: Oh really? How’s that?

W: Fewer leaves means more light and rain reach the forest floor, giving saplings down there a chance to grow. I’ll also have you know that caterpillar poop is an awesome fertilizer.

Me: Eww, I didn’t really need to know that. How did you all get on my tree in the first place?

W: Mom put us here. Last August she laid a huge cluster of 300 eggs around a twig and covered us in this foam that hardened to look like grey Styrofoam. The finished clutch was as big as she was!

Me: Sounds pretty impressive.

W: It was! We started developing in our eggs, then took a long nap over the winter.

Me: What happened when you hatched? Why did you stick together?

W: We hatched just as the leaves started appearing in April. All of the larvae from that eggs sack decided to hang out because we are social butterflies. Okay, social moths.

Me: Why do they call you tent caterpillars?

W: Life as a soft and squishy caterpillar is not easy. Birds and rodents want to eat you, and parasitic wasps want to lay eggs in your insides. It’s very unpleasant. To avoid this, the colony builds a giant silken tent to hide under. If we aren’t feeding we’re in the tent. It’s shelter from the weather, protection from predators and a place to molt and grow.

Me: I’ve seen you stick your bodies out of the tent and twitch them. Is that a caterpillar dance party?

W: Nope, it’s a defense mechanism. We do it whenever a possible predator passes by. Hopefully they’re so confused they just keep walking and don’t try to eat us.

M: You said you turn into a moth, right? How long before that happens?

W: About 4-6 weeks after we hatch, everyone in the colony separates and finds their own spot to make a silken cocoon. We’ll pupate on anything from aspen leaves to house siding to lawn mowers.

M: I can’t wait.

W: Don’t worry, 10 days later we’ll emerge as beautiful light brown moths. Those moths flitting around your porch light are probably us. We usually mate within 24 hours of emerging.

M: Whoa, you don’t waste any time, do you?

W: Nope. Every female lays one egg clutch, and our whole life cycle takes about a year.

M: Yeah, but for most of it you’re stuck in an egg.

W: Touché.

M: So does this mean that my aspen tree will be infested by your children next year?

W: Probably. We are Canada’s national champion of eating leaves off aspen trees, after all.

M: I guess I’d better get used to you then.

W: Yep. You could spray pesticides on the tree, but that would kill the beneficial bugs too. It’s best just to let our predators or the weather finish us off.

M: Okay, I’ll leave you be… this time.

W: We appreciate it!


Click to access Tent-CaterpillarsDRAFT041113.pdf

Click to access stelprdb5303047.pdf

Tip Top Tulips: The King is in the house

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. The patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC.

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. Their light-coloured patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC.


Amelia: Ladies and gentleman, please help me welcome our special guest…King Tulip!

Tulip: Thank you, thank you very much.

A: What a thrill it is to speak with you after your tour of the Canadian Tulip Festival.

T: My pleasure, I adore interviews. My miraculous bloom only opens for two to three weeks, and I can’t let all this beauty go to waste.

A: You’re one of North America’s most popular garden flowers, but where are you from, originally?

T: This flawless flower has a rocky past. Literally. I was born in Central Asia on the side of the mountain. Every day I struggled against the harsh winds and extreme temperatures. Close to the ground with yawning petals like a daisy, I looked very different than I do today.

A: So what changed?

T: Around 1000 AD some adventurous Turk picked me up and decided to grow me in their garden. I guess I was already too beautiful to pass up. After 700 years of intense breeding I had my first make-over, with needle-sharp petals and an almond shape. They just loved growing me in Turkey.

A: But you were meant to see the world, right?

T: Yesiree, I’m a Rollin’ stone. The Viennese Ambassador to Turkey brought me home to Europe in 1551. Scientist Carolus Clusius was the first one to plant me in the Netherlands. He just wanted me for research, and wouldn’t share his precious bulbs with anyone else. How rude. I knew I was destined to be a star. Luckily some Dutch entrepreneurs stole me from Clusius and spread my seeds all over the Netherlands.

A: You were a big deal in the Netherlands, right?

T: If by a big deal you mean that 80% of the world’s tulips are grown in the Netherlands, or that in the 1630s some tulip bulbs cost as much as a townhouse, then yes, I was a big deal. Still am.

A: I’ve heard about this, it was called Tulip Mania, right? Speculation drove tulip prices through the roof, and the price of bulbs doubled almost weekly before the market crashed in 1637. Why were people willing to pay so much? You are just a flower, after all.

T: How dare you! I am THE flower. Back then I wasn’t just any flower: I was a status symbol. At the time the Netherlands was one of the world’s largest colonial powers, and the rich and newly-rich merchants had money to spend. I was a rare exotic bloom that happened to fit the bill. Ironically, the mosaic virus also helped my rise to fame.

A: Excuse me, did you say virus? Don’t viruses make you sick?

T: Yes, technically they do. But these ones also make pretty patterns all over our petals.

A: How can a virus do that?

T: My flowers are naturally a solid colour, but some viruses strip away the pigment in our petals to reveal the yellow or white underneath. This means that one year I’d be red, and the next I’d be striped like a circus tent! The Dutch had no idea what was happening, but they loved the result.

A: When did they figure out it was a virus?

T: The mosaic virus was the second oldest viral disease to be described in plants, and there are woodcuts from 1576 prove it. During Tulip Mania striped tulips were worth even more because they were so rare. Driven by money, breeders tried using alchemy, paint or pigeon poop to achieve the stripes, but obviously nothing worked. You can’t beat nature for beautiful accidents. It was only in 1920 that scientists found out it was caused by a virus.

A: Does the virus eventually kill you?

T: No, but it does make us grow short and stubby. It also makes it harder for us to reproduce.

A: How do you catch a mosaic virus?

T: Juice-to-juice contact. Aphids like to suck up our sap. If an aphid that bit an infected plant then bites me, it’s game over for my beautiful ruby red petals. Next time I pop up out of the ground, I’ll have stripes.

A: Are stripy tulips still as popular with gardeners today?

T: Yes, but today’s stripy tulips are healthy virus-free hybrids bred to look like the mosaic-infected kind. Today if a tulip bed has a mosaic virus, gardeners destroy them pretty fast. Otherwise the virus will just spread to other beds. It can even spread to related species like lilies. And nobody likes streaked lilies.

A: Yikes! I didn’t realize that the flower industry was so cut-throat.

T: You better believe it, doll-face. That virus is the Devil in disguise. Ironically, I’m more popular worldwide than I ever was during the Dutch tulip craze. Not to mention way more affordable.

A: Alright, thanks for sharing your story with us.

T: My pleasure. Now I’m off to heartbreak hotel to sleep through the winter and rehearse for next year. See you there!


Tulipomania: Novelist Michael Upchurch explains how a Turkish blossom enflamed the landscape: [Final Edition]Upchurch, Michael. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 20 May 2001: C6.

‘Tulip fire’ hits Ottawa OTTAWA (CP)
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 28 May 1981: N.14.

Ottawa tulip winter kill feared
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 22 Mar 1980: P.11.

The elegant tulip symbolizes Ottawa in spring.
Cornish, Douglas. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 09 May 2000: B4.

Tulips: Dutch find fortunes in flowers: [Final Edition]
The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 13 Dec 1988: B16.

Tulip: the flower of manias: From its early days in Europe, it has sparked wild adulation and excesses: [FINAL Edition]Robin, Laura. The Gazette [Montreal, Que] 15 May 1997: D.9.

Click to access 634.pdf

Click to access 634.pdf


Considering the social cost of science

Photo by Texas A&M University-Commerce Marketing Communications Photography photostream. 14298-Children's learning center technology-4988.jpg. CC.

It’s hard to guess what the legal and social consequences of a technology will be while it’s being developed. Marc Saner of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy proposed researching any possible effects early on. Photo by Texas A&M University-Commerce Marketing Communications Photography photostream. 14298-Children’s learning center technology-4988.jpg. CC.


As a journalism student who’s passionate about science, I’m constantly amazed by the technological advances that have happened just in my lifetime, from floppy disks to cloud computing. I can’t help but get excited about all the new solutions researchers are working towards.

But at a May 7 talk on the troubles with emerging technology, the outgoing Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, Marc Saner, made some interesting points that made me think more critically about these advances:

1. Investments in science do not always lead to fame and fortune

Governments have this idea that investing in research and innovation will one day lead to money-making products and services. However, some technologies get tied up in red tape, run out of money or fail to win public approval.

2. Research the social, legal and ethical effects of the new technology early on

Looking at who benefits and who pays the price of a new technology can help society adapt to its often unpredictable effects.

3. Don’t try to talk about an entire field, narrow the scope

It’s hard to say anything accurate about all GMOs or all smartphones. Saner compared this to saying “Plastic is bad.” Stick to discussing the risks and benefits of specific products, such as non-browning apples.

Unrelated to the subject of the talk, I learned that if you identify yourself as a journalism student during the Q&A session, researchers and regulators will seek you out afterwards to tell you about their research and the importance of having journalists who can talk about science accurately. All it takes is one intelligent question, and the stories come to you. Definitely a good technique to keep in my back pocket.

Spring’s early riser: the prairie crocus

Photo by Thomas. Glacier National Park: There's more to these hardy spring plants than meets the eye. Prairie Crocus. CC.

Photo by Thomas. Glacier National Park: There’s more to these hardy spring plants than meets the eye. Prairie Crocus. CC.

After a long winter purple and white crocuses are finally peeking out in Ottawa gardens. As pretty as they are, my heart will always belong to the prairie crocus, which braves the frosts and high winds on Calgary’s Nose Hill Park.

What’s in a name?

European crocuses. Okay, I can see the resemblance. Photo by Gilles Gonthier. Crocus—Crocuses. CC.

European crocuses. Okay, I can see the resemblance. Photo by Gilles Gonthier. Crocus—Crocuses. CC.

First of all, the prairie crocus isn’t a crocus at all. It’s an Anemone, part of the Buttercup family. It’s miles away on the family tree from the pristine European crocuses of the Lily family. The early-blooming plant reminded homesick European settlers of their crocuses back home, so we can thank them for the mix-up.

As much as we’d like to believe prairie crocuses are unique Canadian snowflakes, they’re found all over the northern part of the world. They’re pretty common in Russia and Asia, and from the Yukon to New Mexico. You won’t see them in Ontario though: they stop once they reach Manitoba.

Fake petals

Photo by Erutuon. White center. CC.

Photo by Erutuon. White center. CC.

Anemones are imposters. They don’t have true petals. The pale purple parts are actually sepals, modified leaves that protect the bud. Who do they think they’re fooling? The real leaves are fun fractals, and don’t pop up until the flower has faded.

The flower is also the first thing to pop out of the ground. No leaves, no stem, just the flower. It’s only after a few days that the stem starts to grow, pushing up the flower like an elevator.

Satellite dish blooms

Photo by Dean Jarvey. Prairie Crocus. CC.

Photo by Dean Jarvey. Prairie Crocus. CC.

Okay, so those fake petals are good at one thing: heating up the reproductive parts. They reflect sunlight into the flower’s centre, which can be up to 10 C warmer than the surrounding air. Some cold-blooded spring insects take advantage of this mini-sauna.

Furry flowers
Prairie crocuses are true Canadians, and have the beard to prove it. They’re covered all over in little white hairs, from sepals to root stem.

Parachute seeds

Photo by Edna Wintl. Gone to seed. CC.

Photo by Edna Wintl. Gone to seed. CC.

After those fake sepals fall off, each tiny fruit gets a feathery hair. What for? Flying on the wind, of course! It works just like dandelions. Their parachutes are just longer and more languorous. They’ll start flying away during the summer. Once they reach the ground, the seeds plant themselves. Literally. The seeds are spear-shaped with backward pointing hairs. When the hairs get wet and dry they contort, pushing the seed into the leaf litter and soil. Once successfully planted this flower is slow growing, and won’t bloom for three to four years.
More than meets the eye

Prairie crocus flowers pop up in clusters that all come from the same woody taproot. These taproots flower year after year, and some can live up to 50 years. A large specimen can be a foot long and shoot up 40 blossoms at once.

Flowers in peril

Photo by Malcolm Manners. Pasqueflower. CC.

Photo by Malcolm Manners. Pasqueflower. CC.

As their name suggests, prairie crocuses are fans of open grassland. They love sunbathing and sandy soils. In fact the flowers only open up if it’s sunny. On cloudy days you’re out of luck. You’ll also see many more on the prairie after a fire, because the long grasses blocking out the sweet sun have burned away. However, because open grassland make such great farmland, the patches of wild prairie in Canada are getting smaller and smaller. This means there are much fewer prairie crocuses in Canada today than when bison roamed the plains. Much fewer bison too for that matter, but that’s a tale for another day.

The early flower gets the bee

There are advantages to arriving early. One is getting the full attention of hungry bees and other pollinators waking up from hibernation. Another is rising earlier than competing plants and taking full advantage of the sun. However, if there’s a frost and the temperature drops to -5 C, it’s a problem for seed production.

It isn’t easy being purple

Photo by David Prairie crocuses make great early spring treats for deer. DeHetre. Munch munch. CC.

Photo by David Prairie crocuses make great early spring treats for deer. DeHetre. Munch munch. CC.

Being one of the first flowers on the prairie is great, but it comes with some risks. Hungry herbivores consider it a delicacy after a long winter of dry grass and twigs. The plant’s furry hairs are an adaptation to prevent it from being eaten. It also contains an irritating substance that causes blistering in domestic sheep. However, these defenses don’t seem to deter the deer, elk and ground squirrels that feast on the blossoms. Some Indigenous peoples used the plant’s poison to treat rheumatism, muscular pains and nosebleeds.

There you have it, some of the wonders of the prairie crocus that isn’t actually a crocus.


And now for something completely different

Remember that first day at a new school? That was me this week. Photo by r.nial.bradshaw, CC.

Remember that first day at a new school? That was me this week. Photo by r.nial.bradshaw, CC.

After I finished my 5-year Bachelor’s degree in Biology last year, I had a revelation:

I didn’t want to do science. I wanted to tell people about it.

Thus began my science communication journey. Where are the jobs? Are there jobs? What kind of education do you need? Do I really need to go back to school? Are you sure, because I just finished school, and I don’t want to go back!

I decided that I did need to go back to school. If I wanted to work in communications I needed some hard lessons on how to write things that people will read. Goodness knows I didn’t learn that in Biology! Journalism was suggested over and over as a great way to get those skills. So, with no further ado, I signed up for a 2-year journalism program at a local college.

I’ve been told that college is VERY different from university. However, biology is also VERY different from journalism, so I have too many variables to make a true comparison.

Darn, I’m still doing science, aren’t I? I thought it would be fun to look at some of the similarities and differences so far between my biology and journalism education. Here goes:

1. Specialist vs. Generalist

In biology I was trained to be a specialist. My first year courses had titles like ‘Organismal Biology’ and ‘Plant Science’, but by third year I was taking ‘Taxonomy of Ontario Plants’ and ‘Animal Behaviour’. I was in the honours stream, which meant I was being groomed for grad studies. I did a research project and became an expert on orange testicles in fruit fly sex. As you can imagine, there are not a lot of jobs that require this kind of expertise. Biology did teach me great research skills, and a sense of curiosity about how the world around me works. However, the idea in academia is to be a specialist, and to know a lot about a little.

In journalism, we’re trained to be generalists. It’s fine to have favorite topics, but we have to be prepared to cover anything and everything. That could mean local news, sports, politics, economics or celebrity gossip. Being trained as a generalist was a new idea to me, but I like the challenge. Forcing myself to read the sports page will be difficult, but it can’t be much more difficult than Organic Chemistry, right?

2. Photos!

This year I have a photojournalism class, and I’m a little nervous about it. We’ll learn how to use all the manual settings on an SLR digital camera. We’ll also learn how to convince people to let us take their picture, which I imagine is more difficult than the technical side of things.

Buying an expensive camera was a stressful experience. Looking at the owner’s manual is overwhelming. New technology often has this effect on me, but as a journalist I’ll have to learn to keep up with changing technology. I might as well start now.

Then I remembered that I had used strange, expensive tools to take photos in biology too! My first-year lab coordinators were really keen on us taking photos of what we were seeing under the microscope. They taught us all about focus and exposure. Of course, photographing fly testicles also taught me about white balance and finding the true colour of something. The difference is that I didn’t have to buy these microscopes, or carry them around with me!

I’m sure I’ll make many more comparisons as the school year progresses. I am very excited to be learning something completely different. However, due to a heavy workload I’ll reduce my posts here to once every two weeks. Wish me luck!

Birds of a feather: Twitter tips

Twitter has a steep learning curve. Embrace it! Image by Bernard Goldbach, topgold. CC.

Twitter has a steep learning curve. Embrace it! Image by Bernard Goldbach, topgold. CC.

This weekend I’m in Toronto at the Canadian Science Writer’s Annual Meeting, so I won’t have much time to blog!

In the spirit of science communications, I’ll share some Twitter tips I picked up from the last conference I attended, the Science and Technology Awareness Network Annual Conference.

In April I adopted twitter as a networking tool, so I’ll use the tips from the conference to evaluate how I’m doing so far. Here goes nothing!

1. Twitter is a real-time platform, so don’t be afraid to repeat your tweets in case people missed them the first time.

Me: I’m deathly afraid of repeating posts. I have too much Facebook in my blood.

2. Magic formula for maintaining a following:

a. 60% of posts should be links related to your passion
b. 30% of posts should promote others, and be conversations with others
c. 10% of posts should be self-promotion. If you do too much, you will annoy people!

Me: I’m really good at retweeting links that I’m passionate about. There are so many cool science writers on twitter with awesome things to share! I’m also good at using twitter to promote this blog. However, I need to work on replying to people’s posts and joining discussions. Putting yourself out there can be hard, but it definitely gets people’s attention!

3. Don’t worry about the numbers! That’s not why you’re doing this. Post on social media because you want to share.

Me: I do get that little rush of oxytocin to the brain whenever I get an update or a new follower on twitter, but I don’t make a huge deal out of it. Views of my blog are another story entirely, probably because my blog is a lot more work than twitter. I’m trying to limit checking the number of views of my blog to once a day, because any more than that is not a good use of my time. Also, my logical-mathematical brain likes all the numbers and statistics that WordPress presents you with. I’m sure Twitter also has fancy stats applications, but I will stay far away from them!

4. Let your personality come through! People want to connect with other people on twitter, not with emotionless content curators.

Me: My personality came through more strongly when I first started tweeting. Instead of retweeting I would compose my own tweets. However, retweeting is much easier than thinking of clever things to say, so now I mostly retweet content. I need to go back to writing tweets from scratch!

5. All of your posts don’t have to be about science! Show your personality with other interests.

Me: Most of my posts are about science or science writing, but I occasionally post about events in the City of Ottawa. Some people think Ottawa is a boring government town, but there is so much to do here. You just have to find it!

6. Remember that the content you post is a product. Only say things you would say to someone’s face.

Me: The anonymity of the internet can sometimes lull us into a false sense of security. In fact, anything you post on Twitter is visible to the world. I always think before I post or retweet, and I’m usually pretty good at remembering that I’m posting to the world.

7. Have a personal social media brand unrelated to your place of work. You may not work there forever!

Me: The advantage of unemployment is that I don’t have this problem. My Twitter brand is all me! It just needs a bit more personality, is all.

I hoped those tips were helpful. I’m still learning about Twitter, but I’ve already connected with some cool people. I would certainly recommend it as a networking tool for students just starting out in the real world. It’s also a great place to find potential employers that you didn’t know existed. Happy Tweeting!

Science through Poetry

A scientific report summarized in beautiful poetry and illustrations! Courtesy Dr. Greg Johnson and Sightline Institute.

A scientific report summarized in beautiful poetry and illustrations! Courtesy Dr. Greg Johnson and Sightline Institute.

I was reading recently that science bloggers (or any bloggers, for that matter) shouldn’t feel limited to using prose to share their brilliant ideas. As someone who once scribbled out poems while riding the bus to school, I’m willing to give science poetry a shot.

I was further inspired by Dr. Greg Johnson, an oceanographer who condensed a 2,000+ page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) into 19 haikus. Be sure to look at his informative and beautiful piece, complete with watercolour illustrations. Who says scientists can’t be artistic?

My first memory of haikus was learning how to write them in grade 5. Our teacher was very excited about poetry, and had us chant our poems rhythmically. We added ostinato (repetitive rhythmic phrases chanted under the poem), hand clapping and even interpretive dance to bring the poems to life.

Nowadays, I prefer to write free verse poetry because I don’t have to follow any rules about rhyming or numbers of syllables. However, discipline can be a good thing, so I’ll try my hand at condensing the results of my fruit fly sex research project into some haikus. For those of you who didn’t write haikus in grade school, they are short Japanese poems that traditionally had 3 lines with the following format:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables

Interestingly, most haiku poets no longer stick to this formula, but they still teach it in Canadian grade schools. For the sake of nostalgia, I’ll stick with the format I know.
So here it is, a Haiku summary of my report:

Female choice and condition-dependence of male sexual traits in Drosophila pseudoobscura

(don’t worry if none of that title made sense to you. It isn’t really supposed to).

In this fly species
The ladies choose their partners
What do they look for?

Males put their perfume
In their waxy surfaces
These attract females

She likes the smell of
These cuticle pheromones
She sniffs by touching

The male’s red testes
Do not impress the ladies
What are they for then?

Now that we know what
Attracts these female fruit flies
Research will be easier

Wow, that was harder than I had thought! Not as hard a summarizing 2000 pages of research results but still quite difficult. Haiku is good because it forces you to use short words. Scientific writing tends towards very long and multisyllabic, so this is a very good exercise to practice writing for a non-scientific audience. Plus, writing haikus is more fun than writing reports. I encourage you to give it a try!

The secret life of American Robins

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC


As the weather warms, I’ve been seeing dozens of robins hopping along my lawn. Even though I’ve grown up around robins my whole life, I realized that didn’t know much about them. In fact, I think I only knew three things:

1) They have a red breast
2) They eat worms
3) They lay blue eggs

This would never do. I decided to learn more about the American Robin. I asked one the female robins in the vicinity to tell me about her life, straight from the bird’s beak, so to speak.

Me: Tell me about your childhood.

Merle: There’s not much to tell. I was born in a nest with two other siblings. I was constantly hungry. I needed food every 15 minutes from sunrise to sunset. I certainly ran my parents ragged!

Me: Tell me more about your siblings.

Merle: Well, neither of them survived to adulthood. One was eaten by a crow and the other was eaten a few days later by a squirrel. It was sad at the time, but you get used to it, considering that only about 20% of chicks ever become adults. I was one of the lucky ones. There are lots of animals out there that love to sink their teeth into a robin. Circle of life and all that.

Me: When did you leave the nest?

Merle: About two weeks after I hatched. At that point my parents started getting babies on the brain. They kicked me out so they could lay a new batch of eggs in my nest. They were big into recycling. It did take Mom 5 days to build that nest, after all.

Me: Sounds rough! 14 days is pretty young, isn’t it?

Merle: I guess. I could fly, so that was a start. My parents were pretty good about bringing me food for an additional four weeks after I officially left the nest. Then I was really on my own.

Me: Did it get lonely?

Merle: Not really. I joined a huge roost with a bunch of other robins. We would hang out, forage and sleep together. I spent most of the fall and winter with them, eating berries and dried fruit hanging from bushes.

Me: Wait a minute, I thought robins only ate worms?

Merle: Where would we get worms in the winter? We eat fruit in the winter. I’ve even seen my friends drunk if they’ve eaten too many honeysuckle berries! For the record, during the spring and summer I generally eat insects, earthworms and snails in the morning and fruit in the afternoon.

Me: But I never see robins in the winter! Where are you hiding?

Merle: Well we aren’t hopping along your lawns, that’s for sure. Sometimes we migrate, but if there is still food in our breeding area we stick around. We hang out in large groups in trees, barns, or under bridges. Once spring comes males start staking out their territory and courting females. That’s when you start to see us again.

Me: Why does your behaviour change so drastically in the spring?

Merle: Breeding requires a lot of energy. A pair’s territory is basically a pantry where they can constantly collect food to feed their growing family. It’s the male’s job to defend this territory, flying at intruders to scare them away or dive-bombing them if necessary.

Me: Why do robins sometimes run into my window?

Merle: If it’s a male, they may see their reflection as an intruder and try to scare them away. Usually they are a bit stunned after hitting a window, but recover quickly. If you want to prevent it from happening, there are many ways you can make your windows visible to birds. Check them out at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

Me: If the males defend the territory, what are your breeding responsibilities?

Merle: It is my job to find a good location for the nest, usually in a tree branch, light fixture or gutter. I also build the nest, pushing grass into cup shape using the wrist of one of my wings. Then I reinforce it with twigs and mud. I may have two to three clutches of eggs in this nest in one year, if there’s enough food available.

Me: Last question, what is your favorite thing to sing?

Merle: Goodness, females don’t sing! Only the males do that, to attract us during mating season. The crooners get you every time.

There you have it, straight from the bird herself! Hopefully you’ll see the robins in the park a little differently now. And speaking of parks, free guided neighborhood tours are taking place all around the world next weekend on May 3 and 4. Called Jane’s Walks after urbanist Jane Jacobs, they are a great way to see your community from a different perspective. Find one in your city  Hope to see you out there!


Cornell Lab of Ornithology. American Robin.

Encyclopedia Britannica. robin.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Living With Wildlife: Robins.


Confessions of a Fly Sex Researcher

You’re a third year biology student confused about what on earth you’re going to do once the diploma is in hand. Where will you work? What will you specialize in? Do you have what it takes to do a masters, as your chances of getting work with just a bachelors degree is slim to none?

Your solution? Do an 8 month honours project.

If you’re particularly gung-ho, do two at the same time. (Actually, don’t. It wasn’t one of my better life choices. More on this later).

Once you’ve decided that you’re going to dedicate 8 months of your life to a certain topic, you have to decide what that topic is going to be. For me, this was relatively easy. I liked insects. I liked evolution. So I signed up with a professor who did too. He used fruit flies to study various evolutionary theories. Piece of cake!

After reading many journal articles to make sure our brilliant study had not already been done by someone else (this is an occupational hazard in research), we decided on an experiment.

I would find out what female fruit flies found sexy about the males.

A male Drosophila psuedoobscura flaunting a transparent abdomen complete with orange testes. Photo credit Alex Wild.

A male Drosophila psuedoobscura flaunting a transparent abdomen complete with orange testes. Photo credit Alex Wild.

We suspected it had something to do with the male’s orange testicles. Because, seriously, why else would you have a transparent abdomen and bright orange testes if not to impress the ladies?

As you can imagine, fly sex is a great topic at dinner parties. I am usually asked the following questions:

Q: There are fruit flies everywhere in my kitchen! Can I donate them to you?

A: I understand your pain, but my lab does not take fly donations. I was looking at a very specific species, Drosophila pseudoobscura, which lives in western North America. The flies I worked with originally came from Arizona, but had been bred in labs for many generations to get as uniform a population as possible.

Q: Do all flies have orange testicles?

A: No. I haven’t studied the behinds of other flies, so I can’t say for sure if there are other species out there with florescent testes. There may be, who knows?

Q: Can you see fly testes?

A: Well, the flies are tiny (5mm), so their testes are miniscule. You can see them with the naked eye, but to study them I took pictures using a dissecting microscope.

Q: How to you make flies stand still for pictures?

A: I asked them nicely. Just kidding. I gassed them with carbon dioxide, which knocks them out for a few minutes.

Q: Did you watch fruit flies having sex?

A: (Sigh). Of course I did. To find out which males the females found most attractive, we put two virgin males in an arena with a virgin female. The male she chose to have sex with was the one she liked best. Believe me, the novelty of watching fly sex wears off after the 10th coupling.

Q: Wait a minute, why did you use virgin flies?

A: We had to make sure all our flies had the same level of sexual experience. Like humans, flies can learn from past experiences, which subsequently affect they find attractive in a mate. We wanted our females to have a clean slate.

Here is a lovely life cycle from a pest control company. I guess that it's important in their line of work!

Here is a lovely life cycle from a pest control company. I guess that it’s important in their line of work!

Q: How do you know for sure that your flies are virgins?

A: Fruit flies have a lifecycle similar to butterflies. In D. pseudoobscura, the adult flies can’t reproduce until 48 hours after they struggle out of their pupa (Snook & Markow, 2001).When my flies started emerging from their pupae, I segregated them by sex every 24 hours to make sure they couldn’t get up to any funny business. Sorting hundreds of flies is not an exciting way to spend your Saturday, and thankfully I only had a few Saturdays like that.

Q: What did you find out? Do females find orange testes sexy?

A: Unfortunately, they do not. The size and colour of a male’s testes had nothing to do with whether or not a female chose him. We found the females were more interested in the male’s pheromones, and were selecting mates based on that.

Q: Then why do the males have orange testes?

A: I have no clue. But it’s not related to sex. If you find out, let me know.

Q: Is your research applicable to humans?

A: Not in the slightest! It’s true that flies and humans share many genes, and flies are used as model organisms in studies that can apply to humans. However, human courtship and fly courtship are worlds apart. In fact, different fly species have different kinds of courtship. Therefore, my research can only be applied to this species of fly. Unless, of course, you know any humans with orange testes…

Note: Alex Wild has some more beautiful pictures of some pseudos on the Scientific American blog. Apparently they are an under-photographed species. Go check them out, and remember to look for the orange!

Snook, R. R., & Markow, T. A. (2001). Mating system evolution in sperm-heteromorphic Drosophila. Journal of Insect Physiology, 47(9), 957-964.

There’s a bat on my doorstep!

I find wild animals fascinating. I was raised on PBS Nature documentaries. Some of my earliest memories involve cheetahs chasing down and disemboweling gazelles. I donate money to save polar bears, and gasp with delight when I glimpse a deer in a National park.

However, a wild animal on my property is a different story.

As I stepped out into the bright sunshine with my laundry this morning, I noticed a brown shape huddled on my doorstep. It was a bat. A bat that was obviously in trouble. There were bloodstains on the concrete. His wing was crumpled. He wasn’t moving.

I assumed he was dead.

He wasn’t. That became clear when I tried to pick him up with a plastic bag.

He struggled lethargically. He extended his good wing. He opened his mouth to reveal tiny teeth and an amazingly pink throat.

I was hit with a number of emotions at once:

1) Wonder. I had never seen a bat outside of a zoo, and I was fascinated. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live upside down, and to see not with your eyes but with your nose and ears. It was amazing to see this creature up close.

2) Grief. It was gut-wrenching to see this animal suffering. His broken wing was glued to the ground so he couldn’t move.

3) Responsibility. Because I was the one who found him, it was up to me to deal with him. I had no idea what to do next. Part of me wanted a neighborhood cat to come along and solve the problem for me.
So I did what most people do these days when they don’t know what to do. I Googled it.

I learned that the Ottawa Humane Society is the organization to go to if you find injured or sick wildlife. (

I also learned that you should never touch bats. Bats that are sick can also infect humans. Oops. (

It was a relief to call the professionals. I was asked to put a recycling box over the bat to contain him. They would do the rest.

Forty-five minutes later a Humane Society van was leaving my driveway with the injured bat. He was no longer my responsibility.

As I watched them drive away, I thought about how we humans generally interact with urban wildlife. It is amazing how many animals live in cities without us ever seeing them. I’m always surprised how seldom I see rats, mice and raccoons. This is either because they are nocturnal, or very good at hiding.

It seems we only encounter these animals when they are dead on the side of the road or living somewhere we don’t want them to live, like in our attic. As a result, we mainly see them as pests and nuisances, albeit cute ones. Which is unfortunate. They are so much more than that. Raccoons and rats are amazingly intelligent, persistent and curious, qualities we admire in other humans. However, our expectation that urban homes are free of animals often brings us into conflict with them. It would be nice to see more public education about urban wildlife, so that an animal control website isn’t the first place we learn about our four-legged neighbors.

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