The Evolution of a Research Plan- aka making lemonade from lemons

A few posts ago I wrote about how I planned my research ideas and experiments in the first place. Today as I leave Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory to head back to the lab in NC for work I want to talk about how research plans evolve (much like living organisms).

This summer I went to Colorado to collect two species of butterflies, Colias eriphyle that occurs at relatively lower elevations (up to 9,000ft) and Colias meadii that occurs at higher elevations (10,000ft-12,500ft). However, in between both of those elevations occurs another butterfly Colias alexandra (click on it to read more about it). Being the “middle child” of the Colias butterflies means that there is less previous research done on C. alexandra, and it has always been a minor player in the Colias game. This is about to end (sort of)!

In these past two weeks Heidi and I have been looking in earnest for C. eriphyle specifically at Brush Creek (remember the pretty photos, here are some more).

One of the only non-sunny days at Brush Creek, it's still beautiful though

Unfortunately we have found very few C. eriphyle here, but we have found many, many C. alexandra. As far as research goals, this summer I wanted to do feeding trials at different temperatures with both C. eriphyle and C. meadii. If I lost you at feeding trials at different temperatures let me explain. Caterpillars are basically eating and pooping machines. Their main function is to eat as much as possible to grow and become a big, beautiful butterfly. I am feeding the two (now three) species food at five different temperatures to see which temperature is the optimal feeding temperature for that species and even specific population of caterpillar/butterfly. This will let me know how the caterpillars grow and develop at each temperature. I am looking for differences between species and populations (i.e. if caterpillars from site A eat more at a certain temperature than caterpillars from site B).

Anyway that was my main project for the summer, but now I have acquired C. alexandra butterflies that I can experiment with. At first I didn’t really have a plan, but C. alexandra haven’t been kept in the lab for a long time (to the best of my knowledge). One of the interesting things about C. alexandra is that there is normally only one generation per year. This means that they typically grow until halfway through development and then they overwinter as caterpillars, in the spring they start eating again and finally finish development into a pupa and finally a butterfly. They typically use a combination of daylight hours and temperature to let them know when to overwinter. In the lab this summer I am going to try and “trick” them into skipping their overwintering time called diapause. By keeping them at warm temperatures and long daylight days I hope that they will skip their overwintering stage and continue on through development. This will allow me to do feeding trials with them as well. It will also just be a cool thing to do in the lab!

Basically that’s how research goes, your plans never go exactly as you stated originally. However, in this case I am lucky because I get to add an extra species into my experiments and trying new experiments is always fun! I’ll keep you updated on the success of C. alexandrain the lab. Who knows, it could be a bust or it could be genius, but I’ll never know until I try it!

Heidi is modeling the Colias alexandra


MacGyver Moments in Ecology

In some scientific fields there are standard techniques and equipment that all researchers use.  For biologists who work on laboratory species like fruit flies or lab mice, there are lots of tools that every researcher learns to use during their training.  However, in Ecology, researchers often work on a species that has only been studied by a few scientists, or hasn’t been studied at all.  Ecologists have to try lots of different things to get their species to survive in the laboratory.   Researchers who study unusual or rare species often have to make their own food and cages for their animals.  For example Jessica and Heidi made their butterfly cages from some tubes and screen that they bought at the hardware store.  In the lab where I worked as an undergraduate, my advisor used to raise tadpoles for his experiments in children’s wading pools.

Sometime having to use household items to do research reminds me of the TV show MacGyver.  For those who haven’t seen the show for a few years, MacGyver was a freelance secret agent who solved crimes with science.  Since he believed that guns were unethical, he had to use whatever object he had handy to fight criminals (the first few seconds of the video below should give you an idea).  

The other day I had a “MacGyver Moment” as I was trying to set up my research project here in Japan.  Normally I grow my own plants for my butterflies to lay eggs on, but I couldn’t do that this year because I only arrived in Kyoto three days ago.  My Japanese labmate planted some cabbages for my experiment, but they were too small to use.    Another student drove to his mom’s house and borrowed some cabbages from her garden.  It was incredibly kind of him, but the cabbages didn’t survive the trip back to the lab.

I wasn’t sure what to do, and I needed the plants to start the experiment, so I looked up a home and garden shop in downtown Kyoto, hoping that they might have some cabbage seedlings for sale in their garden section.  Since I don’t speak Japanese, I couldn’t just call and ask them if they had cabbages.  I decided to jump on the subway near my university and tried to get downtown before the shop closed.  Unfortunately the subway ticket machine was in Japanese, so it took me a long time to figure out how to buy a rail pass.  Luckily, most of the stops were labeled in English so navigating once I was inside a bit easier.

However, once I got off the subway, the streets weren’t labeled in English, so I tried to navigate by landmarks.  I knew that I needed to go left at a large temple and right at a high school.  However, Kyoto has a lot of temples and high schools, so I ended up pretty lost on the back streets of Kyoto.   

I eventually did find the Home and Garden shop after about an hour of walking, and bought some small cabbage plants.  However, taking them on the subway was a bit of a challenge.  Luckily, I made it back to the train before rush hour, because the subway cars are incredibly crowded around 7 pm when work gets out, and I was afraid someone would crush my plants.

My laboratory is still about a mile from the subway station, but luckily I have a bike with an enormous basket. Kyoto is an incredibly bike friendly city.   The train system here is cheap and efficient,  secondhand bikes are about $50.00, and every street has a bike lane.  Most bikes here are built to haul everything a person would need in their daily life.  My little bike has just one basket, but it’s common to see moms with two children in saftey seats on the front and back of the bike and a basket of groceries on the back of the bike as well.  My Japanese labmates even use their bikes to go out collecting insects in the mountains outside the city.

After all that work, I was really happy to get my plants into the lab.  It was a pretty crazy and stressful day, but I think that if he was real, MacGyver would be proud!

Even More Butterflies and Science

Sarah out collecting butterflies

Hello!  I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself as one of the other butterfly researchers writing this blog.  I’m Sarah, and I’m a graduate student in Jessica’s lab.  I also study butterflies and climate change, although I study a different species, the cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae).  My butterfly is an invasive species that was introduced from Europe and Asia 150 years ago.  I study how it has adapted to it’s new environment in North America, where it lives everywhere from Canada to Florida.   I want to understand how it has adapted to  such a broad range of climates, and also to understand how invasive species change after they are introduced to a new environment.

This summer however, I’m expanding my project to Japan, where I will study the butterfly in it’s native range.  I am doing a fellowship through the National Science Foundation and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (which is like the NSF of Japan).  I’ve been placed at Kyoto University where I will work in the Laboratory of Insect Ecology.

Also, to explain what I mean when I say that I’m in Jessica’s lab, I should probably briefly explain how university labs work.  Labs at North American universities are a little like families, with a faculty member in charge of one laboratory and several grad students who are studying with them.  Jess, Heidi and and I have the same advisor, we share an office,  laboratory space and sometimes help each other out with research.  I’m very excited to be sharing this blog with them as well, and I hope that you’ll enjoy reading about both of our adventures as we study butterflies around the world!

Notes on extreme climate events

First things first, an update:

Today blog readers I finally have some good news… we caught our first Colias butterflies! It was a beautiful day at Brush Creek  and we say some yellow butterflies flying along the road and quickly stopped to catch them. We caught 11 butterflies and I’m really excited about catching more tomorrow!

Now onto the meat and potatoes of this blog post:

The snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains has been exceptionally late this year (see this interesting news story about decreased wilflower season). As you may know if you’ve been keeping up with my previous posts, this means that my butterflies have been a little delayed in their emergence times and it’s a good thing to or they would all freeze to death! Climatologists predict that there will be an increase in extreme climate events (such as drought, excessive rainfall, extreme heat waves, etc.) as well as an increase in average global temperature. In regards to my butterflies and all thermally sensitive organisms this means that there is a two-fold problem to deal with concerning climate change. Organisms must be able to adapt to a gradually warming climate or move to a new habitat with the right climate, however to really thrive organisms will also develop some way of dealing with extreme events.

This year because of the late snowmelt and the cold temperatures my butterflies have shifted their emergence date. They do this by sensing the temperature and the photoperiod (how long the sun is out). When conditions are right they emerge, when conditions are wrong they stay in their overwintering state. This late emergence is the direct opposite of last year when it was a particularly early snowmelt and so they emerged much earlier. The butterfly’s ability to sense both the light and temperature together is very important in its survival in dealing with springtime variability. This ability to shift certain traits based on environmental cues is called phenotypic plasticity. This is key in dealing with variable environments. If the butterflies were unable to shift their emergence date, a majority of them would have died and the population would have suffered in the cold weather this year.

What happens when extreme events occur and they affect something that is not a plastic trait, meaning it can’t change due to the variable environment? That may sound confusing so let me give you an example: It’s the middle of July and the Colias are now caterpillars munching away on their favorite leaves. For three days there is a heat wave and the high for these days is 88°F (which is very, very hot for out here). The caterpillars begin overheating at 85°F (this is an educated guess, I will have clearer data after this summer) and they stop feeding. Once they stop feeding they stop growing and developing. By the end of the summer some of the population died in the heat wave and others are smaller than in previous years. If these caterpillars are smaller that means the adult butterflies will be smaller, and they won’t be able to lay as many eggs. This could mean a decline in the population size of butterflies next year. Pretty scary huh?

Now, there have been extreme events before, but with climate change we are going to see an increase in the number of weird weather events, which may be difficult for some organisms to deal with. I am trying to tackle some of the questions that deal with “how will caterpillars respond to heat or cold shocks?” this summer, and I’ll keep you posted on my findings. If you are interested in reading more about this check out the story about the Bay Checkerspot butterfly and how some populations went extinct due to changes in precipitation.

Travel update and a bit about being flexible

We (my fellow grad student Heidi, our field assistant, my husband, and I) made it to our field station at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, CO on Wednesday June 15. It was a lovely trip out here from North Carolina. We camped along the way and had great weather the whole way. It was a really interesting experience to see how the habitats changed as we continued west. I was a fan of the prairie in Kansas.I have never really seen anything like that and it was so pretty, especially as we passed the windmills and the many fields of wheat!

Amber waves of grain

Beautiful windmills

Our days were pretty simple, wake up around 7:30am,make coffee, shower and pack up camp to leave by 9am, and then drive for 9.5 hours until we reached our next camping destination! During our last long day of driving the welcome to Colorado sign was a beautiful site!

We camped because it’s cheaper than staying at a hotel and it gave us a chance to use and practice with our camping equipment.

Our tent setup

Finally, we arrived here at RMBL to this.

Snow in the Rockies

This was quite a shock. We knew that it was a really late spring this year in the Rockies, but we had no idea how much snow there still was. After checking in and driving up the mountain, we finally moved into our cabin (which has its own little snow patch behind it) and got all of our equipment set up. We didn’t do much yesterday other than that as we were still getting acclimated to the high altitude (this field station is at 9500ft). It was a chilly night with the low around 30°F, but the days here are lovely with highs near the mid 60’s. This morning we woke up and we knew that there would be no butterflies flying at any of our field sites above 8000ft, but we wanted to see if we could find any butterflies in Olathe, CO, which is at around 6800ft. We drove the two hours down the mountains and into the desert, but alas there were no butterflies flying!

No butterflies flying here.

This was a bit of a blow, but we are going to be flexible. At first we were freaking out a little bit, but the butterflies can’t be expected to operate on our schedule, we must operate on theirs.  Our research projects will be ok and everything will work out fine. This delay in the start of our butterfly catching adventure gives Heidi and I more time to construct her butterfly cages, set up weather stations, and of course to go hiking to enjoy the beautiful scenery here in Gothic, CO.

not a bad place to vacation for a while

So that’s what our plan is, to enjoy our time out here and not worry about our butterflies for now. Spring/summer will finally come to the Rocky Mountains and when it does we’ll be ready and armed with our butterfly nets, but until then I’m going on a hike!

Planning a research project

Just thinking about process of how to come up with a research project can be really daunting. How do I come up with an experiment that no one has done before? Is my project interesting and worthwhile? Will anyone care about my work? These are all questions that scientists think about before beginning any big research project.

To answer the first question-you have to do a lot of reading. In preparation for my Rocky Mountain Colias project I read the existing literature for months! That meant a lot of printing out long academic papers and reading them at my desk for hours on end. Sometimes it would get boring, but it’s the only way to really know where the science is. Once you have a decent background you can start to figure out where the interesting questions are. There are times when you finish reading a research paper and you think, “I wonder what would happen if they did this experiment also?”, or in my case because I often revisit experiments that were done 30+ years ago I ask, “Has this phenomena changed with the warming climate?”. Bam! You’ve just thought of your next research project! Then comes the planning out the methods and specific way you will execute your experiment. Again, this often means going back into your giant stack of papers and seeing what scientists have done before. Sometimes there are really well established protocols for certain experiments and other times you have to devise your own methods to answer a really specific question. Once you have decided on your methods and you know that they work it’s time to get experimenting! This is the stage I’m at now. I have a research question- “Are Colias butterflies adapting to changes in climate?”, I have proven methods, now I just need to collect data. That’s why I am heading out to Colorado tomorrow (well I guess today as it’s now almost 2am on June 12).

Now that the experiments are figured out there are still the logistics of physically how to get everything needed for the research project. For me this involved a lot of planning, as I needed to get myself to Colorado to catch butterflies, quickly get them back to the lab (thank you Fed Ex overnight), and then I need to provide food for my caterpillars to eat even before doing any experiments. Luckily I am part of team (do two grad students count as a team?) of Colias researchers and we worked out most of these issues together.


I can’t believe the field/experiment season is finally here. The lab and research equipment are all packed and ready to go.

My husband Chris is helping to pack our field vehicle

The car, or very large SUV that we are taking out to Colorado is a Ford Expedition. It’s quite a change from driving my small Prius, but I’m getting used to driving such a big vehicle. We’ve been calling it the Canyonero because it reminds us of the car from this Simpsons episode.

The Canyonero from The Simpsons

Our "Canyonero"

Everything has fallen into place and I am very excited to begin the field season. I’ll try to blog during our road trip to RMBL, but if you don’t see any updates here I’ll be sure to keep in touch via twitter @jessicakhiggins!

Getting ready for the field

One of the reasons I got started with this blog now is because the summer research season is about to begin! This Sunday June 12,2011 I leave for our field station, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado to start collecting butterflies for my experiments. I am traveling with my friend and fellow grad student Heidi who is works mostly with adult Rocky Mountain Colias butterflies (I work mostly with the caterpillars and butterfly pupae) as well as our field assistant and my husband Chris. Our field research adventure begins as we drive from Chapel Hill, NC to RMBL stopping along the way at O’Bannon Woods in Corydon, IN, Clinton State Park in Lawrence, KS, and at Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado Springs, CO. It should be quite a trip, I’ve never done a cross-country drive like this before and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll keep you updated on our transcontinental progress here on the blog as well as on twitter @jessicakhiggins. Don’t worry though, I’ll get the blog rolling with a post sometime this weekend about how we pulled off planning research projects that involve crossing the country.