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

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One thought on “The Evolution of a Research Plan- aka making lemonade from lemons

  1. This blog has been very interesting. What a great opportunity to possibly discover something new! keep us posted as to what happens.

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