Butterfly cakes

So here at butterflies and science we like to have fun and enjoy delicious baked goods too! Not only are the members of our lab scientists, but they are fantastic bakers and cake decorators as well. Yesterday we celebrated Heidi’s birthday and our fellow lab member Kate made this amazing cake!

photoIt’s a pretty good looking male Colias cake! I personally love the Oreo cookie body. I’m seriously impressed and it’s a much more intricate cake cutting design that my previous female Colias cake which was mostly frosting (tasty, delicious frosting).

287564_918179129557_3203644_oSo in case you were wondering we really do eat, sleep, and breathe butterflies over here!


More trouble for monarch butterflies



Climate change is wrecking havoc on these beautiful butterflies.

So things aren’t looking great for arguably one of the most recognizable and favorite butterflies. Monarchs are migratory butterflies and they spend the winter in Mexico (unlike your grandparents who winter in South Florida). During their winter siesta the monarchs aren’t just sipping away on margaritas they spend their time roosting, where they literally hang onto the tree branches and trunks. These monarchs typically chill out and roost in the Oyamel fir forests and enjoy the moist clouds at about 3000m (~9800ft) above sea level. 

What scientists and conservationists have found is that the roosting area has decreased dramatically this year. Normally the roosting butterflies take up an area of 3-7 hectares, but this year the roosting area is just a measly 1.19 ha (~4.6 acres). So what are some of the reasons why the numbers are declining?

1. Hot temperatures. Remember how stinking hot it was last spring and summer? I certainly do as I was 7-9 months pregnant and here in NC it was hot, hot, hot! The same was true for the rest of North America and hot temperatures mean bad things for caterpillars. Because it was so warm so early the butterfly breeding season was all out of whack. Once the temperature gets over 95F the eggs and caterpillars die, and even at lower temperatures the eggs can dry out. This is actually something that I study in my very own Colias caterpillars and I’ve seen first hand how changes in temperature can change growth and development in caterpillars. 

2. Loss of available host plant. Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed which was commonly found in corn and soybean fields. An increase in herbicide use and genetically modified corn and soybean (that can survive herbicide spraying) has decreased the amount of milkweed available by over ~50%. There was also a large increase in corn and soybean farmlands that replaced meadows and some conservation lands. Overall, this is a massive loss of habitat, and the monarchs just can’t find enough food. 

3. Loss of winter roosting sites. As mentioned earlier the monarchs roost in fir forests and in these forests there have been reports of illegal logging. Luckily the Mexican government is now working hard to make sure these sites are protected and thus saving the monarchs’ winter home.

Some scientists are concerned that we may have reached a critical low in monarch numbers from which the population may not be able to bounce back. Right now we don’t know, only time will tell how the monarchs will respond to this population setback. It’s stories like these that make me glad that I study climate change and butterflies. While the Colias aren’t in danger of extinction they have certainly responded to climate change in interesting ways (stay tuned for more on my research!) and we are only now starting to understand how increased future climate change could affect them. 

For more information about the monarchs and to see what you can do to help check out Monarch Watch!

And We’re Back. Let’s Talk Peer Review

Hello fellow butterfly enthusiasts! It has been a long time since I’ve posted, but we are almost at the 1 year mark for the blog! Things have been really busy here for me. I finished all of my analysis from my experiments last summer and I have already started doing experiments this summer. Also on a personal note my grad student husband and I are expecting a baby girl by the beginning of September. We’re both really excited and luckily the pregnancy hasn’t slowed me down too much. Here’s a picture of me after catching Colias butterflies here in North Carolina last week.

Catching butterflies 6 months pregnant.

So when I last left you I was analyzing mountains of data. That is mostly finished and I’d love to tell you all about my results, but I can’t do that just yet. Here’s the reason why. In science when you finish an experiment you need to write it up in the form of a scientific paper and submit it to a scientific journal. This paper goes through a process called “peer review” before it becomes available to read. Peer review means that the paper is scrutinized by other scientists in your field for scientific errors and inaccuracies. Often times there are three reviewers per paper and they are looking for things like: “Was this a valid way to conduct the experiment?”, “Is this experiment repeatable or just random?”, “Is this researcher making claims that are not supported by their data?”, etc. They also check the paper for things like general readability, length, and making sure all the graphs and figures are easy enough to understand. Each reviewer can then accept the paper, accept the paper with revisions, or reject the paper. Rarely are papers accepted right away without having to make some revisions. Once each reviewer has made a decision about the paper, an editor from the scientific journal makes a final decision. If it gets rejected you can fix some of the issues that the reviews had and resubmit the paper to another journal. If it gets accepted with revisions, you get to make those revisions and then in a few months your paper gets published! It’s a long process, but a thorough one, and the it aims to make sure that there are no inaccuracies in science.


Peer review is not a perfect system, sometimes bad experiments get published, and the process itself is long and can seem drawn out, but it’s the best we have for now. It’s like fact-checking an article in the newspaper. You want to be able to trust that the news is unbiased and reporting the facts. It’s the same way in science. Politicians make policy decisions and doctors make medical decisions based on scientific research. Also as most of the science down in this country is funded by the federal government through the National Science Foundation or the National Institute of Health, scientists have a responsibility to report the facts to the taxpayers. It’s always big news when a scientist has been committing data fraud and it can be grounds to lose your PhD! However, most scientists are honest and only report true data. It makes sense when you think about why many people became scientists in the first place. They liked asking questions and discovering the answers. When scientists make up fake results they are cheating themselves out of making actual discoveries.


So that in a nutshell is peer review, and it’s one of the reasons why even though I’m SUPER excited about my results from last summer, I can’t share them with you yet. I wouldn’t want to make any scientific claims that haven’t been “fact checked” by other scientists yet. Hopefully this fall I will start writing these papers so that soon they will be published and I can talk all I want about them here on the blog! I promise my next blog post will be sooner rather than later and with more pretty butterfly pictures! Also, as a shameless plug check out this sweet Q&A article in the Raleigh News and Observer about the blog and why Sarah and I started it.

Thoughts on Science Online 2012

Just as Sarah said in her previous post, she and I attended an un-conference called Science Online 2012. It was a collection of science bloggers, writers, editors, artists, librarians, educators, students etc. in addition to scientists all together chatting it up about science. The whole idea of this conference is to get people discussing and talking about best practices in dealing with science and how it is communicated online. This was my first time at the conference and I was curious as to what all of the fuss was about. There was so much chatter on twitter before the conference about just how excited people were, and now after completing my first Science Online conference I can see why. Here is a (non-overlapping with Sarah’s) list about some of the coolest things that I took away from the conference this past week.

All conferences should list your twitter ID on your name tag.

1. The Keynote lecture- The Vain Girl’s Survival Guide to Science and the Media- by Mireya Mayor

Okay, it’s time to be honest, I was not expecting to get much out of the keynote lecture. She seemed too perfect to be real, a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, a Fulbright Scholar, a PhD in Anthropology, and she’s been on National Geographic! Come on she must be snooty or stuck up or something right? WRONG!! Her keynote lecture was great, she highlighted her path to where she is today and she was amazingly honest with some of the struggles that she encountered on the way. She was very down to earth about her work and all of her accomplishments. Also she has the most beautiful pictures from Madagascar and Africa. She was an exciting speaker who went into detail about her travel and journeys. I was also super impressed by the fact that she has 4 daughters and her first one was born while in grad school when she still had field work to do! In conclusion I was really glad that I listened to her lecture, it turned out to be one of the highlights of the conference for me.

2. Blogging with undergraduates

It’s no secret that I really enjoy teaching and I’ve been pretty happy with my TA experiences at UNC as a grad student. Some classes that I’ve taught are really structured and just require someone to lead tutorial or lab, but others (like Bio 471 Evolutionary Mechanisms) have given me the freedom to structure my recitation however I want. With that in mind I went to a discussion session  called “Blogging in the Undergraduate Classroom” led by Jason Goldman and John Hawks who have both taught classes with a blogging component to them. It was really cool because many of the audience members had experience working blogging into their syllabi for a variety of different classes. They highlighted lots of reasons how blogging in the classroom can be beneficial. It gets students thinking about who their audience is and how they are going to reach them. It can give quieter or underrepresented kids in the class a voice. It also acts a a final concrete project for the class that students can show to their friends and parents. There are some issues to think about when blogging in the classroom (privacy, technical issues, grading, etc.) but overall it seems to be really positive. I definitely think that I will try to incorporate some sort of blogging into whatever class that I get to teach next.

3. Understanding audiences

This session was all about finding and understanding the audience that you are writing for. Because Sarah and I are very new to blogging I was interested in learning more about who my audience is/should be and who other people write for. This session was led by Kevin Zelnio (of Deep Sea News and EvoEcoLab blogging fame) and Emily Finke. There were a lot of people here at this session. In fact it was sitting/standing room only. Some of the main points were to think about where you came from and how you could target your writing/outreach to an audience that you are familiar with. Other thoughts highlighted thinking about your hobbies and how you could work that into your message. In this session I didn’t say anything, but I really took in all that was being said. As I said earlier, this blog is fairly new and to be honest I’m still struggling with who my audience is (other than you Mom, I know you’ll read everything I write!). In general this session was a good thinking exercise for me and I have a lot of work to do to try and effectively reach my audience (once I figure out who that is).

So those are probably the three biggest things that I took away from the conference, but I really enjoyed the whole thing. I loved talking to all kinds of different people with different jobs and from all over the country (and world). Everyone was excited about science communication and it was great to talk with other enthusiasts. I really enjoyed tweeting during the conference because I felt it added another layer to the discussions. Also I feel kind of lucky as a local (the conference was only 40 minutes away) because many of the resources and great people are right here in my area. I’m glad I went to the conference, I had a great time and I can’t wait to go back next year!

When Butterfly Biologists Go on Vacation

Happy Holidays blog readers! Classes are over and even us grad students can enjoy a nice long winter break! My (also a biology grad student) husband Chris and I enjoyed a pre-Christmas vacation in the northeast.

We walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, it was pretty cool.


We spent some time skiing and visiting family in Vermont before spending three days in New York City. While in New York City we had the opportunity to visit the American Museum of Natural History.


We paid the awesome student price instead of regular adult admission!


On a quick side note: our trip to the museum was a fun, non-working visit, keep watching the blog to get a report from HJMacLean on her fun, “working” visit to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.

So anyway back to the Natural History Museum in New York, it was awesome! My husband Chris and I had a great time visiting all of the different exhibits and shows. We were surprised at how much we remembered from our “History of Life” course back in college about the evolution of vertebrates and other dinosaurs. I love how many different exhibits there are at the museum. We saw fossils from dinosaurs, early mammals, and early hominids as well as dioramas on the Peoples of Asia, Africa, North America and more. We even took pictures next to some great dinosaur fossils!

Chris was a big fan of all the dinosaur fossils!


One of the special exhibits at the museum during the winter is the Butterfly Conservatory which is a special room (like a greenhouse) with all different species of tropical butterflies inside. I was so excited to see this exhibit, now don’t get me wrong I love my sulphur butterflies, but the chance to see tropical butterflies flying around me during the winter is pretty cool.

The entrance to the Butterfly Conservatory Exhibit


The exhibit started out with boxed specimens of some common, temperate butterflies, as well as some pretty spectacular tropical butterflies as well.

Colias in New York!
I think these are some of the prettiest butterflies out there. (sorry the pic isn’t that great)


The pinned specimens were lovely, but what I was really here to see was the live butterflies in the butterfly house. We entered the butterfly house through two sets of doors that prevent butterflies from escaping the room. Once inside it felt like we were in a tropical rainforest. They keep the butterfly house at 80F and quite humid so that the butterflies would stay happy and flying. Inside the butterfly house it felt a little surreal. We were surrounded by tropical butterflies that flew around our heads as well as by our feet. I had to keep watch of where I was stepping because I didn’t want to crush any of them by accident. There were so many different species too! I saw zebra long winged butterfly  Heliconius charithonia  as well as a clear-winged butterfly. I asked one of the volunteers there where they get the butterflies from and how they rear them and it turns out that they order them from Florida. Somewhere in Florida there is a company that raises butterflies and caterpillars and ships them as pupae to the Natural History Museum. It sounds a lot easier than how I raise my butterflies in the lab! Some of the butterflies in the exhibit do mate with each other, but without the proper host plant most of them don’t lay eggs.

I had to wait for the exact moment when it opened its wings to get this picture!
This incredible butterfly has clear wings that you can see through


I really got the chance to just enjoy the beauty of the butterflies, which is something that I forget about sometimes when I’m working in the lab or analyzing data. I was a pretty happy camper just hanging out taking pictures of these cool Lepidopterans.

All smiles from me after an awesome day with butterflies!


The only thing that would have made the butterfly house even better would be if we got to see all of the caterpillar forms of the adult butterflies. However, I think that is mostly a personal opinion since I most often hang out with crawling around caters. If you are in New York City while the exhibit is going on at the museum I advise you to check it out. Unless you travel to tropical regions all the time, how often would you get to be surrounded by tropical butterflies? It’s just a really neat experience. I hope you enjoyed my review and pictures of the Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It was a fun adventure and it reminded me again just how cool butterflies are!

UPDATE: After I wrote this post I realized that there is also a tropical butterfly house much closer to where I live and work at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC. Hopefully I can convince CarolinaSarah and HJMacLean to go with me on a butterfly adventure in our hometown!

The Secret Life of Data Analysis

Once again I’ve gone too long without posting, but I’ve been really busy from TAing as well as working on the topic of my post today ::drumroll please:: data analysis! So readers, I hope my awesome title got you excited for another thrilling post describing my day to day life as a scientist. So if you remember from my earlier post on exciting science and the mundane tasks that go with it, I described what my day to day life was like while I was doing lab experiments. Now that my experiments are finished my day to day is slightly different. So let’s get started! This summer I collected tons and tons of data, which is a really awesome thing, however that means lots and lots of data analysis. So what exactly does data analysis entail, well dear reader let me show you. If you remember from my previous post I said that I was spending so much time with the balance and it became my best friend forever, well move over Mettler Toledo I have a new BFF…

Mettler Toledo my former best friend forever…


Hello to new best friends, both my Apple Display and the MacBook Pro off in the corner!


Look at all the pretty data on the left of the screen with enough space for chatting with colleagues on the right! Yep I’ve been spending 80% of my day organizing my data and fighting with it in my favorite and simultaneously least favorite statistical program R. The other 20% of my day is usually somehow related to teaching or preparing to teach Genetics. It’s been quite a change from the crazy summer in the lab. So here’s how data analysis works!

Saving and Organizing the Data

I originally collected all of my data in Microsoft Excel in many .xlsx spreadsheets and I saved them both on my computer and in the mythical cloud server known as Dropbox. When I eventually graduate and defend my dissertation Dropbox will be getting a huge shout out from me. They allow me to save my data on an internet server that I can access from anywhere on any computer. This gives me the safety of knowing that even if my trusty MacBook Pro dies, my dissertation research won’t go down with it. My only complaint is that I am cheap, and at Dropbox unless you pay for it, you are limited to around 2GB of data. This means that as I gathered more data something in my Dropbox had to go. I love my nephew, he’s a cutie, but his adorable pictures were taking up precious PhD data space so unfortunately his collection of pictures didn’t make the cut.

Someday nephew if/when you become a graduate student, you’ll understand.


Mmmm sweet, sweet data taking up my Dropbox space!


At the time I was just focused on getting all of the data down in (digital) writing and I didn’t keep it as neat or organized as I should have. Sometimes I had more than one version of a data sheet, sometimes I had my own weird code abbreviations for things and it all needed to become organized so that I could make sense of it and see what the heck was happening! I spent a good week working on organizing my data, but now it is beautiful and all ready for statistical analysis.

Actual Data Analysis

Once the data was organized it was time to begin the statistical analysis. I have to admit that I have not always been a fan of statistics, but now I have an appreciation for how awesome it can be. Statistics makes sense out of mounds of numbers and it helps scientists discern differences in their data. As I mentioned earlier, to actually “do” the statistics I use the awesome (and sometimes pain in the butt) program called R. What makes R so great is the incredible amount of things that it can do, it does basic statistics, it makes phylogenetic trees, it makes beautiful graphs and figures, and so much more, also it is free! Overall R is great because of it’s immense power, however it is still a programming language and it has a steep learning curve that I am still slowly climbing up. This comic from PhD comics sums up my feelings on doing statistics in R.

Coding can be frustrating to say the least… “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

Luckily I have a lot of help from my fantastic advisor who has been working with R for some years now. With his help and the help of others I have been able to work through my analysis and get some pretty cool results! It’s great to finally see your data turn into something that makes sense however it can also be slightly demoralizing to see months of data turn into two measly graphs.



In the end it’s all about being able to complete the story you started, and that is what keeps me going. After staring (as well as yelling/screaming/crying)  at my computer for weeks it is awesome to see the end of the research story come together. At the end of data analysis I often think back to the beginning when I came up with the research idea and I think of how far it has come. Science is exciting because I can take an idea and turn it into scientific data out there for everyone to read (if/when it gets published). I myself can make a contribution to our collective scientific knowledge, and that is a cool feeling.

There’s a new butterfly in town

From time to time here at Butterflies and Science we’ll pick out a fun scientific paper about butterflies and highlight why we think it’s cool and important. This week has been a good one for butterflies with two cool news stories about them! The first one is about new species being formed as a hybrid of two others!

Move over Eastern tiger and Canadian tiger swallowtail there is a fancy new hybrid butterfly in town, the Appalachian tiger swallowtail!

One of my new favorite hybrids: A male Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail

Scientists at the University of Texas-Austin and Harvard University have discovered this new species of swallowtail living in the Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachian tiger swallowtail has evolved as a hybrid of the Eastern tiger and Canadian tiger swallowtail. The Canadian tiger swallowtail is found in the northern US and is more adapted to colder climates than the Eastern tiger swallowtail which is found well, in the Eastern US. The Eastern tiger swallowtail is unique in the ability to have two forms (colorations). One of these forms is the usual yellow wings with black stripes, but the other is an all black form that mimics the more poisonous Pipevine swallowtail.

The yellow striped form of the Eastern tiger swallowtail
The black form of the Eastern tiger swallowtail

What’s so cool about this hybridization is that the Appalachian tiger swallowtail inherited some of its cold tolerant genes from the Canadian tiger swallowtail and the genes to have the mimic form from the Eastern tiger swallowtail. It is a true hybrid of its parents both inside and out! Now the Appalachian tiger swallowtail is its own species that rarely mates with either the Canadian or Eastern tiger swallowtail.

So how do these sorts of hybrids arise? Glad you asked!

Generally when we think of new species arising it happens when one species splits into two and becomes isolated over time. In the rare case of hybrids two different, yet related species are able to mate with each other to create viable and fertile offspring. This happens a lot in plants, but is pretty rare in animals. The key is that the Eastern tiger and the Canadian swallowtail have only been unique species for about 600,000 years, before that they were the same. That may seem like a long time, but in evolutionary time that’s barely a blip! Because they were so closely related they were still able to mate with each other and have healthy, fertile offspring. Those offspring then diverged from both parents and have now become their own unique species. That is what makes this study so unique and exciting! It’s not often that conditions for this kind of speciation are right.

If you want to read more about this you can check out the scientific paper in PLoS Genetics here or you can read a less technical and shorter version here from ScienceDaily.