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!


Science Online 2012

This week Jess and I attended the Science Online 2012 conference in Raleigh.  This so -called  “un-conference” is designed to bring together scientists, science writers, educators, and bloggers of all stripes to learn about using the web for science communication.  The conference was an amazing experience, and I met so many people doing cool things.  Although pretty much every session or workshop was incredible, I narrowed my list down to my five favorite things about Science Online. Before I start the list,  I have to thank the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, who gave me a scholarship so I could attend.  It was a real honor to be selected, and I’m really grateful that I got to go to this amazing conference.  Also, look for Grad Student Jess’s post soon about her favorite things from Science Online 2012!

Five Favorite Things About Science Online:

1.  The constant tweeting! Lots of conference goers chose to live-tweet the workshops and sessions at Science Online.  At first I found the constant tweeting a little overwhelimng, but pretty soon I was compulsively checking twitter with the rest of the crowd.  It was great to be able to see what was going on in other sessions, and it provided a fun record of everything that went on at the conference from insightful comments to the location of free ice cream.  Below a map of all the tweets at Science Online (Jessica and I are in there somewhere!)

Science Online 2012 Tweet Map

2. A special science themed story slam by The Monti! Some readers may be familar with The Moth, a live storytelling event in which people (often young, bespectacled Brooklyintes) share funny, sad or surprising stories with a live audience. It’s like stand up commedy, if standup commedy hit a nerve as well as tickled your funny bone. The Monti is a local version of the Moth, run by Jeff Polish a former scientist turned story teller.  Ben Lillie of Story Collider (another great story telling project) performed too! I’ll definitely be attending their other non-science shows around Chapel Hill and Durham.

3.  A stand up set from science comedian Brian Mallow

4.  Map making workshop taught by Tim De Chant, who writes the awesome blog Per Square Mile. Understanding how species move across the environment is such an important part of my work, and sometimes you just need a good map to make your point. We learned about some cool, open source map making  and spatial analysis tools, like QGIS .  Look forward to some cool maps and graphics on the blog!

5.  Sketchnote seminar taught by Perrin Ireland of Alpha Chimp Studios, a company that teaches visual brainstorming.   Sketch-noting is a style of visual note taking, and is a popular way to share ideas from meetings and conferences.  It also helps you remember information and pay attention too!  The famous TED talks lecture series uses visual note taking so attendees can learn about talks they’ve missed.  Here’s a quick overview of visual note taking from the pioneer of the field, Sunni Brown.

Coming soon: Jess’s take on Science Online.

My Night at the Museum

Where last we left off I was explaining my plan to look at butterflies held in museum collections in order to compare them to field caught butterflies. To this end, I spent a week in November in this nation’s capitol. Behind the scenes! At the SMITHSONIAN Museum of Natural History! For some reason, this whole endeavor was super exciting to me…  On my drive to DC I was having visions of Ben Stiller’s “Night at the Museum” where exhibits were coming to life and I was running away from dinosaurs. All I knew is that they had about 500 specimens in the collection that were relevant to my study and they were giving me a “no-escort” badge so I could come and go as I pleased.

While being at the museums and seeing the collection is exciting, processing museum animals is more tedious than riveting.  Walking into the entomology department at Smithsonian looks like row after row of non-descript metal closets.

They showed me the Colias cabinet and opened the drawers.


This is my little set up at the museum:

To make direct comparisons to field collected specimens, I need to take the same exact measurements on the preserved specimens. This includes: measuring body length, wing length, and taking photos of the wings to estimate how dark they are. In live specimens, this is pretty straight forward. I place the bug between two pieces of plexiglass (one of which is buffered with bubble wrap) then I can measure it, and photograph it no problem. With the museum specimens, they pinned with the relevant information written on a tiny piece of paper and impaled just below the bug. So to measure and photograph these guys, I have to remove the piece of paper, flip the bug over so that the underside is exposed to the camera, and use microcalipers to measure (without touching) the animal.


First I take off all of the papers and then record the information. Then I measure each one. Then I photograph them. Then I reattach the paper and place them back in the museum drawer. The oldest specimen that I processed was from 1892!

Despite my working late, nothing came to life during my visit to the museum.


Mother Monarch Butterflies Medicate Their Offspring

An infected monarch butterfly struggles to emerge from it's chrysalis

While humans may rely on mom’s chicken soup to fight off infection, mother monarch butterflies lay eggs on medicinal plants to protect their offspring from disease. According to a new study by Emory professor Jaap De Roode and his research team, female monarch butterflies that are infected with parasites lay eggs on anti-parasitic milkweed species to protect their newly hatched caterpillars  from infection.

Parasite spores on monarch wing scales, photographed under a microscope

Monarch butterflies often carry a protozoan parasite similar to malaria, which can have detrimental effects on butterfly development. Infected butterflies have difficulty emerging from their chrysalis, fly poorly, and die young. The parasite is transmitted between adults when mating, or from mother to offspring through the surface of  their eggs (caterpillars often eat their egg shells after hatching for extra nutrition). However, monarch caterpillars can fight infection by ingesting certain species of milkweeds that contain cardenolides, toxic steroids produced by plants.  The toxins prevent parasite spores from establishing in the caterpillar’s gut which can prevent infection, or at least reduce the number of parasites the caterpillar caries.  Cardenolides can cause side effects in healthy caterpillars, like a slightly shorter life span, but these risks are minor compared to the damage caused by infection.

DeRoode and his research team tested how monarchs use the plants to prevent infection both as caterpillars and as adults. They found that caterpillars were unable to detect the presence of parasites and could not distinguiqh between medicinal and ordinary species of milkweed. However, mother monarchs could tell the difference. Infected mothers laid the majority of their eggs on medicinal plants, while unifected mothers showed no preference.

Caterpillars of other species can self medicate, so why haven’t monarch caterpillars caught up with the trend? DeRoode thinks this is partly because the medicinal plants only prevent infection, but can’t cure the parasites once the caterpillar has caught them.  By the time a caterpillar is a few days old, it’s fate is already sealed.  It makes more sense for female butterflies to start caterpillars on a protective diet from the moment they hatch, even if there are some costs to early medication.  Also monarchs aren’t as mobile as some other caterpillar species and don’t stray far from the plant that they hatched on. Even if infected caterpillars could benefit from medicinal plants , it’s unlikely that they would venture off in search of treatment.  Species of caterpillars that successfully self-medicate are those that frequently switch plants and are infected by curable parasites.

If  you’d like to read the original paper, see the link below.  If you’re interested in learning more about monarchs and their diseases, or you want to get involved in monarch research, the Monarch Health project  is looking for volunteers to help track monarch pathogens.

Behavioural resistance against a protozoan parasite in the monarch butterfly
Lefèvre T, Chiang A, Kelavkar M, Li H, Li J, de Castillejo CL, Oliver L, Potini Y, Hunter MD, & de Roode JC (2012). Behavioural resistance against a protozoan parasite in the monarch butterfly. The Journal of animal ecology, 81 (1), 70-9 PMID: 21939438

another year, another scientist

My name is Heidi. I am long-time reader, first time blogger here on Butterflies and Science. Jessica and I have been collaborating on the Colorado Colias work for the last few years now. While Jessica gets to play with the cute caterpillars, I chase the adults around and try to figure out how they are responding to the increasing temperatures at high elevations in the Rocky Mountains.

Because our lab ( is primarily concerned with how organisms are responding to climate change via morphology, physiology, and life history, I think a lot about evolutionary responses to environmental pressures. One of the best examples of this comes from the industrial revolution. The peppered moth is endemic to the British Iles survives as an adult by being a twig mimic. While there have always been two main color morphs of these moths (a lighter and a darker one), the lighter morphs historically survived in greater numbers as their speckled pattern helped them blend in with the lichen on the tree bark and avoid. During the industrial revolution, pollution in the form of soot settled out of the atmosphere in the canopy of the trees and washed down the bark during rainstorms killing the lichen that covered the bark. This effectively darkened the bark which, in turn, created an environment that was more hospitable for the darker morphs where as the lighter morphs stuck out like a sore thumb and were quickly gobbled up by their avian predators.


While greenhouse gasses are not as easy to see as industrial soot and the evolutionary response to atmospheric warming may not be as immediate, clear examples of how species are responding to warming are needed to inspire reform. Our work with the high elevation species of Colias meadii holds the potential to do just that. By tracking traits in the field (specifically wing melanin which determines how quickly these guys can heat up and fly) and comparing current populations to museum specimens, I am hoping to be able to detect a change in mean trait value over time in response to warming. Below is a schematic of the area of the wing we are looking at.

Prehistoric Moths Show Their True Colors

Happy 2012 butterfly fans!  In order to better celebrate the future, we’re taking a  look back into the past: the ancient past.  The earliest known butterflies and moths evolved about 50 million years ago (although there is some evidence that they might be even older and have coexisted with the dinosaurs).  However since fossils are pretty drab, nobody really knew what the ancient butterflies looked like until recently.

Butterfly scales reflect light to produce colorful patterns

Now scientists at Yale  have used fossilized moth scales to figure out what color ancient moths and butterflies were.  Butterfly wings get their vibrant hues from  scales that reflect light to produce colors and patterns.   These so called “strucutral colors” are produced by layers within the scales that reflect light like a prism.   The research group, led by Professor Maria MacNamara, analyzed the structure of the fossilized moth scales to determine how they would have reflected light, and therefore what color the moths would have appeared.

MacNamara's reconstruction of the fossil moth. The bright colors likely served as a warning to predators

The moths turned out to be bright green with blue wing tips, which means they would have been conspicuous as they fed on flowers in ancient forests.  However, the closest living relative to the fossil moths, the forester moth, also uses bright colors to warn predators that it is toxic.  MacNamara and her group think that ancient moths may also have been able to store toxins to ward off predators and used their colorful wings to deter attacks.    These results are exciting to biologists as well as paleontologists because they show that predator-prey interactions were as important in the ancient past as they are today.

McNamara ME, Briggs DE, Orr PJ, Wedmann S, Noh H, & Cao H (2011). Fossilized biophotonic nanostructures reveal the original colors of 47-million-year-old moths. PLoS biology, 9 (11) PMID: 22110404

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!