Aug 082014
 

I’m in Keflavik International Airport waiting for my flight to Denmark. It’s only been 32 hours since I arrived in Iceland, but in that short time I’ve bared witness to more natural beauty than I ever expected, and been introduced to a country that is quirky, friendly, and so full of new experiences to be had that I need to come back.

Everything about this visit to Iceland has been exciting, from the moment I stepped foot on the Icelandair plane to the bus ride through the beautiful coastal scenery back to the airport. My 5-hour flight from Toronto to Reykjavik was fantastic, in large part because the flight was full of Icelandiana. The flight attendants handed passengers a bottle of glacier water when they stepped on the plane; the pillows came with an Icelandic lullaby translated on them (which was actually kind of creepy, including a line about sleeping with one eye open, but the sentiment was appreciated); the air sickness bag had a map and an explanation of the ocean currents that swirl around the island bringing mild yet unpredictable weather; the pre-flight safety video was shot not in a plane, but in the vast wilderness of Iceland, with each of the usual emergency procedures beautifully worked into the experiences of the main character as she explored the country. The inflight entertainment included local documentaries and cooking shows, giving you a head’s up about what to do and local food to watch for. Unfortunately, the only downside was that I couldn’t sleep, setting me up for a long day, but even a long, sleepless day couldn’t dampen my experiences here.

So excite! Next stop, Iceland!

 

After landing in Iceland, and finally securing my baggage (with special thanks to the jerk who pulled it off the baggage carousel and left it upside down after they realized it wasn’t their bag, leaving me to think it hadn’t enjoyed the same flight as I had), Dave and I caught a transfer bus (Gray Line Bus Tours) to Reykjavik, which is about 45 minutes from the international airport. At this point my body was still thinking it was 4am, and so we made a slight decimal place error when calculating the conversion of Icelandic Kronors to Canadian dollars for the bus, but at about $40 round-trip from airport to hotel, it was still well worth it.

The bus ride itself was great, and featured free wifi and a spectacular view of the coastal lava fields between Keflavik and Reykjavik. Mountains rose from every angle, while the ocean followed us all the way into the city. The mounds of moss-covered lava were incredible, and I wish we had been able to get out of the bus and explore these areas.

IcelandDay1-5

 

We had a little trouble finding an affordable hotel in Reykjavik (possibly because we booked it two days before we arrived), but ended up at the Capital-Inn Guesthouse, a nice place with clean, comfortable rooms, an eclectic breakfast selection, and friendly staff. The only downside was the $15 cab ride into the city centre, but apparently the city bus system is efficient and can get you there as well. They were also nice enough to let us check into our room early, which gave me a chance to snag an hour nap before heading back into Reykjavik’s downtown core to begin exploring the country.

Because we only had a short time in the country, we signed up for an afternoon bus tour (again with Gray Line Bus Tours) of the Golden Circle, a 6-hour loop through some of the geological treasures near the capital region. At only 9000. kr (less than $90cad), this trip was a phenomenal deal. Again we had free wifi on the bus, and more importantly, an incredibly well informed tour guide, who gave a nearly 6-hour lecture on Iceland, seamlessly transitioning from cultural history to natural history, and from geology to politics and ideology. I’ll admit that I didn’t catch everything she discussed, but that’s largely because I was pretty sleep deprived and much too enchanted by the passing scenery outside my window. I did appreciate her discussion of lake ecology and the role that “black lice” (which she said were midges, although I’m not sure whether she was referring to chironomids or biting ceratopogonids), and especially for giving flies a nod when discussing the pollination biology of Iceland (yes, she actually talked about pollination biology on a tour bus, which should be a requirement of all bus tours as far as I’m concerned). But really, the star of this show was Iceland itself.

So, yeah, #Iceland is unimaginably beautiful.

I walked through the land without a continent, the Rift Valley of Iceland in Þingvellir National Park, where the European and North American tectonic plates are pulling their separate ways and ripping Iceland asunder. On the surface, fields of moss and wildflowers sprinkle the landscape, covering nearly every square inch of the surface not covered by clear, blue lakes, while huge cracks in the lava fields betrayed the violent geology going on beneath our feet. I could have explored this region for hours, poking around the rifts and taking in the crisp, fresh air, but all too soon we were back on the bus, and driving from North America to Europe in a matter of minutes. Volcanoes rose up around us, and we were treated to tales of giants and elves inhabiting the rockiest parts of the countryside, coming down at Christmas to bring gifts for the good and punishments for the not.

 

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

Soon we arrived at Gullfoss, the Golden Falls, and took in raging torrents and dancing rainbows of glacial melt water pouring down from the horizon and into the valley. The sun began peeking out from behind the clouds while we were here, highlighting the brilliant white glaciers off in the distance. A two-tiered waterfall with a 90o bend between tiers was something to behold, especially against the gray walls of the river valley. Again, mosses and small wildflowers filled every crack and crevice, providing a micro landscape to rival that of its surrounding geology.

 

Beauty at every scale

Beauty at every scale

Our final stop of the tour was the Geysir geothermal area. The largest erupting hot spring in this area was named Geysir in the 13th century, and lends it’s Anglicized name to similar erupting geysers around the world, while itself settling down to only spout steam and the occasional eruption in recent years. With the ever-present mountains as backdrop, the remaining erupting geyser thrilled crowds as it erupted 100 feet into the air as a plume of near-boiling water and steam at random intervals. Pools and streams formed from thermal springs sparkled blue, white and gold in the late afternoon sun, and the air was filled with steam wafting along on a gentle breeze.  I watched for hot spring associated insects, but only caught a glimpse of something before losing it amongst the mists.

Strokkur

Strokkur

With that, our Golden Circle tour came to a close, and we were shepherded back onto the bus for the journey back to Reykjavik.

 

Dinner in downtown Reykjavik followed by a walk in the late evening sun (sunset this time of year is after 10pm, which certainly didn’t help my inner clock), and then back to the hotel to finally crash for the night, in preparation for my final hours in Iceland.

Geothermal features in the Geysir area

Geothermal features in the Geysir area

Seeing as I’m on this trip to visit natural history collections, I figured it was only proper to visit The Icelandic Phallological Museum. With an admission of only 8 Euros, and a room chock full of mammal penises caringly preserved and presented for the world to see, this was something I had to see. Giant whale phalluses were mounted on the wall like trophy stag horns, while glass columns 6 to 8 feet tall guarded fleshy, coiled whale members preserved in formalin.

I mean, where else can you find taxidermied whale dicks mounted on the wall like trophies? This is from a beached Sei Whale.

The museum staff carefully erected signs and exhibits on every possible surface, and featured an impressive array of native and foreign wildlife, from blue whales to field mice, to be compared and contrasted against one another. It’s not often a natural history museum gives visitors the chance to play amateur anatomist, especially with organs as large and variable as these. And yes, there were even a few human specimens, donated post-mortem by elderly Icelanders, much to the dismay of the executors of their estates, I’m sure. While I and many other visitors couldn’t help but giggle the moment we stepped through the front door, it wasn’t long until each quelled their inner 12-year old and began gazing closely into the containers and pointing out the ways in which evolution has molded and shaped the male form.

They also had more classical preservation methods on display. This is a killer whale in the foreground, with various other whales, seals, and bears in the background.

All I had left was a walk through the streets of Reykjavik among the brightly painted row houses and bold street art plastered around the market area, and I was soon on my way here, the airport. I will certainly have many more stories to be made in the coming weeks of my travel, but I’m not sure how they will compare to these first 32 beautiful hours in Iceland.

Reykjavik street art is the best street art. #Diptera #Iceland

Jul 182012
 

I’m filing this story under “Cosmic Awesomeness”.

While I was perusing Twitter this afternoon, Dr. Matthew Francis, a physicist/science writer who I follow, randomly started spurting out astronomical terms for fun1. One of those terms was Musca, which obviously got my attention in a hurry, and I asked what was so astronomical about a common genus of flies (you can read the full conversation at the bottom of this post)2.

Turns out Musca happens to be a constellation of stars observable in the Southern Hemisphere! It was “described” in 1597 or 1598 by Petrus Plancius, a dutch astronomer who clearly has an excellent imagination. Although it was originally called Apis (the Bee), it was changed to Musca (the Fly) in 1752 to avoid confusion with the nearby constellation Apus (literally “no feet”, in honour of birds-of-paradise, which at the time were believed to footless). But why name a constellation after an insect? Plancius named a neighbouring constellation Chamaeleon and decided it would need a source of food!

Besides being a really cool constellation, Musca also contains a binary object of a star being consumed by a black hole, as well as a couple of beautiful galaxies.

Seeing as I’m kind of a fan of flies3, I checked to see where the constellation was located so I could look for it the next time I’m on the southern half of the planet. Much to my delight, Musca is found immediately “below” the Southern Cross, the only constellation I knew about in the Southern Hemisphere, and something which I had not only seen before, but had photographed!

I quickly opened Lightroom to check my photos of the Southern Cross and see if I could make out Musca, and wouldn’t you know it, I found it! Not only that, I got good photos of it, and not just from one location, but from 2 totally different countries on 2 totally different trips! SWEET!

Milky Way & Musca - Peru Bolivia Stars

The Southern Cross, Musca and Chamaeleon over the Heath River

This photo was taken at the Heath River Wildlife Center on the border of Peru & Bolivia in 2007. In case you can’t see a cross, a fly or a chameleon, here they are with appropriate lines:

Milky Way & Musca - Peru Bolivia stars constellation

The Southern Cross, Musca & Chamaeleon over Peru & Bolivia

Not only did I manage to capture this celestial fly in Peru, but I also got photos of it in Ecuador while looking for real flies in 2009.

Southern Cross & Musca over Ecuador stars constellation

The Southern Cross & Musca over Yasuni Research Station, Ecuador

Here’s a massive crop showing the Southern Cross and Musca more closely:

Southern Cross & Musca - Ecuador stars constellation

The Southern Cross (top) with Musca (bottom half and faint) over Yasuni Research Station, Ecuador

When out in remote dark-sky locations deep within the Amazonian jungle, both constellations are visible to the naked eye, but picking them out from several thousand other stars and the Milky Way is a bit more of a challenge.

Musca with Milky Way - Ecuador

Musca within the Milky Way – Yasuni Research Station, Ecuador

I can’t wait to get back to South America to collect & photograph more flies, both the corporeal ones within the jungles of Earth and the shiny one above it!

—————————————

1- I don’t know either, it must be a physicist thing. They’re all about the entropy I hear…

2- Another excellent example of the scientific benefits of Twitter.

3- This may come as a surprise to many of you, I know.


Jun 092012
 

While taking our dog to the basement for a bath last night, my wife encountered a stairwell full of her next-to-least favourite1 arthropod — cellar spiders (Pholcus phalangioides).

Cellar Spider - Pholcus phalangioides

Cellar Spider - Pholcus phalangioides

By the looks of that egg sac, our laundry room will be well protected for the foreseeable future, much to my wife’s chagrin!

 

—————

1- Renée’s least favourite arthropod being the house centipede of course.

Apr 272012
 

Yes, World Tapir Day is a real thing. No, you don’t get the day off work.

As consolation, enjoy this photo of a juvenile South American Tapir (Tapirus terrestris) from Ecuador.

South American Tapir Tapirus terrestris

 

All four species of tapir (3 spp. in South America, 1 in southeast Asia) are currently listed as vulnerable or endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. The South American Tapir has the largest range of all tapirs, spanning the majority of the Amazon river basin, yet is still under threat from habitat destruction and poaching.

Tapir’s are usually difficult to see in the jungle, preferring to go about their business through the night. So how did I get a close up photo in the middle of the day? The research station I was working at had adopted her1 after her mother was killed by the local Huaorani tribe2, and thus she was quite friendly, coming right up to greet our group when we arrived. Later in our visit, she nearly gave me a heart attack when she came thundering out of the jungle looking for attention while I was looking at a fly. Needless to say, I nearly spread some extra fly bait that day…

 

————————

1 – While my tapir-sex-identification-skills are a little rusty, I recall being told by the staff that this was indeed a young female.

2 – While the station is situated within Yasuni National Park, the indigenous Huaorani people are allowed to continue their traditional way of life. Unfortunately, the Huaorani have found an easier way to go about life; by selling bushmeat and live animals destined for the pet trade at market in the nearest cities. The research staff went so far as to paint their rescued tapir with bright white paint to try and deter the locals from killing it, though the tribe made no promises about it’s potential fate.

Mar 252012
 

This past week saw some unseasonably AWESOME weather around Southern Ontario, allowing me to break out the shorts and sandals nice and early. Better yet, our local fauna has started to emerge from their winter hiding places, with flies buzzing, ants battling, and frogs calling!

Thursday evening I went out to a local conservation area with a few of my labmates in search of the early indicators of vernal vertebrate life: spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). It wasn’t long until we heard the high pitched squeaks of males calling throughout a small pond, so we donned waders and headed in to the water! Of course, just because you can hear the males doesn’t mean their easy to find, especially in a mucky-bottomed pond hiding logs just waiting to drag you (and your photo gear) into the depths, and among clumps of reeds forming perfect hiding places & bandshells for their performances. Add to that dozens, if not hundreds, of calling frogs, and you have an ear-splitting distraction which makes it difficult to hone in on a single individual!

Eventually I did find a male who was out in the open and doing his best to seduce any potential mates in the area. While being in the open made it easy for me to see and photograph him, it also made it easy for him to see me coming, causing him to stop calling as soon as I crawled in close for a photo. With some patience, a better angle, and some interesting body contortions, I finally got a few photos I was happy with.

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)? More like Spring Peeker

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)? More like Spring Peeker...

 

Why you no call for me Spring Peeper?

Why you no call for me Spring Peeper?

 

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) in mid call

Success! Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) in mid call

Presumably this male will eventually find himself a mate, hold on tight and contribute his spawn to the pond ecosystem. Perhaps one day his progeny will emerge as tiny froglets, like this young’un I found in Maryland a few summers back.

Spring Peeper froglet dealing with the jungle of a lawn!

Spring Peeper froglet dealing with the jungle of a lawn!

Funny story to finish off; when I got home Thursday evening I posted to Twitter:

 

It was a good lesson in word choice, as I had several followers asking why I wanted to hurt these innocent little frogs or what caliber firearm I was using… Oops! Rest assured that no spring peepers were harmed in the production of this blog post!

Jan 302012
 

Just a quick post to let you know I’m still alive. It’s been a busy few weeks, and writing new blog posts has had to take a backseat lately. Sorry about that. I hope to get a few posts up in the next few weeks as I get a handle on some of the projects, but until then, enjoy this photo of autumnal mushrooms!

I used this photo in one of my lectures last week (more on that soon, I promise) and figured I’d share it with all of you as well. My fungal identification skills are less than zero, so if you have an inkling as to what it may be, let me know!

 

Fall Mushrooms from Bancroft Ontario Canada

 

More to come soon!

Dec 152011
 

Have you ever traveled to a new city and wondered where you can grab a burger, or perhaps a beer? How about wondering if there’s a good spot to bird watch or even collect a few flies in between meetings or family functions? One of the benefits of being a biologist is traveling to new locations, either to gather new data/specimens or to talk about your work on said data/specimens. Unless you have a local source of information, be it a friend, colleague or naturalist’s forum that can point you to a good park, the amount of time you spend looking for a site may equal (or be greater than) the amount of time you actually spend in the site. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a social network that could help you find natural areas faster, and let you see ahead of time what local naturalists were finding where?

foursquare logoGood news; there IS a social network capable of all these things, it’s just that no one has begun to use it for that yet! Let me introduce you to foursquare, and explain how I think it can enhance interactions between naturalists and scientists.

foursquare is a geography-based social network, allowing you to “Check in” to locations such as restaurants, events or shops and see where nearby friends have been recently. You can also leave “Tips” on things to do at a location or what’s good on the menu, and construct to-do lists of places you’d like to visit and things you’d like to do. While check-ins are only shared with your friends, the locations and tips are public and searchable, allowing you to plan trips or discover new venues.

While the network was designed for finding restaurants and bars in big cities, you can also create venues for all types of natural habitats; city greenspaces, provincial, state, or national parks (and even areas within those parks, like specific camp grounds or trails), your local arboretum, lake, or river, etc. Combine that with the Tips function and you have a GPS-enabled network which allows you to record recent nature sightings, notes on the type and quality of habitats, or anything else which may help others get the most out of their visit. Available through your web browser or on smartphones, it’s a very simple way to keep track of what you find and where!

Unfortunately I haven’t had much time in the past few weeks to explore local parks to provide you some examples, but here is the page I made for the University of Guelph Insect Collection (did I mention foursquare is a great way to increase the exposure of your local museum or natural history collection?):

University of Guelph Insect Collection on foursquare

As you can see, I’ve left a tip with some information about our collection and encouraging people to stop in and see what we do, but this is where you can leave sightings or other observations you’ve made at a location. These tips are searchable (try searching “1863 near Guelph, On” in foursquare for example), allowing people to discover potential natural history information (imagine a tip reading “Saw a bald eagle and 3 cedar waxwings today! #nature” or “Check the pond at the northwest corner for excellent dragonfly collecting #nature”). You could even go so far as to create a public list of natural areas in your region, making it even easier for others to discover new areas to explore.

So how can foursquare help naturalists and the public connect with researchers? Obviously the more people who join and record their naturalist outings in this way, the more data and locations visiting scientists may have to play with. eBird is a similar technology (without the mobile app) where birders around the world record the birds they saw, along with when and where, and which has created a near real-time database of bird diversity, ranges and migrations that is being used by ornithologists. I think by using foursquare in a similar way, researchers studying other groups can potentially do the same. Entomologically speaking, imagine the possibilities: citizen science programs tracking monarch butterfly populations, urban insect sightings (bed bugs in hotels, roaches in restaurants, etc), or taxonomists like myself finding new localities to collect in or records of uncommon species! More importantly though, is the ways in which a researcher can give back to the naturalist community. If you visit a location frequented by a local naturalist, why not meet up with them if they’re in the area, and of course share your own favourite locations and sightings for everyone to experience! I suspect that there are ways to harvest data or create secondary applications which work in concert with foursquare, but I don’t have the programming skills to explore those avenues (if you do and are interested, let me know).

Obviously for this idea to really work it will need to be adopted by naturalist communities across North America and beyond, but I think it has a lot of potential, and I’d encourage you to give it a try (and spread the word)! I’ll be continuing to record my visits and sightings, and I’ll be sure to provide future updates on how this idea progresses!

At a time when few people seem interested in the natural world around them, social media like foursquare create opportunities for us to share nature with everyone. If even one person who wouldn’t normally take the time to venture through a city park or visit an entomological museum does so because they learned of it through foursquare, I’d consider that a success!

Aug 172011
 

This past weekend saw the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower for 2011, so the wife and I headed out to a local high point to see what we could see.

People star gazing looking for meteors Perseids

What’s with the funky sky and shadows at 1am? That’s thanks to the full moon high in the sky and urban light pollution, which significantly decreased our ability to see stars, nevermind smaller pieces of comet dust burning up in the atmosphere! Of course, it did create some interesting effects…

Telephone pole highlighted by full moon and urban light pollution

So did we see any meteors despite the lighting? We were lucky enough to observe 7 by my count, including a super bright, green fireball which left a green residue hanging in the night air for several seconds. Definitely one of the best I’ve seen. But the more important question; did I capture any on camera? Sort of…

Perseids Meteor Shower 2011

Can you see the meteor trail? No? Can’t blame you really, how about I blow up the left hand side a tad:

Meteor trail from Perseid Meteor Shower 2011

Yep, that’s my first successful meteor capture! Nothing special, but it’s something at least. I’ll keep working on it, hopefully during a couple of different meteor showers this fall/winter before next summer’s big show!

I think I need to find a way onto the International Space Station for next years Perseids though…

Jun 292011
 

About lowly human parking laws at least!

Honey Bee swarm on No Parking Sign

Honey Bee Don't Care!

Yep, a honey bee swarm decided that this parking sign in our department’s parking lot was as good a place as any to settle down for the evening. Lucky for them, the parking authority goes home at 5…

Honey bees on parking sign with text saying Subject to Tow Away

We're going to need a smaller truck!

 

Honey bee on parking sign lateral

One of the offenders