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


Jun 142011

Ryan FleacrestConfession time: ticks creep me out. So much so, I can vividly remember the first time I saw a tick, and can still feel the near-instantaneous wave of nausea that swept over me…

It was back in high school when I had my first run in with these eight legged freaks. I was working part time at a vet’s office (I was an aspiring vet for most of my childhood, before I took a close look at flies) when a beautiful golden retriever came in with it’s owner, looking all goofy and happy-go-lucky, as pretty much every golden retriever does. The owner had brought her dog in because she found a tick on it’s back and didn’t want to risk breaking it on removal. Being curious, I came around the counter with the vet to have a look at the tiny arthropod which I’d heard so much about, expecting a small spider-like creature perhaps feeding like a mosquito. What I wasn’t expecting was a FULLY ENGORGED, dime-sized tick just pulling out and wobbling along the dog’s back! The vet picked it up in a tissue and passed it to me while he checked the wound on the dog’s back. Nearly in shock from what I had just seen, I peeked within the tissue to get a closer look and confirm that I wasn’t in a nightmare, and lo and behold, there in my hand was a giant, grey mass of nastiness. I managed to maintain an air of professionalism while I walked back around the counter with the tissue, and waited until the customer and her dog (oblivious to the entire process it seems) left before breaking my poker face with a look of utter disgust and revulsion! With a small portion of my curiosity still intact, I decided I’d squeeze the tick to see what would happen; I should have known better, but I maintain that I was in shock and not thinking clearly. With the slightest touch, the tick exploded like a tomato hit by buckshot, leaving the tissue looking like a scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and proving that my gag reflex was still working!

The Deer Tick - Ixodes scapularis

The Deer Tick - Ixodes scapularis


Of course, with the amount of time I spend in the field during the summer, I’ve come close to these little Hellians from time to time, and have seen them sitting at the tip of long grasses, waving their little legs back and forth awaiting an unknowing victim. Needless to say, I always do a quick tick check upon arriving home, and can fully appreciate Brad Paisley’s desire to keep his lady friend safe after a romantic picnic!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I can feel my skin crawling…


This song is available on iTunes – Ticks (Radio Edit) – Ticks – Single

Thanks to Marianne Alleyne for reminding me of this song!