Nov 092015

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get out of the lab. After another busy summer (which, by the way, disappeared altogether too quickly), my wife and I decided to get away and visit a good friend in Northern California a few weeks ago. While we were in the area, I also made time to visit with friends and colleagues in a trio of museums along the way, and spend some time working through their collections looking for specimens to include in my research. It’s been awhile since I took my camera out of my bag and put it to use, and even longer since I shared a whole series of photos here on the blog, so I thought it might be a good opportunity to share some of what we saw and did!

Although we flew into Sacramento, we set out right away for the coast and spent some time exploring San Francisco. After exploring the Golden Gate area & Sausalito for lunch, we made our way back to the wharf in time for dinner. Pier 39 at sunset proved to be a good decision, and we managed to escape the Fog for our entire visit to the area, resulting in some pretty spectacular views.

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Aug 112014

After our adventure in Iceland, it was time to move on to Copenhagen, Denmark and kick off my European museum tour in earnest. Arriving after dark on Thursday, I couldn’t see much of the city as I rode public transit from the airport to Dave’s apartment, but the first thing that struck me as I left the subway terminal was the delicious smell of baking bread & pastries! For a moment I wondered whether perhaps Denmark actually smells like actual Danishes (the pastries), but then realized it was just the bakery across the street, much to my disappointment.

Coming from North America, it was striking how cramped city living is in Copenhagen. While the main living rooms of the apartment where I was staying were quite sizeable and charming in an historical kind of way, I soon learned the origins of the term “water closet”. Most places I know have a coat closet directly inside the entrance way, but in this apartment complex at least, that closet has been converted into a full 3-piece bathroom totalling at most 10 square feet of floor space, including that taken up by the toilet and sink! I’ve never seen a room so comically small (yet functional) in my life, and will certainly greet washrooms in Canada and the US with an all new appreciation. Needless to say showering the next morning was an experience, yet surprisingly manageable.

The first stop of my magical mystery type tour, the Copenhagen University Zoological Museum. #Museum #Entomology #NatHist #OMGGiantGeese

Friday morning I accompanied my hosts Dave & Adam to the University of Copenhagen Museum of Zoology. Walking through the basement hallways, we wandered past a taxidermied horse that was apparently a queen’s favourite, as well as a giant whale skeleton in a loading bay being prepared for the museum’s collection. “Little” details like these make travelling to natural history museums new experiences each and every time, because you never know what you’ll stumble across while you’re there!

No big deal, just a whale skeleton being prepared in the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum basement... #ActuallyABigDeal #NatHist #museum

The insect collection in Copenhagen is quite expansive, and includes the very important primary type collection of Johan Christian Fabricius (among others). Unfortunately, being more than 200 years old, many of Fabricius’ types are significantly damaged, with many having nothing but odd body parts stuck to a pin, or even an empty pin with naught but a label attached! This will make things a little more difficult in the future as we try and tease apart what these authors were thinking about when they described their species, but that’s the way things go with taxonomy. I’ll be spending another day at the end of my trip here, which is lucky because I didn’t end up getting all the work I wanted to get done, and instead had to do some last minute planning for the next stages of my trip and meeting with a revolving door of visiting scientists in town before the Diptera Congress.

Before I attend the 8th International Congress of Dipterology next week, I'm sorting specimens and exploring the Copenhagen Zoological Museum in Denmark, and this was one of the first specimens I picked up. This is Rainieria antennaepes, a common species of stilt-legged fly native to eastern North America. This specimen was collected in the University of Guelph Arboretum sometime between August 13th and 19th, 1994, by Danish entomologist Verner Michelsen, while he attended the 3rd International Congress of Dipterology (which was held in Guelph). I've travelled more than 6,000 km to attend the same conference exactly 20 years later, and have provided an identification for a specimen that was collected practically in my own backyard. It just goes to show you never know what you'll find in a Natural History museum!

We were up bright & early the next morning (Saturday) and riding the bus across Copenhagen with luggage in tow to pick up my rental car, which luckily turned out to be a massive upgrade from the uber-compact I had booked to a luxury SUV with all the bells and whistles! The unexpectedly nice car will make the road trip even more fun I think, and without the need to play Tetris with our luggage. Also, as it turns out, we were especially lucky to get the upgrade with built in GPS, because the pay-as-you-go cell phone card I picked up in Denmark and was planning on using for navigational purposes stopped working the moment we drove into Germany. I think I’d be somewhere between Rome & Budapest by now had I been relying on road signs, so we’ll chalk this up to luck and good karma.

My valiant steed for the next few weeks, which ended up being a sweet free upgrade from Avis! Let the roadtrip begin! #AdventuresWithManualTransmission

Driving through Denmark and Germany turned out to not be nearly as tricky as I had worried it might be. There were a few quirks, like Germany’s insistence on placing their traffic signal lights on the near-side of intersections, right above the first person in line’s head and practically impossible to see without a panoramic sunroof (did I mention we were lucky with the car upgrade?), and some exciting new experiences, like taking a mega ferry across the Baltic Sea, and driving on the set-your-own-speed Autobahn highway system in Germany, and we even stopped to look for some insects just outside of Berlin (primarily because we got stuck in a massive traffic jam and needed to stretch our legs for a bit).

I'm on a boat! #PlanesTrainsAndAutomobiles #AlsoBoats

We finally arrived in Potsdam at the Kongresshotel, a huge, sprawling resort complex on a river (it might be a lake, I’m not sure), and soon met up with a large group of Dipterist’s who had also come to town early, enjoying a few beverages and a late supper before retiring for the evening. Sunday was a relaxing day for the most part, giving me an opportunity to put the finishing touches on my presentation before we went out to find something to eat nearby. Turns out there isn’t anywhere nearby to eat, but we did manage to wander into what appeared to be an abandoned rowing club and then accidentally crashed a fancy birthday party at the local canoe club… Tourists, I tell ya! We eventually ended up eating back at the hotel, and then attended the opening mixer with nearly 400 Dipterists from around the world! It was a nice evening with plenty of good food, free wine, and great conversations with old friends and new colleagues alike.


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.



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.




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.



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

Aug 052014

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me since my qualifying exams. I’ve travelled up to Ottawa a few times to work with my co-advisor and gather a big, new DNA dataset, I’ve put my Google-fu and Google Translate skills to the test, and I’ve learned how spoiled I am by the ease of booking hotels in North America.

All of that hard work is about to payoff though, as I’m heading out for a grand European tour! Starting with a red-eye flight Tuesday evening, I’ll be attending the 8th International Congress of Dipterology (ICD8), and spending 2 weeks on the roads and in the natural history museums of Europe.

This is the second ICD I’ll have attended, and just like the last one in Costa Rica, I’ll be blogging all the way through about the things I learn, experiences I have, and whatever else comes up. I’ll also be tweeting, Instagramming & Vine-ing my way across the continent afterwards as I visit natural history museums and entomology collections looking for important type specimens of Micropezidae described by some of entomology’s biggest names over the past 250 years.

Starting with a quick stop in Iceland to explore, I’ll move on to Copenhagen to visit the Natural History Museum of Denmark, and then will be driving down to Potsdam, Germany to present my newly acquired data at ICD8 and fill my head with all kinds of new knowledge about flies & dipterology. After that I’ll be hitting the road with fellow PhD student & blogger Kai Burington to visit museums in Stuttgart, Munich, Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, and Muncheberg before heading back to Denmark to visit friends and fly home.

Before things kick off, I’d like to thank the Smithsonian Institute and the S.W. Williston Diptera Fund for making this trip possible for me with a Diptera Research Grant. If you’d like to help make future opportunities like this possible for graduate students like myself or others interested in dipterology, I’d encourage you to donate to the S.W. Williston Fund. You can find more information about S.W. Williston and the Smithsonian endowment fund program here.

It’s going to be a whirlwind trip, and I hope you’ll join me as I try and share my European adventure with you.


Oct 182011

Ryan FleacrestWhen it comes to insect pests, few have been so devastating yet controlled and managed as the Boll Weevil (Anthonomus grandis). An introduced pest of US cotton in the early 20th century, the Boll Weevil has largely been eradicated thanks to a massive effort by the USDA (which  might explain why there are only 4 photos of this beetle on BugGuide).

It’s not often that a major insect pest is praised, yet in Enterprise, Alabama, they’ve erected a statue in its honour! Why? Because it so devastated the local cotton plantations that farmers switched to peanut farms, where they found great commercial success! Enterprise, AL is definitely on my dream roadtrip schedule now!


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Of course, Boll Weevils aren’t the only entomologically related statues in the US; Mormon crickets (Anabrus simplex) were also immortalized, sort of. In this case, it was their demise by California Gull which is being remembered, but still, an insect-related statue is an insect-related statue!



As you may have noticed, I didn’t get around to answering last week’s photo challenge; imagine that… There are still plenty of points up for grabs and not many guesses, so why not take a stab at what it might be. Hopefully I’ll get time to post the full story next week, but given my track record with sticking to schedules, best not hold your breath!


This song is available on iTunes – Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues – Complete Recordings, CD A