Tag Archive | science

Hallowe’en Science Spooktacular!


This weekend members of our lab brought out our long-suffering arthropod menagerie for some more outreach, this time at our university for the annual Hallowe’en Science Spooktacular. This event combines the fun of Hallowe’en with the awesomeness of science. The displays on hand creepily demonstrated all kinds of horrifying things, such as radiation safety, microbiology, weird fluid dynamics, and of course, insects!


The event was packed!

cat spider nuts

Catherine tries to freak out a vampire with tales of spider biology. Actually, this is how she talks at any event, including during  her Presiden’t’s Prize winning talk at last week’s ESC conference! Photo by Mike Hrabar.


This beautiful widow was one of three we brought out to demonstrate the awesomeness of these spiders.


Antonia Musso prepares the maggot art with some acrylic paint.


The artists get to work


Antonia displays the finest piece of the day.


Mike busts out the leaf insects.


The costumes add to the cuteness of kids meeting insects.


The undergrads were out in force to do their part in outreach. Great show everyone!


Bruce Leighton brings the steampunk chic with a horrifying Victorian curio cabinet!


Jutta Rickers- Haunerland demonstrates the radioactivity of various household items, including some of the old Pentax Super-Takumar lenses!


Uranium glass fluorescing!


Bekka Brodie tries out the Van der Graaf, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince her son Tavi to follow suit.


A glimpse into the wizarding world of microscopy.


A smoking-hot demonstration of glassblowing by our own Bruce Harwood.


Tavi got to take home an awesome glass dinosaur!


This Ewok was awesome!


This girl loved the black widows and the leaf insects. 


This kid is filling his brains with insect knowledge.


It was great seeing all the parents bringing their kids out to these events. This kind of early exposure to science can’t be bad.


The end of a great day of science outreach! Photo by Mike Hrabar.

Going to Guelph!


Due to an unexpected change for our plans for a scouting/survey mission to Honduras, Catherine and I have suddenly found ourselves in a position to attend the Entomological Society of Canada/Entomological Society of Ontario Joint Annual Meeting in Guelph! I am not sure that our abstracts will be fit in for talks, but I sure hope so. If not I will probably bring a really cool poster. In celebration, I walked outside the lab, and what should I find but a handsome Western Conifer Seed Bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis, a species that our lab has studied in the past. Seems like these bugs have infrared sensors built into their abdomens that allow them to find the relatively hot maturing conifer cones on which they feed. This time of year, adults are seeking warmer sheltered locations in which to overwinter, and since they can’t go to Honduras, they often come indoors. I found this one perched on a still-warm hood of a delivery van outside.

Consider this blog post fair warning then, my eastern comrades, that like the Western Conifer Seed Bug, we are coming to Ontario in numbers, ready to rock your socks with some BC-style sciencing!

High-speed Arthropod Week, day 1: Hamuli!

polistes in forceps

This weekend, we began work with a new high speed camera, a Photron SA-5, with a wicked large sensor capable of recording 7500 frames per second at its full 1024 by 1024 pixel square sensor (and higher speeds at lower resolution). This beastly machine is being used by Mike Hrabar and myself to describe some little-understood phenomena around insect locomotion and behavior, which will hopefully be incorporated into a future paper. The rental of this machine is pricy, and the time when our study species is active is small, so in the downtime we have been using it for all kinds of insect imaging for fun and education.  I invite you to join me this week for High-Speed Insect Science (just in case the Shark Week Fiasco has got you down).

Let us begin!

Like many insects, adult Hymenoptera have two pairs of wings on the middle and rear segments of their thorax. These wings beat in unison, and are effectively a single pair of aerodynamic surfaces. They are coupled with a tiny row of hooks (hamuli,; a single one of which is  a hamulus) on the leading edge of the hindwing which grab a small fold on the trailing edge of the forewing. In the above video of Polistes dominula taking off, note how the wings beat as one unit, connected by the hamuli. For a close up view of hamuli, check out these shots by flickr user Yersinia pestis.


Sometimes the wings become uncoupled, like when the insect moves through vegetation or after a predator attack. The wings may still re-couple, as they do for this Leafcutter (Megachilid) bee during takeoff:

What is interesting to me is how the decoupled wing seems to make the Megachilid lose lift and bank to the left as it falls, something that indicates a severe aerodynamic stall on that side of the insect. The bee recovered and flew away rapidly, and it wasn’t until the video was saved that I managed to see this temporary decoupling. After the shoot, I found a nice retirement spot for this tattered-looking bee:


Large bees, such as this Bombus vosnensenskii also benefit from the large coupled wing area made possible by hamuli. This, combined with their large thoraces bursting with powerful flight muscles, allow these relative giants to power into vertical takeoffs.

bombus vosnesenskii

These bees care not for pseudoscience!

Other insect orders also couple their wings with hamuli, such as aphids and male scale insects (Hemiptera), but moths and butterflies use a different structure called a frenulum which hooks into a fold or invagination called a retinaculum.

Hamuli are wonderfully useful structures for the lifestyle of the flying hymenopteran, but they can also be important aids to species identification, as the numbers of hooks may vary between different groups.

Well, I hope you have learned something about wing coupling in Hymenoptera, or at least enjoyed the videos.  I will try to get another post ready for tomorrow, depending on what our research schedule is like. Thanks for tuning in!

PS. These are so fun! Here is a shot of a male Polistes dominula making a beautiful takeoff.

Do Red-throated Caracaras kill and eat people?

A lesson in how not to infer predation…


Is this bird plotting a murder?

Red-throated Caracaras (Ibycter americanus) are impressive birds that are  brightly coloured, extremely loud, and travel around the forest in gangs.  They seem to act as if they own the forest, and alarm call vigorously whenever they see you or any other potential threat. I have seen them chase away Harpy Eagles (as have others!), as well as Toucans.

Sounds like a badass bird! If you do a Google Scholar search for “Red-throated Caracaras and Predation“, you might find some surprising things. In the primatological literature, they are listed in several papers (1-2) as being predators of Saguinus mystax, the Moustached Tamarin, a small monkey. This is quite odd, as to my knowledge there is only a single account of Ibycter americanus taking vertebrate prey: Anolis and Ameiva lizards found in the stomach of a single bird shot in Mexico (3).

Certainly, other caracara species, such as the similar, but more distantly related Black Caracara (Daptrius ater) do prey on vertebrates. The Black Caracara has been reliably reported preying on fish (4) and juvenile caciques (5).


Saguinus mystax. From Wikimedia Commons, User:Postdlf

But the Red-throated Caracara is a different species, with different habits, and is not well-known to take vertebrate prey.

So where does this idea come from?

All the references that I could find about predation on tamarins by Red-throated Caracaras come from a thesis (6) by a researcher named Maria Marleni Ramirez entitled “Feeding Ecology and Demography of the MoustachedTamarin Saguinus mystax in Northeastern Peru”, published in 1989 at the City University of New York. The exact passage about this predation incident appears on page 87 (Daptrius americanus is a former name for the Red-throated Caracara that is no longer used):

“Raptors flying overhead invariably elicited strong alarm responses from the tamarins. Moustached tamarins gave several alarm calls per day that were apparently directed towards birds, thus suggesting that they may be important predators of tamarins. The tamarins’ reaction to attacks by raptors was very strong, as indicated by the loudness and duration of the calls. Daptrius americanus was observed to attack and barely miss a juvenile S. mystax. The moustached tamarins reacted by giving very loud screeches at the same time the Daptrius was diving towards the juvenile.”

Now to be fair, I have been attacked by Red-throated Caracaras (see video), but I never have inferred from this that these birds were trying to prey on me (Although one did strike my ear while I was climbing their nest tree). Or perhaps I didn’t take it personally!

The following video was taken by Tanya Jones in 2009, and shows a group of Red-throated Caracaras diving at me as I climbed their nest tree. I am located right behind the bromeliad; part of my foot is visible below.

And that is the danger of inferring predation by witnessing one antagonistic encounter between two species, with no video records or stomach contents. Because in my book, predation involves killing and eating the prey, and this was not observed here. In fact, my research, as well as one other study, show that the predominant food items consist of wasp larvae and fruits (7,8), with not a single vertebrate among them. I would not say that Dr. Ramirez’ observation constitutes predation.

'cause doesn't this look better than a monkey?

’cause doesn’t this look better than a monkey?

What I interpret this situation to have been is a mobbing attack on monkeys by caracaras defending a nest site, or merely defending their territory from occasional nest predators. I have seen caracaras chasing Toucans in a similar fashion. I have no doubt that the caracaras could kill, and possibly eat a tamarin (They have an average mass of around 500 g, or roughly the size of a small caracara), but surely some stomach contents would have showed up to indicate such an event. Other than the account of lizards in the one shot in Veracruz,  I can find no such records.

Thus I think that it is definitely premature to list the caracara as one of the “known predators of Saguinus mystax”. Instead, I would probably put the two species in a long list of “animals in the jungle that don’t like each other very much” and leave it at that.

There is still much we do not know about this charismatic bird, or indeed about the trophic relations of rainforest animals in general, but hasty generalizations from a single observation are unlikely to improve matters.


  1. Heymann, E., and V. Schaik, 1990. Reactions of wild tamarins,Saguinus mystax and Saguinus fuscicollis to avian predators. International Journal of Primatology 11: p.327–337. 
  2. Lledo-Ferrer, Y., A. Hidalgo, E.W. Heymann, and F. Peláez, 2009. Field Observation of Predation of a Slate-Colored Hawk, Leucopternis schistacea, on a Juvenile Saddle-Back Tamarin, Saguinus fuscicollis. Neotropical Primates 16: p.82–84.
  3. Lowery, G.H., and W.W. Dalquest, 1951. Birds from the State of Veracruz, Mexico. In University of Kansas Publications, Museum of Natural History. p. 556, Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Publications.
  4. Olmos, F., and I. Sazima, 2009. Fishing behaviour by Black Caracaras (Daptrius ater) in the Amazon. Biota Neotropica 9: p.2–4.
  5.  Robinson, S.K., 1985. Coloniality in the Yellow-Rumped Cacique as a Defense against Nest Predators. The Auk 102: p.506–519.
  6. Ramirez, M.M., 1989. Feeding ecology and demography of the Moustached Tamarin (Sanguinus mystax) in Northeastern Peru. PhD Thesis. City University of New York. pp. 87-88 (email me for a copy of the relevant pages)
  7. McCann, S., O. Moeri,
    T. Jones, S.O. Donnell, G. Gries, and S. O’Donnell, 2010. Nesting and Nest-Provisioning of the Red-throated Caracara (Ibycter americanus) in Central French Guiana. Journal of Raptor Research 44: p.236–240.
     (email me for a copy!)
  8. Thiollay, J.M., 1991. Foraging , home range use and social behaviour of a group-living rainforest raptor , the Red-throated Caracara Daptrius americanus. Ibis 133: p.382–393. 

Schrödinger’s Grant

When one applies for a grant to fund research, or any other activity, the success or failure of that grant application cannot be known until the email or letter comes in, either confirming funding or denying it. For this reason, one’s proposed research can be described as both funded and not funded, until that dreadful email comes in and the wave function collapses. This paradox, formulated by Catherine Scott in an effort to cheer me up, shall hereby be referred to as Schrödinger’s Grant (inspired as it is by the famous thought-experiment of Erwin Schrödinger).

Of four grants I have applied for in the past year to fund further research on the Red-throated Caracara, one has been funded, two have been denied, and the fourth is in this state of limbo.

This is a fine way to think of things, and one can always be optimistic, but is it really wise to pin one’s future on such unpredictable events? Sometimes it seems the height of foolishness.

Of course, in the  Many Worlds interpretation of grant funding, there exists a possible universe where  Red-throated Caracara research is a top priority and ALL the grants are funded, the Nat Geo special is watched by millions and I have a full time job doing tropical research…

Red-throated Caracara research: natural history and classification from 1765 to 1838


This is the illustration of the Petit Aigle d’Amerique from “Planches enluminées d’histoire naturelle” 1765

I mentioned last week in my introduction to the Red-throated Caracara  that there is very little known about the species. While details of the life history of these birds are still hazy, the existence of the bird has in fact been known to scientists for quite a long time. To know a species, we must first be able to recognize it as distinct and to give it a name. There is a formal protocol for this, that has been developed and refined through time, and it so happens that the Red-throated Caracara has a long history in zoological classification.  I normally find the  subject of early nomenclature work to be a bit dry, but I am pleased to report that work with the Red-throated Caracara has been a surprisingly pleasing visual endeavour from the outset.

The first published description that I can find on these caracaras belongs to Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon to be exact, one of the pioneering Enlightenment era naturalists. Buffon’s 1765 description consisted of an engraving and a name, “Aigle d’Amerique” in the “Planches enluminées d’histoire naturelle“, a 24 volume set of coloured engravings done mainly by F.N. Martinet, a talented engraver. This work was commissioned by Buffon and supervised by Daubenton, so authorship is a bit muddled, but on the whole,  the work is mainly attributed to Buffon. He recognized this species as an eagle, rather than a falcon, as he considered the shape of the bill, down turned at the end, to be more eagle-like.

Drawing inspiration directly from Buffon/Martinet/Daubenton’s work, the first written description seems to be that of an Englishman, one John Latham, who described the bird quite well and called it “the Red-throated Falcon” on page 97 of his 1781 book “A general synopsis of birds“. It is unclear why Latham placed this species with the falcons, although he was quite correct to do so.


Here is Latham’s original description, which gives the name Red-Throated Falcon, and notes the occurrence of the species in Cayenne and other parts of South America


I think it is a moft beautiful fpecies too!

While this is a step along the path, it was not yet the official scientific name of the Red-throated Caracara…Latham’s description may have been useful, but it is not considered the first official species description. That honour goes to Pieter Boddaert, who, in 1783 gave this species its first Latin binomial: Falco americanus in “Table des planches enluminéez d’histoire naturelle de M. D’Aubenton: avec les denominations de M.M. de Buffon, Brisson, Edwards, Linnaeus et Latham, precedé d’une notice des principaux ouvrages zoologiques enluminés“. As the species name “americanus” now has precedence, it has remained attached to the Red-throated Caracara to this day.

In 1786 Gmelin (who was an associate of Carolus Linnaeus) named it Falco aquilinus, but this is considered a junior synonym, as it was published after Boddaert’s F. americanus.

In 1816 L.P. Vieillot moved this species to “Ibycter” in “Analyse d’une nouvelle ornithologie élémentaire“. This was the first written communication that applied the genus name “Ibycter” to the Red-throated Caracara, which has more or less stuck, and also a new common name “Rancanca” which has not. I am very intrigued by the origin of the name Ibycter…I have not found what it refers to, whether to mythology or if it is just an obscure word…Anyone out there have some insight?

The first real natural history information on the Red-throated Caracara comes from 1834, with the publication of “La Galerie des Oiseaux“, also by L.P. Vieillot. Delightfully, “La Galerie” also includes an image of the species!

Lithograph from Galerie des Oiseaux featuring the Red-throated Caracara. This is presumably attributable to Godefroy Engelmann, a lithographer based in Paris.

 In addition to the new name, Ibycter Leucogaster, Vieillot contributed some real natural history to the scientific record, noting their loud calls and group living habits. In addition, having read Vieillot for the first time last week, I was shocked to read his statement that these caracaras are “ordinarily accompanied by toucans”. This habit, which apparently earned them the local name “Capitaines des gros-becs (Toucan Captains!), is not just some 19th century BS either, it was also made by Thiollay in his 1991 paper.

Thiollay noted several species that could be described as toucans accompanying the caracaras: The Guiana Toucanet Selenidera culik, Black-necked Araçari Pteroglossus aracari, Green Araçari Pteroglossus viridis, Channel-billed Toucan Ramphastos vitellinus and the Red-billed Toucan. The latter species was the one most commonly found accompanying the Red-throated Caracaras.  But we get ahead of ourselves. Let us stay in the first half of the 19th century, shall we?


Red-billed Toucans often do follow Red-throated Caracaras. They also sound like a small dog barking.

In 1838, the first popular work to mention this species was published. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge published their Penny Cyclopaedia with the express (and proto-socialist) idea to bring scientific knowledge to the working classes. This was kind of like the Wikipedia of 19th Century Britain. Here is their entry (with an illustration!) for the Red-throated Caracara (on the bottom right). This is part of a much larger section of falcons in general, and is quite commendable for its completeness.

The penny cyclopædia [ed. by G. Long].

This brings us to the middle of the 19th Century. Darwin was just about to arrive back from his voyage on the Beagle, Wallace was yet to set sail for Pará (where he would collect a Red-throated Caracara!), and the world of natural history was yet to be turned on its head by the revelations of Natural Selection as formulated by these two.

I am sure there are many taxonomic references I have left out that I could have usefully employed, but my attention must be elsewhere at the moment. I will return to the early world of ornithological literature, specifically the second half of the 19th Century at a later date. If you are eager to see a list of early synonyms and their references, look no further than page 22 of Strickland’s Ornithological Synonyms below.

synonymsThis is the short early history of the scientific description for just a single species of bird. Of course, there are many many others who share a more or less parallel track through the literature. What I find fascinating is that I can do a few short hours of study on the internet and bring to you this history without even visiting a library or a museum.  Thanks go out to the Internet Archive and the Biodiversity Heritage Library websites, who make trawling through and accessing this literature possible.  An thanks to you for reading!