Thursday, September 10, 2009


The other day I spied this on the screen of our back porch, and thought:

"That butterfly has one freaky-big head."

Upon closer inspection, the truth was revealed:

Note the position of the butterfly - the jumping spider has seemingly turned it around from how it would light on the screen. Either that, or it plucked the thing right out of the air. As I was clicking away, it got spooked and began to amble off with such vigor that it actually folded the wings shut.

Jumping spiders are perhaps my most favorite creature, and I welcome them in my home. They are imbued with a intelligence and personality not found amongst their kin.

The array of eyes give us a clue to their grasp of spatial relationships. When hunting, they have been observed to move away from their prey to get a better angle of attack. During this maneuver they may lose sight of their target entirely. This seems to be a trait unique to their species - in all others if the visual image of the prey is lost in their mind it has never existed.

Try this: The next time you happen to meet one, make your hand into a spider puppet and extend your index and middle fingers in different waving motions. If you are lucky enough to get the right combination of moves, the spider may fancy you to be a potential mate. It will rear up and sign back to you with a semaphore of leg-wags and mandible clicks saying "Hey there sailor."

I handle them at every encounter, and have never once been bit.
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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Beetle - Up close and personal.

When my daughter was about a year old, I picked up a beautiful book on electron microscopy called Hidden Worlds. I knew that she was too young for it at the time, but we would pull it out now and again to look at the pictures. She seemed to think they were pretty, and that was about the extent of it.

A few months ago I came across it again and added it to the pile of books for the bedtime read. She flipped through the stack and stopped when she came across this volume. Grasping the book in two hands she intently stared at the cover image for long seconds.

Without taking her eyes of the book, she whispered:

"Tell me about these things."

I mentioned this to a colleague of mine at the museum who is our curator of micropaleontology and resident SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) wrangler. He graciously offered for us to bring in an insect to view with his scope.

When we arrived, he had us look at out collection using a binocular microscope so we might choose what we wanted to look at with the SEM. We had been amassing a collection of dead bugs in an old ice-cube tray, and had quite a rogues gallery to choose from. The Girl picked what I felt was one of our more lackluster specimens - a rather dull beetle of the june-buggish variety.

After determining tha the beetle was in fact dead and quite dry, the good doctor mounted the beetle to a small stage - a device similar in appearance to a fat pointless thumbtack. This was accomplished using a carbon-based electrically conductive double-sticky tape.

The mounted beetle was placed in a small glass chamber onto a mechanism of gears, rollers and chains. The vessel was sealed shut and a small vacuum pump energized. We waited long minutes while the air was evacuated from the chamber. When the air was sufficiently gone, a switch was flipped and the gears were set in motion, both rotating and tilting the beetle simultaneously. After a second switch was flipped a soft violet light appeared as electrons jumped from the top of the jar to the bottom, passing over the spinning insect. The electrode emitting the beam is made from a thin foil disk of Gold/Palladium alloy, which is slowly being vaporized in the process. The vaporized particles deposit on the beetle, eventually building up a shiny silvery layer a scant 10 atoms thick.

Once the plating of the insect is complete, the pump is turned off and the chamber is equalized to room pressure, allowing it to be opened. The small stage with it's metallic passenger is transferred to the SEM. It is placed upon a small device that will allow it to be rotated, tilted, and moved closer to the detector using a joystick. The door is shut, and another round of pumping begins.

After the specimen is under a vacuum, the electron beam is energized and we get our first look at the beetle. What was to our unaided eyes a drab lump of an insect is revealed to be a staggeringly complex multitude of plates, barbs, hairs and other features I could not begin to name.

We spent over an hour exploring this strange beast. What was once pedestrian was now surreal, and we could never look at a June Bug the same way again.

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