Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Collecting with Mr. Williamson

I am currently working up the text for Tachopteryx thoreyi in Michigan for the Michigan Odonata Atlas. We don't have many MI records, mostly because there are only three counties (Berrien, Cass, & St. Joseph)where they are known, as MI is at the northern limit of the range in the Midwest. Second reason is that they inhabit wooded hillsides with perennial seeps -- which are not too common here.

The Gray Petaltail is a member of what is considered an archaic family of dragonflies, the Petaluridae. One thing that makes them different from other Odonata is that the larvae are semi-terrestrial and breathe air, venturing around at night to capture terrestrial prey. Sid Dunkle probably wrote as good a paper as can be done on the species in 1981, as he monitored a population in northern Florida, reared specimens, and watched marked individuals through their flight period (Dunkle, S. W. 1981. The ecology and behavior of Tachopteryx thoreyi (Hagen) (Anisoptera: Petaluridae). Odonatologica 10:189-199.). As interesting and useful as that paper is, I looked up an earlier paper by E.B. Williamson in Entomological News from 1901. I then wondered if we had the specimens that he observed in SW Pennsylvania in the UMMZ collection -- and we did. The oldest specimen was collected in 1899. Okay, that's only 113 years ago.

What really caught my eye though, was the specimen from Indiana that was the first state record, collected by C.C. Deam (who was a good friend of EBW's and is famous as a botanist in Indiana). Although the paper triangle is mottled and browned, the specimen is still in great condition.

Since we have Williamson's collection, we have a good number of T. thoreyi from Indiana, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and elsewhere (but only one for Michigan, collected by T.H. Hubbell in 1918). Farther on in the drawer, were later specimens collected in Indiana by Williamson. What makes them so interesting is that each specimen is accompanied with a small entry like that in a field notebook, but written on the paper triangle in pencil or fountain pen. Here is one example:

The text reads: "Tachopteryx thoreyi ♀
Mud Creek in Peabody Woods,Cass Co., Ind.
La C., Eli C., & EBW
“Only one seen – flew in and alighted 5 feet high in large tree near creek in pasture. At pool at base of tree took Ischnura posita, Chromagrion conditum and Amphiagrion saucium.(over) Taken at 4 pm, day partly cloudy, rather warm, and windy. Hunted about but could find no others."

The other paper triangles have even more information regarding prey taken by the adults, and other tidbits of behavior. These are invaluable not just for their status as vouchers, but the additional information is something that made me feel as though I was on that trip with E.B. Williamson, watching for petaltails in the wet Indiana woods. This also points out why properly maintaining collections is so very important. There may be additional information associated with a specimen -- whether it's in a field notebook, computer file, or written on an envelope. These examples of fieldwork by an astute and tireless Odonatologist are paying dividends nearly a century after they were collected. This is why we maintain collections in perpetuity -- we are stewards of the flora and fauna that people like Williamson worked so hard to acquire. Their value is inestimable, but certainly tangible to someone looking to find what was at that spot in Indiana. I used Acme Mapper to search for the Cass Co. site, and it took me to a place that is a possible match. I wonder if Gray Petaltails still fly there?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Making My Job Easier!

Making my job easier, and yours, too.
Over the past 15 years, I have entered many thousands of records of Odonata into the MOS database. Others have also done the same. After each season, I have many specimens submitted to me, most with computer-generated labels of some type. Now, it may seem trivial, but getting everyone to use the same system instead of idiosyncratic methods is harder than it looks. In terms of work-flow, it would be much easier if everyone used the same template. A few years ago, it was a Microsoft-office dominated world, with a few folks using something else. Now, we have the free Open Office suite which is available for Windows, Macs and Linux users. I have been using OO for years, even though I have MS Office installed on computers at work and at home. I like the interface and the fact that it opens and saves documents so that MS Office can open them.

Here is what I would like you to do:
Download Open Office:
Download my data entry template from here - this is a zipped file.
You can also download the 2011 version of the county records spreadsheet as a pdf file.

See how all the fields are arranged? If you can fill those fields in when you submit your specimens and send me a copy, all I have to do is check the IDs, enter the MOS Number, and upload to the database. In addition, I can print out 3x5 cards from the data. This saves me a ton of repetitive work that need not be done. The Collection Number is your number system that you use for your field notes. Some people use a sequential number for each collecting event event for that year, others use my method of initials-yy/mm/dd-event no., as in, MFO-990618-3.

An example from a bit of acme mapper. The nearby landmarks are good information.
If you did not use a GPS device to get lat and long information (in DECIMAL degrees, by the way), go to and use Acme Mapper. It has become one of my most-used tools. It has USGS topo maps as an option, which is really, really, helpful. This way, you can georeference your own specimens, which is probably more accurate than me (or someone else) doing it later. Also, please enter the data for Township, Range and Section in this format:
T34N R4W S16 If you wish to indicate the quarter section, use SE, NE, SW, NW as S18SW
Dates are entered as MM/DD/YYYY as in 06/21/2012

Open the OO spreadsheet – MOS Data-entry template. It will create a new file. Label the file with your initials and year when you submit it.

Another tip – if you are using a PC, Alt-11 is a ♂ symbol, and Alt-12 is a ♀ symbol. This is a unicode symbol, so it does not rely on any specific font family to show. I just found this out a few months ago, and it has been very, very, useful.

If there is anything I missed, please let me know.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Settling Into A New Home

I have been very preoccupied with the planning, implementation, and supervision of the move of our alcohol-preserved specimens into our new wet facility at Varsity Drive. Planning for this started almost exactly 4 years ago, and now about half of the insects from our wet collection have moved in. This facility is not just for Insects, but all of the UMMZ wet collections, and space-wise this means mostly the Ichthyological and Herpetelogical collections. I have already written about the changes in the December 2011 issue of the Newsletter of the Michigan Entomological Society, and you can read that page here.
Now, all the Odonata that are in vials and jars are at the new Biodiversity Research Collections (BRC) at Varsity Drive. We have plenty of expansion space, and better yet, an excellent place to work in a modern facility built especially for work with wet collections. I look forward to having researchers use our collections here, and once we are fully operational, I would like to plan ahead for a regional meeting that makes use of our large collection of larvae and exuviae.

As seen in the jar above, we have many specimens of exuviae from Kennedy and from Williamson. In the late 1990s we transferred hundreds of exuviae collected by those two from pill-boxes, tobacco tins, and so forth, into vials and jars with ethanol. Now, they are much easier to deal with. The new facility will provide an opportunity to work with these types of collections in a much better environment.

A few more shots of just the insect part of the BRC:

As you can see, the collection is in compacted storage, allowing for easy access without having to deal with opening and closing cabinet doors. I am sure that neither Williamson or Kennedy ever thought their their exuviae collections would be in a facility like this.

For your enjoyment, here is a new, short video from UM.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Two MUST-HAVE books for 2012

The Ode-watcher community has seen a veritable plethora of Odonata books arrive over the past few years. Some are regional, others are more wide-ranging. It's a completely different situation than what existed 20 years ago. Of course, "popularity" of a group of organisms is dependent on how easily they are seen, how widespread, attractive and interesting they are, and how many resources exist to identify and learn about their biology. Obviously, a group like mites will never have a huge following, no matter how interesting they are, because it takes too much equipment, preparation, and expertise to see them at all. Having a colleague at the University of Michigan (Barry M. OConnor) who is a world authority on parasitic mites, I hear all kinds of cool stories on coevolution, adaptation, and biological quirks of those tiny critters. No matter how interesting they are, there will never be a "Field Guide to the Mites" and no mite surveys of Michigan, Ohio, etc. Compare that with the watchers of the hosts of many of the mites -- birds, and you could fill a moving van with the guides, periodicals and popular books on Ornithology. Not to mention the eco-tourism that birding generates. So, there are the two extremes of groups that are both interesting with disparate types of interest.

For many years, Odonatologists "toiled" in relative obscurity. Oh, we knew that dragonflies and damselflies were really fascinating, but with few books other than Needham and Westfall and the 3 volumes of Odonata of Canada and Alaska, it appeared that identifying Odes required arcane knowledge and a fascination for wing venation. That has all changed for the better over the past 20 years. The Odonata community has grown tremendously, and as a result, we have had benefited from the publication of many nice regional guides, as well as more comprehensive volumes. It's hard to have a successful guide without an audience, so as the guides get better, the audience benefits and gets larger, and interest in the Odonata has never been larger than it is now.

With that bit of background, I am pleased to see these two new books that do justice to the comprehensive guide and the more local, regional publication.

First, let me start with Dennis Paulson's "Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East", published by Princeton University Press. I truly believe that if there is such a thing as the "must-have" book, Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is IT. Paulson has paid attention to the faults of some previous comprehensive guides, and has incorporated some very useful features and additional information that makes this book the best yet. It contains all 336 species of Odonata that have been found in eastern north America. Not just dragons or just damsels, both all Odonata. That means ONE book for everything. It has excellent full-color photographs that are large enough to see many of coloration and patterns that are important, as well as line drawings of genitalia of males and females where they are important to separate out species. I have used a lot of identification manuals, I find that the inclusion of line drawings of claspers and subgenital plates are actually more useful than most photographs. One can emphasize the important features in a drawing and it does make identification much easier. So, that is an excellent addition to this book. The maps are also well-done with range approximations that are based on data from Odonata Central and from the dot-maps project that was published by Nick Donnelly in the Bulletin of American Odonatology. I only note that the outlier dot for Arigomphus submedianus that is in Michigan was erroneously included, after I had published that it be excluded from any such maps in 2010. However, it's possible that it was too late to have it removed from the map before publication of the book.

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is well organized, and I really appreciate the effort and arguments that Dennis Paulson makes for the collecting of vouchers and the value of collections. These aspects are rarely emphasized in field guides, and we cannot advance the science of the group without collections. In addition, his explanation of the methods used for preservation, study, and photography are well-done. The species accounts are well-done with reference to similar species when appropriate. The natural history summaries for genera are very good, and valuable information for any ode enthusiast. I like the presentation and the format of the book, and I really have nothing but praise for it. It IS printed on glossy paper, so be careful in the field. However, at the suggested retail price of $29.95, this book is such a bargain, that it might be good to buy a couple of them. There is also an e-book version, which I have not seen, but it would probably be very useful on a color e-book-reader in the field such as the Kindle Fire or Nook Color. I doubt that most people want to carry an Apple iPad into the field.

In short, if you are going to buy any book to identify Odonata in Michigan, the Great Lakes region, or elsewhere in eastern North America -- Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is that book. If you are looking for something in western North America, then Paulson's Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West is exactly what you need, for the same reasons as above. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, by Dennis Paulson. 2011. ISBN: 9780691122830. 576 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | 675 color photos. 350 line illus. 333 maps. Princeton University Press, $29.95.

Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies- Essays of a lifelong observer. Hal White, 2011. University of Delaware Press, ISBN 9781611490008. 284 pp. soft-cover, 6x9 in. $30.00.

This book is an excellent complement to the Paulson book above. Hal White has studied Odonata for at least 50 years, and this book is a wonderful read. First of all, although it is a regional guide in that he discusses species found in the Delmarva Peninsula -- that piece of land where Delaware, Maryland and Virginia join on the Atlantic Coast -- it's relevant to anyone that studies Odonata. Each species is a short essay which has nuggets of information about biology of that species. It may also include a story about a colleague, or insightful commentary about land-use, ecology, or the science of odonatology. I compare this favorably to the writings of the great Hymenopterist, Howard E. Evans, who wrote Wasp Farm, among many other titles. You can tell that like Evans, Hal White not only has a great knowledge about Odonata, but a great respect for them, and a humility that comes from someone that knows that nature always has something new to show us. Also like Evans, White's essays show that the greatest enemy of his chosen subject isn't the insect net, but the ceaseless and faceless onslaught of urbanization. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it reads like having an extended conversation with Hal over the course of a weekend, gleaning some of his knowledge and appreciating his love for a group that has engaged him for half a century. Two nets up for this one!

And other book news... The Michigan Odonata Atlas is being worked on, and my co-author is Julie Craves. I will be contacting some MOS folks for help over the next few months, as I need some geo-referencing assistance. MOA will have detailed distribution maps, detailed emergence records, material that relates specifically to the populations of all 165 species recorded for Michigan, as well as fully-cited references in the text. Sections on the history, ecology and distribution of Michigan Odonata will be illustrated with photographs, but this is not a field guide. We want this to be a useful publication for anyone working with Odonata -- ecologists, resource managers, naturalists, and enthusiasts. The Paulson book above will certainly be the field guide, and the MOA will complement it and be the comprehensive Michigan reference.