Some bugs from my mother’s garden

Mom found some caterpillars munching on flowers in her back yard today. At first I thought they might be larvae of the moth Manduca quinquemaculata, AKA the “five-spotted hawkmoth” the AKA the “Tomato Hornworm”:

However my mother said she had looked those up and that these caterpillars were different. After looking them up myself I agree they do look a little different, but not much. I’ll be tagging my friend Don—a lepidopterist—to see what he thinks they might be (perhaps a closely related species?).

There were a number of individuals ranging in size and coloration. There were these two individuals that were about 1.5 to 2 inches long (fingers for scale):

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Here is a close up of one of the smaller larva. Note the shed skin on the stem below and to the rear of the caterpillar.

catter_crop

Then there were these two larger larvae (2.5 inches or so). Note the slight difference in coloration between the two:

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Then there was the beefiest cater-critter of them all. About 3 inches in length and rather radically different in coloration. Different species or do they change coloration as they molt? Again I’ll be deferring to my freind Don on this one.

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My mother is going to attempt to rear them to adulthood, so perhaps I will have an update with some pictures of the adults in future.

Update: My friend Don got back to me and said the following (with a caution that these are not the group of moths in which he specializes:

“Looks like a white-lined sphinx moth larva. Hyles lineata. They feed on a variety of plants, and with this year’s rain should be all over. I’ve seen the larvae by the thousands at places like Anza Borrego State Park. The adults come to blacklights in most places around here.”

Looking at pictures of H. lineata this appears to my non-person eyes to be correct;

Secular Museum Blunder

To demonstrate once again that I am an equal opportunity critic, here is a nit I have to pick with a secular museum, namely the Riverside Metropolitan Museum located in downtown Riverside, CA. It is a small museum and most of its limited public floorspace is taken up by displays dealing with Native American culture and artifacts. However it also has a number of displays on natural history, primarily that of the mountains & deserts in Riverside County. It is near some of these displays I found the following stuck to a wall:

Rhamphorhynchus_at_RMM

And here is the lone label seen in the bottom right-hand corner:

Cuviers_pterodactyl

It reads, “Baron Cuvier’s Pterodactyl“, apparently a reference to the fact that it was the “father of paleontology” Georges Cuvier who dubbed one of the earliest discovered pterosaur fossils “Ptéro-Dactyle”.

Yeah, the problem is though the cast of the fossil accompanying the label is very clearly not of the genus Pterodactylus named by Cuvier. Rather it is a cast of a RhamphorhynchusHere for comparison is the holotype specimen of Pterodactylus:

Pterodactylus_holotype_w-arrow

The red arrow points to Pterodactylus’ rather diminutive tail, which stands in rather stark contrast to Rhamphorhynchus’ long kite-like tail which ends in a diamond shaped vane (see above). 

Amusingly this is not the first time that these two genera have been confused. Apparently Rhamphorhynchus was originally misidentified as a species of Pterodactylus but after a few rounds of reclassification finally ended up as its own genus by the hand of Richard Owen 1861.

So a wag of my finger to the Riverside Metropolitan Museum; you need to fact check your displays.

Consilience and whale evolution

Way, waaay back in December of 2005 (ye gods has been ten years already?!) I wrote a Feedback response on the Talk Origins Archive to a question about the vestigial pelvic bones found in modern whales. In this case the questioner did not believe them to be truly vestigial, no doubt due to holding erroneous beliefs regarding the subject. In my response I of course took the time to correct their faulty views, however I also used the opportunity to talk about the concept of consilience wherein multiple independent lines of evidence converge on a single explanation, giving us greatly increased confidence that those explanations (hypothesis/theories) are likely to be accurate reflections of reality, i.e. “true”. 

I have now and again thought of going back and using that post as a spring-board for a more detailed examination of this subject and who knows, I may still do so someday. In the meantime however, here is a great video from Stated Clearly that I ran across on Facebook recently that uses the same topic—whales—to essentially do the same thing I did all those years ago; make a point about the consilience of evidence pointing to a pretty definite conclusion with regards to not just the ancestry of cetaceans but the evolution of life in general. Better they include more details than I did and it has animations.

Check it out:

I miss answering the feedback question on Talk Origins…

What I have been up to lately

I have been a bit neglectful of my blog of late and I feel I owe my readers (who are not Facebook friends, and thus know already), an explanation. In part  it has been due to my usual procrastination but it has also been due to a change in career. For over twenty five years I have been in the small press printing industry (“quick printing” of letterheads, business cards etc.), however this business has taken a turn towards extinction so I have been looking for some sort of escape hatch into something else. Something preferably somewhat more in line with my interests in natural history.cdfa_logo_v_300

As a result of my search I recently lucked into a job with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) as an “Agricultural Aide”, or more descriptively an insect trapper.

troy_in_cdfa_uniform

Yours truly in my CDFA uniform.

Basically I catch flies for a living now.

The initial job is temporary (with a one year duration) but I hope to maneuver myself into a permanent position, with a bit higher pay and additional benefits.

Time will tell whether I will be successful in this endeavor. In the meantime this new job has at least broken the shackles that bound me to a printing press and given me something different to add to my resume if a future employment search becomes necessary.

Before, in my last printing job, I was mostly working part time. Now with the state I work four ten hour days (Mon.-Thurs.) and I feel every minute of it. Basically I have been coming home, eating dinner and falling asleep. This leaves less time and energy for blogging. Though hopefully I will start to adapt and get some of the projects I have been working on finished and published. In the meantime here is a quick pictorial view of my day to day life in the CDFA.

I drive a large truck with a State seal on the door around a particular part of Southern California…

truck

…servicing two different types of fly traps typically hung in various types of fruit trees. The McPhail (the interesting old fashioned glass type, baited with yeast pellets)…

mcphail

…and plastic, two part, Multilure traps (baited with a pheromone soaked sponge, the green thing inside).

mltOnce a week I visit every trap (30 or so a day), replace the bait when needed (every week for the McPhails and every six weeks for the MLTs) and gather up any Mediterranean Fruit Flies (Ceratitis capitata) that I might find in the traps.

mediterranean_fruit_fly17

Image source, The University of Florida website.

Sometimes there are only a few and sometimes there are literally hundreds in a trap. Further, they are often not alone in the traps. There are frequently a variety of other species of flies as well as lace wings, bees, wasps and moths. More so in the McPhail traps (which are less species specific) but even in the MLTs.

picking_flies

Most, if not all, of these Med Flies are sterile files released by the CDFA as a biological control. However some might be wild flies and that is what I am really looking for, though I don’t make that determination. I simply gather the captured flies up and place them in vials of alcohol:

medflys

They are then turned over to someone else who goes through them looking for wild specimens (sterile flies are marked with ultraviolet dye prior to release); the presence of which might indicate a new infestation that would require further action on the part of the CDFA.

So that is basically what I have been up to as of late and which has been partly responsible for my lack of blogging. Fear not however, I have not given up the struggle against ignorance and unreason. I may just be a bit slower than usual at it.

mad_troy

Yours truly on the hunt.

Creationism Nit: Archaeocete legs

This will be a departure from my typical novel length dissection of a creationist article and will instead be a short look at a single creationist gaffe. Perhaps I will make this into a series, we’ll see. Anyway, today’s nit will be picked with young Earth creationist Dr Carl Werner (a medical doctor).

I recently acquired a copy, of what I believe is the 1st edition, of his book Evolution: The grand experiment (2007, 2nd printing 2009, coauthored with his wife Debbie Werner) and while skimming through it I noticed a little error on page 57, which is chapter 5 of the book and is apparently meant as a refutation of the evidence for evolution from comparative anatomy. In this particular case he is discussing the homology of various tetrapod forelimbs (yellow highlighting mine):Werner_whale

The “nit” in this case is his illustration of the forelimbs of a whale in the dark blue circle above. When I saw it I immediately  recognized that it was not in fact the forelimbs of a whale but rather the hind limbs of one. In this case those of an extinct archaeocete, most likely those of Dorudon (image source).

The skeleton of Dorudon.

And these are the hind legs of Dorudon (image source):

Dorudon hind legs at the Smithsonian Museum

For comparison here are a couple modern whale forelimbs:

Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus).

Pacific white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens).

Clearly what Dr. Werner has pictured are not the forelimbs of a modern whale, rather my money is on them being the hind limbs of Dorudon. Is it a huge deal? No. It is just another example of sloppy creationist research (I mean if a printing press operator recognizes archaeocete legs when he sees them, come on).

Nit. Picked.

Relevant Links

A “Darwin fish” of a different sort

A little in-joke…

All in the family

Credit: M.F. Bonnan via "I f***ing love science (on Facebook).

Credit: M.F. Bonnan via “I f***ing love science (on Facebook).

Yes, exactly! A significant percentage of the population (cough, creationists, cough) doesn’t understand that the evolutionary relationships between species is a lot like that between extended family members; just over a much longer time scale. Phylogeny is primarily a branching (family) tree-like pattern, not a single file, ladder-like, progression (cladogenesis vs. anagenesis).


Addendum: It has been pointed out to me that the cartoons depiction of a family “tree” superimposed on a cladogram is somewhat inapt and I absolutely agree that the cartoon is by no means a perfect analogy (comparing speciation, species giving rise to new species, with two parents coming together and bearing children). However, I think it gets the idea across much better than the linear iconography that has become so entrenched in peoples minds. Especially, I think, concerning the relationships between fairly closely related species like between chimps and humans. People incorrectly tend to think of humans as somehow being directly descended from chimps rather than our being “cousins” descended from a common “grandparent” (that was probably somewhat chimp-like in appearance).


Once you grok this fact you will understand what is fundamentally wrongheaded about questions like: “If humans evolved from [share a common ancestor with] apes why are there still apes?”

This sort of question is, except for the timescale involved, just like asking: “If you and your cousin share a common ancestor (grandmother), how can you both exist at the same time?”

Understanding this also answers the common creationist objection against many transitional fossil series based on species overlapping in time. For example:

“Early” horses have been preserved in strata from the same evolutionary age as several ‘”later” horses

Hyracotherium/Eohippus and Orohippus do for instance appear in the fossil record at the same time as Epihippus. Mesohippus and Miohippus appear together with Merychippus and Parahippus. Almost all other horses (with a possible exception of one or two)—Parahippus, Merychippus, Pliohippus, Equus and possibly also Miohippus—are represented at the same time during much of the period when they have been found as fossils.16 (But especially in the newer evolutionary schemes, different names have been given to very similar animals, giving the appearence of evolution as well as providing fame to their discoverers; see examples in Froehlich 20029 and MacFadden 20054). Fossils of Hyracotherium (sic) have also been found very high up in the strata (Pliocene), but these findings have been rejected as reworked (i.e. eroded and deposited at a later strata) in spite of the fact that the geological observations do not show any signs of disturbance.17 Thus, the fact that most of the horses lived almost at the same time undermines their proposed evolution. (Molén, 2009, emphasis mine)

Buzzzt, sorry but that is incorrect, thank you for playing, here is a home version of our game as a consolation prize.*

The coexistence of two genera of horses does nothing to undermine their evolutionary relationship any more than your grandparent or cousin coexisting with you undermines your familial relationship.

Evolution does not require that a parent species become extinct after a speciation event (after it gives “birth” to a new daughter species) nor does it require that once two lineages split apart that both will change at the same rate or in the same direction.

Fossil species A could be directly ancestral to species B, persisting relatively unchanged after the two lineages have split. Or species A could be a cousin to species B that only strongly resembles an as yet undiscovered common grandparent species. Such distinction are very difficult to make in fossil organisms.

[* Note: This is not even close to a comprehensive dissection of the problems with quoted article or even this paragraph.]

Reference

Molén, Mats (2009) “The evolution of the horse“, Journal of Creation 23(2):59–63 (downloaded on 9-14-2013)

The evolution of feathers in about 3 and a half minutes

By Carl Zimmer:

[Hat tip to Brian Switek.]

Recent critter encounters

As I continue to try and adapt to having a significantly longer commute to work, settle into our rental house, and generally try to get my crap together, here are some pictures of some critters I’ve encountered over the last few months.

First a mollusk:

I discovered this rather large (approx. 10cm) slug making its way across my front walk. Not sure about my ID but I’d say it was possibly a Limacus flavus, which would make this an introduced ALIEN SLUG! [Scream!]

Limacus

Secondly a couple different arthropods, one terrestrial and the other aquatic:

This dangerous little bugger was hitchhiking in a load of horse manure that my mother was unloading from the back of her pickup truck. A centipede, probably a Scolopendra polymorpha. After I told my mother that I wasn’t interested in adopting it she ended up feeding it to her chickens, which was probably a little spicier than their usual fare.

centi-sm

OK, there is a bit of a set up to our next crawly, or rather swimy critter. I was on my way to work one morning and while driving by a vacant lot around the corner from my house, I noticed three adults standing around a large puddle in middle of the lot that was left over from some recent rain. My brain noted that this was an unusual thing to see, so I slowed down a bit and saw that a couple of them were holding small fishnets, of the sort that an aquarist might keep handy. Quickly running through the possibilities of what three adults with fishnets standing around a small ephemeral body of water in a generally arid environment might be up to and my brain instantly hit upon what seemed to be the only logical conclusion…BIOLOGISTS!

Unfortunately I was already a little late for work and couldn’t stop and talk to them, however I immediately vowed to myself that I would visit the puddle ASAP to see what might have drawn a trio of probable biologists to this vacant lot. So on my way home from work I stopped at the lot and checked out the puddle.

At first I didn’t see anything but once my eyes adjusted to what I was looking at I noted some small (maybe 2cm) things swimming fairly vigorously around the puddle. At first I thought that they might be fish, perhaps Gambusia which are often stocked in our local waterways to control mosquitoes. This wasn’t totally crazy as there is a catchment basin immediately adjacent to the lot and I thought that, while it was unlikely, it might be possible for some Gambusia to have somehow made it into this puddle.  However given that this was a very ephemeral body of water and that Gambusia would be considered “junk fish” by an ichthyologist I quickly dismissed this idea.

Looking a bit closer at the tiny swimming creatures I realized what their true nature was and why thy might be of interest to biologists became much less of a mystery. They were fairy shrimp, possibly of the Family Streptocephalidae, some members of which are very endangered. In this case possibly Streptocephalus woottoni A.K.A. the “Riverside fairy shrimp“, though this puddle was a little shallow (under 30mm) for the normal bodies of water that S. woottoni are supposed to inhabit.

Anyway, after seeing that they were indeed fairy shrimp I rushed home and got one of my critter keepers (a small plastic aquarium) and fashioned a small, pitiful, net out of a coat-hanger and one of my wife’s old nylon stockings. Pitiful as my jury-rigged net was, it allowed me to catch a few of the shrimp.

Fear not for the shrimp though, after I photographed them (which isn’t an easy thing!) I returned them to their puddle which remained habitable for three or four days longer.

Shrimp1

Shrimp3

Last but not least a couple different chordates, in this case both mammals:

While driving through a local rural area (Reche Canyon) my wife and I spotted a herd of feral burros (Equus africanus asinus) that we had heard (get it?) lived in the area. I wasn’t able to get too close to them and only had my cell phone camera so these are not the best pictures. However if you look carefully at the second picture below you’ll get a glimpse of some “hot donkey action” going down (brown chicken, brown cow!).

Apparently there is something of a mystery involving these burros lately. It seems that several of the newborns have gone missing and it becoming a concern for the locals who watch over them.

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ass_1

Finally a rough pair of middle aged male apes (H. sapiens). Yours truly with Dr. Sean B. Carroll Professor of Molecular Biology, Genetics, and Medical Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison at U.C. Riverside on 2-11-2013. Dr. Carroll had just given a very entertaining talk: Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species about the adventures and scientific contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin and Henry Walter Bates in honor of Darwin Day 2013 (Photo and my shirt by Lani Britain, a.k.a. Mom).

OK, so this wasn’t a scathing dissection of creationist silliness, but it was something…

Zebras: Nature’s Ultimate Prey

In a related story:

God Admits Humans Not Most Impressive Creation

Loves me some The Onion