For the first time ever…

My blog has been dormant since early this year. During this period my husband went through four shoulder surgeries, and is now facing spine surgery. In a later post I’ll describe parts of all this which may be useful to others. But for now I am going to ease back into blogging with a short simple post.

As an older adult, I feel it’s not too often I do something for the first time ever. But Friday, while pursuing the sedentary pleasure of reading in the shade on our deck, I got to sit in the shade of trees I helped plant! And it felt good.

Over the years I have planted trees here and there, even sprouted acorns and popped them in the ground, knowing I would not be around to admire them when they got really big. I remember thinking once that I hoped someone somewhere was planting trees for me. Of course it’s true, “someone else” (including a host of squirrels, bluejays, and other animals which transport and hide seeds) has planted all the trees we gaze upon, eat the fruits of, and climb. But now, thanks to fast-growing seedlings from our two old birch trees, I sat in shade my husband and I had planted. It really did feel different, quite satisfying.

Birches make lots of little seeds which glide on the wind, sprouting wherever they encounter a moist spot. The slender trees now shading me started as little guys that I potted up to adorn the front deck; after a few years they outgrew their pots and were planted as a group. They’re prettier that way, and because the nature of birches, it takes several to make a sizable area of dappled shade.

Birches IMG 2160

We also have planted our own aspen grove, five that we bought in big pots, and they are doing well. Our hot dry summers and fast-draining soil (that’s a flattering term for it) aren’t ideal for either aspens or birch so I water them once or twice a week in the summer, and that seems to be enough.

Aspens IMG 2164

I always marvel when I see houses without any trees: no shade, no windbreak, no fruit, none of the other comforts that trees offer us.

If your surroundings are lacking in trees, don’t wait for Arbor Day next spring. Plant some this fall and they’ll be ready to grow in spring. Get some advice on what does well in your region (use natives as much as you can) and what fits your needs with regard to questions such as year-round shade or not, growth rate & eventual size, likes to be in a lawn or not, species that provide food for birds or butterflies, blooms or fall color, amount of leaves and seeds to be raked if that is an issue, and so on.

Look for nursery sales as they pare back their holdings before winter; you can get some good deals. Or, just start your own. Some trees are pretty easy to grow though you’ll wait longer to sit in their shade, of course. Willow cuttings will grow readily if they get water; acorns can just be pushed into the ground and some will grow. There’s an inspiring short tale (The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono) about a shepherd who over many years revivified a desolate area by planting acorns each day as he followed his sheep. It’s fiction, but full of truth. Tree roots help stop erosion, their leaves cause the rain to fall more gently promoting absorption by the soil, their shade cools streams for wildlife and shelters other seedlings, their flowers, leaves, and seeds are food for many animals, and their presence gives birds, insects, and mammals places to live, breed, and hunt.

Trees in fall color, surrounding Monticello

As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I never before knew the full value of trees. My house is entirely embossomed [embosomed] in high plane-trees, with good grass below; and under them I breakfast, dine, write, read, and receive my company. What would I not give that the trees planted nearest round the house at Monticello were full grown. “ (in a letter to Martha Jefferson Randolph, July 7, 1793).

Two months before his death, at the age of eighty-three, he designed an arboretum for the University of Virginia. Such an epilogue to years of planting at Monticello was perhaps inspired by Jefferson’s own adage: “Too old to plant trees for my own gratification I shall do it for posterity.” (This and more about Jefferson and his tree-planting here; the aerial photo is of Monticello.)

6 things you should know when planting a tree, from Arbor Day Foundation

To which I add: Leave the soil at the bottom (that will be beneath the root ball) undisturbed to avoid settling. If the tree is bare-root, gently spread out the roots over a cone of soil. Don’t stake unless really necessary, for instance when planting on a slope. Finally, water it in, and water regularly for the first couple of years or more depending on your weather. More tips here.

Siskiyou wildflowers – 4/10/11

The wildflower season is beginning here, during a strange spring with early warmth and late snows, but truth be told the first wild flower to bloom at our place was back in February, and it was this one:

Dandelion Taraxacum officinale

Look familiar? It’s the much-maligned dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. If it weren’t such an invasive and persistent plant, we would find the flowers quite attractive: they’re numerous, vivid yellow against a basal rosette of dark green leaves, and have an attractive seedhead. The seeds exemplify a smart strategy too, in that they don’t require pollination to develop. You may have noticed this when looking into a container where you have discarded dandelion flowers or plants that you uprooted. The buds—even if not open when the plant was pulled—often go on to open and develop seeds via a process called apomixis. The seeds will be viable.

The first two showy blooms of what we usually call wildflowers began a couple of weeks ago with Henderson’s Shooting Star, Dodecatheon hendersonii

Henderson’s Shooting Star, Dodecatheon hendersonii

and the Trout Lily or Fawn Lily, Erythronium hendersonii.

Erythronium hendersonii flower underside

It is a good year for the erythronium, with many having 2 or even 3 flowers, and both leaves and flowers often larger than we’ve seen them in the past.

Erythronium hendersonii, flowers and leaves

The darkly mottled leaves give these plants their common names of Fawn Lily or Trout Lily, and I find them quite beautiful though hard to photograph. The surface is never quite in focus; perhaps there’s a covering of microscopic hairs that interfere with my camera’s auto-focus function.

Erythronium hendersonii, leaf

Individual Trout Lily blooms have a short life; in a week they’re fading and withering. But we will be able to find them for a few weeks longer as they bloom at higher elevations or in shadier spots. Mixed sun and shade seems to be their preference.

This plant on a steep sunny slope in scree has, I think, been the “victim” of aggressive wildfire fuel reduction efforts about a month ago that removed most shrubs and small trees and caused decomposed rock from above to come down the slope. Few plants of any sort appeared through the scree, and I’d be surprised if the several erythroniums I saw today are there next spring.

Erythronium hendersonii in scree

A plant with four buds, more than we have ever seen before.

Erythronium buds 5687

Both of these native wildflowers are named for “The Grand Old Man of Northwest Botany“, Louis F. Henderson (1853-1942). You can read more about him here, and even see a photo of him with a smile on his face. Nineteenth-century scientists maintained grim demeanors for their portraits (perhaps just conforming to the expectations of their time, but of the people I see on television these days the ones who look truly happy are mostly field scientists like geologists, palaeontologists, and botanists. Cosmologists and astronomical scientists also look cheerful and absorbed in their future work. Zoologists generally look concerned, as they’re usually asked to talk about how the creatures they’ve studied are threatened by human activities.

Previous posts (2009, 2010) about E. hendersonii.

Freeze my head (but not yet)

After reading the latest issue of New Scientist, I think I may leave instructions to freeze my head when I die. It’s not because of any terrific new cryogenics method revealed by the magazine, but because of their series of short articles on extremophile organisms. You know, the thermophiles that can survive boiling temperatures (one microbe lived through a spell of 130° C (266° F), like the North American Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hatchlings, and Woolly Bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella, which turn into the Isabella Tiger Moth) that can be frozen solid or nearly so and come to life again. Then there are the ones that can survive being dried out by “replac[ing] water molecules [in and around the cell] with sugar, turning their cytoplasm into a solid called sugar glass”. (New Scientist, 13 Nov 2010, p. 41). These are mostly small invertebrates. One in particular takes the survival prize: the tardigrade or water bear.

microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear,  phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs.jpg

Microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear, in the phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs. Unlike lots of microscopic animals, they do not seem to live by choice on or in humans, so you can study the photo without getting itchy. Photo source.

Because it is directly related to why I might want to freeze my head, let me quote from Wikipedia’s article on the tardigrade’s survival feats:

More than 1,000 species of tardigrades have been described. Tardigrades occur over the entire world, from the high Himalayas (above 6,000 metres (20,000 ft), to the deep sea (below 4,000 m) and from the polar regions to the equator.

The most convenient place to find tardigrades is on lichens and mosses. Other environments are dunes, beaches, soil, and marine or freshwater sediments, where they may occur quite frequently (up to 25,000 animals per litre). Tardigrades often can be found by soaking a piece of moss in spring water.

Tardigrades are able to survive in extreme environments that would kill almost any other animal. Some can survive temperatures of −273 °C (−459.400 °F), close to absolute zero, temperatures as high as 151 °C (304 °F), 1,000 times more radiation than other animals, and almost a decade without water. In September 2007, tardigrades were taken into low Earth orbit on the FOTON-M3 mission and for 10 days were exposed to the vacuum of space. After they were returned to Earth, it was discovered that many of them survived and laid eggs that hatched normally.

Below, a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. Photo source.

a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. The condition is called cryptobiosis.jpg

What the tardigrade means to me

The greater likelihood of…Life on Mars!

Areologists have found evidence to support the presence of surface water on Mars in earlier times (1, 2). On Earth, the one condition life seems to require is water in the environment. It can adapt to other conditions of astonishing harshness, as the extremophiles show. Therefore, if life developed upon Mars during the time of surface water, it is quite possible it has adapted to the new conditions.

One place to look for water and surviving life forms would be in the deep chasms of Mars, including Valles Marineris which is 1,860 miles long and in places reaches five miles in depth (five times the depth of the Grand Canyon). None of our probes has landed near chasms because we haven’t designed ways to explore them robotically. This is a job for human beings, and I am extremely disappointed that it hasn’t been done yet.

When I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in 1969, I felt confident that the US and other nations would build on this accomplishment in what seemed a logical progression: space station, lunar base, a manned mission to Mars. I would not have believed that, 40 years after reaching the moon, only one of these elements would be up and running. That one, the International Space Station is a testament to the dedication of a few, but it’s not the robust establishment I expected; it seems to be on a precarious footing in mechanical reliability, and in international support. The other two are as far from reality as they were in 1969—no, farther, because the momentum of the 1960s has drained away, and the world faces more serious problems than it did then. What was justifiably affordable then, may not be now.

I don’t view space exploration as a luxury, or as an activity that merely satisfies our curiosity. It has much more to offer the species than that. We cannot say what we would have learned, what technologies we would have developed, had we followed the path I expected. Perhaps we would even have reached a slightly greater degree of wisdom about ourselves and or treatment of the planet, or maybe not.

But I do know how badly I want to see some questions answered, including “What life is there on Mars?”

And if looks as if, even if I eat my vegetables and exercise diligently, I may not live long enough in the normal course of events to find this out. So, freezing my head may be the only possibility. How can I let a bunch of tardigrades hear the news about Martian life, and not hear it myself?


1 Jakosky, Bruce M. et al. Mars’ volatile and climate history. Nature 412, 237-244 (12 July 2001).

2 Bowen, TA and Hynek, BM. Mars’ climate history as inferred from valley networks on volcanoes. Lunar and Planetary Science XXXIX (2008).

Etymological Notes

Rana sylvatica
rana, from Latin rana (frog); sylvatica from Latin sylvaticus (growing in the woods, wild)

Chrysemys picta
chrysemys, from Greek chrysos (gold) and emys (freshwater tortoise”)

Pyrrharctia isabella
Pyrrharctia, from Greek pyr– (fire) and arktos (bear—the animal, also used to refer to the north; here probably alluding to the hairy caterpillar, the “wooly bear”)
isabella, a word used to denote various vague colors: greyish-yellow, sand color, pale fawn, pale cream-brown or parchment; etymology uncertain but see here.

Tardigrada, from Latin tardigradus (slowly stepping), from tardus (slow) and gradior (step, walk)

Ecdysozoa, from Greek ekdusis (a stripping off) and zoon (a living being, animal; plural zoa)

Bonus for sticking with me to the end…

There’s one caterpillar just about everybody can identify, if only because of its supposed ability to predict the severity of the winter:

Woolly bear caterpillar, which becomes Pyrrharctia_isabella, the Isabella Moth.jpg

The Woolly Bear, of course, and the narrow band of brown on this one indicates a very tough winter to come. Photo by Rhys Alton from flickr.

But who among us knows what the Woolly Bear looks like when he or she grows up? Like this,

Pyrrharctia_isabella, Isabella Tiger Moth, which develops from the Woolly Bear caterpillar.jpg

the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), found in much of North America and Central America. The caterpillar overwinters, hence the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. The Woolly Bear has another distinction: the first insect known to self-medicate. It eats leaves from ragworts, groundsels and other plants that are rich in alkaloids, and these help rid it of parasites; infected caterpillars eat more of such leaves than uninfected ones. Yes, everything it seems has parasites; “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum”. And I, driven by the desire to know things, doubtless will need to know something else once my thawed-out brain has assimilated knowledge of our first manned mission to Mars.

Human germ attacks already declining coral reefs

Plague, rabies, Lyme disease, bird flu and swine flu—people seem much more at risk for diseases from animals than the other way around. But it does go the other way too, and it has been discovered that such a case is responsible for a disease that has devastated coral reefs in the Caribbean.

“White pox disease” in coral is caused by a human strain of the common intestinal bacterium Serratia marcescens, which causes the hospital infection serratiosis. (Hospital infections, or nosocomial infections, happen because individuals already in poor health are exposed to pathogens by poor sanitary practices and invasive procedures such as surgery or catheterization.) [Etymological notes on scientific names are at the end of the post.]

The only coral known to be affected is Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), a major reef-bulding species in the Caribbean. Healthy Elkhorn coral looks like this.

Healthy Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata).jpg

Here’s an example of Elkhorn coral infected with White pox disease.

White Pox Disease (Serratia marcescens) on Elkhorn Coral.jpg

A research team at the University of Georgia was recently awarded a $5M grant to investigate the disease in coral, which is “the first known case of such a ‘reverse zoonosis’ that involves the transmission of a human pathogen to a marine invertebrate”. Even more remarkable, in the words of James W. Porter, associate dean of the Odum School of Ecology and the team’s leader, “This bacterium has jumped from vertebrate to invertebrate, from terrestrial to marine, and from anaerobic to aerobic environments. Triple jumps like this are rare.”

In addition, according to the report in ProMED (partly drawn from this source),

The scope of the team’s research will extend beyond gaining an
understanding of the impact of white pox disease on elkhorn coral and
how to counter it. The most likely source of the pathogen for coral
reefs is under-treated human sewage, so the study will also explore
the intersection of public health practices and environmental health

“This investigation addresses not only environmental protection, but
also the socio-ecological determinants of coastal zone protection,”
said Porter. “This includes the cost of wastewater treatment
infrastructure. Given a reliance on tourism by most Caribbean
countries, this study addresses a disease system that is of great
economic importance and public health concern to developing nations.”

“This is science in action to save an endangered species and a threatened ecosystem,” said team leader Porter. “We are linking good public health practices to effective environmental protection.”

Elkhorn and Staghorn coral (Acroporis cervicornis) are both on the US Federal list of threatened species, and in 2008 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration extended additional protection rules usually reserved for endangered species. The new rule will “prohibit the importing, exporting and taking of elkhorn and staghorn corals. Additionally, the rule prohibits any activities that result in the corals’ mortality or injury. Anchoring, grounding a vessel or dragging gear on the species is prohibited. Additionally, damaging the species’ habitat and discharging any pollutant or contaminant that harms the species violates NOAA’s new rule. The rule applies to elkhorn and staghorn coral in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida.” Of course the enforcement will be difficult, but it appears that it’s none too soon to reverse the decline of these reef-building species.

A recent analysis of 500 surveys of 200 reefs showed the most complex types of reef had been virtually wiped out across the entire Caribbean. What survives are mostly “flattened” reefs which provide poor habitat for fish including commercial species, and are less “effective in protecting coastal homes and villages from storm swells and tidal surges”.

Healthy reef of staghorn coral in the Caribbean, below.

Healthy Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis).jpg


When the branched corals are killed off, low-growing corals may take their place but don’t create the rich three-dimensional habitat that the branched ones do. Algae also may increase and blanket surfaces, preventing coral growth.

Flattened coral reef, degraded by loss of branching coral).jpg

Source. Photo by Jennifer E. Smith.

Other threats to coral reefs

Coral-building animals live symbiotically with algae. Influenced by water that is too warm or cold, the corals will “expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. This is called coral bleaching. When a coral bleaches, it is not dead. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and are subject to mortality.” Rising ocean temperatures have caused wide-spread bleaching events. Warm waters also absorb more CO2, causing the water to become more acidic and that makes it more difficult for reef-building organisms to form the calcium carbon skeletons that serve as their structural basis.

Overfishing, pollution including sewage and agricultural runoff, dredging,hurricanes, and development have all damaged coral reefs. Each new injury reduces the ability of living organisms to reproduce and to withstand further assaults.

Coral reefs are among the world’s richest ecosystems, second only to tropical rain forests in plant and animal diversity. They arfe essential to fisheries, tourism, and protecting beaches from erosion. Yet “nearly two-thirds of the Caribbean’s coral reefs are threatened by human activities. Agricultural runoff, overfishing, dredging, sewage discharge (a factor in White pox disease), and the growing pace of coastal development have already degraded important reef systems, resulting not only in a tremendous loss of biodiversity but also lost revenue from declining tourism and fishing, and increased coastal erosion.” This last statement comes from the World Resources Institute, which is active many environmental fronts and is currently sponsoring a country-by-country survey of the economic values of Caribbean coral reefs and mangroves: “Supporting the sustainable management of coral reefs and mangroves by quantifying their economic value”.

Elkhorn coral & research robot.jpg

Source. Some breakage from hurricanes can be seen. Also shown is Fetch1, an autonomous underwater vehicle for research that was developed by NASA.

More about coral reefs

Global Coral Reef Alliance
EPA, Coral Reefs and your Coastal Watershed
University of Florida, Overview with photos

Etymological notes

Serratia marcescens was discovered in 1819 by Venetian pharmacist Bartolomeo Bizio, as the cause of an episode of blood-red discoloration of polenta in the city of Padua.[7] Bizio named the organism four years later in honor of Serafino Serrati, a physicist who developed an early steamboat; the epithet marcescens (Latin for “decaying”) was chosen because of the pigment’s rapid deterioration. [Wikipedia]

Acropora palmata: Acropora from the Greek, akros (high) and poros (opening, pore); palmata handlike, from Greek palma (a palm, flat hand; palm branch).

Acropora cervicornis: Acropora as above; cervicornis from the Latin cervus (deer) and cornu (horn, antler)

The brightest beetle we’ve seen, and help identifying bugs

As long as I was on the topic of beetles, I thought I’d include this one which my husband photographed on Mt. Ashland in August during one of our wildflower walks.

Desmocerus aureipennis, male Elderberry Longhorn Beetle

The best resource I have found for identifying insects, if they are not among those illustrated in our insect field guides, is by using If you can narrow your search down, you may be able to identify it yourself by looking through the extensive pages of thumbnail photos for each group, genus, and species. That is how I figured out what this was,

Cyclosa conica CR0780.jpg

a spider named Cyclosa conica, for an earlier post—but I had to scan through dozens of pages of thumbnails to find this particular individual.

There’s another way: submit at least one good photo of the insect or arachnid in question to, with relevant details such as geographic location, time of year you saw it, and where (in your attic? under a log? on a rose bush?). Then a group of people who know lots more about bugs than you or I, will take a look, there will be perhaps some back and forth, and you’ll probably get a consensus. Before posting your photos you need to register an account with username and password, then after that you can log in and look at your photos and see what has been said about them. is hosted by Iowa State University Entomology, and a lot of the responders are extremely knowledgeable. Also, it is a collegial effort—they check each other’s work, in effect. But of course if the answer is really important to you: if this spider just bit you and your arm is swelling, or you have an orchard infestation of some bug, you want to talk to a real live person like a doctor or an ag extension agent. Try to get the bug into a little jar and take it with you.

This is a fun and educational site to browse through. There are pages of many-legged creatures awaiting identification (the better your photo, the better your chances, but send the photos you have), and of course a structure of pages organized by taxonomy, order/family/genus. Even better, on the left of each page is a visual key, a clickable guide composed of bugs by shape, to help you get close to the creature you are interested in.

The big red bug was not in our guides so I submitted it and got a precise ID. It is a Desmocerus aureipennis/auripennis, male. The females don’t have the bright red elytra, or wing covers. It’s one of a group called Elderberry Longhorn Beetles, and our photo showed it on that tree. I looked up other photos of this insect and yes, that’s what it is.

[Etymological note: desmocerus from the Greek desmos (banded or fettered) + keros (a horn) and aureipennis from the Latin aureus (golden) + penna (feather, wing).]

Biggest bug I was ever bitten by

One day this summer I was at the school where the food pantry is held, and a school landscape employee was spraying weeds. He called out in surprise, that there was a really big bug right on the nozzle of the herbicide applicator. I ran over to see and apparently was the only person willing to pick up this huge black beetle. I decided to take him home, since my husband is a beetle fancier, and rummaged around for some sort of container for him. Finally I found a kleenex box, emptied it, and with the help of a young girl gathered leaves and sticks to make a cozy temporary home. The little girl was scared of the beetle but her feelings toward him began to turn warm and nurturing when I invited her to help furnish his house. She hadn’t gotten up to touching him by the time we put him in and taped a piece of paper over the top, but given more time I feel sure she would have come around.

Here’s our prize, emerging from his house (all the furnishings got shaken to a corner by the car ride).

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer,emerges.jpg

He crawled on my arm and hand for a while and then I must have annoyed him because he bit me with his mandibles—made me jump! The bite made a 1/8 inch cut that did bleed, but alas left no scar for me to show off while admitting how I had completely deserved it. Below he’s on my husband’s arm.

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer - 15.jpg

And for better scale,

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer,4Scale.jpg

We were able to identify him as one of the longhorned woodboring beetles, the Spined Woodborer or Pine Sawyer Beetle (Ergates spiculatus). One clue to differentiating him from another similar species was the spininess of his thorax, visible in this photo. The spines are on the sides of his thorax, while the yellow arrows point to the palps which unfortunately are blurry in this picture.

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer Head.jpg

Here the palps are clearer.

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer palps.jpg

The palps are sensory organs for the beetle. Mandibles cut up food and maxilla help manipulate it. The parts of a beetle’s head are shown in this illustration.

Beetle head anatomy.jpg

After irritating this beetle so much, we stopped before getting any good photos of his underside, though we could see intriguing edges of fibrous stuff. Here’s someone else’s great picture of what the description says are “velvety” underparts. The eyes and two pairs of palps are also shown.


Etymological note: ergates is from the Greek, worker; spiculatus, from the Latin spiculum, a little sharp point (diminutive of spicum, a sharp point). The English word “spike” may derive from this Latin word, or may have a more indirect derivation; there is a Proto-Indo-European root *spei-, sharp point. [Proto-Indo-European is the common ancestor of all modern Indo-European languages. It dates from before writing, so it has been reconstructed from study of related words in various languages, and derivation of rules by which sounds change over time. The same method has been used to construct Proto-Germanic. In historical linguistic studies, the asterisk next to a “word” means that it is a reconstructed root.]

One site says this is the largest beetle in North America, up to 65 mm (2.6 inches) in length, but I could not confirm its status as champion big beetle. At any rate it is plenty large, and I wondered if it was one of those beetles, the larvae of which cause extensive die-off in our Pacific Northwest forests. A publication on wood-borers from Washington State University reassured me: “Keep in mind that almost all of our native species of long horned beetles feed in dying or stressed trees and do not attack healthy trees”. According to them, Ergates spiculatus feeds mostly on dead/dying/stressed Douglas firs or Ponderosa Pines.

That information has a different implication, however, at a time when climate change may be stressing northern forests with increased temperatures and long droughts, causing millions of trees to fall into that “stressed” category. British Columbia has reportedly lost about half of its pine trees to a borer no larger than a grain of rice, which spends most of its life boring beneath the bark, a process continued by its larvae which cut off the nutrient and water supply while feeding. To make matters worse, “The beetles also introduce a distinct blue stained fungus that holds back a tree’s natural defences against the attack, delivering a lethal larvae and fungus combination”.

Our trees look pretty good, though, so without hesitation we turned the big biting bug loose on one of them.

Ergates spiculatus Spined woodborer on tree.jpg

Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, and a very close look at butterfly wing-color

We’ve gotten a few terrific photos of butterflies this year—some posted here and here— but none of the swallowtails has cooperated by alighting within range. When I saw one that had died and fallen to the road I carefully carried it home for the chance to get a close look.

Papilio 02 Dorsal.jpg

There are at least three very similar species of swallowtail around here—the Anise, Western Tiger, and Oregon Swallowtails. Based on the red and blue markings I’m thinking this is the Western Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio rutulus.

Finer than “frog hair”—butterfly hair!

Enlarging the macro photos shows details such as hairs on the body and along the inner edges of the wings.

Papilio40 CLOSE 1.jpg

These hairs, called tactile setae, are attached to nerve cells, which relay information about the hairs’ movement to the butterfly. … Adults have tactile setae on almost all of their body parts. In both adults and larvae [caterpillars], the setae play an important role in helping the butterfly sense the relative position of many body parts (e.g., where is the second segment of the thorax in relation to the third segment). This is especially important for flight, and there are several collections of specialized setae and nerves that help the adult sense wind, gravity, and the position of head, body, wings, legs, antennae, and other body parts. In monarchs, setae on the adult’s antennae sense both touch and smell. (from

In the photo below, a ventral view of the lower wings where they meet at their lowest point, there is also a delicate fringe visible along the edges. This could have aerodynamic as well as sensory functions.

papilio 46 CLOSE.jpg

From pointillism to nanostructures

Parts of the markings that appear as solid areas to our eye are revealed to be pointillist creations. I suspect we would need to know much more than we do about the vision of butterflies (and their predators?), in order to understand how these markings work for them.

Papilio42 CLOSE 1.jpg

The odd squareness of the smallest dots of color is not some pixellation in the photo, but an accurate representation. It shows the shape of the overlapping scales which form the surface of butterfly wings. Here are some microphotographs of wing scales at various magnifications, from Wikipedia.


And here are color microphotographs showing the same squared-off dots along with the underlying scale pattern.


Picture source.

It’s been known for some time that the colors of butterfly wings are partly from pigments but mostly from the microstructure of the scales, scattering light to produce the colors. Blues, greens, reds and iridescence are usually structural, while blacks and browns come from pigments. (Wikipedia).

But now we know more, and the more we know the more intricate and amazing it is. Research (published this past June) has been able to identify the light-scattering shapes from the wings of several butterfly species, and they are described as “ ’mind-bendingly weird’ three-dimensional curving structures… [resembling] a network of three-bladed boomerangs”. The name for these crystalline forms is gyroids, and they were first described

in 1970 by NASA physicist Alan Schoen in his theoretical search for ultra-light, ultra-strong materials for use in space. Gyroids have what’s known as an ‘infinitely connected triply periodic minimal surface’: for a given set of boundaries, they have the smallest possible surface area. The principle can be illustrated in soap film on a wireframe (see image below). Unlike soap film, however, the planes of a gyroid’s surface never intersect. As mathematicians showed in the decades following Schoen’s discovery, gyroids also contain no straight lines, and can never be divided into symmetrical parts. (source, text and soap-bubble photo:

Gyroid-like soap bubble.jpg

Gyroid-like soap bubble. Photo from

So gyroids were introduced to humans as an imagined created form, something that is a mind-boggler for non-mathematicians to envision.


The image above is a mathematician’s representation of one of the simpler types of gyroid.

Materials scientists have learned how to make synthetic gyroids for photonic devices, such as solar cells and communication systems, that manipulate the flow of light.


A self-assembled solar cell begins with one of two polymers forming a “gyroid” shape while the other fills in the space around it. The inner polymer is dissolved away to create a mold that is filled with a conductor of electrons. The outer polymer is then burned away, the conductor is coated with a photosensitive dye, and finally the surrounding space is filled with a conductor of positive “holes”. A solar reaction takes place at all the interfaces throughout the material, and the interlocking gyroid structure efficiently carries away the current. (Source for image and caption, Cornell Univ.)

And when Yale evolutionary ornithologist Richard Prum got curious about exactly how butterfly wing-scales twisted light, he found gyroids. His team had to use an advanced microscopy technique with nanoscale resolution, called synchrotron small angle X-ray scattering, in order to see them, but there they were. (See note at end for citation of article in PNAS.)

The butterfly’s gyroids are made of chitin, not exactly the flashy material I would associate with iridescent wings. It’s

the tough starchy material that forms the exterior of insects and crustaceans. Chitin is usually deposited on the outer membranes of cells. The Yale team wanted to know how a cell can sculpt itself into this extraordinary form, which resembles a network of three-bladed boomerangs. They found that, essentially, the outer membranes of the butterfly wing scale cells grow and fold into the interior of the cells. The membranes then form a double gyroid—or two, mirror-image networks shaped by the outer and inner cell membranes. Double gyroids are easier to self assemble but they are not as good at scattering light as a single gyroids. Chitin is then deposited in the outer gyroid to create a single solid crystal. The cell then dies, leaving behind the crystal nanostructures on the butterfly wing.

“Like engineers, butterflies grow their optically efficient single gyroids through a series of steps that make this complex shape easier to achieve. Photonic engineers are using gyroid shapes to try to create more efficient solar cells and, by mimicking nature, may be able to produce more efficient optical devices as well,” Prum said. (Source)

In an interview about the work, Richard Prum said “We’re still trying to wrap our brains around gyroids and what they are.” The shapes seem to have evolved separately in several lineages of butterflies.

”It’s a Swiss cheese,” he adds, “with spiraling channels of air traveling through it that intersect one another. But those channels actually travel in three different dimensions through the cheese, and what you end up with is this very complicated form left behind, and that form is a gyroid.”

And while the idea of butterflies with Swiss cheese wings is slightly strange, Prum says it’s a very useful one for scientist and engineers looking for the next leap forward in electronic technology.

For example, Prum says, take the fiber-optic cables that carry phone calls under the ocean. These cables carry signals in the form of colored light, but it’s very difficult to insulate them well enough to prevent light from leaking out. Current transoceanic cables have to have booster stations built along them to keep the signal strong. But a layer of gyroids around the fiber-optic cable “would act like a perfect insulation to that fiber,” Prum says. The same tiny structures that give the Emerald-patched Cattleheart its lovely green patches could also be used to keep green light from escaping a fiber-optic cable.


The vivid green color of the scales of this Papilionid butterfly are produced by optically efficient single gyroid photonic crystals. Caption and photo from

Right now, it’s expensive and impractical to manufacture gyroids small enough to do that job. But butterflies hold the secret to growing them naturally. “If you could grow one, at exactly the right scale, as butterflies do,” says Prum, “you could make these things a lot easier.” (NPR interview, Jul 3, 2010)

This is a fine example of how curiosity can lead us to unexpected discoveries. The original question is one that could be used by certain Congressional anti-intellectuals in their periodic efforts to discredit basic research: “Imagine, all this work to find out what makes the color on butterfly wings! How ridiculous!” The research and technological developments that are thought “useful” by these folks had their origins in someone’s basic research, sparked by human curiosity. From butterfly wing-color to, perhaps, more efficient fiber-optic cables or solar energy collectors. It’s called bioengineering: investigating the functions and structures of nature, to derive principles and patterns for technological innovations. But for me it’s satisfying in itself, the revelation of these marvelous structures, underlying the evanescent beauty of a butterfly.

Papilio rutulus.jpg

Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on Buddleia bloom. Photo by terwilliger911, flickr.

Note: The article describing gyroids as the structure causing some colors in butterfly wings is:
Structure, function, and self-assembly of single network gyroid (I4132) photonic crystals in butterfly wing scales.
Vinodkumar Saranathan et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online before print June 14, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0909616107. The abstract is available free, but the article requires purchase or subscription to PNAS. There is a supplementary article here that contains some interesting images and very technical text. There’s even a movie you can watch showing a slice-by-slice trip through a certain sort of gyroid, or as the text says, though “the pentacontinuous volume of a level set core-shell double gyroid structure”.