It’s almost a pity that we introduce children to caterpillars so young. The magic of the transformation of a squishy, unimpressive tube into a living, fluttering creature apparently made of stained glass gets muddled up with the rest of the magic of childhood and is too easy to forget when we grow up. Everyone knows about caterpillars turning into butterflies, but almost no one really thinks about it.
Photo by Andrea Westmoreland, reproduced through a Creative Common license from Flickr.
Even before they turning into butterflies (or moths), caterpillars are impressive. They hatch tiny, into a bird-eat-caterpillar world, and their one crucial job is to grow big in time to metamorphose. This isn’t a particularly complex task—there’s a reason caterpillars are basically just digestive systems on legs—but it isn’t necessarily easy, either. They need to find the right food and eat it quickly without being eaten themselves.
Every scientist has a few favorite science stories: those papers or sets of papers that we read early in our careers and then reread often, that we think of when we imagine our own ideal research program. One of mine—not exactly a hidden gem, as it’s in all the textbooks now, and is the subject of a very good general-audience book, The Beak of the Finch—is the Grants’ work on Galápagos finches. Peter and Rosemary Grant have spent decades documenting how bill size and shape in these finches fluctuates as rainy years and droughts change the food available on their small island. It’s as complete a picture of evolution in real time as anyone has ever drawn, and a powerful argument for predictable rules (like “bills must be the right size to open the seeds that are available”) leading to unpredictable outcomes in the complexity of a natural system. It’s beautiful.
I wanted to see if I could see similar patterns in the juncos. Like the finches, juncos are primarily seed-eaters. Unlike the finches, the juncos are not neatly contained on a small island; and unlike the Grants, I did not have 30 years to study them. Fortunately, I work in a museum, which is basically a biological time machine. Want to know what junco bills looked like in 1915? No problem!
Thus my time communing with the long-dead feathered denizens of the specimen drawers. Where the Grants had had to live through the decades of data they acquired, I took a shortcut.
Like all shortcuts, however, there were some downsides. I did not get to live in the Galápagos. Also, I was very limited in which juncos I could measure: I might be interested in juncos from a certain mountain range, but if a junco from that range hadn’t been stuffed and placed in a drawer 70 years ago, I was out of luck.
One of the joys of biology lies in appreciating how strange and varied the world is. When humanity starts to feel claustrophobic, you can imagine the life of an albatross, aloft over the ocean for most of her life, searching out schools of delicious fish by their scent; or a cuttlefish, flashing colored signals at his companions as he shoots through the currents, flexible tentacles waving. When the world feels narrow and limiting, you can remember that clownfish change sexes depending on their place in the dominance hierarchy, with males becoming female when they advance to the position of top dog.
Yet—amazingly—biology used to be even wilder. Before satellite tracking and genetic analysis, before “biology” was a recognized science at all, natural philosophers looked at a perplexing natural world and invented some truly outside-the-box explanations for what they saw.
Some of these are fairly well known: for example, the idea that there is a “homunculus”—a tiny human—inside the head of each human sperm cell.
To be fair, we now know that sperm (and eggs, etc.) contain the genetic blueprint for building a human, which isn’t all that far off from containing a tiny human.
But my favorite old science myth involves—of course!—birds.
The sun dips low over the bay, its fading rays gilding the avocets as they swish their heads through the water. The egrets eye their own reflections as if in profound self-contemplation. A willet flashes past, its black-and-white wings an exclamation in the dusk.
Faced with such beauty, two words come irrepressibly to mind: niche partitioning.
Hummingbirds wear a public image of fragile, ethereal beauty: tiny jewels whirring through the air, occasionally pausing to drink daintily from a flower. Their unusual appearance supports this: the iridescent feathers, the long dainty bill, the near-invisible feet all make them seem quite apart from the everyday world of animals who don’t shimmer in the sun and do have feet.
80% gemstone, 15% fairy from a storybook, only maybe 5% actual bird. He doesn’t even have feet! (Yes he does.)
But hummingbirds, like all birds, evolved from dinosaurs. Hidden under that glimmering exterior is a tiny, fierce raptorial dinosaur.
Egrets are beautiful, especially in their breeding plumage, when they sport long curved plumes and dramatically colored faces.
Great Egret displaying breeding plumes and a green face.
Snowy Egret with similar plumes and a red face.
Those breeding plumes are so beautiful that demand for them—for decorating women’s hats—almost drove egrets to extinction, and concern for the heavily persecuted egrets is what gave rise to the bird conservation movement in the early 20th century.
Egrets earn those luscious plumes. Before they get to be adults in breeding plumage, egrets must survive a cutthroat childhood in considerably less impressive dress.
Yikes, THAT’S what our chicks look like??
I was supposed to be done with field work after summer 2015, but you know how it is. The birds call. You realize that a few more blood samples would put the patterns you’re seeing in context in an illuminating way. You miss those feathery little dudes.
The small amount of field work I did this year took place much earlier than my usual field work because I was sampling juncos at a much lower elevation. Down here, the juncos are breeding in mid-March. Up at my usual sites, they wait until late May. That early start happened to be convenient for me, since I needed to analyze any data I got in time to file my dissertation in mid-May.