How do YOU wear down a field guide?

I was flipping through a field guide this weekend, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the state of the thing. The cover is bent and coming loose in several places. Pages are stuck together, dogeared, ripped. Dirt splotches, bug guts, and sunscreen smears grace most of the pages. I have easily 20 different butterfly field guides, and at least 15 of those cover the area where I currently live, but I use this one almost exclusively. I’ve had it for about 10 years, and browsing through those pages tells a story of how I learned to ID butterflies, which species give me the most trouble, and which pages bring me the most joy.

Whenever I flip through any of my field guides I’m reminded of a quote from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In Chapter 22 Samuel goes to Adam’s house to help him choose names for his sons, and suggests that they take inspiration from the bible.
“…This one has been scraped and gnawed at,” he said. “I wonder what agonies have settled here. Give me a used Bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places that are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers. Liza wears a Bible down evenly. Here we are- this oldest story. If it troubles us it must be that we find the trouble in ourselves.”

I mentioned this to a friend who said she did the opposite- she quickly skipped over the parts of the bible that gave her trouble, because she didn’t like to think about those parts. But come to think of it, her herp field guide was really worn down in the tiny frog section…

I wish that 10 years ago I had bought 10 copies of this field guide, and used a different one each year. The first few years’ copies would certainly be worn down at the checkerspot section, as I learned to identify the species that formed the basis of my dissertation work. Three or four years in, the grass skippers’ pages would be ragged as I started a survey project in the Sutter Buttes, and couldn’t make heads or tails of the ‘sparrows of the butterfly world’. The years that we lived in Arizona would be worn down in lots of places- roadside skippers, metalmarks, the beautiful Lyside Sulfur, which I loved to just sit and gaze at- but this time the pages would hold less frustration, and more joy. By that time my identification skills had improved dramatically, and seeing a new species brought more pleasure than the vexation of those early years. I’m not sure what the wear pattern on this year’s field guide would look like- I suspect it would be much more even, like Liza’s Bible. This isn’t to say I have it all figured out now, but I’m familiar enough with most groups that my field guide perusals now mostly consist of a quick page-flip to double-check a host plant or confirm a range.

Someone I know very well wears down his field guide evenly by reading it cover to cover like a novel.  Now that I’ve gotten better at the process, I find myself doing something similar on occasion, although in my case I’m more likely to open at random and read for several minutes.  Or, now that I have a grasp of the things I’m likely to see, I have the luxury to look at and try to learn things that don’t typically live here, like the arctics and most of the wood-nymphs.

What about you? Do you wear down a field guide evenly, like Liza? Or does your field guide tell the story of your triumphs and confusion? Does it make a difference if the field guide is for your focal taxa vs. something you don’t study? I’d like to hear about it- leave a note in the comments. What does your field guide’s wear and tear say about you?

On second thought… the Coppers are getting worn down right now- I do wish some would turn up at my study sites…

Why Mimicry is the Coolest Thing Ever, and Why I Think Everyone Should Want to Study It

Recently I was lucky enough to record a podcast for Jason Goldman’s show The Wild Life.  One of the subjects that came up in our discussion was my love of mimicry, and my feeling that if the National Science Foundation proclaimed that from now on they planned to fund mimicry research and nothing else, that would make total sense to me.  You see, I love everything about mimicry.  I think it is probably the coolest evolutionary adaptation that has ever been described, and I just happen to be lucky enough to study the group of animals that are most closely associated with this amazing phenomenon.

There are lots of different kinds of mimicry, in lots of different taxa.  There are animals that mimic each other, animals that mimic inanimate things, plants that mimic animals, plants that mimic plants- you name it, someone, somewhere in the natural world, has mimicked it.  I could write dozens of posts about mimicry (and incidentally I can’t believe I haven’t already written at least one!) but for now I’ll start out with the first type of mimicry ever described, Batesian Mimicry.

This type of mimicry is forever associated with Henry Walter Bates, an English naturalist who spent 11 years in the Amazon studying and describing insects, plants, birds, and lots of other things that he saw there in the mid-19th Century.  Bates noticed that some of the butterflies around his camp were very colorful and conspicuous, but never seemed to take evasive flight patterns or hide from predators.  He also noticed that the birds and lizards who lived in the same areas as these butterflies ignored them, even though they would readily hunt down and eat other butterfly species.  After much careful observation Bates concluded that these butterflies were laying their eggs on toxic plants, and that the caterpillars that hatched from these plants ate these poisonous plants.  He surmised that because of this, the caterpillars themselves must be poisonous, and that predators either knew this innately, or learned it through trial and error.  Most importantly, the predators could associate this toxicity with the bright color patterns of these butterflies.  We now refer to this warning coloration as aposematism, and it’s found in lots of organisms that have some type of toxicity or other dangerous defense mechanism.

When Bates decided to collect some of these butterflies, he noticed something else:  he wasn’t seeing just one species of butterfly, he was seeing several that looked alike.  What’s more, some of these species were not laying eggs on toxic host plants, meaning that they and their caterpillars were perfectly edible!  Bates determined that these palatable butterflies were mimicking the unpalatable ones.  In mimicry terminology, we now refer to the toxic species as the model and the edible species as the mimic.  This particular brand of mimicry, comprised of a noxious model and a harmless mimic, is named after the man himself- Batesian mimicry.

For many years after Bates first published his findings on mimicry, scientists accepted his rationale without actually testing it.  Then, famously, in the 1950s a set of experiments were undertaken by Jane Van Zandt Brower and later by Van Zandt Brower and  Lincoln Brower, testing the effectiveness of several butterfly species that were assumed to be involved in mimicry.  Van Zandt Brower’s approach was simple:  feed the butterflies to their predators and wait to see how the predators respond.  Depending on the toxicity of the butterfly in question, and the learning abilities of the predator, predators sometimes ate the butterfly and responded  negatively (e.g. vomiting); tasted but didn’t eat the butterfly; or ignored it altogether.  Next, the birds (she usually used birds as predators) were given the presumed mimic and asked to respond- if the bird had learned to reject the poisonous model and, based on that experience, rejected the presumed mimic, Van Zandt Brower concluded that the latter species was indeed a mimic of the former.  Over the years many researchers (including me) have relied on this basic framework to test the efficacy of mimicry systems.  While some of Van Zandt Brower’s earliest results have stood the test of time, others have undergone more scrutiny and allowed us to refine the interpretations somewhat.  Regardless, though, this contribution has been essential to our understanding of how mimicry works.

What kind of Batesian Mimicry systems occur in your area?  I promise you they’re out there!

This Arizona Sister, Adelpha eulalia, is distasteful to predators due to toxins in the oak leaves that the caterpillars consume

This Arizona Sister, Adelpha eulalia, is distasteful to predators due to toxins in the oak leaves that the caterpillars consume.  Its mimic, the Lorquin’s Admiral, Limenitis lorquini, is palatable.