June 3, 2011

Super Popped

 

We sat in a classroom that smelled of mothballs. Drawers upon drawers of dead bugs lined the room, their bodies pinned to foam boards. It seemed the farthest place that one could possibly be from a jungle. The giant insects taunted us as we looked at them, mandibles frozen wide, and it seemed that we would never see them move.

It is now about 12 hours until we leave Lawrence, and the truth is hitting home. We’re about to see these giant insects, alive and gnashing, right in front of us in the Peruvian jungle. The Amazon.

The bags are packed, the plane tickets bought, the boots broken in, the checklist checked. We’ve had a whirlwind of preparation pre-departure, and it was a lot of fun. In that stuffy classroom, Dr. Chaboo talked about how insects fit into the tree of life, how they function, how they’re different from spiders, crabs, and worms, and about the group of insects that she studies, Chrysomelid beetles.

Surveying KU's Entomology (insect) collection

“We are descended, if you go back far enough, from the same ancestors that gave rise to insects. Your diaphragm is leftover segmentation,” she said, and I conjured an image of a human skeleton with its segment-like ribs and vertebrae. I certainly felt different from the shiny critters impaled on stainless steel spikes in front of me. But we’re related.

Relatedness is perhaps what our team is after. Half of us are trained in the arts and half are science-oriented, though we’ve all dabbled in both. If you’re interested in the training of the team, check out the Meet the Team post I did previously.

Our training has taken us to the Spencer Art Museum, the KU Natural History Museum, and KU’s field station just north of Lawrence. We looked at prints, drawings and paintings in the Spencer’s printroom, visited the Natural History Museum’s BugTown exhibit, and practiced collecting insects at the field station.

In the Spencer printroom

We will all assist Dr. Chaboo’s work on Chrysomelid beetles, but each student will also work on a project of their own. Art and writing students will craft creative works and biology students will conduct field research. But the idea is that we will be informed by the work done on both sides of the art/science divide. I hope to encourage these crossovers, catching them if they arise, and relate their ramifications on this blog in the days forthcoming.

At the field station

Insects also take center stage in this endeavor, and I believe that it is important to convey their world, if possible. To bring them to the fore, I will strive to present them to the reader visually. Check out some close-ups of insects at the KU field station:

“It’s going to be a very physical experience,” Dr. Chaboo said, “The rain forest is not sexy because you will be covered in DEET!”

Preparation would be intimidating if she did not approach the study of insects with the energy and enthusiasm of an on-stage pop star.

“I’m super pumped!” said someone.

“Super popped?” asked Dr. Chaboo. Thus our pre-departure catch-phrase was born.


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About Fieldnotes

The Biodiversity Institute is home to about 60 graduate students and 30 research scientists and curators. They participate in field expeditions to all seven continents and represent areas such as entomology, ornithology, paleontology, parasitology and herpetology. As the authors of this blog, they share their experiences and adventures in collections-based biological research all over the world.

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