June 14, 2011

Tree Form

The last few days have been the most interesting. Daily walks have familiarized us to the rain forest, and we now know where to look for certain types of bugs, birds, reptiles, etc. All of us have a far better understanding of where certain insects might live within a rain forest, and we can really look for what we want. I’ve been looking for insects. A caterpillar, an ant infected with corticepts, a weevil, leafcutter ants, army ants, scarab beetles, and butterflies have all spent time at the business end of my camera.

The days have been capped by evening talks. Caroline, Dan (a postdoctoral fellow in the Chaboo lab) and Steve gave talks on their areas of study, respectively, chrysomelid beetles, wasps, and art exhibitions.

Dan introduced us to the Hymenoptera group (ants, bees, and wasps) and spoke about their evolutionary history, how their bodies function, and how they behave and reproduce. One group of wasps tends to favor a parasitoid behavior – piercing another organism and laying eggs in it, which develop within the host and ultimately kill it. Like in the movie “Alien.” The wasps here are absolutely beautiful, decked out in blue and green iridescent plates. Their lazy buzz always raises my hopes of getting a photograph.

Caroline spoke on chrysomelid beetles and their role in the rain forest. She spoke of having to change her research question because of the rate of habitat destruction in this part of the Amazon. She is sampling beetles at many elevations, from the Amazon to the Andes, tracking if species move or go extinct as global warming pushes ideal habitats further and further up the mountain.

Steve gave a talk on his experience with creating art exhibitions, focusing on Trees and other Ramifications, an exhibit that involved collaboration with KU’s Biodiversity Institute, which oversees the KU Natural History Museum and its employees.

We talked a great deal about how the disciplines relate. Art and science are both ways of seeing and ways of searching for Truth. Much like the artist, the scientist must employ creativity in both the formulation of research questions and in the collection of data. Yet the scientist and artist are not only similar in how they go about their work. Their finished products also tend to be similar. Steve brought up the fact that scientific theories often have a beauty to them, a certain elegance that tickles the mind much in the way that a painting, print, or novel would.

Science also informs art, and its fingerprint can often be seen in the systematic way of creating art. Just as a systematist organizes groups of species, trying to make sense of which is most related to which, so too do artists take disparate concepts, ideas, themes, and characters, and make them understandable, connecting them and putting them in context.

Trees have come up again and again, renowned symbols in both the arts and the sciences. In art, they often represent life, relation, family, and connectedness. In science, the evolutionary tree dominates the research landscape, guiding what biologists do and how they make sense of their field.

Delamotte Lithograph
Delamotte Lithograph

 

While we discussed trees, I posed a question to Caroline and Steve that essentially asked if it could be that the form of the tree is something that we simply enjoy. Do we use it to describe the world because the tree form makes sense to us? Is it something that we enforce upon the world instead of the tree being a symbol that accurately describes evolution?”

Steve said, “I think that’s what many artists, like Mike and Doug Starn, are trying to tell us.”

“Our ancestral roots lie in the trees, after all,” said Caroline. “Primates love trees.”

Steve continued, “You can see this in many works of art, for example in an 1802 lithograph by William Delamotte that shows people and a few dogs resting among the roots of an ancient oak.”


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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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