If you like Pokémon, you know the insect connection.
Satoshi Tajiri of Japan, who developed Pokémon, collected insects in his childhood and initially toyed with the idea of becoming an entomologist.
He never forgot his love of insects and showcased them in Nintendo's Pokémon, now the world's second most successful video game-based media franchise, eclipsed only by Nintendo's Mario.
Enter three young entomologists at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis. What they did is amazing.
They published a humorous take on the evolutionary development and history of the 646 fictional species depicted in the Pokémon media over the last 16 years.
“We made a very real phylogeny of the very fake Pokémon creatures,” commented lead author Matan Shelomi, the UC Davis entomology graduate student who conceived the idea.
The article, “A Phylogeny and Evolutionary History of the Pokémon,” appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), a tongue-in-cheek journal meant “to make people laugh and then think,” according to the editors. In keeping with the “laugh-and-then-think” concept, the journal also awards the infamous IG Nobel Prizes.
Shelomi, a graduate of Harvard where the IG Nobel Prizes are awarded, said he based his idea “in part on other AIR papers like the phylogeny of Chia Pets and the taxonomic description of Barney the Dinosaur.”
Until now, however, no one has traced the evolutionary history of the 646 fictional species, let alone develop a 16-generation phylogenetic or evolutionary tree.
The Pokémon project is the work of Shelomi; Andrew Richards, a junior specialist at the Bohart Museum; and Ivana Li, an entomology student/artist who works part-time at the Bohart.
Oh, wait! There's a fourth author, too--Yukinari Okido, whom Pokémon fans may recognize as the Japanese name of one of the fictional Pokémon professors from the game/TV show, Professor Oak.
How did it all come about? “I had a lull in my dissertation research and decided to spend the weekends and downtime making this phylogeny,” said Shelomi, who is studying for his doctorate in entomology with Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and professor of entomology at UC Davis. “It took at least a month to actually collect all the data, which I did manually by scrolling through Pokémon websites.”
What about reader reaction? “The paper is slowly making the rounds,” Shelomi said. “We've had quite a few people disagree with the tree, as some of the conclusions violate Pokémon canon, and we do have the usual phylogenetic problems of long-branch attraction, etc. The disconnect between the tree and Pokémon mating groups is a problem, but I argue that the Biological Species Concept should not be assumed for Pokémon and I stand by my tree.”
“So far, one scientist--a linguist in Japan--has asked for a copy of the dataset to use in a class on phylogram building," Shelomi said, "and he apparently came up with a different tree.”
“It would be nice to see a wide set of articles responding to this one,” Shelomi said. “I think it would be quite easy to fill a journal of Pokémon science, although much harder to justify creating one.”
Want to see the phylogeny? Click on the link or see it at the Bohart Museum, 1124 Academic Surge, Crocker Lane, UC Davis.
Some folks like to watch the grass grow, flowers bloom, or clouds drift.
Others just like to sit back and look for insects.
We spotted this seven-spotted lady beetle (aka ladybug) last Monday morning in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre pollinator garden on Bee Biology Road at the University of California, Davis.
It's a predator, a beneficial insect, and an icon. As one of the most recognizable of all insects, it inspires clothing, art and jewelry themes; home décor; and video games, not to mention all things entomological and the citizen-scientist Lost Ladybug Project. It even prompted five states--Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Tennessee--to declare it their official state insect. Never mind if these states are, in the political sense of the word, red or blue, denoting Republicans or Democrats. When it comes to state insects, they're all red!
Lady beetles are especially known for their voracious appetite for aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, mites and other soft-bodied insects. A gardener's friend. A biocontrol dream. An aphid's nightmare.
It's easy to see why the seven-spotted lady beetle, Coccinella septempunctata, is so named. Seven large black spots dot its red wing covers or elytra.
Indeed, if you know Latin, you know that its scientific name, septempunctata, means seven (septem) and spot (punctus).
We watched our seven-spotted friend prowl for aphids on a color-coordinated California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica mexicana).
It was "walking the line," Johnny Cash-style, keeping a close watch on...tasty aphids.
There it was.
A green caterpillar, aka larva, aka worm, occupied a blanket flower (Gaillardia) last Friday morning in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre pollinator garden on Bee Biology Road at the University of California, Davis.
Soon a honey bee from the nearby Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility landed on it. And then a Painted Lady butterfly, its wings tattered from predatory attacks, joined the duo.
Well, what WAS that green caterpillar?
We asked butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of entomology at UC Davis. "Well, it's a Noctuid (owlet moth family)," he said. "It may be one of the infinite variety of color forms of the tobacco budworm, Heliothis virescens, which is common right now--the fine lengthwise striations suggest that--but maybe not."
He suggested we contact his colleague, David Wagner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut.
"I am guessing that it is either Heliothis virescens as suggested by Art or Helicoverpa zea," Wagner said, looking at the photo. "Both equally probable. The former often favors plants with glandular secretory hairs: Solanaceae, geranium, etc."
According to Wikipedia, the Noctuidae or owlet moths "are a family of robustly build moths that include more than 35,000 known species out of possibly 100,000 total, in more than 4,200 genera."
Noctuidae comprises the largest family in Lepitopdera.
Most fly at night. Many are drawn to sugar and nectar-rich flowers. Some head over to the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven.
As for Helicoverpa zea, it's a major agricultural pest. It's known by various names, depending on what it consumes. When it consumes tomatoes, it's a tomato fruitworm. Cotton? Cotton bollworm. Corn? Corn earworm. And the list goes on.
We thought that perhaps a neighboring praying mantis would take a culinary interest in the worm, but not so.
The Noctuid appeared to a landing strip for honey bees and Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui). They kept touching down and pulling up.
As Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology quipped: "If you're in the middle of the road, you're going to get hit."
If you're passionate about Passiflora (passion flower vine), you're probably passionate about those Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae).
It's November with temperatures in the unseasonal mid-80s, and the butterflies are laying eggs like there's no tomorrow.
From eggs to larvae to chrysalises to adults--what a sight to see.
We watched a caterpillar munch leaves as an ant scooted down to investigate. Then a magnificent adult, its wings fresh and showing no visible signs of predatory bites, fluttered down right in front of us.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, calls these butterflies a "dazzling bit of the New World Tropics."
Indeed they are. Orange never looked so good.
And a free one, at that.
UC Davis graduate student Melissa Whitaker, who is studying for her doctorate with noted butterfly expert Arthur Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, has just created an app or application for iphones, ipods and ipads.
It's called Butterfly Guide: Butterflies of the Sacramento Valley, Delta and San Francisco Bay Area. Click on Itunes to download it.
So if you're from the Sacramento or San Francisco area, and see a butterfly fluttering around, you can identify it by consulting this free app. Western tiger swallowtail? Check. That would be Papilio rutulus. Monarch butterfly? Check. Danaus plexippus. Gulf fritillary? Check. Agraulis vanillae.
Her app includes 117 species of butterflies, complete with photos, descriptions, common names, scientific names and family names. Shapiro, her key source of information and inspiration, maintains a comprehensive website that includes data he's collected for more than three decades. He's the author of Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions.
Whitaker engaged two computer science undergraduates, Joey Jiron and Bryan Maass, for the app development.
Whitaker, who's from Colorado but claims California as home, says she's relatively new to the butterfly scene. "Always a lover of nature and natural history education, I quickly arrived at butterflies as ideal study organisms for my PhD research," she says.
Whitaker describes the app as a "mobile tool for natural history education and biodiversity informatics, using the butterflies of the region."
Her website details how to use the guide and how to share data. She's hoping to encourage users to become citizen scientists.
Whitaker is especially interested in the teaching aspect. "Butterflies are absolutely terrific models for education in the science classroom, and capture the attention of all ages," she says on her website. "They can be used to teach many biological concepts: mimicry, conservation, species interactions, biodiversity, migration, ecology, evolution, life history development, and on and on! They can also be great tools for inspiring people to spend more time outside observing their natural (or semi-natural) surroundings. With this in mind, we hope teachers and educators will find ways to incorporate butterfly monitoring into their classrooms and will share their curriculum and ideas. For great ideas for biodiversity lesson plans check out Project Noah's Education page."
"Our long-term vision for this project is that The Butterfly Guide will provide a template for The Lizard Guide, The Urban Spider Guide, The Wildflower Guide—a whole series of guides!" she says. "With that in mind we can provide all development materials to folks who want to create their own educational, community-driven and non-commercial (free!) field guide apps."
The National Science Foundation funded the project through its REACH-IGERT program. REACH is an acronym for REsponding to RApid Environmental CHange (REACH), while IGERT is Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship.