Tucson Drosophila Workshop

My plane stopped in San Diego on the way to Tucson.
I was looking for the wildfires the whole way down there. Here are a couple that I could see as we were descending into San Diego.

I guess I’d have to report that I found my “conference camping” to be quite a success. The weather was great (with one caveat: I had to borrow a sleeping bag and an additional blanket from some locals – thank you!!) It was about 30-45 minutes from campus instead of the 15 minutes I’d anticipated, but who would have thought that Tucson would have some of the worst traffic I’ve encountered in years! Despite the travel time, I really enjoyed returning to the campground to unwind after a long day of staring into a microscope and/or talking with a bunch of super-smart people doing very cool research. The starry night sky was a lovely alternative to a hotel room ceiling, and once I had enough layers, my tent offered a restful night’s sleep with a pretty morning view of the sun peeking over the mountains. I have to admit that I might have felt differently if there had been an active (i.e., late) social nightlife (like, at the hotel bar) with this crowd, but there was not, so I don’t think I missed out on anything because I was far away.

I got to the campground after dark, so I tried to pick a spot that looked appropriately spooky since I would be camping while most of my friends were at Halloween parties.

The view in the morning.

The view in the morning from my sleeping bag.

The general format of the workshop was that someone who is an expert on a particular group of Drosophila would give a brief presentation about the phylogeny and ecology of that group, and then we would each receive a handful of vials, labeled A -M (or whatever) containing different species of that group, and a key. Then, we just figure out which vial has which species and we have plenty of time and help to do it. That was the bulk of it.

We also learned how to observe fly assortative mating behavior and how to squash chromosomes. I have to admit that I was utterly amazed after pulling salivary glands out of a larva, soaking them in a stain, squishing them under a coverslip, and then looking under a microscope to see the polytene chromosomes. I’d always had the impression that only some very skilled microscopy-type folks were able to produce images of chromosomes that were definitively informative. BUT, with plenty of patient instruction and minimal effort, in less than an hour I was able, on my first try, to visualize a chomosomal inversion. (What?!?!? That’s STILL blowing my mind.)

Teri graciously hosted dinner at her house our first night there. This is the view of the moon from her driveway. She has a beautiful house. I wish I’d taken more pictures, but it was dark and I was socializing.


I really loved this sink, though, so I had to take a picture.

We went on a tour of the stock center. This is one of the rooms, full of vials of flies – I don’t remember which group of flies these are. While broadly (and this comes from a microbiologist, remember,) Drosophila all like the same environmental conditions, if you want to keep happy strains in a stock center, you have to have rooms with different temperatures, humidities, etc.

We also took a field trip to collect desert Drosophila. First stop: a giant fallen saguaro cactus. Of course, you must have a machete if you want to collect the desert fruit flies, and we had several, so we caught many.

I tried to find more Drosophila on other cacti (there were many species nearby) but I couldn’t find any. Most of the other dead/decaying ones were very dry. Only the saguaro was appropriately funkified.

Next stop: somewhere in town, near Sergio’s house, I think. We got to see how Sergio traps flies. Choosing the best fly-trapping technique is dependent on all sorts of things, so there’s no one right way to do it, but this method sure did work very well here. That 2-liter bottle is wrapped with some adhesive paper to cover a hole so that the flies cannot escape. If you look closely, you can see many many flies inside the bottle.

We also collected at a few similar traps, containing different sorts of bait at Stacy’s house. My favorite catch there, though, was this praying mantis. I used to see a lot of these as a child in North Carolina, but don’t think I’ve seen one since, so this was particularly nice. Thanks to Aneil for posing with the beastie for me.

There was this sculpture at the entrance to the building where the workshop was held that was such a joy to view each morning (and I say that with a Martha Stewart accent, for those who know.) Truly, it was a joyous celebration of science and scientists. (OK, I’m done now.)
Here’s a chunk of it that has our friend, Drosophila (we’ll assume melanogaster), a DNA double helix, a cactus, a mushroom, cross-section of some plant tissue, and there’s an enzyme-substrate complex over there to the right.

My favorite part (I think) is these two lab-coat guys pulling apart the dividing cells. (But, I took pictures of each part of the sculpture if you want to check out a different one, just let me know.)

On our last evening, after dinner at the Sonoran Desert Museum, Patrick O’Grady gave a nice tribute to Bill Heed. I have to say, as a tribute of my own, that during my “Fly Hunt,” I heard Bill Heed’s name many times. I honestly hadn’t heard of him before, but all of the people who spoke of him were people who I admire and each of them spoke of him with tremendous respect. He was planning to participate as an instructor in this workshop, but died just a month or so before. It’s strange that I should feel such a sense of loss for someone I never met, but nevertheless, I feel like I just missed the opportunity to meet a great naturalist, a great scientist, and a great mentor.

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Conference Camping

I’m going to a Drosophila species identification workshop in Tucson next week. I love Tucson. Mostly, I love the surrounding saguaro forests. So, I decided that instead of staying in a hotel, I’ll just camp. I’ll pack light, rent a car, and drive to the campground with my gear. The weather should be perfect: low 80s during the day, mid 50s at night. There’s a campground with showers about 15 minutes away from the workshop, which starts at 9am every day. When I’m camping, I get up with the sun, so I’ll have plenty of time to get there in the morning. Then, in the evening, what do you do in your hotel room, anyway? Watch TV? I’d rather read in a tent. Maybe smoke hookah by the campfire. Wake up with the birds, hike over to the remains of a prehistoric village… So, am I crazy? I’m thinking that if this works out, why not always camp when I go to conferences? It’s cheaper AND it’s doing something that I enjoy. Any thoughts?

Ernst Haeckel


I’m in the process of decorating my new room. I have always been a nomad, and I understate when I admit to moving every year since the day I left home (for college) at age 17. So, decorating is really not something I’ve ever done. (Well, not since that flouncy pink canopy bed I loved so much as a pre-teen.) Typically, as I move in to a new place, I’m already thinking about where I will live next. So, I don’t bother to settle in. However, I think I might actually be settling in to my new place, and I’m starting to think about decorating. I am inspired by a friend (a fan of Albertus Seba,) who will remain nameless because he would be mortified if I posted his name in my blog. What sort of space am I inspired to create? I want a space in which Charles Darwin would feel at home – surrounded by images of the beauty and diversity of nature.

A couple of years ago, I started collecting old chromolithographs, I suppose with the idea of displaying them at some point. They are beautiful and created by a laborious process in painstaking detail, usually by artistically talented biologists. I only have a couple of them. One is from an old German book and is a bunch of crazy looking mushrooms. The other is from a 19th century elementary school astronomy textbook (I bought that one just after Pluto was demoted.) I also have a nice Audubon print. Now that I’m in decorator mode, I decided to collect more, and I (re)discovered Ernst Haeckel.

I was introduced to him in grad school, in a “Theory of Phylogenetics” seminar. He’s the “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” guy. I saw his controversial embryo drawings. He also drew this “Tree of Life” that’s STILL what most folks who do not believe in evolution think we’re talking about. His thinking was cutting edge, but he’s best remembered for not quite getting it right and it turns out that he wasn’t entirely honest in the process. But, I digress. There are books dedicated to this topic, and I recommend reading them. What I didn’t know is that he was an artist. He published this book, Artforms of Nature (in German,) that is chock-full of some AMAZING lithographs.

I’m writing about this now because I recently bid a (relatively) large amount of money on ebay for a couple of original Haeckel lithographs. I didn’t win the auctions, and I’m glad because I just found this website that has high-resolution scans of pretty much the whole book. Sure, it’s not as good as having the originals, and I would still love to collect the originals. But, for the purposes of decorating, this resource is great! Print, frame, hang. (Good thing I have access to a large printer!)

OK, so it’s easy to appreciate the beauty of the hummingbird, but what really gets me excited is the prints of the under-appreciated forms of life. Like protists and sea slugs.