Evolutionary Oddities (Nature Waves Her Freak Flag)

The Beast with Two Backs

meeting of the minds




Pipevine Swallowtail-1



seedpod and j shape-2

Encounters with animals leave me distracted for days. I have stepped through a portal and have gotten sucked into the world of the Monarch caterpillar, a mesmerizing beast, a caster of spells.

The J-shaped Monarch caterpillar in the lower right has suspended herself upside down in preparation for a fanciful transformation. Soon she will shed her caterpillar suit with a series of shimmies, unveiling a pale green lantern studded with gold flecks. Enclosed inside her emerald world, she will dissolve her cells into a liquid goo teeming with what biologists call “imaginal discs.” When enough time and imagination have accumulated, she will emerge into the far-fetched chimera perched on the seed pod above. Evolution is artistic. The Gods are whimsical.





Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reincarnate

RecyclingPhoto by Becky Jaffe

This grasshopper has just emerged from one of several convulsive molts she will undergo in her lifetime, shedding her skin cyclically in order to grow. She wastes no time, methodically devouring her former self, starting with the head, as seen here.

Transmogrification Studies

B's Triptych wFrm

Photos by Becky Jaffe

When I brought home a branch of wild fennel and stuck it in a vase in my living room a month ago, I harbored the tiny hope that it might contain hidden in its foliage a microscopic egg. When I discovered a plump lime-green caterpillar (left photo) marching across my rug searching for fresh food two weeks later, I harbored the small hope that she might survive long enough to pupate. When she folded herself into a tiny green hammock (middle photo) and fell into a deep slumber, I harbored the small hope that I might be present to observe her emerge.  When I awoke on my birthday and found her pulling her last leg out of her decayed chrysalis (right photo), I traded in my small hopes for big awe. When she popped open her wings and sailed out the window a few hours later, I threw my small hopes after her and caught a whiff of faith on the updraft.

I was fortunate enough to take these photographs of her successive transformations to share with you.

Thank you for Taiyo Lipscomb for compiling these three images into one frame. Thank you to Soji Odukogbe for being my companion in wonder.

in-between dreams

swallow tail caterpillar-2

Ire Too-2


Photo by Becky Jaffe

Look what our caterpillar up and did. She turned her body into a hammock and is taking a long nap. Is she dreaming caterpillar dreams or butterfly dreams?

punk rock pygmy primate

cotton top tamarin

Photo by Becky Jaffe

Among the smallest of the primates, the Cotton Top Tamarin is a genetic hybrid between a hamster and Rod Stewart.

Ingenious Design

Ingenious Design

Photo of Extatosoma tiaratum (Latin for Serious Badass) by Becky Jaffe

Who can? The pelican.

Who can?_

Photo by Becky Jaffe


a mundane marvel on a Monday

mundane marvelThe enigmatic Extatosoma tiaratum photographed by the bumfuzzled Becky Jaffe


WallflowerPhoto by Becky Jaffe


DriftersPhoto by Becky Jaffe


To see eye-to-eye with a dragonfly, you have to kneel down.

i excused myself from polite society

Photo by Becky Jaffe

the conundrum of the Common Lagoon Jelly

grace is our lineage-3

Photo by Becky Jaffe

Consider the conundrum of the Common Lagoon Jelly. Lacking both a brain and a mirror, it likely has no capacity to grasp or appreciate its innate and abundant grace. Does that sound like anyone you know?

The whole referring


Photo by Becky Jaffe


by Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet
and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim–the rocks–the motion of the waves–the
ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

Genital Plugs, Projectile Penises, & Gay Butterflies: A Naturalist Explains the Birds and the Bees this Wednesday, March 20th from 8 to 10 pm


Please join me on March 20th for Nerd Nite SF. If you haven’t heard of Nerd Nite, imagine Ted Talks on tequila. Nerd Nite offers a casual and occasionally drunken venue to geek out over the entertaining side of science. This Wednesday I am delighted to be one of three guest nerds presenting. I will lead you on a romp through Mother Nature’s freaky side, surveying some of the more outlandish ways animals do the wild thing. Audience members will form teams to compete in a pub quiz-style trivia game with prizes of the salacious biological variety. Just in time for Spring, this talk is guaranteed to cause a bioorgasm.

Where: the Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St, San Francisco
When: Wednesday, March 20th, 2013
Doors at 7 pm, show at 8
Cost $8


Nature’s Burlesque Show


This Lion’s Mane nudibranch (Melibe leonina) is no ordinary hermaphrodite. S/he appears to be filter feeding with that gaping mouth, but is actually a predatory carnivore. She hunts by casting his “oral hood” out like a net, and then closing around her prey upon contact, interlacing his tentacles and trapping her quarry, which can range from shrimp to fellow mollusks to small fish. In the process of groping about in the water, s/he shapeshifts, alternately taking on the unmistakable forms of both male and female human genitalia. The aptly named nudibranch is nature’s burlesque show.


Lubber lovin’

original piggyback

Photo: Lubber Lovin’ by Becky Jaffe

These lubbers are the largest grasshoppers I have ever had the good fortune to observe. They can afford to be larger and more noticable than most of their Orthopteran relatives because they have toxins derived from plants they ingest, which they advertize via the bright orange warning coloration seen here. They have few predators as a result of their effective chemical defense system, and are therefore abundant and ubiquitous in disturbed roadsides along the wetlands of Everglades National Park. One of their few predators is the loggerhead shrike, sushi chef among birds, who has evolved the ingenious hunting strategy of impaling the lubbers on barbed wire and thorny scrub, letting the poisins drain, evaporate, or decompose, preparing a detoxified meal of lubbers the size of miniature lobsters.

Genus and species: Romalea guttata