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.
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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