Silence at last. We hadn't made it to the overlook in time for sunset, but a suggestion of red glowed over a series of angular mountaintops. A picture-book crescent moon highlighted the darkness overtaking the sky—all seen through silhouettes of lightning-damaged pines. It felt so fine to be back in California, in the high Sierras, in the cool dry air of eight thousand feet. And the silence was good.
Freddie was the first to speak. "Big storms up here—not a tree without a high dead branch. Look at that one, shaped like a tuning fork."
Molly laughed, "I thought you were going to say something else." She didn't elaborate and none of us especially wanted to hear—knowing it was likely to be another dildo joke.
As star-brilliance replaced red dusk, the group began to talk again, but in almost whispers. Finally Julie's, "Must get back to work, I suppose," reminded us of what we all were here for.
"O.K.," said Freddie. "Gotta go, gotta go."
We piled into "Taylor," the truck, and Freddie slid it slowly down the rough track with the headlights off, allowing us to enjoy the moonlit scrub, the starry night.
"Hey Freddie, you forgot the lights," Molly giggled.
He sighed slightly and gave us the bright view of the path we were bumping along, turning the mysterious night into a cozy truck-full of field biologists going back to camp.
I had joined the camp a week earlier, keen to see how the field crew members were doing their experiments, keen to examine the butterflies and hoping that I could use the system they all worked in to test my own theories on insect foraging and the problems of being a herbivore. Freddie was a friend of more than twenty years, and I had read many of his research papers about his beloved Edith's checkerspot butterfly. He had worked in Californian field sites for thirty-five years, twenty at this particular one near King's Canyon. His knowledge of the butterfly was prodigious, and his long-term study of genetic change in behavior over time—evolution in action—unprecedented.
This year there was Freddie and three students, Julie, Molly and Dave—four highly contrasted individuals, but it would take time to find out about them properly. For my visit, I was honored with a sleeping space in "Lambert," the old trailer that Freddie towed up the mountains every year. The others slept in four of the six tents in camp, though Julie's tent was out of sight among the lodgepole pines and ceanothus bushes.
Lambert turned out to be a mixed blessing. There was the bunk, certainly, and with screening, an absence of mosquitoes. The cooking facility for camp—a pentane stove—was also convenient for early morning cups of tea while everyone else still slept. The broken-down fridge contained a useful library. However, Lambert was also the place for night work at the small table. Electricity from solar panels allowed lights and an electric balance for weighing larvae and pupae. Gossip and work continued until midnight, except for Julie who usually went on until the small hours, long after I was undressed and in my sleeping bag on the darker side of the cramped space.
Between me and the workstation, the stove was usually covered with dirty pots and pans, the sticky blackened floor with food coolers brought in so as not to tempt bears, the shelves with plastic cups of caterpillars and pupae and all kinds of paraphernalia needed for the field work. At the foot of my bed was a heap of Freddie's clothes and papers, Dave's shoes, bags full of sticks, markers, wire, and other unidentified objects. The space above, including over my bed, was hung with cages of butterflies. The small sink was full of variously aged corn, onions, potatoes and oranges, there being no running water. The small toilet was for emergencies, as emptying it was somewhere in the distant future.
It was delightful to get out early and alone into the fresh still air, to see the first rays of sun through the trees, hear the woodpeckers and watch the mountain chickadees, to walk among the great sweeps of phlox, collinsia, paintbrush and monkey flowers, and then across the meadow full of shooting stars and daisies. The view south included snowy peaks. I was the first to get the spade and toilet roll from its spot under the largest ponderosa pine and walk to one of the sandy areas with dense bushes. I was the first to get a splash of water on my face from the carboy outside Lambert, avoiding the forlorn bowl of dirty dishes under the spigot. I was the first to forage for bread or fruit or cereal from among the various boxes, cupboards and coolers.
By seven o'clock, Julie was checking small dishes of eggs or caterpillars, putting pupae in or out of the sun, examining butterflies in cages hanging all along the long clotheslines strung between two Douglas firs. She took breakfast from her own store of health foods in her isolated truck and sat down at a small table in the early sun to sort newly hatched larvae into new cups. Slim and boyish, with dark curly hair, long legs, dimpled smile and gentle eyes, she bent over a cup and peered into it with a hand lens. She has an immediate boyish appeal.
"How's it going, Julie?"
"Fine, thanks Liz. Busy day." She smiled. And then she would have some technique to discuss: "Do you think I need to worry about the fate of eggs in the field, or should I just put out newly hatched larvae? I would like to have the females lay the eggs on the plant, but so many eggs are taken by predators I don't think I can get enough data on larvae if I start with eggs."
On another occasion she began, "I don't want to handle the larvae; should I let them just climb out of the epi tube themselves?" And so we would talk, turning over the details of each experiment, trying to establish the best compromise for getting the data she needed for her question. She knows the literature on evolutionary ecology and all the relevant studies of plant-feeding insects, including my own. She is curious about many details but has big questions.
Julie studies speciation. How do two species arise from one? Evolution of new species is thought to come about when populations become physically isolated, allowing them to develop different characteristics in the different places (allopatric speciation). Among plant-feeding insects, it appears that speciation can occur without geographic separation of populations (sympatric speciation), and Freddie's team had established, using molecular techniques, that genetically distinct populations of "spotties" used different host plants—collinsia or pedicularis or plantain or paintbrush. Females of each population had behaviors adapted to the physical details of the specific host plant—details of landing, curling the abdomen to lay the eggs, or arrangement of the eggs on the plant. This then could be a starting point for the evolution of new species. Julie's plan was to cross individuals that used different hosts and to compare performance of their offspring with performance of those reared from pure strains.
If a butterfly species is splitting into two, hybrids between them are typically weaker in some way—the best offspring coming from same-kind matings. Julie's careful experiments would, for the first time, test whether there was evidence of the beginning of this kind of speciation occurring in a single geographical area.
Julie has a goal with a specific focus. She works with speed and precision. She works long hours. And she loves the outdoor life, the physicality of camping, though her eyes mist over when she talks of her lover, a woman working in Tanzania this summer.
After Julie, Dave is usually the next to emerge from his tent. He stretches, "Ah, fabulous day, what luck." Then he stands on his hands by the picnic table, jumps up over a chair, before racing off down the slope for his morning run. Julie and I laugh. But he is only away about fifteen minutes. He approaches us, firing his comments:
"Hi Julie. Hi Liz. Great day, good day, good morning!"
"Say, you girls had breakfast yet?"
"Must just run to my outcrop site." He picks up his backpack, ready with vials to collect plants with spottie eggs on them, and is gone.
Dave is examining movement of butterflies within and between populations at different subsites, near King's Canyon. It is important to know if changes in host preference could be due to movement of butterflies with different preferences, or could be the result of genetic changes in the butterflies resident at a site. He and Freddie do a lot of preference testing—a time-consuming study in butterfly behavior.
A female butterfly in a waiting cage is gently picked up by the wings and placed on a potential host. If she is interested, and if the smell is right, she taps with her front feet on the leaf surface and lowers her antennae—a complex tasting procedure. A highly acceptable plant causes her to curl her abdomen after just two taps with her feet. A somewhat less acceptable one requires more thought—she taps four or five times before curling. Marginal hosts require repeated tapping and may not result in curling at all. Unacceptable plants never elicit curling. She abuts her curled abdomen onto a leaf, and one by one small green eggs emerge and remain lightly stuck to the leaf and to each other. In about twenty minutes there may be fifty eggs in a bunch. The method varies with the host. On pedicularis, she likes to nestle down in the crevices at the base of the plant and push the eggs downwards. On collinsia, she may walk delicately on an upper leaf and put the eggs in lines along the petiole. "Pedic" and "colly" specialists are not the same however. Pedic females occasionally accept colly but have trouble with it; they fall to the ground looking for the elusive crevices in this spindly plant. Colly specialists walk around on the prostrate pedic plant with abdomens waving upwards, apparently seeking the more erect stems of colly. Dave and Freddie work together most days. Freddie loves to reiterate the wonders of spotties.
"Just look at that, Dave. Come over here Liz. Look at this colly kid on pedic. Guess what pop she comes from, eh? What an indevicive girl!" Freddie's eccentric habit of inverting syllables or even words, or altering their pronunciation, is one of his rather endearing characteristics.
This female butterfly is being tested on colly and doesn't curl. She is then tested on pedic and curls after just two taps, but is not allowed to lay eggs, as this would alter her readiness to lay eggs at all. She is re-tested on colly to ensure the difference is not just due to the order of plants offered. She rejects it again after eight taps. She is definitely a pedic specialist—on to the next butterfly.
Freddie emerges from his tent in his crumpled clothes of yesterday. His blue denim shirt is missing a button where it is tightest over his small paunch, and the white skin of his behind shows through a hole in his gray baggy pants. His nearly bald head is sunburned and the remaining wispy gray hair straggles down his neck and around his ears.
"Good morning Freddie," I call from Julie's table. "Want a cup of tea?"
"You O.K. Freddie?"
"Diarrhea, no tea." He struts slowly to the spade and disappears over the hill.
Meanwhile Dave is back. "Hi guys, anyone want an egg over-easy in butter?" But he knows he is the only taker. He wipes out the dirty frying pan and searches the coolers. Ice has turned to water in all of them and a smell of very old broccoli fills the air.
"So who's going to get ice, eh? Pong-dong here."
He finds the eggs and butter and disappears into Lambert singing. In a few minutes he appears at the door.
"Anyone seen the thingo for turning eggies?"
"Try Freddie's tent," I suggested, "I think he had it for scooping up some spilt seeds in there."
He finds it eventually, with a dozen rubber bands around the blade and a small note tucked into them. "Remember to collect more males from Tamarak," he reads before skipping back to Lambert. Freddie, returning, repeats it, "Remember to collect more males from Tamarak. That's what you need, isn't it Julie? And don't we want some more capertillers from the R5 site?"
Most mornings Freddie forgets breakfast as he checks on the various livestock in camp. There are trays of pupae waiting to emerge into butterflies on a table under a shade cloth stretched between four young lodgepole pines. He peers into the cups with transparent lids.
"Ah-ha, a Tamarak female and two Pinetree males."
Next he checks the potted plants. There are collinsia seedlings grown in the natural soil—large flowered and small flowered varieties.
"Liz, look at this. See the senescking ones?" I examine the little plants that are senescing, or beginning to die. "Some go yellow and some go red. The collinsia butterflies from stone ridge prefer the red-senescking ones and grow better on them, but they lay the eggs long before the plant gets to that stage, and the pedic butterflies that will accept collinsia don't discrinimate, fantastic eh?"
Next he checks the exotic plants that contain certain chemicals called iridoid glycosides—plant specimens he has obtained from nurseries. These are the host plant chemicals that spottie butterflies particularly like. Are there some species that all butterflies will accept? It would be useful for Julie perhaps. He proceeds to his cups of larvae being reared. He has two types—small ones that will go into diapause, the resting stage, in a week or so and stay that way until next spring. The larger ones that hatched last summer, in diapause through last winter, will soon become adults. I offer to feed them and get detailed instructions.
"Just so much fresh food—too much and it gets too wet in there, and the moisture on the sides of the cup is an impemident to lomocotion. On the other hand, too little and it's not enough to last a day. "
He sits on a chair beside the box and talks. He tells and retells his spottie findings, his stories of evolution and behavior. He is proud of his long-term studies and all the details of the evolutionary history he has uncovered. He reminds me of a comment I made to him years ago—long before I saw the butterflies and discovered how docile they really were. "You said," he reminds, laughing, "'I have to say your methods don't look at all feasible, except that they produce such reasonable results.'"
"Well, yes, it has to be seen to be really believed!" I replied. And I remembered when he first told stories of holding butterflies by the wings in order to test their plant preferences. I was not the only one who thought the method preposterous—most of us in the entomological world were more than conscious of how stress altered insect behavior, and nothing, usually, was worse than handling for stressing an individual and making it behave abnormally.
He sighed and removed his very dirty feet from sandals, the heels worn through around the edges.
He continued with a sigh, "I have had such trouble with grants over the years because people didn't believe how wonderfully anemable spotties really are. But now I think they do."
"I am a believer now," I assured him, and he leaned over to peck me on the cheek as he chuckled into his scruffy beard. He had always been a kind friend, but it was nice to have him say so this way. And I put off the discussion I had been waiting for—my theories on the importance of natural enemies. We had diverged in our views on plants and insects over the last fifteen years—Freddie was certain that the plant was the principal reason of specialization, whereas I was certain that predators and parasites had more to do with it. I would wait a few days before discussing the experiment I wanted to set up.
As Freddie talked and I listened by the box of cups, Julie went on sorting eggs and larvae at the outdoor table, and Dave ate his hearty breakfast in Lambert's doorway. Slowly, out crawled Molly from her tent, shaking her brown hair with its bleached and bright pink strands.
Yawning and stretching in front of her tent she spoke slowly, "I doan know how you manage on so little sleep, I gotta have eight hours at least."
Freddie smiled. He liked this youngest of the students though she was still without any research focus. "Rise and shine, Molly. Go and get some breakfast and then you can help with butterfly feeding."
Molly is obese but seemingly not concerned about it. She returned to her tent and came out with three chocolate bars.
"O.K., I better get all the cages into the sun, eh?" she says.
"Yeah, and bring over the feeding pads so I can lick them and taste them for concetration—they are in Lambert somewhere… Oh dear, they are too concetrated, let me just add a bit of water."
Molly removed about fifty of the lightweight pentagonal butterfly cages hanging from ropes stretched between trees, and placed them on the ground in the sun. By the time she had finished her chocolate, there was fluttering of wings and a general waking up of butterflies. She sat on one of the stray chairs, turned to face the sun, and took a cage onto her lap. She unzipped the side nearest, and slid in a Petri dish containing a foam pad soaked in artificial nectar. The butterflies rested or fluttered on the sunny side of the cage and she picked each up by the wings and placed it on the pad. Obligingly, as their feet touched the sugar, out came each one's proboscis and feeding began. Females can overeat, so each of them was allowed no more than two minutes before being chased off the pad. They don't find the sugar on their own in the cages so this controls these gourmands' appetites.
"Freddie, I have one here that won't feed. What am I gonna do with her?"
"I'll come over. She will need to have her proboscis unrolled and placed on the pad. Here, just use this needle and poke it into the roll of her proboscis, then gently pull it away, see?"
"Food and sex is all these things do, eh? And they can't do anything in cages. Look at this old male. Do you think he is any good for crosses, any sex in him?"
"Old doesn't mean no good at the romantics, Molly," Freddie chuckled.
"Ha ha, no offense meant, Freddie. By the way, when are you going down to Fresno? I wouldn't mind doing some shopping. When you went down Monday, I asked you to bring cake and all you brought was nuts. Oh, and we need more vials at Smart and Final. By the way Freddie, you snore. I distinctly heard you last night."
"Now, my spouse never said I snore. She said she couldn't live with a man who snores—that's her semintent."
"Well you do. My boyfriend snores a little bit. But I just kick him gently and he stops—well for a while anyways. Unless we get busy like."
As the morning warmed up and everyone concentrated on their jobs, conversation dropped off, though at intervals Freddie started again on a spottie story. Dave would have had jokes, but he was at another field site. The fierce California sun climbed and under hats heads were damp.
"How about lunch?" I ventured.
"Sure," was the answer from all.
I decided to find materials for a salad and get away from the individual foraging syndrome. In one cooler was a pack of mixed greens, and in another the tomatoes I had brought with me. In Lambert, I found an onion and a pepper, some walnuts, lemon and olive oil. Dave was back just in time. He remembered his last trip to Fresno and a lovely girl he saw in Kinkos, where he went to plug in his computer and get email.
"Gorgeous—two taps curl, for sure!"
"Say, Liz, what about a trip to Tamarak, eh? It's only ten miles as the fly crows, but we have to go down the mountain, then north and up to seven thousand five hundred feet again, O.K.?"
"Sure, whatever…" I was happy to go along and see everything.
In the previous ten years, I had steadily worked on different systems to test a new idea. Perhaps the restriction of most plant-feeding insect species to narrow ranges of plants was related to the avoidance of predation. After all, an insect could have a more sophisticated camouflage on a single plant type, than by having a generalized green or brown that was only crudely camouflaged on any particular plant. Specific cases were famous—the looper caterpillar that is exactly like a pine needle, or the grasshopper that is a wonderful replica of a grass blade. The notion was unpopular when I began testing the hypothesis—plant chemistry and plant defenses were fashionable, together with the belief that narrow diets were about adaptation to specific plant chemistries. The examples of perfect camouflage were seen as unusual, or at best, the end result of eons of time spent on the particular hosts after adaptation to the plant chemistry.
Time passed and experiments proved that specialists escaped predation more than generalists, but here, in the California mountains with spotties having preferences for one, two, or several different host plants, I could perhaps manage a completely naturalistic study.
Freddie was keen but felt he knew enough to be sure I was wrong. "I know the persolanity of ‘em Liz, and they ain't like your grasshopper guys."
Julie was intrigued and being younger seemed more open. "Be great if it worked."
The next day Freddie and I went to Tamarak. With nets and vials and new butterfly cages, with coolers of food and bottles of water, we wound our way to the ridge. We had many stops: Stone Creek where, eight years ago a fire came through and the quality of host plants changed so that colly insects began to prefer plantain, which had been introduced from Europe; Glenwood Flats where Freddie first found paintbrush feeding caterpillars; and eventually Shadow Gap where we began to see flying spotties. It took me a while to get the technique—females fly close to the ground searching for host plants and nectar plants, males fly higher and faster and more erratically, seeking out females and avoiding other males. The differences require different netting methods. We mainly needed males for Julie, but then Freddie decided it would be nice to get females as well, to check that their host preferences are the same as last year.
We stopped for our picnic lunch, jumping up to net the occasional passing spottie, and as we rested I mentioned my plans again with Freddie.
I would have to coax butterflies with preferences for one or several hosts to lay eggs on the various plant species, and then study the fate of eggs and caterpillars in detail. Time and endless patience would be needed. Long hours of watching tiny nature would be essential. But the desire to get an answer bugged me so much. I was compelled to do whatever it took.
Handling of individual butterflies I had learned from Freddie and his team, but it was a long job to get fifty individual females to lay eggs on appropriate plants, count the tiny eggs with the aid of a lens, mark the plants, and record everything relevant.
Back at camp at the end of the day I had one last discussion with the team about my plans. We decided Pinetree Meadow was the best spot—it was an easy walk and close to where Julie had experiments running.
Freddie was skeptical, "Liz, you'll be dead lucky if you get good data. And you know, I have looked at natural enemies—nothing in it." But he was happy to help with the egg-laying experiments and impart the details of his "spottie knowledge."
Julie knew it would be a long job. "Good luck," she smiled, as Freddie fussed over exactly how I should hold each female butterfly and get her to do the job.
Molly gaped, "You really gonna spend that much time?"
"Good on ya," was all Dave could say.
For many days, I lay on my stomach in Pinetree Meadow, wearing an optivizor (magnifiers on a head band) and hat, long pants and long sleeves. I recorded predators, deaths, losses. I ignored the night hours, returning to my patch at daybreak to see what had disappeared in my absence. Certainly eggs and baby larvae disappeared. There was a suggestion that the offspring of more picky butterflies survived in greater numbers and my excitement grew. Bets were cast in the camp at night.
"Good on ya, Lizzie. Go for it," Dave encouraged.
"It's all over the shop each year I tell you, and for sure there will be just a confuzzed data set,"— Freddie's usual pessimism with a newcomer to his system.
Julie was hopeful, "Aw, Freddie, you haven't seen the trends."
"Increludous I will be if she finds a pattern."
I rose earlier each day, made tea and rushed to my sites.
Molly brought me snacks. "Don't know how you can stand it. Where do you pee an' that?"
It was nine days after I had started my observations. I hurried into my clothes as my tea brewed, examined my notebook, collected my optivizor and vials. I felt that this experiment was to be a definitive test of my idea in a well-researched, totally natural system. Would the results support the growing interest in the role of higher trophic levels in host affiliation of plant-feeding insects? I would surprise Freddie! The timing was critical. The season was coming to an end and I must use every hour I could muster in this last enormous effort. The next week would provide the answer—yes or no.
Arriving at the first site at daybreak, I found that all the plants had been grazed to the ground. At the second, many were gone and critical labels were knocked over. And the third was a similar scene of confusion. I never did discover what rabbit or other animal had done the deed, but it was the sudden end of my experiment. Such are the vagaries of field-work. Such are the reasons why students take years to complete degrees in ecology. They all said, "Too bad," with knowing looks, and Freddie laughed, "See!" I knew they felt for me really, but each had experienced frustrations of one sort or another, and knew that such is the nature of field research.
Though my disappointment was profound, I said, "Too bad," and laughed with the others.
Few outside biology know the enjoyment of fieldwork in a team of real enthusiasts, and few understand the resilience that must be part of being a field ecologist. Disappointments abound, but there is always hope for the next day, the next season, the next new discovery, the unexpected. And, at the end of the day, there is the friendly bonding among a group of colleagues who are passionate about their investigations.
Weeks have passed since my foray into the Sierra Nevada. My memories are full of congeniality in the midst of mess and apparent chaos, of hard work and fun in the midst of conifers and meadows clothed in alpine flowers, where myriads of butterflies went about their lives—butterflies and caterpillars that were subjected to the vagaries of life in nature and the selection pressures that change the proportions of particular genes in their populations. I found out nothing concerning the questions that forever rumble in my head, yet came home quite renewed. And I will be there again next year; I will get the answers next time.
Copyright © Elizabeth Bernays 2006. Title graphic: "Crystalline Analysis" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2006.