Thursday, May 7, 2015

Dragonflies in the Movies: Sci-Fi

Science fiction movies from the 1950s are fun to watch.  They can be so serious in their treatment of a topic, but silly and unintentionally funny, too.

A good case in point is Monster On The Campus from 1958.  It stars Arthur Franz and Joanna Moore, and marks an early appearance by Troy Donahue.  Most interesting from my point of view, however, is that it includes a scene prominently featuring a dragonfly.  But more on that in a moment.  First, here are a couple movie posters for this campy flick:

Hard to resist a movie after seeing posters like that!

Here's the basic premise of the film.  A professor at a small university obtains a coelacanth specimen for his research.  Coelacanths are often referred to as a "living fossils" because they were thought to have gone extinct in the Cretaceous period, until one was found alive and kicking by a fisherman off the coast of South Africa in 1938.  The professor's specimen was preserved by using gamma rays, then sent to his university.  Now we have all the basic ingredients we need for some 50s-style sci-fi – a "living fossil" and radiation.

When the coelacanth is delivered to the professor there is blood is leaking out of its crate, and a dog drinks some of it.  Now, what happens when a dog drinks radiation-treated, living-fossil blood?  Well – naturally – his evolution reverses, devolving him into a "fossil" wolf-like dog.  The effect of the blood wears off after awhile, and the dog reverts to normal.  Only the professor saw the dog's transformation, and without proof no one believes him.

Here's the coelacanth in its crate:

A little later, the professor examines the coelacanth in his lab for a class of students.

Now, here's the key scene:  A dragonfly comes in through the open window and lands on the coelacanth.  The dragonfly now begins to feed on the coelacanth's flesh and blood – interesting behavior for a dragonfly.  The dragonfly is shooed out through the window where, in a matter of minutes, it reverses its evolution until it's a hawk-sized prehistoric dragonfly.  Here it is wanting to get back into the lab for some more coelacanth.

The professor wants to study this "fossil dragonfly", so he lets it back in the lab, where it flies around for a some time.  No CG effects here – just models and wires, as you can probably see in the following photos.

Finally, the professor nets the dragonfly and takes it as a specimen for study.

He doesn't learn that much from the dragonfly, however.  A little later he accidentally gets coelacanth blood on his pipe and smokes it, whereupon he becomes a prehistoric man.  He's no longer a big man on campus – now he's a big monster on campus.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Grey Owl

Grey Owl is a delightful 1999 movie by Richard Attenborough, starring Pierce Brosnan as a real-life Canadian trapper turned conservationist, who became a work-wide phenomenon in the period between WWI and WWII.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie is Brosnan's co-star, Annie Galipeau, shown below.  She steals virtually ever scene in which she appears.

The real-life Grey Owl was a great lover of beavers, and firmly opposed to their reckless exploitation.  The beaver shown below with Grey Owl was his friend "Jelly Roll."

At one point in the movie, Grey Owl visits his childhood home in England.  As he explores his old bedroom, we catch a glimpse of an insect collection mounted on the wall, prominently featuring some dragonflies (ah, I finally got around to mentioning dragonflies).

This is a quite enjoyable movie, though little known to the general public.  The role of Grey Owl is certainly a bit of a departure from the roles we normally associate with Pierce Brosnan.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Roseate Skimmer

One of the most common dragonflies at the Gilbert Water Ranch these days is the Roseate Skimmer.  The color of the male shows aptness of the name:

A male Roseate Skimmer resting on its favorite perch.

The female is more cryptically colored, as one would expect.  Here's an example:

A female Roseate Skimmer at the Gilbert Water Ranch.

Notice the large "flange" near the tip of the abdomen.  This is where the eggs come out!

Here's a group of three Roseates, two females and one male, just hanging out near Roseate Bay.  The male is the one at the bottom, lacking a flange.

It's interesting to be able to see so many of these dragonflies of different sex and at different stages of maturation all in one compact location.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rambur's Forktail

One of the first odonates we see each year is the Rambur's Forktail.  In terms of coloration, it is similar to the Western Forktail that is common in Washington – green thorax with a blue tip to the abdomen – but the ranges are quite different.  Notice that the abdomen is black above and yellow below, with a nice straight line demarcating the two colors.  Here's a look at a male Rambur's Forktail:

A male Rambur's Forktail at the Gilbert Water Ranch.  Notice the hamules under segment 2 of the abdomen.

The eyes are similar to those of the Pacific Forktail – black above and greenish-blue below.

Female Rambur's Forktail can look a lot like a male, in which case they are said to be andromorphic (male form).  An example is shown below:

An andromorphic female Rambur's Forktail at the Gilbert Water Ranch.

Notice the flat bottom to segment 2 (S2) of the abdomen.  Thus, this individual lacks hamules, which indicates clearly that it is a female.  In the photo of the male above, the hamules are seen prominently on the bottom of S2.

Females can also look different from the males, and in this case are referred to as heteromorphic (different form).  Here's an example:

Heteromorphic female Rambur's Forktail.

Notice the orange thorax with the black front stripe, and the lack of hamules under S2.  As this individual matures it will become more greenish-brown.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Happy-face On My Finger

I have many pictures of the Happy-face Dragonfly sitting on my finger.  I decided to convert one of them to a drawing.  Notice the paddle-shaped appendages – which are responsible for its official common name, the Paddle-tailed Darner – and the presence of a light-colored spot on the tenth segment of the tail (abdomen).

The official name, Paddle-tailed Darner, isn't particularly apt because a number of different species have paddle-shaped appendages.  For example, the Shadow Darner, Walker's Darner, and the Lance-tipped Darner all have appendages with a similar paddle shape.  This leads to confusion because people often think that paddle-shaped appendages must be distinctive to the Paddle-tailed Darner, and are surprised to find the same shape in other darners.

In addition, the use of "tailed" in the name is unfortunate, because "tail" usually refers to the abdomen, not the appendages.  As an example, the Common Whitetail has a white abdomen (tail); similarly, the Red-tailed Pennant has a red abdomen (tail).  On the other hand, the Brush-tipped Emerald has appendages (tips) that are brush shaped.  So, the Paddle-tailed Darner has a name that is not particularly appropriate – of course, I think it's official name should be the Happy-face Darner!

It's been a long time since I seen one of these guys, much less had one on my finger.  I'm looking forward to becoming reacquainted with them later this year.  In the meantime, here's a YouTube video slideshow of a variety of dragonflies on my fingers:  Slideshow.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Early-Season Report: Red-tailed Pennant

The Red-tailed Pennant is a common red dragonfly of the desert southwest.  In Arizona, where I am now, its flight season is said to begin in June.  Even so, I've been seeing them regularly in April the last couple years, and this year I saw one in my backyard just a few days ago.  It seems their early flight date should be moved up to March.

Here's a look at the Red-tailed Pennant, along with some of its more prominent field marks indicated with white text and arrows. The blue annotations indicate other features of interest.

A male Red-tailed Pennant, observed at the Gilbert Water Ranch.
Field marks for the Red-tailed Pennant.

Here's a slightly different view:

It seems a lot of animals are showing up at different times than usual these days – apparently the Red-tailed Pennant falls into that group.

The best thing about this observation is that this was the first time I've seen a Red-tailed Pennant in my backyard.  That's cool.  I hope I continue to see them!

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Whisperer Spoke

Betsy and I had a great time visiting Sedona and Flagstaff.  We enjoyed the beautiful countryside, and had lots of fun meeting fellow nature lovers.

Sedona, AZ, as viewed from near our hotel.  The "coffee pot" formation is on the right.

The San Francisco peaks near Flagstaff, AZ, with a light covering of snow.

Thanks to all who attended the dragonfly presentations – your enthusiastic response and excellent questions made the whole experience more enjoyable for everyone!