Chirstmas Butterflies

Christmas Eve. We are at a friends house for our annual traditional gathering. The cinnamon and cloves from my warm mulled wine fill my nostrils. The soft voice of Michael Buble plays in the background, while the children and their friends are running round with more energy than I can imagine possible at half-six in the evening. I take a break from the several conversations happening at once so my head can have a breather. With my three and a half year chromic sinusitis my head struggles to focus when more than one people are talking at the same time. It throbs. I can’t focus on who is saying what. Sometimes it feels antisocial to break away for a moment, but at the same time a few minutes of silence helps stop the piercing stabbing pain above my left eye.

It is here when I spot it. By the ancient thick stone windowsill sits a butterfly. A beautiful, if a little battered looking, tortoise shell butterfly. A butterfly here on Christmas Eve!

A wonderful sight on Christmas Eve! The gorgeous tortoise shell butterfly I spotted!!

I always thought that butterflies died before the winter. What was it doing here: Waiting out the winter in the warm artificial heat? The life-span of a butterfly is around two to three months – not enough time to ride out the harsh winter months. There were no flowers in the house for it to feed on. It was an enigma. An exciting, elegant enigma.

So I started to read around, and I discovered something that I never knew before. I was shocked. What I had believed for 37 years turned out to be completely wrong.

Here’s what I knew. All insects, like butterflies, laid their eggs before the autumn where they would lay waiting until the first heat of spring told them it was time to hatch. The hungry caterpillars would greedily eat more than their body weight in fresh new foliage, plumping up, before wrapping themselves inside a claustrophobically tight cocoon. Inside, away from the light, away from the outside world, they change. Genes switch on transforming what was a caterpillar into a butterfly. A caterpillar and a butterfly: the same individual that looks like two completely different species. After delicately emerging from their little home in the summer, the adults would feed on nectar and find a mate to make more eggs, where the eggs would wait for spring once more. And so the cycle continues.

The eggs hatching, the big juicy caterpillars munching, and the butterfly emerging is all right. That’s the life-cycle of a butterfly. We all know that. It’s the timings I got wrong. Here’s the amazing thing. Some insects (like stick insects) do lay eggs which are in a state of suspension over winter, activating when the sun is higher in spring time. I thought all insects did this. But, not all of them do lay eggs patiently waiting under a leaf or a log over winter. Many insects lay eggs in spring. Which means that there are butterflies are around over winter.

A butterfly laying eggs under a leaf. The new leaves on this branch are just beginning to grow – the butterfly is laying the eggs in spring! (Image Public Domain)

Where are they? What do they feed on? I thought they only lived for a few months?

I discovered that some adult butterflies hibernate during the winter. Hibernate. Not strictly hibernating like a bear, but they are able to shut their bodies down in a kind of suspended animation. Tortoise shells, red admirals, peacock butterflies and others will find cold places towards the end of autumn, shut down their bodies and sleep until the warmness of spring awakens them again. They can sleep for months until this natural alarm clock stirs them from their slumber.

Of course like many of us, I have seen the incredible footage of millions of Monarch butterflies clinging to trees in Mexico where they literally freeze over winter until spring comes. Monarch butterflies hibernate. I knew that many years ago. I didn’t think that butterflies hibernated even though I saw the Monarch butterflies. I didn’t even make the connection when I saw that tortoise shell butterfly on Christmas Eve. I thought this gorgeous insect was living in the house, finding warmth in the cold darkness of winter.

Dozens of Monarch Butterflies wintering in Pismo State Beach, California. (Photo Steve Corey Public Domain)

It was like something clicked. Something I had long thought was the way things were wasn’t at all. It turns out lots of different insects have different ways of coping with the bitterness of the winter months. Some insects, like adult bees and ladybirds, will huddle together during the colder months: a mass of bodies providing warmth. Others, like ants, will live deeper in their underground homes, escaping the harshness of the cold soil above. Some, like adult stink bugs, will actually invade homes to escape the chilly outside. Some insects have even developed an antifreeze by producing glycerol that lowers the freezing temperature for their bodies. And many butterflies will find a nice tree and hang there, shutting their bodies down until spring comes again. And of course, I found out that butterflies, like tortoise shells, red admirals and others, will find a nice, safe cold place indoors.

Many sheltered places these butterflies find are houses, sheds, and garages. They will shut off everything until the warmth triggers their bodies to awaken again. The trouble is that many of these places are unnaturally heated. The alarm clock has set off too early. And this can be disastrous. Because they are awake, and their life span is so short, they will die either in the house, or outside long before the spring comes. (You can help if you see one fluttering around in your house during winter. Carefully get the butterfly in a tub with air holes (without touching the wings) and move it to a cold part of the house, or rehome it in the shed. Here it will close its body down, and go back to sleep again until the natural time to wake up.)

I’m not a superstitious or religious person (are the two the same?). I don’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural. (Although for some reason I find horror films with ghosts much more tense and terrifying than monsters or serial killers. They actually make the hairs on my neck stand up and send a horrific shiver all the way down my spine. I know they are not real, but they genuinely scare the pants off me.) There is a little romantic side to this little meander. In folklores of old, many people believed that butterflies carried the souls of people who had passed away. Some people even believed that seeing a butterfly at Christmas was the spirit of a recently deceased loved one visiting.

I smiled a little when I read those folklore tales. My mum passed away unexpectedly just after new years day last year. Even after a year it is still a shock. Today it is still not real. How can someone who has been an important part in your life suddenly just not be there anymore?

I’ve never seen a butterfly in a house ever before. I doubt it was her soul visiting. Knowing her, it is much more likely she was chuckling and telling me to get back to enjoying the mulled wine. I know that’s obviously not true, but it’s nice to imagine it. One thing I do know, is that I will not look at tortoise shell butterflies the same ever again. In a way, now her spirit kind of does live on in them: I see these glorious butterflies often in the summer, and now I shall always see them with the thought of a wonderful woman who was taken away from us much too early.

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T. rex: Generations

­Dinosaurs. Love them or hate them, they are a part of our culture. Ever since the first scientific discovery of giant reptilian bones by Gideon Mantell in the 1820s, they have captured our imagination. The fossils showed that enormous, strange reptiles once lived and breathed on our planet. And some were enormous. Bigger than a house; these giants dwarfed most living things. Some walked on four legs, some walked on two. These were creatures unlike anything seen before. The stuff of imagination: except they were real.

Richard Owen, the slightly egocentric, arrogant Victorian scientist, made these extinct reptiles even larger than they were by naming them in 1841. He grouped the three creatures then discovered (Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, and Hylaeosaurus) into a scientific Class that would become a household name: he called them Dinosauria, meaning ‘terrible lizards’. A name which was not only was easy for anyone to say, but also added to their gigantic, terrifying nature. Strangely the scientific names of dinosaurs are discussed outside of specialist circles with relative ease (think of Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, or Triceratops), whereas all other animals have a common name. Today children can pronounce dozens of dinosaur genera without blinking an eye – how many beetles or mammal genera roll of the tongue with ease?

The awesome life size sculpture of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (Photo by me)

Soon after coining the word dinosaur, Owen helped create the first life size models at Crystal Palace, putting dinosaurs in the public eye for the first time. Since then they have been hot news. The press even followed the dinosaur rush in the late 1800s between two North American palaeontologists who fought it out to find and name the most dinosaurs they could (and led to bitter rivalry between the men). Even today, at least once a month, dinosaurs are in the media.

Why are dinosaurs so popular? There is something unreal about them; something almost from legend. We can see the enormous bones on displays in museums and get a real sense of the size of these animals – they are even bigger when we gaze up at them as a child. (Not all dinosaurs were massive. Most were smaller than a human. But of course the big ones get a lot of attention.) One group of dinosaurs even survives with us today: the birds.

They are one of the few group of prehistoric animals that regularly feature in films and books. Early films used wonderful stop-start animation in films to recreate them in dramatic from, such as King Kong (1933) and 1 million years BC (1966). Recently computer animation has brought them into our homes in even more realistic detail than ever before (Jurassic Park, 1994, Dinosaur, 2000). Dinosaur books fill the shelves of book shops. A-Z of dinosaurs, prehistoric life, dinosaur fact books, and many, many more are ready for the hungry reader, young and old. At least two popular science books on dinosaurs have been published this year, and both have sold extremely well. Like sex, dinosaurs sell.

Do we need yet another dinosaur book? If it is good enough, then yes, yes we do.

And Ted Rechlin’s new book, T. rex Generations, is good enough.

Ted Rechlin’s new book, T Rex Generations, published by Rextooth Studios.

It’s a fictional story about a family of Tyrannosaurus rex living life at the end of the Cretaceous. And it’s pretty nicely done. Rechlin has created an almost graphic style comic for his story, almost resonant of Frank Miller’s graphic novels like 300 and Sin City. The artwork is faultless, with little touches that show Rechlin knows what he is talking about. The story is brought to life by his dynamic illustrations.

What is great about this fictional story, is how the latest scientific knowledge is subtly included as part of the narrative. You are reading about a fictional family of Tyrannosaurus and unknowingly learn so much at the same time. That in itself isn’t easy to do, but demonstrates Rechlin’s skill as a writer as well as an artist. You will discover other dinosaurs around at the same time as they tyrant king. You will learn about the latest scientific research on the development of Tyrannosaurus rex. And much more: whilst the story is fictional, the information is not.

One thing that this book does, where others have failed, is to show that these dinosaurs – perhaps the most famous of all dinosaurs – faced the same struggles as animals do today. The struggle of finding food, the failure of the hunt, and the infant mortality, are all weaved through the story elegantly. Reading it you can visualise these animals as real animals struggling to survive, fighting to live. It is reminiscent of the hard life on the savannah today.

There are so many dinosaur books around. Fact books. Fun books. Popular science books. They are all great and are all full of fantastic information. This is different. Adults can enjoy it as much as children. It can easily be read as a bedtime story for little ones. It’s a nice story where you are swept away into the Late Cretaceous, where monsters hunted: only these monsters were real alive 66 million years ago.

I’m a big fan of Rechlin’s art work. The animals he illustrates are somehow as real as some of the more detailed palaeoart. His illustrations are different though.. They are not full of intricate detail, yet this doesn’t make them feel less alive. It is the character he skilfully creates which brings them alive.

With many dinosaur fact books there are illustrations of the dinosaur complimented by dozens of fascinating facts. For me, these are great to see what these extinct reptiles looked like, but they lack something else. They lack that living connection. Through his character filled illustrations, Rechlin manages with ease to portray these animals as real, living things. Reading his book you are immediately transported back to a time when these iconic animals struggled in life.

Visit Rextooth Studios for more about Ted’s art, and cool up to date information about the topics he writes about. Here are links to this book and two of my favourites:

T rex: Generations is available here.

Tyrannosaurus rex is available here.

End of the Ice Age is available here.

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What weighs 50kg?

We write a lot of labels in museums. Museum curators write them for exhibitions and displays. These labels help the visitors to discover more about the object on display. They can open an unknown world about that object: the history; the story; the relevance.

There are different ways of writing museum labels. Personally, I prefer to write them in a slightly conversational tone, being quite informal. Visitors will engage more with the object on display if the label next to it is exciting and fun. (I wrote a little about writing labels in museums here.)

Sometimes we need to describe our object a little more. It may be a fragment of a fossil, so we may want to say how big the animal would have been when it was alive. This is great as long as people can relate to it. Saying the animal would have been 10 metres long means very little to anyone. Saying the animal would have been as long as a double decker bus is so much more visual for anyone who reads it.

If I’m describing the size, or weight, of something, I want visitors to be able to visualise it.

I recently had to write a label for an object, and struggled with the weight comparison. This thing was pretty heavy, but behind glass the visitors wouldn’t really get a sense of just how heavy. It weighed 50kg. I wanted to get this weight on my label, but 50kg doesn’t mean a lot to most people: 50 bags of sugar is a bit better, but it’s still not quite right.

So, I asked Twitter. And of course, Twitter responded.

There were an enormous range of responses. Some of the more interesting ones were comparing 50kg to numbers of animals. One chap said ‘a 50kg butterfly’. Another said ’35 million ants’. Whilst this is probably true, I wanted something that the majority of visitors would immediately see. 35 million ants, or 25,000 krill is pretty tricky to visualise.

There were a surprisingly large amount of replies that said ‘me’. I quite like the personal touch to this – it’s always nice to get a little personal touch in a label. It makes the object and the information more relatable to visitors: something special behind the glass, and with a personal touch it makes it something relatable to you and I. Sadly, I doubt that many museum visitors know Robyn, Paolo, Nadine or Elina.

There were an awful lot of replies about dogs. And many of the replies included pictures of dogs. And even the dog owners and their dogs. Obviously cute (and somewhat terrifying given the size of some of them), dogs are a nice choice as people love dogs. But when we get into specific breeds, do the majority of people know what a Newfoundland dog is? Regrettably I didn’t chose a dog as my weight comparison. But I will give you a few of the horrifying adorable abominations doggies.


 

It was inevitable that someone would do the classic shot of themselves lying next to a sturgeon. These are pretty big fish. Some species can grow longer than I am tall. This group of fish are pretty old too, with the earliest fossils being found around 240 million years ago. It’s a shame that these giants are not well know in the public eye. And more of a shame I couldn’t use this example with the photo:


A chimp is quite a good one. Male chimpanzee can weigh between 40kg and 60kg, and females can weigh between 27kg and 50kg. They are quite muscular animals. And instantly recognisable too. But, the variation is too much. Would the label say ‘an average sized male chimpanzee’ or ‘ a large female chimpanzee’? When we start to describe obscure specifics we are entering a realm of pure chaos for label writing: it gets messy, there’s waffle, and a new world of attempting to visualise something a little off the norm.

The same can be said of anything which is ‘half of’, or ‘an animal with something else’. Half a dolphin might just traumatise the kids reading the label. And, as fascinating as it truly is, I don’t think a Blue Whale testicle is a good comparison. (I think it is a fascinating comparison in it’s own right, but not for my label.)

The Giant Pacific Octopus is a neat example. It does weigh 50kg. Unfortunately many people won’t have seen one or know how big it is. These are pretty big beasts, which can be longer than a black cab. As nice as it is, I won’t use this example, because I would need an illustration to show the size of the Giant Pacific Octopus, and that makes the label get too complicated.

Of course, museum folk jumped in with their example. My favourite – 1000 herbarium sheets. It’s quite an interesting fact. Herbaria are collections of pressed plants. They are mounted on thin sheets of card, with all the information written onto the card. I actually didn’t know that 1000 sheets would weigh 50kg.


There’s an awful lot of choice. From pressed plants to the testicle of a Blue Whale, a lot of really interesting things weigh 50kg. Which one am I going to use for my label. I think I am going for something simple. Something everyone can visualise. Something cute.


Thank you to everyone who responded. And I will leave you with a final one for your thoughts:

 

 

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