To Be a Rove Beetle

September 15th, 2011 | Meera

I have a small number of tracks that I follow through the halls of the Field Museum almost every time I go there. The museum, as those of you who have visited it will know, is a cavernous structure. Its walls contain more than a million square feet of floor space, less than half of which is devoted to publicly displayed exhibits—so if you have been there, imagine how big it seems to you when you’re standing in that enormous central atrium and then just go ahead and double that feeling.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even if all you ever wanted to do was travel back and forth between two spots in the entire building—say, the doors of the West entrance and the bird prep lab on the 3rd floor—you could probably devise a near-infinite number of different routes to take.

Some might whisk you through the plant hall, others past the ancient Americas; some would wind their way around the feet of dinosaurs, others plunge you deep inside the heart of minerals. If you had an all-access-granted ID pass, no staircase, door, or elevator would be closed to you; you could make the Field your only home, and walking it your only recreation, and still you’d likely need more than one lifetime to traverse each one of the possible passageways it contains.

Me, I’ve been there close to a hundred and fifty times in the past two and a half years. And almost every single time I enter its doors, I take one of perhaps three, or, at most, four paths to get where I am going. It’s embarrassing, actually. I feel like an ant following some set of strange, self-made, incredibly persuasive pheromone-laden tracks; each week I sniff out what I left there seven days before and lay down new markers in the same old places as I crawl.

All this, friends, to explain why I have certain very favorite objects at the Field. For the things in the museum that I adore the most just happen to be, besides inherently lovely and fascinating, also conveniently located right along my ant-tracks.

The one I thought I’d share with you today is a large pair of drawings, mounted together in a single frame on a wall on the ground level, near the McDonalds. Each depicts multiple whole and partial specimens of Rove beetles: a large group of beetles belonging to the family Staphylinidae that, as far as I can gather, get their name because they’re fond of getting places by scurrying inconspicuously across the ground instead of taking wing.

(Their other common characteristic is a pair of unusually short forewings that leaves their abdomens half exposed, like teenage girls wearing midriff-baring t-shirts. But unlike most teenage girls, they’re shy, sleek little things.)

I’ve admired these drawings dozens of times, but today was the first time I stopped to photograph them, and it was also the first time I noted the name of the person who created them. He was Alexander Bierig. He loved beetles. And, as we shall see, he had something to teach me.

Alexander Bierig was born in 1884 in Karlsruhe (the prettiest fan-shaped German city you’ve never heard of). He was the youngest of the four sons of the shoemaker Ludwig Georg Phillipp Bierig, who apparently spent his spare time writing plays and poems. Nice work, Ludwig.

What I love about Alexander’s life story is that it has a wonderful sort of pivot in the middle of it; the first half of his biography is entirely respectable and sedate and conventional, and then he meets someone who changes things for him forever, and suddenly he embarks on a life of adventure! And jungles! And insects! To wit:

Respectable: After studying to be a graphic artist in his home town, Bierig spent a few years living and working as an illustrator in Berlin, where he got married. Then he moved to Paris with his wife Katherine, taught a few private art classes, drew pictures for scientific articles and books, and had his only child, a son who would one day grow up to be an architect.

When World War I began, the Bierig family moved back to Karlsruhe, and Alexander was soon called up to serve in the German army. The end of the war also marked the beginning of the end of Bierig’s staid life, because it proved impossible for him to find work as an artist in a country whose economy had been so thoroughly devastated.

Pivot: What happens next seems to have been that in 1919, some Russian friends of the Bierigs decided to move to Havana in search of work. This was a sensible enough plan, since at the time Havana was just starting to undergo two huge booms: one in sugar and one in tourism. There was definitely more money flowing to it than to Karlsruhe. Inspired, Alexander decided to move his little family to Cuba too.

In Havana, Bierig walked down some old paths for a while. He freelanced as a graphic artist, became a teacher of drawing and natural sciences at the German School, and kept giving private art classes.

He also met the person who would be his pivot: an eminent Costa Rican entomologist named Ferdinand Nevermann. Bierig had become interested in beetles while he was in Paris, and had even written a scientific paper about two species of Carabidae after he moved back to Karlsruhe. But it was his friendship with Nevermann that ignited what would become a lifelong love affair with field work, collecting, and Rove beetles in particular.

(At some point in 1923, Katherine—who didn’t like Cuba or its climate at all—moved back to Germany with their son. I haven’t been able to determine whether she was also irritated with her husband’s growing obsession with beetles, but I wouldn’t rule it out. In any event, the marriage didn’t survive the separation. Alone in Havana, Bierig befriended several other zoologists, learned everything there was to learn about Rove beetles, and began publishing more scientific papers. But it wasn’t until 1938 that his second life really began.)

Adventure!: In 1938, Bierig went on his first field trip, an excursion with Nevermann to Costa Rica. I don’t know how the trip would have been graded by scientific criteria, but by all other benchmarks things did not go well. There was An Accident. I wish I could tell you with certainty exactly what this accident was, but the small amount of literature I’ve been able to find on the subject contains conflicting details.

One story is that Nevermann and Bierig were attacked by a jaguar which pounced on them from a treetop, and Nevermann was killed, while Bierig was severely wounded. Another is that Nevermann was out collecting insects at night, by headlamp, and was accidentally shot by a local hunter who mistook his light for the glowing eyes of a large animal. One version of this second story has Bierig there and wounded, too; another doesn’t mention Bierig at all.

What is clear is that Bierig’s first exposure to field work was extraordinarily traumatic. It resulted in the death of his scientific partner and good friend. It seems to have gravely injured him. Yet one year later—clearly intoxicated by the glorious, colorful, totally overwhelming world of tropical wildlife that he’d found in Costa Rica—he returned to the same country to continue his beetle collecting. And he never left.

In Costa Rica Bierig would become a professor of entomology in San José, author dozens of scientific papers, collect approximately 26,000 individual specimens, and describe over 150 new species and over 30 new genera of insects (most of which were Rove beetles and all of which, of course, he would also illustrate). He was a field biologist extraordinaire. He was also a celebrated and often exhibited artist in his adopted country, remembered till this day for his influence on an entire generation of Costa Rican painters and illustrators.

rove beetles

The final years of Bierig’s life were not easy ones, although they had some bright spots (like the happy discovery of a granddaughter he’d never known he had). He began to lose his eyesight, became rather solitary, and finally died in 1963 after a long and painful illness. With no one to maintain them, his drawings, papers, and the tens of thousands of type specimens he’d collected began to deteriorate in the tropical heat and humidity.

Fortunately for posterity, this is when they were scooped up by the Field. And very fortunately for me, a few of Alexander’s drawings happened to find themselves (nearly 50 years later) located on one of my three or four short and unimaginative ant-trails through the museum.

As far as I can tell, Alexander was pretty damned good at roving. In tribute to him, next time I go into the Field Museum, I’m going to experiment with some different routes to where I’m going. I bet I’ll find a new favorite object or two. And if today is anything to go by, I might also find another great story to tell you.


(This is a self-portrait Alexander drew. I think he looks fantastic.)

Persistence Hunting

August 31st, 2011 | Meera

I have always been stubborn, and I have never been able to run.

As to stubbornness: I have stood my ground, bruised and bloody-minded, so many times over so many things that the specifics blend into each other; a plate of vegetables I refused to eat at age six resides in the same part of my brain as an apology I refused to make at age twenty seven.

As to running: I have tried it so few times with such pitiful results that the specifics are horribly stark; a single night-excursion with A. through the stony streets of Jerusalem, ending mere minutes later in shame and sweat and heart palpitations, is as vivid as if it had been stitched into a medieval tapestry and hung on my wall.

A few years ago, when Ross and I lived in Boston and I volunteered as a gallery guide at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, we used to go there fairly often to listen to public lectures in the evenings. The details of most of the talks we attended—on, for instance, the physiology of singing insects or whether morality is learned or innate—are lost to memory.

But one event in particular impressed me so much that I still think about it from time to time, and it has been on my mind this week. It was by a Harvard researcher named Daniel Lieberman, an anthropologist who studies human evolution. At the time, Lieberman was obsessed with the question of how and why we run.

The conventional wisdom about locomotion, he argued—that early hominids whose bodies were more suited to bipedalism were the ones who survived when they left their shady tree-dwelling lives to forage for food on the open savannah, and that the human ability to run was simply a byproduct of the ability to walk—was all wrong.

Listen, he said: Our cousins the Australopithecines could walk on two legs, and their bodies—hunch-shouldered, short-legged—were nothing like those of the genus Homo. Plus, Australopithecines continued to lead a partially arboreal existence for millions of years, even after they evolved to be bipedal.

Walking, Lieberman announced to the room, didn’t bring us down from the trees, and it didn’t give us our human shape.

Running did.

Only look: The human body is exquisitely well-designed to run. It has long, elastic tendons in its legs and feet that store energy like springs when compressed, something we do much more when we run than when we walk. It has large gluteus maximus muscles that pull our torsos backwards and keep us upright when we lean crazily forward into the off-balance pitch that starts each new step of a run. It is relatively hairless, and can sweat—both adaptations that allow us to release the heat of extreme exertion.

The reason we evolved to lope, dash, scamper, gallop, hurtle across this great green Earth?

Well, the anthropologist grinned, we hadn’t yet invented the bows and arrows that would enable us to kill over long distances; we hadn’t yet tamed the wild horses that would one day carry us close to fleeing animals.

We learned to run, he argued—and run, and run, and run—so we could hunt prey to exhaustion, track it for hours if necessary, past the point at which a quadruped (built to gallop only for short distances) would have to stop to pant. And then we would stop running, too, and have done with it.

I remember being struck, at the time, by how extraordinarily steely this seemed—how the idea of it made me simultaneously marvel at and recoil from my strange, inherited human self. If this was true then we were born to conquer; born to do it without tools, without thought, and without guile, but through a simple act of complete and total obstinacy. To run, it seemed, was to be stubborn.

I have always been stubborn, and I have never been able to run.

For thirty-two years I have lived with both these ideas about myself. But (ask a Harvard anthropologist!) being deeply contradictory truths, perhaps it should not so much surprise that one of them would someday fall.

So far this week, heart and legs and mind stronger than they have ever been from a summer’s worth of field work, I have run a total of nine miles—by the lake, at the gym, through the streets of my neighborhood in Hyde Park. It isn’t much, I know; nine miles is far from an endurance-run across the Kalahari. There is a long, long way to go.

But I have not stopped to pant. I am persisting. I am claiming my strange, inherited human self.

And one of these days I’m going to outlast whatever it is I’m hunting, and have done with it.

lake run

(This is the 3-mile route Ross and I have been running.)

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(You can read more about Lieberman’s work in his 2004 paper on the evolution of running, or in any of a number of popular articles it spawned.)


New World Warbler

August 11th, 2011 | Meera

I’m back in the lab on Thursdays, and this morning I walked into it to find that Dave had set out three beautiful little New World wood warblers for me to prepare. Although I loved every bird I encountered in Sweden, I found myself missing many North American species while I was away, including our vivid warblers. It was a delight, therefore, to work today on a turmeric-yellow Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus), an Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) with an especially large splotch of rust on its head, and a sleek Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia).

Male Magnolia Warblers always make me think of gentlemen who’ve dressed themselves in suits of the most conventional gray, white, and black—and then decided at the last moment that they simply must put on vests as bright as any daffodil.

Magnolia warbler, before

Magnolia warbler, in process

Magnolia warbler, after

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The English word world can be traced, through only a few straightforward steps, to an ancient Germanic compound noun meaning “the age of man” (wer: “man”/ ald: “age”). Ald, in turn, is derived from an even older verb meaning “to grow” or “to nourish.” Thus, world: that place where human beings and their affairs flourish.

It’s a fine thing, friends, to be alive in such a place: whether Old or New. Ah; it is the only thing, you may remind me. But still—and despite all hardships—a fine, fine one.