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The Brain Scoop:
What is a Species?

When I was in high school, I learned that the definition of a species is two animals that can interbreed and give birth to fertile offspring. Like, dogs are all one species because they technically can interbreed (although, functionally, watching a Great Dane and a Chihuahua work it out might be… difficult), but donkeys and horses are different because – although they can mate and give birth – their offspring (mules) are sterile.

At the time, I thought – well, that’s pretty straight forward. Thanks, scientists, for solving yet another mystery of life. 

Fast forward to a few months ago when I asked one of my taxonomist colleagues to define a ‘species’ for me. The result of that (many hour-long) conversation inspired this video. Turns out, the answer isn’t, at all, straight-forward. 

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Entomological Illustration Station at the Maastricht Natural History Museum 

I had the awesome chance this past weekend to work the day at the Maastricht Natural History Museum for Het Weekend van de Wetenschap (Science Weekend), where I was asked to set up a station for scientific illustration! Since Sunday was bug-themed, I focused my little area on entomological illustration.

What is entomological illustration?

Entomological illustration is used to accurately describe and catalogue all known species of insects. This type of descriptive illustration is called a habitus

Why use drawings?

Though macrophotography has become more prevalent, it is very expensive and still requires visual interpretation (due to changes in depth of field and zoom limits).  Drawings, however, can be detailed and clear to the smallest level and can describe layers of depth and function otherwise unseen.

I had about 3.5 hours to hang out and draw bugs, both digitally and with the museum’s fancy camera lucida. 

A camera lucida is an attachment to a microscope that allows the viewer to see both the magnified subject and the artist’s paper/hand via lights and mirrors! It’s a super useful tool to secure the accuracy of the measurements and proportions of the specimen, but it’s actually quite difficult to get used to! I had the chance to use it during my internship with the Smithsonian a few years ago, to detail the budding on the bean specimen I was drawing, and it was just as difficult as I remembered hahaha 

ANYWAYS–we had a fun little troupe of people and children walking in and out, exploring the lab and the selection of insect specimens the museum had gathered to share. It was so exciting to see how interested the kids were in discovering the amazing details of the insects like the scales on butterfly wings and the hairs on honeybee legs! 

One of the little girls, 8 year old Indigo, came over to me to tell me how excited she was and how much she loved fossils and dinosaurs and everything in biology, and then pulled me over to her microscope to show me the differences between the butterfly scales and asked for a piece of paper to draw them all. Her little sister, Elsa, also took a piece of paper to draw the bees like me (: 

It’s so inspiring to see little girls so excited about science!!
Girls need so badly to be supported to increase the gender balance within STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering and Math) and I hope the best for these creative, curious girls. Keep exploring, little ones! :)