September 2012

From horse stingers to courtship and cuckoldry

Harold White’s Delmarva-lous reflections
on the fascinating world of Odonata



Immediately before beginning a seven-week summer session nonmajors biochemistry course, I was quite surprised to receive an autographed copy Harold White’s book “Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies: Essays of a Lifelong Observer” (1). Before receiving this book, I had just read White’s article “Visualizing the Perception Filter and Breaching It with Active-Learning Strategies” (2), in which he suggests that a primary goal of student-centered learning is “to generate situations and activities that open holes in the perception filter and allow information to invade the student’s working memory space.” Standing on the precipice of a once-a-year teaching obligation, my memory space already was fairly overwhelmed, and, not being an Odonata aficionado, there was certainly a need for something to poke a hole in my self-imposed perception filter. Fortunately, that was primarily accomplished by my great admiration of Hal’s passion for and leadership in transforming undergraduate education in biochemistry and secondarily by the fact that, having been born and raised on the Delmarva Peninsula, I am very familiar with many of the collection and observation sites White reveals in his book.

Photo of Hal White 
Hal White

In the preface, the author candidly states that he has not written this book to be a formal field guide describing the 85 dragonfly and 44 damselfly Delmarva inhabitants. Rather, he uses the detailed photographs and colorful descriptions of each species as the basis for an eclectic series of reflections on subjects ranging from the development of his own interest in these amazing creatures to natural selection and evolutionary biology, the ethics of obtaining voucher specimens for collections as opposed to photographic documentation (a dragonfly enthusiast’s version of catch-and-release), the humorous opportunity to use his knowledge to discreetly identify the species depicted in a woman’s dragonfly body art, and the lamentable fact that many younger bioscience students are disconnected from the natural world and seldom go outdoors for extended periods of time. This latter chapter prompted me to reflect on the fact that while those of us who are of pre-Nintendo/ Xbox/Wii generations often were stimulated to pursue careers in the biosciences because of our interest in the outdoor world (this was certainly the case for me, as I spent copious amounts of time paddling a canoe along the upper reaches of the Nanticoke River and duck hunting in a variety of lower Delaware marshes), we spend so much time investigating the intricacies of the molecular world that we tend to neglect studying the intricacies of the creatures with which we co-exist in our biosphere.

This charming, humorous and well-written book is such a joy to read because it reminds us of the first principles we learned in traditional biology courses many years ago and instills in us the desire to learn more about the living things about which we have little knowledge, whether we live in the arid Sonoran Desert or the more water-rich Delmarva Peninsula. To that end (and being the consummate educator), White sprinkles suggestions for interesting research projects for young scientists throughout his book. These suggestions, coupled with the fact that natural habitats are being lost at an alarming rate, makes one realize that it is incumbent upon those of us who are in a position to do so to engage in greater outreach activities, mainly in the form of field trips, with K–12 students to give them a better sense of the astounding natural world in which they live as well as “how science is done and the people who do science.”

Interestingly, after looking through “Dragonflies and Damselflies” one evening, my 14-year-old granddaughter (who is “terrified” of insects) casually informed me that she had seen a couple dragonflies down near our horse corrals. Now we are determined to know whether they are Spot-winged Gliders, Cardinal Meadowhawks or Mayan Setwings; being amateurs in the “Ode” field, we will have to wait until the dragonflies perch on a greasewood branch, because we lack the skill to identify them in flight. But as a direct result of White sharing his passion for these amazing insects in his wonderful book, another young person has become more knowledgeable about the world in which she lives.

References
  1. 1. White, H. B. Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies: Essays of a Lifelong Observer (2011).
  2. 2. White, H. B. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 40, 138 – 139 (2012).

 
 

Photo of James T. HazzardJames T. Hazzard (jhazzard@email.arizona.edu) is a senior lecturer at the University of Arizona department of chemistry and biochemistry.

 


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