Episode 36: Aaron Fairweather on Myrmecology (Ants) and Being a Furry in Scicomm

Image: Partially exposed colony of Lasius niger. Image used under the terms of CC BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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Transcript

Charles 0:24
Hello, this is assigned scientist at bachelors I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.

And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.

As a guest today we have entomologist Aaron Fairweather. Aaron Fairweather is an entomologist and science communicator with a lifelong passion for science and insects. They’ve completed a BSc, MSC and are working on a PhD on ants and agricultural systems at the University of Guelph, all while delivering a few courses. They can’t seem to disentangle their hobbies and passion for science, so in their free time, they like to dress up as an animal and teach about them too or garden slash rock climb, all while looking for bugs. Aaron, welcome to the show.

Aaron 0:59
Thank you for having me.

Charles 0:59
Thank you so much for coming on. So to begin with, we normally like to ask people just how did you get interested in science?

Aaron 1:06
It’s like, that’s one of my favorite questions, because I’ve just always had an incredible passion for science and just nature in general, like growing up my, my dad was an avid marine biologist, would take us on like fishing trips and take us into the woods for hikes and all the time and stuff. And my parents were always very supportive of all my little weird endeavors, trying to raise caterpillars and keep ant colonies and all kinds of things like that. So from as early on as two years old, I was looking at the small things of the world and trying to figure out what they were and I just kind of kept with it. I kept journals about the insects, I would see… I would document what they were doing and try and draw them and that kind of thing. And when I got into high school, I served working and volunteering at the local museum. And then it just kind of cascaded from there. I kind of got more opportunities as I went along, got to the University of Guelph and just kept going into entomology.

Charles 2:03
Wonderful. I actually know a little bit about the University of Guelph because I did my BA&Sc at McGill.

Aaron 2:10
Oh, yeah.

Charles 2:11
Yeah. And so I I know like two things about Guelph. One is, this guy that I dated when I was an undergrad told me that Guelph has a lot of lesbians.

Aaron 2:20
Okay.

Charles 2:21
I don’t know if that’s true.

Aaron 2:22
[laughing gently] I don’t know if that’s true, either.

Charles 2:25
And then also, I am – the first publication out of my MS is going to be with the Canadian Journal of Arthropod identification.

Aaron 2:36
Nice.

Charles 2:36
Yeah. And I know that a lot of people involved with that are also at Guelph.

Aaron 2:41
Yeah, yeah. One of the main editors, Stephen Marshall, was the person I did my first insect taxonomy course with and like,

Charles 2:49
Oh, my God. That’s like hearing that you know a celebrity.

Aaron 2:53
Yeah, right. I’d, like, and it’s so funny because Stephen Marshall was one of the reasons why I chose group Well, he wrote the textbook in sex and diversity in history. And Eastern…

Charles 3:03
Oh, you don’t got to tell me twice.

Aaron 3:05
Oh, yeah. And so I got that book when I was in high school. And I just I read through it again, and again and again. And I looked up where this guy taught, and it was University of Guelph I was like, that’s where I’m going.

Charles 3:16
Aaron, can you actually tell us more about your current research?

Aaron 3:20
Yeah, so I’m working with Anson agricultural systems in southern Ontario. So looking at their diversity, their ecology, and then I want to use one of the most common species that we have here Lasius neoniger as a model organism for soil ecotoxicology research. So actually try and raise them in a lab, see what the conditions are for them. And then try and set a certain set of parameters or conditions or endpoints that I can use for testing certain pesticides. And I’ll be my last part is actually testing that model for agricultural bio assays.

Charles 3:56
Well, can you tell us more about this specific species?

Aaron 3:59
Yeah, so Lasuis neoniger is also known as the labor day ant. It’s a really cool species that it’s probably the most common like lawn ant you’ll find, sually builds those tiny, tiny mounds that you see on lawns all across North America, it has one day, usually around Labor Day, which is why it’s called a labor day where it has its massive natural flight. It’s just, if you go outside on the right day, there’s literally millions of wing queens to be and males flying around establishing new colonies. It’s so so cool.

Charles 4:35
So what… distinguishes this ant from all the other ants?

Aaron 4:40
One distinguishing character is just that it’s very small. And one of the first things that we look at when we’re looking at different ant species is just the kind of size category we can easily get them down based on how big they are. And then from that size, we look at one character called the petiole. And it’s also known as the “wasp waist.” So whenever you see a wasp or a bee, you know, there’s that constructed segment before it’s kind of butt area, that constricted segment in ants can either be one or two segments. In the case of Lasius neoniger has one segment there. From there, there’s just like kind of some my new characters that identifies it as the Lasius, that one genus. We call it like the the shelf before the petiole. It has a very flat back, kind of, and that’s kind of what we use to identify it down to that species

Charles 5:29
Behaviourally, do they have any particularly interesting traits?

Aaron 5:33
right? I could go on forever about why ants in general have just amazing traits. But, and a lot of common species of ants have really cool like gardening and almost like architectural behaviors. And Lasius neoniger is no exception, they tend to reap root feeding aphids. So you’ll see them often around the roots of plants. And they’ll be harvesting aphids, or feeding on the plants xylem and phloem, where they get these nice sugars that the ants feed off of. So they’re almost like cattle ants, these ants will also when they’re nesting in the root systems of the plant, they will stimulate the growth of those roots, and actually funnel nutrients to increase the amount of the growth rate of the plant to increase the amount of nutrients that the aphids can get. It kind of is a positive feedback back loop on both ends, the plants benefit and the ants benefit and the aphids don’t overwhelm the plant when they’re present. It’s really really, really cool balancing act.

Tessa 6:30
Yeah, that sounds like you know, pretty hardcore, like agriculture or, you know, planting aphid husbandry.

Aaron 6:37
Oh, yeah, this is like, and if it husbandry, fungal gardening, seed growing in ants, it goes back hundreds of millions of years, they’ve been doing this so long that they’ve got it down to a science per se, like, if we were paying attention to ants 1000s of years ago, we would be way more advanced than they are now because they are doing things like that, that kind of gardening, but then they’re also doing things like aqueducts to funnel water away from the colony, and then store it and soil at the base of their colony. So they can kind of use it as a faucet and as a saving grace to clear them from floods and all kinds of things. That’s pretty, it’s amazing. Look at it.

Charles 7:16
Normally, when people might think about insects of agricultural importance, they usually will think, well, first they’ll think of honeybees because of Big Honeybee spreading propaganda.

Aaron 7:30
Yeah.

Charles 7:30
And then they might think of other pollinators and or pest species like aphids. I think it might be interesting to people to hear that ants are a group of agricultural importance. Could you talk more about that?

Aaron 7:44
Yeah. So it’s kind of amazing that in North America, in general Europe, there hasn’t been very much research at all in that regards. Like, if you look into the literature, there’s been a few papers here and there about ant diversity on crops, and then maybe looking at ants tangentially when they’re present, when you’re looking at pollinators and that kind of thing, because they’re hymenoptera, but not really specifically look at ants and agricultural systems. But then as soon as you move to South America or in Asia, like, there’s so much research on ants as really important bio regulators and integrated pest manage, species being used and that kind of thing. It’s like, it’s so cool.

Charles 8:26
Could you explain to people what integrated pest management is?

Aaron 8:30
Oh, yeah, of course. So integrated pest management is using all the practices that are available to us and our understanding of how crops grow, to make crops grow better. So it’s not just the use of pesticides, which is a part of it, but then there is correct tilling practices, correct use of native nitrogen and different fertilizers in crops, and then also the use of agricultural ecological practices. So growing other crops with multiple different species of crops to create a hetero, genus like system, so multiple different species that makes them a robust system. And then to add in natural predators like spiders and parasitoid wasps and beetles like ladybird beetles that feed on aphids and that kind of thing, and then using other things that are compounds in the environment that might help the production of the crops, like pheromones that might attract species away from the crops and using buffering areas around crops to attract pollinators, all that kind of thing to support the growth of the crops outside of just what we’ve used traditionally, by using all the techniques that are available to us.

Yeah, in South America, there’s been a huge amount of research on the utility of Finally, as these bio control agents able to get rid of aphids and all kinds of pest species like caterpillars and that kind of thing. There’s one really great paper that says that they got rid of when they introduced this one species of Dolly They just decimated the caterpillar population on the crop. And it was like 75% reduction, which is way more than some pesticides even, it was really cool. And there was even a paper that I read really recently from Japan that was talking about case study of the utility of answers bio control that was used in 304. Ad. So, way really, really early on and utility of Ansan, like, I think was rice paddies and, and flowering trees to get rid of variety of pests, mostly caterpillars. And it was just like, it’s just so cool that there’s this huge history associated with it. But we’ve just kind of lost that knowledge and haven’t really used it or applied it in any real sense in recent history. And ants, again, have fallen off this wagon of these bio control agents and have really been more associated with pest species, especially in North American Europe. They are whenever you talk to farmers, or the public about answer is like, Oh, I want to get rid of them from my home because they’re either tearing apart my house, or they’re just a nuisance on my counters and that kind of thing. But there’s just this other amazing element to them that the that is being realized, I think,

Charles 11:18
Hmm, so integrating ants into pest management in agriculture – this may seem a very, very basic question, but but how do you get the ants where you want them to be?

Aaron 11:33
I mean, it’s a good question. It’s kind of the same thing that you would do. If you want to ladybird beetles to be on your crops or in your garden, you just kind of introduce them. And then if there is space available to them, which would be just the available soil, they will take to it really quickly. Through my research for my PhD, particularly my first year when I was first discovering what kind of diversity was on the crops in southern Ontario, I really quickly realized that after the nuptial flight in the fall for Lasius neoniger, as long as the crops weren’t too disturbed, or they didn’t tell afterwards too much, the they just took to the open soil really quickly. And in the following spring, just about every place that they had a crop or a plant coming up from the soil had a colony near it, or just actually in the root system of the growing plant, which is just really amazing to see and really cool to document I can’t wait to publish about it. When you talk about you know, just introducing them to you’re just like, get a bunch capture a bunch of queens and drones and just, you know, put them in a box and then move the box to the field and open the box, or is it more complicated than that? I mean, I think that’s what’s been done in a lot of cases, especially the introductions that have happened in South American crops and that kind of thing.

All of the papers I’ve read from there have been mostly that they just get a bunch of Queens that they know are made it and you can just gather them by the 1000s, during an actual flight, and then just toss them into a field and then hope most of them take, there are a number of things that you can do for other species, particularly with Lasius neoniger that I work with, you could just put a bunch of divots in the ground, like pre made holes that queens will bury into and start their own tunnels through it. I have seen a lot of success with that with my own personal colonies, like in my home, if I want them to nest in a particular spot in a terrarium, or something, you can just pre make a hole and they will take to that more than anywhere else in the terrarium. But I don’t think anybody’s actually done any research on that. Or to that extent, like what can you do to further encourage ants on your crops or in your fields or wherever you want?

Charles 13:37
When you mentioned seeing them in the root systems, how do you call like, how do you see that without damaging the plant too much?

Aaron 13:45
Well, I mean, mostly, one of the things I was working with was pumpkin and they have a really big stem and the root systems often you get a lot of hair roots and thick roots that will break the soil a little bit. So you can actually look down through where the stem enters the ground. And especially on a dry day, the soil is fairly cracked. So you can actually see down pretty well if you have a flashlight or something. So that was one of the ways that I would do it. You can also I mean this was with the farmers permission but take up some of the crops and see just how deep the root systems go and then try and trace trails and tunnels that are the answer making around those so that with the data that you’re collecting, what kind of like what kind of methodology.

Are you using in particular, is it more taxonomic or is it something else that’s not as good as taxonomic?

Um, so for most of my field research, it’s been laying out like standard collection protocols like a transect and then putting pitfall traps and bait traps and doing active collecting along the crops for an entire day. And then once I get them back into a lab, I will do morphological identification, which I’m really trained in and then anything that I’m uncertain about. I do Do some genetic identification. There’s the barcode of Life Institute just next door to me. So I’ll toss some specimens over to them. Yeah. And then, once I get all the colonies into the lab, I do standard bio essay, measurement. Research. So looking at soil movement and the depth of the organisms lack of thing.

Charles 15:20
Could you talk more about bio essay stuff in agriculture? Because I think that may be kind of a, an unknown area for a lot of people.

Aaron 15:30
Yeah. So in actual field bioessays, what we would do is tech take a plot of area or a field or farm, depending on what we’re looking at, and how we’re applying these experiments that hasn’t been treated by pesticides, and then one that has, and then we do, we measure a set of endpoints. And those endpoints can be things like behavioral, so how the organisms are moving, or if the organisms are changing their foraging behaviors, how much they move, whether they look lethargic, or they can be very concrete, acute, and things like death, death of workers, death of the colony itself, all that kind of thing. And so we do those as a comparison between a control and the treated group to see how the pesticides that we’re applying to these fields are actually impacting non target species. So things that we don’t want to actually kill like the aphids, or the caterpillars, that might be damaging the crops.

We want to see what they’re impacting like the bees, or the ants and that kind of thing. There’s an important, like, people are going to use pesticides no matter what, like they have to use them to increase food security right now, it’s our best means of defense against pest insects. And one of the goals of actually studying insecticides is to try and mitigate the damage to ecosystems as much as possible. Agriculture has never been my interest, but it is where some of the money is. And it’s like, clinic does have this really important niche for an ecologist and a taxonomist to want to focus on. And that’s where my interest in Ansan agriculture came in is like, I’ve just been interested in ants, taxonomically and ecologically. And so I wanted to bring that to you call like to the agricultural sector, and all of the people I’ve talked to at North American conferences, they’re like, how did you even come up with ants in agriculture, like nobody’s thinking about that right now, it’s like, I just like ants. So this is where I gravitated towards. And it just so happens that there is this really cool connection between the two. And it’s pretty historical and many places in the world.

Charles 17:35
I just, liking ants is the sort of backstory of as many entomologists as like, proportionally, it is the same as the number of ant species to hymenoptera as a whole. Yeah. Your point about into insecticides actually kind of gets back to the idea of integrated pest management of doing something that is more ecologically friendly, and responsible, where a lot of people’s first response to having a quote unquote insect problem is just to try to nuke everything. Yeah. But the problem there is that if you are setting out something that kills insects, in general, it’s gonna kill insects, in general.

Aaron 18:27
Yeah. And I mean, there’s so there’s that problem. And I mean, most, I would say, just every pesticide that’s pretty much on the market right now won’t do that. The problem is, is if you knew even all the insects that you’re targeting, then you nuke all the ones that are not resistant, and then you get resistance, and then the insecticide is useless. And that’s not just a problem for us. But most of the insecticides we use are based on plant compounds. So the way that plants defend themselves anyways, and then that’s going to be a problem for the plants as well down the line. Now we have a pesticide that doesn’t work and a plant that can’t really defend itself in the environment. And we don’t want that. So we want to balance how we use the insecticide, it gives the plants a little bit of advantage if there’s an outbreak of an insect. But outside of that we can use so many other techniques to control insects. And so that should be our goal.

Charles 19:19
This actually reminds me of a point that came up in one of our conversations with Gabby, who is a conservation biologist who works primarily with large mammals in Africa. And they mentioned a time where the you know, the persuading argument against killing a jackal wasn’t like other great it was if you kill this one that like biologically their responses then to breed a lot more. Yeah. And so similarly, in sort of fixing your problem in the extremely short term, you are creating a much bigger problem in the very long term.

Aaron 20:01
And I mean, it’s kind of crazy because one of my friends works on rat as disease vectors in big cities. And one of the things that she found was if you do that, if you get rid of some of the population from specific areas, if you start to create islands of individuals, the disease numbers actually spike and it becomes so, so so much worse than if you just had left a B, and either trying to inoculate some of the groups or actually just treat some of the social issues surrounding like getting people in proper health or getting people in proper places and that kind of thing.

Charles 20:39
I mean, this kind of also brings to mind one of the things that’s so great about insects in general, and about entomology as a discipline, which is that I can go outside right now look at two plants and see five insects, you know what I mean. And so my ultimate point here is that entomology is really great, because insects are a ubiquitous and be small. And so the sort of large scale dynamics of ecology and evolution that we often think about as being like, on too large of a scale to really be able to witness directly, are just ongoing, and insects all the time.

Aaron 21:20
And it’s like an incredible and beautiful thing. And yet, there’s just so much diversity that you can never, like, never run out of things to learn or just see. And I think that’s beautiful.

Charles 21:32
Oh, that’s fantastic. That would be a great ending note, for not to you said that you have a background in taxonomy. Yeah, so let’s get, let’s get a hot and spicy opinion on an ongoing, sort of a contentious topic, which is, as we’ve mentioned, there are a lot of insects. And there are many, many, many more insects in the world, than anybody directly knows about. Yet one set of numbers that gets tossed around a lot is that there were about a million described species of insects and described according to the specific Western scientific process of, you know, that legacy of taxonomic naming and that specific naming system, I like to be clear about that. Because there I feel like there’s often this is not the thing that I’m going to get a hot and spicy opinion on. This is just a note that I want to throw in a lot of times, it feels like there is this underlying attitude in biological taxonomy, that the way that we like the very specific scientific method of naming things and describing things and our classification system is obviously the right one. And then other forms of classification. And other like categorization systems are, you know, folk taxonomy, or fake taxonomy? And I, you know, I don’t think that I think that the way that we describe things is one way to describe things. And then there are many other equally valid but different ways to describe things.

Aaron 23:05
Yeah.

Charles 23:06
So okay, so then within that, you know, paradigm, 1 million describe species of insects and estimated maybe 10 million species in the world. And one thing that has been proposed as a way of dealing with this extreme on work through workload of unnamed species is more like, in the most extreme version, the idea of only identifying things and naming them based only on genetic sequences, right. So weigh in on that.

Aaron 23:46
As, as a traditional taxonomist that works at a museum, I don’t like the idea. And it’s mostly because growing up, I would not have gotten interested in insects if there was a barcode associated with them. Like if there was a string of numbers and letters that was just, this is a set of species. And then we generally call this group list one name or something, that kind of wood, like over complicated things, or I kind of wouldn’t have been able to see, like, this is what this thing is. And this is actually something that I’ve talked about a lot because my master’s was on and diversity in ecology and between parks and clear cut areas, and had a really heavy focus on genetics, because my advisor was really interested in that and worked with the barcode of Life Institute as well. And I intended one of the barcode of life conferences, the bold conferences, and he came up a lot like one of the up and coming techniques for assessing just broad ecosystems is by taking a soup from the environment, like a set of like a malaise trap, let’s say, and then blending it and putting it through a multi sequence analysis.

Like the the thought to me of blending the things that I collected specifically to learn more about is painful, hurts my core. So I don’t like the idea. I appreciate that there is let’s get it done now attitude and I appreciate that that exists also for good reason because insects are in decline globally, like in some areas as high as like 70% is some papers have come out recently looking at that it’s just it’s insane how much diversity and how much abundance we’re losing on a daily basis. So I appreciate that there is this Okay, let’s see what exists right now on the planet as fast as possible. But I don’t know if that’s the right solution. I think in my mind there is a more like a more logical solution is just if you are concerned put the money towards it. Like just there’s such underfunding within ecology and taxonomy in general, just put some more intrigue and Interest and Money behind that. And you will get those numbers up. We can use genetic sequencing to pipeline and accelerate that process. DNA doesn’t just say, Okay, here’s the barcode, that process can also indicate Okay, this is likely to be a new species, look at it in greater detail, or this is likely to be something we already know about. Check the morphological characters and then move on. That does expedite the process of taxonomy, but it doesn’t remove the need to know what they look like physically, you know? Yeah,

Charles 26:31
I mean, my, my first thought is, I saw a tweet recently, several pretty high profile, like old school North American taxonomists have died in the past year or two.

Aaron 26:42
Yeah.

Charles 26:42
And RIP, and there was a tweet that was like a response that I saw that was like, we just don’t have, you know, these old school tax- like we’re losing our old school taxonomists, and we’re not getting new ones. And it’s like, there was some implication that the problem was lack of interest. And I, I just couldn’t, I was just like, there’s no, there’s literally no money for people to be that anymore.

Aaron 27:07
No, that doesn’t exist because they had that job. And then they, they, because they’re so passionate about these old taxonomists, they’re so passionate about and I feel it, that they continue, even past retirement, they stay at the university, and they keep working. But then once they die, all of a sudden, their skills are gone, the people that they trained before them, or in other jobs, because their job didn’t exist anymore. And it really sucks because I especially with, I think answer fun example, even though it is one of those groups that’s like everybody’s interested in it, there was a time where there was less passion for ants. And there’s this kind of movement, especially in recent history, where people got more interested in ads, because of things like take home, ant farms and stuff like that. And then recently, Ants Canada is a great example of a YouTube channel, which just got millions and millions and millions of people actually interested in not just raising ants in ant farms, where it’s just a bunch of workers, and then they die. But actually understanding how ants work and that interest can exist for all insects, I truly believe that it’s just a take somebody to be able to do that. Those old taxonomists could have been that person, but they just couldn’t pass it on in any real meaningful way.

Charles 28:23
Yeah, I’m aligned with you with regards to skepticism on the usefulness of just describing things only based on genetic sequences. A because methodologically I think that’s, I mean, we, I like I’ve done DNA extractions and sequencing. They’re not foolproof. No. And then also, it does get to the kind of a question of what is what are we actually describing things for, ultimately, because I think particularly the sort of the, it is an extremely common, but it is an extreme. It is so common, that it is trite now, the backstory for entomologist is I was a kid, and I was outside and I saw insects, and I thought they were really cool. And 30 years later, here I am.

Aaron 29:08
Yeah, here we are.

Charles 29:10
Like, that’s my backstory, you know, that’s your backstory. That’s everybody’s back. Like I went outside, I saw bugs. I thought, I like those. And then I just never stopped thinking that and that disconnection between, like the natural historical and ecological context of an organism. And then its description, like at that point, why, like, what are we doing it for?

Aaron 29:32
Yeah, especially if you lose the ecology like, yeah, there’s no reason describing the organism. It’s just kind of sad. It loses that wonder and discovery. And it was, it’s crazy. I have stories like of going to these conferences and sitting down with new scientists. And there’s been a couple of people that have legitimately said, like, your product of doing things like morphologically and ecologically is useless, it’s outdated. There’s no reason to do it anymore. We can do this so much faster and so much quicker. And it’s like But how do you not know this connection and I appreciate that they have come up and maybe aren’t as interested in the thing itself, but just in identifying it. And then once you have it identified, maybe you could find it again, using just a leg or something in the environment or doing one of those scans to see if it’s present even at that. And it’s like, you’re not guaranteed about it. And then you just have this barcode sitting there. That doesn’t mean anything.

Charles 30:24
Yeah. And it’s also a, again, methodologically. It’s very, there’s like no possible verification process. Like if you just have a soup from like a malaise trap, and you don’t have a previous identification based on morphological features, and etc, etc. There’s like no way of checking things.

Aaron 30:43
No, there’s no like key specimen in a museum or something like that, that you can go back to and compare characteristics or anything like that. It’s just it existed. And that’s great. And it maybe didn’t even exists, because there could have been some error with the process, like you pointed out, it’s not just the process. It’s also the databases that exist, like, one of the problems right now with one of the simpson systems I was using for my master’s is there was a bunch of students that uploaded a huge number of specimens to the database that were just misidentified slightly like they were sister species, but didn’t quite have the right name. And now the database thinks that that is the right name. So everything that gets uploaded to it gets that name. And it’s like, that’s not the case. So the whole database is messed up, and you have to kind of rebuild it. So that Yeah, there’s a huge number of issues, it’s something that has appeared recently really quickly, and then it got a lot of attention. So it got a lot of money. And then that’s where the fuel is going. I think people just need to take a step back and realize that it’s a tool. And if we use the tool in an appropriate way, it can mean really great things. But if we just use that tool alone, it’ll cause a lot of chaos in the science… [fades out].

Charles 31:58
Before our final final segment, I did actually want to talk… so, you are a furry.

Aaron 32:04
I am.

Charles 32:05
This is actually very exciting for us, because, this is not a joke, we have been saying repeatedly that we got to get a free on the podcast, okay. Largely because there is such a strong, trans furry connection.

Aaron 32:19
Yeah. Oh, yeah, for sure.

Charles 32:21
And I don’t really have a follow up question for that. Except, what’s that about?

Aaron 32:25
I think furries as a community and subculture has its roots in a lot of like queer spaces, especially in the 90s there was a pretty cool documentary that actually came out recently about like the furry fandom. And one of the things that delved into was just that it exists in in a lot of gay spaces. And you was used as a means of exploring kind of like sci fi, fantasy, worlds more anthropomorphic focus, but also just use as like an escape to feel more yourself or feel more Okay, being yourself. And I think in recent years, it’s really transformed in this space of welcoming a lot of queer communities and particularly trans communities because it allows you to express yourself or see yourself in a physical means almost that is more in line with what how you want to be or like who you are. And like the persona is kind of the best character creator right? My favorite thing about video games is the the character sliders, the ability to pick what you look like and who you are in video games. And your persona is kind of like I get to showcase myself how ever I want to be and just be me, both physically and personally and then be in a space that accepts me. I think that’s just so wonderful.

Charles 33:45
I mean, none of that is surprising at all. I think it is very much one of those things of like, you may not already know that there are a lot of trans furries, but if you hear it, you’re like, Oh, I yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Just intuitively, my other question is, so your persona is a bird.

Aaron 34:04
It’s kind of a couple of things. But the one that I use on that account is a bird, yeah.

Charles 34:08
This is a bird… not a, not an insect?

Aaron 34:11
I know and I get this asked me all the time. So there’s kind of two interesting elements to that. One is like insects were always the thing that I studied and I loved to learn about but I never really wanted to be or like, represent myself. I kind of wanted to like be something somebody that was interested in kind of fun and colorful, that was interested in insects and could share about them but not like, I don’t want to be that and then the other side of things is I have tried to make an insect Sona like repeatedly and I have multiple documents laid out of like the details and I’ve actually commissioned artists to do this and friends, there’s always I’m cursed. There has been always something that has come up where they’ve had the case. With the commission, it’s I’ve done it five times now five times.

Charles 35:04
That’s a sign of something. I do actually one of my most treasured memories is one year from Montreal ComiCon, I dressed up not well, but I had a mantis costume and I had a wasp costume basketball. And they included like full head pieces, like as the wasp was I made it was very low tech, but I made it out of like a cardboard base. And it was one of my favorite wasps. fespa crab row, which is the European Hornet and I was just walking like artists alley, and there was a booth for an upcoming free convention. And the woman who was tending the booth looked at me, considered me for a second walked out into like the aisle, just handed me the card for the convention and then walked back to the booth.

Aaron 35:51
That’s so good.

Charles 35:52
And I don’t know if I actually still have that, but I had that card for a year. Because it was like treasure that memory because I always say to people I’m like not a free, but it’s not anything against furries. It’s just that I the way this like specific free style of anthropomorphic ation right, I think often doesn’t work great for insects.

Aaron 36:12
Yeah.

Charles 36:13
And so there’s not like an established, like tradition that I could fit into.

Aaron 36:18
Yeah, and it’s, it’s kind of funny because I’ve noticed that there’s a big Genesis recently and people actually picking insects on as more and I think more artists are comfortable, like drawing them in different ways and more unique ways. So I’ve seen a lot of artists picking it up and then just through my account and like getting more kind of notoriety as like a free entomologist. I’ve got a lot of artists that are interested in drawing insects and insects owners and that kind of thing following me and it’s just there is a like there’s a sub sub sub culture part of furry that is really interested in insects, and they’re kind of amazing. And more and more like first suits are coming out that are like insect suits and just beautiful. Like there’s one that was made recently of Bumblebee that is just gorgeous. I love seeing. There’s so many good ones. And there are a lot of cutesy kind of like insect suits, but I’m 100% certain that in the coming years, you’re gonna see some really, like really cool and unique suits coming out too.

Tessa 37:20
Yeah, so I am not a furry, but my wife is really into cosplay. So I’m excited. And you know, she has said on record, you know, she’s not afraid either. But she’s very appreciative of the community because a lot of the really cool cosplay techniques have come out of the free community. So I’m going to be very interested to see what this leads to.

Aaron 37:37
Oh, yeah. Oh man, the technology that’s coming out right now with like people exploring more fursuit makers getting like more of a following and more like resources to be able to put into creating new and unique things. It’s just so cool. There was one creator that I saw recently that actually had a huge like puppeteering wireframe put together for their head and they connected to their fingers so they can make different expressions and stuff with their hands. And then it expresses on the face and it was just absolutely amazing. And it was very mccobb and like oh like oh, what kind of one of those like werewolf like old werewolf movies you would imagine very, like visceral and then the, on the technology front with like, I don’t know if you know proto Gen characters, but they’re like, technology based kind of anthropomorphic characters that have a visor, that is just a computer screen that can portray different expressions and that kind of thing. And people are doing so many amazing things with that like buttons in the fingers that you can do all kinds of cool things with one recently made it so you could play Doom with like, a like, I think it was like you grab their hands and if you move the hands around, like it’ll move the character around on the screen in like a con space is so yeah, it was so so so cool. And like all kinds of things like that. It’s just so amazing.

Charles 38:59
I mean, I think the things that I know about furries generally make me like furries a lot. Like a there are a lot of gay furries, there are a lot of trans furries. They keep a lot of independent artists basically afloat for commissions. And then also just the extreme, purely creative, like people doing these things, not because it’s going to make them any money, but just so that they can do something cool. And share it with people.

Aaron 39:22
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I mean, one of the things that like in my introduction is like connecting the furry fandom with my science communication stuff is I love doing little videos and finding new ways to use the things that I’m commissioning or creating In the fandom to like connect that with science communication. And because of the pandemic, one of the things that has exploded in the free world is like VR chat, and making these really elaborate VR models and doing like full body tracking, and I’ve gotten really into it and so I’ve been doing a series of little like identification videos for people in VR chat talking about the insect For insects around them, or just arthropods in general, and it’s been doing really well, like I’ve gotten a lot of positive reception on all the platforms I’ve posted to, and it’s been a lot of fun. Like, it’s just really cool to see yourself as your character. And then talking about the thing you’re so passionate about.

Charles 40:20
The final part of our show is we ask people to weigh in on one of a collection of questions, I believe you selected that you would like to talk about, are there any medical transition technologies that you wish existed?

Aaron 40:33
Some. And as I said, like, in my message, you’re asking like a transferee, about this question. And it’s like, I just wish that there was a technology that existed that you could do the video game character slider thing, but in real life, like you could go into a room, like in front of a mirror and just do that slider, look at yourself almost in a digital sense. And then maybe you take like a pill of nanobots, you sleep it off, and then in the morning, you have those features, because it’s just like, these bots have rearranged your physical structure in any kind of way. And on a very serious note, like, I wish that kind of technology existed physically to be the gender that you want to express. And that can be physically in a number of ways. But like, very fantasy focused, like, I think that’d be so cool to do, just through technology, and through like nanobots, and all of this kind of thing. Oh, beautiful. Well,

Charles 41:33
I do actually wonder if in the future body mod technology, like both the technology itself, and sort of cultural acceptance of it will get to a point where, if you wanted to have like, honking big tusks, you could and then also, like, go to work as you know, a volleyball coach.

Aaron 41:57
Yeah, well, I mean, it’s kind of getting into like the cyberpunk kind of aesthetic where you’re in a world. And it’s just easy and acceptable to get kind of any body mod that you can imagine. And I mean, I think it won’t, it exists probably to that extreme, but I think it will exist, at some point, you can bring it back to the VR chat kind of thing, you have this situation where you can see yourself so visually moving as the way you want to see yourself. And that’s not even just me as a free with a free avatar. But in any kind of body, you want to see yourself. And you can see yourself in the mood, like in the mirror and technologies of the point where you can move fingers around and express and it just track can track your lips and your eyes and everything, it does give you that physical sense and that physical satisfaction. So I don’t think it’s without reason that you could like, advance on that to the point where you get almost haptic where you can get that sensory input into yourself in the real world. But then also start to translate that into very physical sense. So you have these features that you can then implant in different ways. Once you get haptic senses put in place, you can start to build limbs, or build tails and years or whatever else. Right?

Charles 43:11
This is actually reminded me of we recently had on Robin Aguilar, who is a genomics researcher. And their answer to this question was a lot about like having tools to be better able to visualize like, how you will change over a period of time on hormones. And so the the thing that you said now about VR and about being able to see yourself I think, I wonder if that is being used in that way for a lot of trans people.

Aaron 43:40
Yeah, yeah, I will I imagine. So like, I mean, I’ve experienced that to getting to put on an avatar in a physical way that I want to express at some point or like, would like to look see myself surgically or whatever like that, you that exists, certainly to that extent. And then I think, on that front of actually seeing yourself, there’s probably going to be a point where you could go into virtually like a virtual setting with a doctor and see yourself in a mirror and they can adjust certain proportions of yourself are features of yourself, like this is what this would look like in general based on the medical practices we have today. And these are within like limits or there’s a maximum and a minimum, like you’re not necessarily going to look exactly like this. But in general, this is what you might look like there was actually something really cool published recently on this kind of front of some medical transition technology, which was scientists are just learning how to program specific cells to turn into something else based on electrical signals. There was a I forget the exact details of the paper. I’ll try and find it afterwards.

But it was looking at a specific set of rat cells that they adjusted the voltage gated channels, protein channels within their cells, using like Electric graphs and when they give it gave them specific signals, they actually transfer to transition into new types of cells. And it was this whole idea that the language of the body could potentially be really focused around these electric gradients in the electric signaling. And this is true for zygotes actually starting to differentiate and two different parts of the body, that we through electro scanning, we’ve been able to see that they communicate with one another about what you’re going to turn into based on electrical impulses. So whether you could actually start to stimulate that using somebody sticking an electrode in you, it’s not that simple, but could be similar to that technology at some point would be incredible.

Charles 45:45
Man… bodies, bodies, right? Yeah. I mean, the other thing that I would think of is, if in the future, you could be like a bird person all the time, do you think you’d want to?

Aaron 45:59
It’s a good question. I don’t know about bird person. Specifically, I’d probably spend a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to be exactly, or what I want to look like, exactly. I think there would be features of animal like animalistic features that we’d like like maybe different kinds of pupils, or my nails might be different, or like maybe having some kind of tail or something like that. I don’t know if I would want to fully become something else. But I think I would want if it was easy, easy, quote unquote, to do I would, I would definitely look into it seriously.

Charles 46:35
Yeah, well, because another thing that occurs to me and I have a new answer to this question now is less about medical technology itself and more about making it so that prosthetic stuff can interact more with the bodies so that it doesn’t feel like a prosthetic?

Aaron 46:52
Oh, yeah, exactly. Yeah, that would be I mean, that kind of technology is already starting to exist and it’s so valuable.

Charles 47:00
And so I’m thinking about like, if you are a furry for instance, and you have a persona, you maybe don’t want to be like a tiger person 100% of the time Yeah, but there would probably be an appeal to I can put on my first suit and I can actually feel like I’m a tiger person. And then I can like go home and hang out and not be a tiger person anymore.

Aaron 47:21
Yeah. Oh 100% like if that kind of thing existed where it felt more like the firm was your skin and it was more kind of either skin tight or just like it altered your physical self to feel more like whatever you were portraying, it just be able to go wild for I can guarantee you that that funding that furries are putting towards like independent artists would immediately just like all go towards that and it would get a lot of money.

Charles 47:48
Yeah, we just need like the mysteriou, like, millionaire furries to bankroll everybody on this.

Aaron 47:54
Yeah, well, it’s existing like there are a couple of fairly wealthy furries that I’ve seen on my feed I don’t follow them directly, but like are just constantly putting money into the artists that are putting in for new like party Gen technologies and like that yeah, it’s just it’s it’s cool to see the support that people get.

Charles 48:16
I hope… I’m just thinking about like in you know, our cyberpunk dystopia future when it gets to be more aesthetically cyberpunk instead of just like…

Tessa 48:26
Politically cyberpunk.

Charles 48:29
The great saviors of humankind will at least partially be the furries.

Aaron 48:36
I think that is my dream is while I’m trying to put myself out there to be the entomological furry savior.

Charles 48:45
Live your life like the furry savior that you want to see in the world.

Aaron 48:51
Yeah.

Charles 48:58
You’ve been a fantastic guest, very excited to get another entomologist on. Okay, so Aaron, if people want to find out more about you, or your research or your science communication, where should they look?

Aaron 49:09
You can find me on most social media at @entobird, you can also find me in my science account @insectaaron.

Charles 49:19
Fantastic. I am on twitter @cockroacharles.

Tessa 49:23
I’m on Twitter @spacermase.

Charles 49:27
The show is on twitter @ASABpod or at our website where we post show notes and transcripts for every episode asabpodcast.com.

Tessa 49:35
And until next time, keep on science-ing.

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