ECO Art + Science: Illustrator + Wildlife Biologist Kevina Vulinec

I’m pleased to share my interview with the fourth participant in the biocreativity ECO Art + Science interview series: illustrator and wildlife biologist Dr. Kevina Vulinec of Delaware State University. Trained first as an artist, she turned her artistic skills to scientific illustration when she first learned about the science of ecology. She is also dedicated to educating the public and schoolchildren about science and nature through creative endeavors such as the Florida Scrub Coloring Book which she illustrated while a graduate student at the University of Florida and an intern at Archibald Biological Station.

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Kevina! What type of work do you do? How would you describe your interests or profession?

[KV] I am an Associate Professor of Wildlife Biology at Delaware State University. I teach and do research and mentor both undergraduate and graduate students. What I LOVE doing is fun field ecological science and mentoring students! But I also love art—I love pen and ink, painting, and drawing, and would continue to do art if my hands would cooperate. I had an unusual background; starting college as an art major, later realizing that one could actually study animals in the wild (wow, Marlin Perkins was my only role model at that time and I had no idea that there was a science of ECOLOGY!)

Cedar Waxwing illustration by Kevina Vulinec.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum? What is your primary training?

[KV] I am more of a scientist; but that does not diminish my artistic commitment (in fact I tested 60% right-brain dominance). I encourage my students to consider filmmaking, wildlife art, photography, and writing as careers outside of the traditional wildlife or ecology professions. I started life as an artist (and art major), but quickly realized that I was not at the point where I could do top-quality fine art. At that time, the alternative as a career was to become an advertising artist, which was not appealing to me. I had no idea that I could make a living as a natural history artist! But I did help put myself through my university training by doing scientific drawings.

Green Treefrog illustration by Kevina Vulinec.

[biocreativity] How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences? 

[KV] The best part of science is the art of science: the creative design of experiments and inquiries. The creativity involved in designing an “elegant” experiment—a very cogent term—requires an openness of mind and some “right-brain” thinking. Good designs require an integration of artistic creativity and scientific rigor. And, the best artists have a background in anatomy, natural history, and an understanding of habitat relationships (think Turner, Picasso, Kahlo, and O’Keefe).

[biocreativity] Do you have specific images in mind when you mention these artists?

[KV]Yes, Picasso painted lots of animals in his paintings (like the horse in Guernica) that symbolized emotions. Kahlo obviously often thought of herself as part other animal, and O’Keffe treasured the anatomy of bones. There are many others–but thought I’d keep the list short.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937, oil on canvas).

Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas y Colibrí ("Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Humming-bird"), Frida Kahlo. 1940.

Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1935.

[biocreativity] Please describe your art + science endeavors for the biocreativity readers.

[KV] I incorporate art into my career as a scientist when I can. In addition to looking for creative solutions to experimental designs, I also like to use art in my university teaching. Currently, I have assigned my Advanced Wildlife Course students a video project focused on wildlife or a conservation issue, but open to as much artistic input as they would like, including animation. I also enjoy drawing rapid silly cartoons on the board to illustrate concepts during my lectures.

The one art/science project that makes me proud to have been involved with is the Florida Scrub scientific coloring book.

[biocreativity] I really love the coloring book – I really got into marine biology as a kid because of Thomas Neisen’s Marine Biology Coloring Book. What inspired the Florida Scrub coloring book project?

[KV] The coloring book was a collaboration between Dr. Mark Deyrup [of the Archibald Biological Station in the Florida Everglades] and me to highlight the ecological uniqueness of the Florida Scrub—a very small but important and rare ecosystem. We wanted to introduce youngsters to this unusual habitat and the distinctive animals and plants that live in this ecosystem in a hands-on format that allowed for interactive learning. Now that it can be downloaded on the web, teachers and parents all over the world can have access to it. My other art projects (drawing, painting and photography) have focused on the natural world and details (sometimes in microfocus) that reveal the beauty of form following function in animal morphology.

[biocreativity] What is the most important thing that you want others to know about your work?

[KV] We are an interconnected system of organisms. Let’s work to save the natural world for our children’s children and let’s also get them out in it!!! Play outdoors! Watch birds, bike trails, look at ants, grow plants, read about nature, but even better, experience it.

[biocreativity] Well said! What is the most common question or comment you get about your art + science work?

[KV] About art: “YOU drew that???”

About my science (most currently): “BATS??? Why the heck do you study bats???”

[biocreativity] Well, I’ll play along here….why the heck do you study bats?

[KV] I originally was studying Neotropical animals, including primates and dung beetles, but my Chair here at Delaware State University asked that I find something local. I had done some bat work during my masters project, so decided that would be great. They are also one of the most mysterious of mammals and a challenge to study–but that makes them so much more interesting. Furthermore, bats face serious threats from disease, habitat destruction, and wind turbines and finding solutions to these threats is of utmost importance.

Palmetto Scrub Scarab illustration by Kevina Vulinec from the Florida Scrub coloring book.

[biocreativity] Kevina, what’s next for you in art + science? Where do you see your projects going, or what would you like to do next?

[KV] How about art/eco-tourism? Travel with a group to, say, Peru or Belize, and do life drawing or photography workshops in the field.

[biocreativity] That sounds like great fun! I see you were recently awarded a Fullbright Fellowship to go to Brazil. Congrats! Do you have a websiteor other resources that you’d like the biocreativity readers to know about?

[KV] Yes, I have a website and here are links to a couple of Pulse Planet [a daily radio program exploring the world of sound in nature, culture and science] broadcasts about the importance of fruit-eating monkeys and dung beetles in the Amazon rainforest. [And, of course, let's not forget the Florida Scrub scientific coloring book!]

Cartoon of tropical dung beetles (Oxysternon conspicillatum) building a nest. This picture shows the male guarding the nest and the female constructing a brood ball in which to lay her eggs. They are also inadvertently burying seeds from the monkey dung and thus, replanting the rainforest! Cartoon and caption text by Kevina Vulinec.

[biocreativity] Many thanks for participating in the ECO Art + Science series, Kevina. Best of luck with your trips to Brazil and keep us posted on your art + science endeavors!

Stay tuned for more ECO Art + Science interviews each Thursday right here at www.biocreativity.wordpress.com! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to biocreativity@yahoo.com.

images for outreach, research and conservation

On Monday afternoon I had the chance to learn more about ARKive.org from Liana Vitali, who led a workshop at this year’s Ecological Society of America meeting in Austin, TX. My first thought upon entering the room (a few minutes late) was: “Where is everybody?”. About a dozen participants from a registered crowd of over 3,600 ecologists came to the workshop to learn more about how this website can contribute to our research, outreach and teaching and how it can be used to satisfy just plain old biological curiosity. I thought the low attendance was strange since this year’s theme is Earth Stewardship which seems pretty in line with ARKive’s mission. And – is it just me – or does there seem to be a growing sense within our field that we ecologists should be doing more to help increase public awareness of what we do? If so, shouldn’t we be taking advantage of as many free resources and training opportunities as possible? As I’ve mentioned before on the biocreativity blog, I think wildlife photography and nature documentaries are two of the most compelling biocreative media for illustrating natural phenomena and introducing broad audiences to the biodiversity of our planet.

ARKive.org does just that. Produced by Wildscreen, a non-profit organization, its mission is to increase public understanding of wildlife, biodiversity and its conservation through wildlife imagery. Wildscreen is behind, among other things, the “world’s largest” wildlife and environmental film festival, the Wildscreen Festival. One major figure behind ARKive.org is the late Christopher Parsons, former head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and the project has a few notable spokespersons including Dr. Sylvia Earle, Dr. E.O Wilson and Sir David Attenborough (indeed).

ARKive features species profiles with photos and videos of all species listed on the IUCN red list of threatened species. John Hanke of Google Earth fame has recently joined the ARKive team, and as a result you can view ARKive images directly within Google Earth (layer included in GE download) or within the ARKive.org species profiles. All of the images within ARKive have been donated by organizations, professional photographers, researchers and natural history broadcasters. The great part is, you don’t have to ask permission for private, scientific, educational and non-commercial uses. For example, if you would like to use a photo or video for an academic presentation or for use in your K-12 classroom, feel free! Have another use in mind? Just ask permission. Contact information for the photographer or filmmaker is attached in the bottom right corner of every image by clicking the “Credit” link.

There are several ways contribute your images or expertise to ARKive.org. First, ARKive has a “most wanted list” of species for which they need good images and videos. Most species profiles also have a shared Flikr gallery on which users can contribute additional photographs directly. An added benefit of contributing images is that the entire online archive of ARKive is backed up on both US and UK servers, so if you contribute and then somehow loose your data, you’ll have at least two backups of contributed images. If you have expert knowledge to contribute to particular species featured in ARKive, you can offer your help to review and write profiles by emailing arkive@wildscreen.org.uk. If you’re at the ESA meeting you can view the most wanted list and get in touch with Liana at the booth in the exhibit hall. Finally, the ARKive and Universities program allows graduate students to create and review species profiles, providing them with an opportunity to contribute their knowledge and get published online.

Personally, I can’t tell you how helpful it would have been to have had access to ARKive’s videos (linked below) of ‘Akiapola’au – a rare Hawaiian forest bird – when my colleagues and I were presenting results of our research on the foraging ecology of this bird nearly a decade ago. ‘Akiapola’au is so rare we saw it only once in two summers of field research. Explaining the feeding behavior of this bird verbally is so much different than being able to transport your audience to the field via a short film. My only complaint so far is that you can only embed fairly small thumbnails of photos and links to videos like the ones of the ‘Akis below. One way around this is that you can download the videos and re-post them for certain limited purposes (or with permission), but the ability to embed videos (on blogs, for example) would be nice. Nevertheless, this is a cool tool. How will you use ARKive.org?

ARKive video - 'Akiapola'au - overview ARKive video - 'Akiapola'au feeding ARKive video - 'Akiapola'au feeding and calling

nature time-lapse

I really enjoyed reading about (and especially watching) Neil Bromhall‘s oak seed time-lapse featured yesterday on New Scientist’s Time-Lapse Tuesday.  How come I didn’t know about Time-Lapse Tuesday yet!? I mean, really, what kind of rock have I been living under? I have always been somewhat of a time-lapse junkie and am usually left in awe of even the most basic of time-lapse projects, which allow the often “slow” pace of nature to be visualized and appreciated by us humans.

I know I’ve got a long way to go before my work is quite as good as that, but time-lapse is very fun to try. Here is my first time-lapse title page that I made for the biocreativity blog, and I plan to have a new one each month which you can view on the biocreativity vimeo channel:

biocreativity | july 2011 title from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

Of course, technology is always evolving and allowing filmmakers to do some pretty amazing things. I mean, have you seen the incredible stuff the BBC Nature crew has been up to (covered a while back on Moving Image Source)? You can see some of their amazing footage on the BBC Nature Video Collections site. Unfortunately I can’t embed these because I’m not in the UK, but here are links to a couple of my favorites. The first is a six month panning time-lapse of a woodland, and there’s a great documentary about how this was done at the end of the Life episode in which it is featured. My other favorite is of the Antarctic marine invertebrate scavengers. The incredible thing about this one is that it can help inform us about behaviors of these animals that would be hard for us see if we just sat around McMurdo Sound freezing our butts off. Here is one I found that I could embed, about tropical plants climbing to the forest canopy to get sunlight. Amazing!

See why I put my humble little time-lapse before these? Incredible! You don’t even remember having watched mine after seeing those, now, do you? Hopefully, you can see why time-lapse is one of the most compelling media for educating others about biology. Time-lapse not only brings “slow” nature to life, but is also inherently impressive for the amount of time and energy it can take to produce a good one. You might also enjoy Wired Science’s Top 10 Time-Lapse Videos that Show Nature at Work or Mashable’s Nature in Time-Lapse: 10 Awe-Inspiring Videos. I hope you enjoy and share time-lapses that you’ve come across (leave a comment below with links to them!). Maybe you should also try making one yourself in whatever system you work on or enjoy. It’s very easy now with just a camera and either Mac or Windows movie software. A quick web search for “make time-lapse video” will result in plethora of tutorials and advice. Adventure Journal, for example, has a good article on making your own time-lapse videos. You can even use your iPhone! There’s a good tutorial on the iPhone app TimeLapse at Digital Urban. Go ahead…your video just might blow someone’s mind!

bio…I mean…bicycle creativity!

80 foot long rattlesnake bike "puppet" by Austin Bike Zoo!

80 foot long rattlesnake bike "puppet" by Austin Bike Zoo! (Photo from austinbikezoo.org)

Driving through Zilker Park in Austin, TX this week I came upon a reptile of epic proportions. What I thought at first to be a giant rattlesnake sculpture is actually one of the creations of Austin Bike Zoo, makers of unique human-powered puppets. This “biocreation” is 80 feet long and is powered by six people on modified trikes.

Austin Bike Zoo has also created quite the menagerie of other animal-puppet-vehicles including bats, mantises, butterflies and birds, which you can see on their homepage http://www.austinbikezoo.org. Enjoy!