Friday, 30 December 2011

Science Video Friday - Glowworms

In lieu of a full blog post, it's time for another Science Video Friday! This week's video is a spectacular 10 minute documentary on Britain's glowworms, from Christopher Gent. Enjoy!

Friday, 16 December 2011

Science Video Friday - Large Longhorns

I just received my copy of Field Guide to Northeastern Longhorned Beetles (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae) by Douglas Yanega today and it is beautiful. It has a classy cover and is filled with useful pictures and identifying information about longhorned beetles. I've already used it to identify a few of the beetles I found this summer, which led me on some Youtube searches.

For as neat as our longhorned beetles are in Ohio, this one from Japan is pretty wicked...


Now if you'll excuse me, I need to find a reason to fly to Japan for some beetle research.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

This Isn't Your Father's Daddy Longlegs

While on a night hike looking for fluorescent millipedes and whatever else I could find a few months ago (September 16th), I came across a most interesting arachnid. Now, it's important to note that Arachnids aren't just spiders: Arachnida is a large class that includes other organisms like scorpions, ticks, mites, solifugids, and harvestmen (or daddy longlegs, if you prefer). It's the harvestmen (Order Opiliones) that are most important to this post, and while the popular perception of harvestmen is a small-bodied organism with long, thread-like legs, this is not always the case.

There's a surprising amount of diversity in the harvestmen: it includes 6,411 described species (estimates of over 10,000 total species have been put forward!) and 45 families. After spiders and mites, it's the third largest order of Arachnids.

Which brings us to the specimen found on that cool September night:

Not exactly what you were expecting, eh?

This is probably the largest harvestmen I've encountered, and it's definitely much different from the other species I've seen. From what I can tell, this is a species in the genus Vonones, in the suborder Laniatores (we'll tackle the significance of that later) and the family Cosmetidae. I'm a fan of the colors on this one, the red, brown, and yellow blend nicely together.

Was I hesitant to pick up this harvestmen at all? Nope--harvestmen don't have venom glands! I scrambled to catch it before it could get away, as I had just lifted up a stone. I screamed, sure, but that was a scream of joy, not of fear: I had found this neat organism, AND an assassin bug as well!

  Black Corsair - Melanolestes picipes

An assassin bug along with an interesting harvestman? TOTAL SCORE! There's some interesting life hiding under stones, so I made a mental note to add that to my routine while walking through the forest. I had been checking stones before, but this was one of my first night hikes, giving me the chance to find different organisms.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find too much information about Vonones, but I'm still searching. One odd piece of information I've come across is that they fluoresce under UV light, according to this thread on Arachnoboards. I'll be checking that out next time I encounter one.

 What secrets do you hold?!

I mentioned earlier that there's a significance to Vonones being in the suborder Laniatores. It seems as though harvestmen in this suborder exhibit paternal care for eggs after they are laid--unique in the Arachnids, and restricted to this suborder. It would be interesting to investigate if this behavior holds true for Vonones, and how it affects survival. Perhaps daddy longlegs are more loving than you first thought...

References

Beccaloni, Jan. 2009. Arachnids. Berkeley: University of California; 320 p.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

A Charismatic.......and Sometimes Drunk Weevil

Usually when I find weevils (Coleoptera: Curculionoidea), they're tiny, relatively bland, or....."otherwise occupied."

Tulip Tree Weevils (Odontopus calceatus), otherwise occupied.

While researching assassin bugs this summer at the Barbara A. Beiser Field Station, however, I came across a much more charismatic weevil, the oak timberworm (Arrhenodes minutus).

Not quite on an oak, this guy was picked up during sweep netting.

If you compare the oak timberworm with the tulip tree weevils in the previous picture, you'll probably notice quite a difference in size and body shape. The oak timberworm doesn't have elbowed antennae, either. So what gives?

The oak timberworm is a species of primitive weevil (Subfamily Brentinae), which look very different from other weevils. They're characterized by their straight snouts (their family is the straight-snouted weevils, Brentidae, after all), antennae that aren't elbowed, and the tendency of their body shape to usually be flat and elongated. The only primitive weevil you're going to find north of Florida is the oak timberworm, others have a tropical distribution.

The oak timberworm can be an economic pest of oaks, as the larvae feed on the wood during their development. Despite this, it's quite a pretty beetle, mostly red with short yellow longitudinal lines on its elytra. Males and females look very different: females have elongated snouts that look almost like a straw, while the males have relatively large jaws at the end of their snouts. These jaws aren't used for hunting prey, since the adult weevils feed on sap, however. Rather, the jaws are used for catching females, helping females drill egg holes in wood, and for fighting other males.

Why would males want to use their jaws to catch females? Well, scroll up to the other weevils which were "previously occupied."

Yep.

The males prowl around looking for some fine females to mate with, and when they find them, the females don't always want to mate. So, they'll run. The males don't appreciate this, so they give chase until they can grab the female's rostrum (the elongated mouth tube). After the male grabs the female, she stops running and he will try to mate with her.

......and the female might try running again. At this point, one of two things will happen: the male will give chase and try again, or he'll give up. If the female keeps resisting, the male is likely to take the latter choice.

The males aren't always focused on mating, of course. They also defend the females and help them with their egg-laying. The males will set up a territory around the female by walking around the females in a circle, while the female works on boring holes in the wood in which to lay an egg. If another male approaches and tries to interrupt the female (with intentions to mate with her), the other male steps in and the two males throw down. Their fights can last for ten minutes or more (30 minutes or more if they're drunk, but we'll come back to that later), and the winner achieves victory by getting his jaws underneath the other male and throwing him off the wood. Size is an important factor in this game: larger males have the advantage. When one male is substantially larger than the other, things can get crazy. Sanborne (check the citation at the end of this post, his paper provides some great observations on the oak timberworm) noticed this and thought it was hilarious: the smaller male he saw fighting with a larger one was thrown 10 centimeters away, soundly defeated. This aggressive behavior by the males is quite helpful for the females, giving them time to drill their egg holes. Each hole can take up to an hour to drill, and the last thing the females want is to be constantly accosted by male suitors--they wouldn't get anything done!

I mentioned something about drunk weevils in that last paragraph, so while we're still on the topic of aggressive behavior in males, let's go back to that. As I said earlier, adult beetles feed on sap. Knowing this, Sanborne made a sap to feed his weevils on by boiling oak leaves, twigs, and bark in water, then added sugar to the mixture. He successfully kept his weevils alive on this mixture from June to September, without problems. Eventually, he noticed something interesting about his sap and the weevils' reaction to it: the higher the degree of fermentation of the sap, the more aggressive his male beetles became.

Essentially, the weevils would become drunk on the fermented sap, and proceed to get into weevil bar fights. The weevils actively searched for fights, tumbling all over the rearing cage once they found another male to fight with. The fights lasted a half hour or more. Sanborne doesn't report why, but I suspect that the weevils didn't have the coordination to get their jaws underneath the other combatant in order to throw it in the air: after all, that's tough to do when the room is already spinning! If the sap was fermented too much, the weevils would just pass out for a while before getting back up.

Sanborne could not conclusively determine if they had a weevil hangover.

When male oak timberworms aren't getting drunk or mating, they help the female drill her egg holes. When the female gets her rostrum stuck in the wood, they will position themselves to help leverage her out of the hole--described as tool use. The female then continues drilling. When their mandibles get clogged with bits of wood, they use their antennae to clean it out.---when you don't have a toothbrush, you need some way to take care of those little pieces! Once the hole is completed, one egg is laid, then the female plugs the hole with the pieces of wood trash she excavated and secretes some sticky stuff to hold it together.

When oak timberworms need to rest, they find hiding places under bark. Males defend their spots from other males, but are chivalrous and will allow females to join them.

You may have already surmised that oak timberworms are hardy: it's sort of required with all that fighting.Their exoskeleton is quite strong ("heavily chitinized" is another way to put it) and resistant. Since they feed on tree sap, they compete with other insects to obtain this food, such as ants. Despite the attempts of ants to chase them away by biting the weevils, the weevils are protected and can continue to enjoy the delicious sap, and the ants can't do anything about it.

An alcoholic weevil that likes to fight....how's that for charismatic?

References:

Sanborne M. 1983. Some Observations on the Behaviour of Arrhenodes minutus (Drury) (Coleoptera: Brentidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin. 37(2): 106-113.

Primitive Weevils of Florida - by Michael Thomas
BugGuide - Species Arrhenodes minutus - Oak TimberwormBeetles in the Bush - Different Jaws for Different Jobs

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A Native Ladybug AND Ant-mimic?! No way!

It's not all that often when I find a ladybug (or to be more correct, lady beetle, since it's in the order Coleoptera and not Hemiptera) that isn't the invasive multicolored Asian lady beetle. So when I do, I get pretty excited. I get pretty disappointed when I see invasive organisms dominating the landscape, but when some interesting natives that I've never encountered before pop up, I'm apt to jump up and down in joy (ask anyone who's been out in the field with me).

Last month on a botany trip around campus, our group stopped to examine a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). My attention quickly wandered away from me and I found myself examining the other plants around the black locust, leading me to find some arthropods (woohoo!). One looked like an ant, but my previous experience during the summer taught me not to be too certain, so I caught it and pulled out my hand lens to take a closer look.

Imposter!

Not an ant, but rather an ant-mimic! This is actually a jumping spider (Family Salticidae), Synemosyna formica. It looks like the spider has three segments of its body like an insect, head-thorax-abdomen, but since it's a spider, it only has two: a cephalothorax and an abdomen. In order to look more like an ant, the cephalothorax is constricted, giving it the illusion of having three body segments. Now that's some fine Batesian mimicry!

The second arthropod I found hanging around the underbrush was one of our native lady beetles: Psyllobora vigintimaculata. Let's break down that etymology! Psyllo is Greek for flea, and it is quite small; bora is Greek for northern, referring to its habitat distribution. (This is the only species in the genus that you can find in the northeast.) The specific epithet vigintimaculata simply means 20 spotted. If we put it all together, we learn that this species is a small lady beetle that has a northern distribution (though it also occurs in the southern US) and has 20 spots. That's some useful information to know.

Not the largest lady beetle you'll find...

It wasn't exactly the easiest insect to spot, but it was crawling around on the same leaf as the spider, so it was easy to catch both of them. Now, that picture doesn't really help you understand what this beetle looks like....sure, it's white with black spots, maybe a touch of orange, and small, but come on. A hand lens isn't going to cut it. To the dissecting microscope!

Now that's what I'm talking about!

Now we can make more sense of what it looks like. You can see the 20 spots, the texture of the shell, and what it looks like underneath. The anatomy can only tell us so much about the species, so to learn more about how it lives, let's turn to a paper published in 2009 by Sutherland and Parrella (citation can be found at the end of this post). It turns out that this lady beetle (and the others in its subfamily Halyziini) isn't predacious like most other lady beetles, nor does it eat leaves: it feeds on various mildew fungi. These are fungi in the order Erysiphales, which cause powdery mildew diseases in plants, hence their common name. 

Powdery mildew disease is of economic importance in agriculture, and is the main reason why Sutherland and Parrella undertook their study. They found that P. vigintimaculata is a generalist that feeds upon a range of fungi species, and that its density in the environment increased with a greater density of mildew. That's pretty good news for an integrated pest management plan, according to their paper.

They also had a figure showing the beetle's life cycle, which follows. Note that in this study, they used a subspecies, Psyllobora vigintimaculata taedata, so that's what is being referred to. 

Figure 1 from Sutherland and Parrella. (Click to enlarge)

If you see any of those crawling around on your plants, then you've got this species. Note that the adults overwinter under leaves and other secluded spaces (and warmer areas....well, as warm as you can get during winter), so you could be finding them in early Spring. 

Just in case you notice some plants showing signs of mildew disease, look around for this little lady beetle. It's another way in which insects are working in our favor without asking anything in return. Isn't that great? Be sure to keep this in mind the next time you encounter multicolored Asian lady beetles seeking shelter in your home and remember: not all lady beetles are a nuisance!

Citation:
Sutherland, Andrew M.; Parrella, M. P. “Biology and Co-Occurrence of Psyllobora vigintimaculata taedata (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) and Powdery Mildews in an Urban Landscape of California.” Annals of the Entomological Society of America, v. 102 issue 3, 2009, p. 484-491.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Hackberry: The Teenage Years

I was going through some of my photos from this past summer (preparing to organize and identify them), when I came across a picture of a tree with some very interesting bark.


I had a vague feeling of recognition when I took this picture, but I couldn't quite pin it down. After being a teaching assistant for a botany class this semester, however, I remembered what it was the second time around: American hackberry (Celtis occidentalis).

What's the easiest way to remember this tree? Definitely the bark: it's gnarled and warty, with furrows. As the tree gets older, it gets more warty and just a tad bit smoother. It hasn't reached this stage yet, so I would call this tree a teenager. 

The leaves are serrate (they have little teeth on the edges), and are alternatively arranged on the stem.


American hackberry is found in the West and Midwest, and is relatively common in Ohio. When its leaves fall off in the autumn, you can sometimes find galls on the leaves caused by a Psyllid insect (it's related to cicadas and aphids). Due to these little insects, the leaves can become as warty as the bark! For more information about the galls, check out the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension site.

Interestingly enough, this tree has been in my backyard for a while now and I never noticed it before. If you haven't found a theme from my blog yet, consider this: get out there and start observing! There's still so much to explore.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Chronicles of Ignorance: Wheel Bug Edition

Regular readers should know by now: I freaking love wheel bugs.

Click that picture to enlarge it, sit back, and really look at it for a while. There's no way you'll ever convince me that's not one of the most beautiful creatures in the world.

So when I catch wind of the wheel bug being talked about in a negative light, I try to set the record straight. Unfortunately, this time, I could not set the record straight. This link will take you to the website for a local news station serving Pittsburgh, WTAE. The video on the page talks about the wheel bug and how one resident discovered one in her yard and was a little frightened. 

Rather than trying to dissuade her of her fears, however, the news team proceeds to FLIP OUT. In what can only be described as an egregious example of shoddy journalism dipped in a vat of ignorance, the video goes on a two minute rampage warning about the dangers of the wheel bug and showing pictures of it to random people on the street, delighting in their faces of horror. 

If you're a fan of insects and nature, or can at least appreciate their merits, you should be offended and disgusted. The video makes no attempt to cast the bug in a positive light, focusing on the slight chance that it can bite people. It's obvious that this was simply a filler story to scare people about the next "insect menace," after the bed bugs of this past summer. 

A news organization should have more integrity than this, focusing on education over fear mongering. It's a disservice to the general public and should not be tolerated. Allowing media like this to be broadcast will only increase the general public's lack of knowledge and misconceptions about the enormous importance of insects. 

In pursuit of remedying this, I have contacted the news station to express my discontent. If you feel the need to follow suit, just click here. The only information they request from you is your name and e-mail. Just make sure to tell them that you would be more than happy to assist them in setting the record straight, or you can redirect them to me.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Fluorescent Millipedes? Sweet!

Just a quick post here to highlight one of the more interesting things I've found lately: millipedes that glow under UV light. I've been busy with my Investigative Studies Project, Capstone, and other related endeavors, so I'm essentially stockpiling a lot of photos and information for blog posts during winter, when I won't be finding nearly as much arthropod stuff.

You think you have to go to the rainforest to find neat stuff? HA!

I took a UV flashlight out to the field a few weeks ago and looked through the leaf litter--it was crawling with these many-legged critters. I could barely contain myself, it was just so neat. There were a few species fluorescing under the light, which is a result of a chemical in their exoskeleton, and the fluorescence was at bright as firefly bioluminescence. 

The millipedes were a nice size, hovering around one inch, and had chemical defenses. I grabbed a few to hold in my hand and could smell a slightly sweet scent on my palm after I returned them to the leaf litter. Chemical defenses, UV fluorescence....will millipedes ever stop being exciting? Nope.

Update (Jan 7, 2012): This millipede is Semionellus placidus, which is in a tribe that occurs mostly in the Northwest of North America. I'll try to gather more information and put that together for another post.

One of my next projects? Research the relationship between assassin bugs of a certain subfamily (Ectrichodiinae) and millipedes. Why? Some species in this subfamily are known to be millipede hunters. Maybe this holds true for our local species as well. The only genus around here in the subfamily Ectrichodiinae is Rhiginia, and I had the pleasure of finding the species Rhiginia cruciata during early summer. That gives me a good six months to prepare. Perhaps the millipedes have some dangerous predators to watch out for.

Scarlet-bordered assassin bug, Rhiginia cruciata. Millipede hunter?
 

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A Strange Place for a Centipede

I had an unexpected encounter with a centipede today around lunchtime. I walked into the restroom and glanced down at the floor, where I found an inch-long centipede....and I was pretty excited. Unfortunately, it was dead, probably due to being stepped on. If nothing else though, that made collecting it easy for me. Have you ever tried to catch a fleeing centipede? They're ridiculously fast and not an easy catch.

After putting it in a plastic bag for safekeeping and eating some lunch, I headed off to the lab, grabbed my centipede ID guide, and threw it under a microscope.

It's a little intimidating, measuring out to about an inch long.

Earlier this summer, I attended an advanced naturalist workshop at the Edge of Appalachia preserve in West Union, Ohio that focused on the centipedes and millipedes (and isopods), which gave me the skills I needed to tackle Myriapoda identification. It was led by Bill Shear, from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, and boy did he know a lot about the Myriapods. He was kind enough to hand out some ID guides, which is what I've been using since then to figure out what all these leggy creatures are.


I'm always impressed with what I see when I put a centipede under the microscope. There are so many little structures that you completely miss out on until you magnify them, and they're super interesting. It's almost like you're looking at an entirely new animal.

That's a lot of legs. Centipedes have one pair per segment, while millipedes have two pairs per segment.

This centipede has 15 pairs of legs, and even more antennae segments--more than 35 (I haven't been able to get a final count yet). Not all of its legs are there: a good number broke off, including some of the posterior legs, which are important for identification purposes. An interesting fact: centipedes always have an odd number of leg pairs.

A close-up of the centipede's maxillipeds, which have fangs on the end of them that inject venom. You can see an oval outline on the left side of the maxilliped, which I believe is the centipede's venom gland.

Centipedes are predators: they're quick, and they also have fangs. These fangs are found at the end of the centipede's maxillipeds, which are actually a pair of modified legs (whoa!). The venom glands are contained within these maxillipeds, and work in short order to paralyze and kill its prey. Generally, a bite from a centipede from North America won't hurt too much since they're relatively small compared to a human. But there are some species in the southwestern United States and Mexico that are more dangerous, such as those in the genera Bothropolys, Lithobius, and Neolithobius, which are large centipedes.

The fangs and coxosternal toothplates, with teeth.

Due to the rough shape this centipede was in when I found it, I haven't been able to nail down its ID further than Family Lithobiidae. Currently, family designations for the Order Lithobiomorpha are in flux, with only two families officially recognized--Lithobiidae and Henicopidae. There's definitely room for improvement, and the group is waiting for someone to tackle it.

 Ventral view of the centipede, with coxal pores circled.

An interesting part of centipede anatomy (and a useful characteristic for identification) are the coxal pores, located at the bases of the posterior legs. These pores are connected to coxal glands, which are used for nitrogenous waste excretion.

Make sure to be on the lookout for centipedes and millipedes where ever you are: once you start looking, you'll start seeing them everywhere. The world of the Myriapods is surprisingly vibrant: chemical defenses, parental care, and even bioluminescence characterize many species. It would be a shame to ignore it.

References:

Shear and Weaver. 2007. Keys to the Centipeds of Virginia and Adjacent Regions.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Science Video Friday: Neil deGrasse Tyson on the future of science funding

If you're looking for someone who's passionate about science, you don't have to look any further than Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. This week's Science Video Friday features him articulating why the government funding science is important, even in tough times.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Aquatic Beetles in a Wheelbarrow

When I think of beetles, what comes to mind are ladybugs, ground beetles, fireflies...maybe stag beetles. All of these are terrestrial beetles and are pretty neat, but why stop at land? There are a number of aquatic beetles that are just as cool, and can be found in rivers, streams, and standing water.

I was canvasing my yard the other day when I came upon a wheelbarrow that was full of standing water. I've checked it a few times before for insects, but usually only find mosquito larvae. Last summer I did find one aquatic beetle, but I never got around to investigating what it was.

When I checked it this time, however, I found a much more diverse assemblage of creatures.

 Acilius mediatus

The orange you see in that picture is rust, while the green gelatinous stuff is an egg covering from one of the species of aquatic beetles in the wheelbarrow. Either that or it's algae or something similar. The beetle Acilius mediatus is in the family Dytiscidae, the predacious diving beetles. You can see its hindlegs, which it uses as oars to swim through the water. I watched the beetle for a little while, and from time to time it would swim up to the water surface, thrust the back of its abdomen out of the water, then swim back down to the depths, hiding under debris. By doing that, the beetle grabs an air bubble and traps it under its elytra, using it as a physical gill. That's wild! The word for this bubble is also one of my favorite biology terms: a plastron. 

A brighter picture, with size comparison to a penny. The beetle about 12 mm long.


This isn't the clearest picture, but you can see more of the green gelatinous stuff. You can also see small black beetles. I'm not sure what those are, so I'll probably collect a few specimens soon.

 I was also able to learn a little more about the aquatic beetle I saw in the wheelbarrow last summer and collected one of them. Contrary to what I thought at first, the second beetle is NOT in the family Noteridae. Rather, like the previous beetle, it's in the family Dytiscidae.

 A small beetle, only about 5 mm long.


This beetle also has its hind legs modified for swimming, and utilizes a plastron as well. It might be in the genus Laccophilus, but that remains to be seen. UPDATE: This beetle is indeed in the genus Laccophilus, it's the species Laccophilus fasciatus.

As I was watching these beetles, I started wondering how they got into the wheelbarrow in the first place. I hadn't figured it out, so in the meantime I was trying to get a better picture of the beetle I collected. I had it in a small dish of water and picked it up, causing it to slide around frantically in my hand. 

Then it spread its wings and flew out of my hand. 

Oh. 

So that's how they get around to new bodies of water. Yeah, that makes sense. 

Beetles in the family Dytiscidae are predacious in the adult stage, so who knows how much longer they'll all be alive. Especially the smaller beetles, with that huge Acilius mediatus hanging around. I'll have to go back in a few days and see.


Unfortunately, this treehopper (Membracidae: Thelia bimaculata) was not able to thrive in the aquatic environment as well the beetles do.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Science Video Friday: The fastest living thing on the planet

This one threw me for a loop. I figured it would be something small, but really? Huh, how interesting.

I can't embed this one onto the page, unfortunately, so here's the link for the video. It's a clip from the BBC program Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds, which I haven't seen before, but it looks like I probably should check it out.

I don't want to ruin the surprise of the video, so I'll just leave things at that.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Rare Developmental Anomaly

I was researching some literature on millipedes today (spoiler alert: there's not a whole lot of it) and came across an article with the title "Report on a Rare Developmental Anomaly in the Scorpion, Centruroides vittatus (Buthidae)."

Obviously, I had to read it. When you come across a title like that, how can you not? If there's one thing scientists know how to do very well, it's how to hide something extremely interesting behind a hideously boring title. It's very important to learn how to recognize those titles and see what glittering treasure is hidden under their grotesque exterior.

So I grabbed my explorer hat and started reading. It was only three pages long (with the bibliography), so it didn't take long to read. But 30 seconds after I started, I struck gold. Well, it was more like gold with diamonds embedded in it.


Holy crap!

Look at that picture! A rare developmental anomaly indeed! The authors found this specimen while "perusing" (nice word choice) the Emerson Entomological Museum of Oklahoma State University. It was collected by L. Feldick at Kinta, Haskell County, Oklahoma on November 4, 1988, so good job L. Feldick! I would have loved to be collecting with him or her that day to see the look on their face when they come across this one.....along with the ensuing struggle to collect it. I collected some scorpions in New Mexico last summer, and it was a bit nerve-wracking with just one tail and stinger. The stakes certainly would have been raised substantially when dealing with two. It's sort of like the difference between a snake and a hydra.

Less terrifying than a showdown with a two-tailed scorpion. Just ask Heracles. 
Image via Wikipedia.

The article reports that it was "quite probable" that both tails were fully functional. Also, the scorpion had two anuses. Interesting, what those genetic mutations can do.

If you want to check out the full article for yourself, here's the citation: 

Sissom DW and Shelley RM. 1995. Report on a Rare Developmental Anomaly in the scorpion, Centruroides vittatus (Buthidae). Journal of Arachnology: 23(3). pp. 199-201.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Whence a caterpillar crossses your path

I came across a caterpillar today that was too cool to pass up sharing. You're in for a treat.

I was walking to the science center on campus today and looking around the fringes of the grass, as per usual, when I spotted a caterpillar on the sidewalk. It was serendipitous because I was just thinking about how as an entomologist, I've been training myself to focus on small things and watch for movement that might be overlooked by someone who doesn't constantly look for bugs. It was an interesting moment.

I noticed a small green thing that looked like a leaf, and at first thought it was. A breeze had just blown some leaves across the path, but this was a little different. It's a good thing I don't have a habit of crushing leaves, or this story would be sad.

Sidewalk is not its natural habitat.

A-ha! My first thought: "Definitely not a leaf." My second thought: "Sphingidae." This caterpillar has very pretty colors, like a grape popsicle shoved into a lime. The first thing to notice after the colors is the horn at the end of its abdomen--that's an identifying feature for the sphinx moths, family Sphingidae. Sphingidae is easily one of the coolest (if not THE coolest) families of moths, and they're easily identified by the posterior horn that the caterpillars have. (Unless you're dealing with Abbot's Sphinx - Sphecodina abbottii. In that case, the caterpillar will be staring right back at you with its raised knob that resembles an eye.)

Hemaris diffinis - Snowberry Clearwing
This Sphingid caterpillar is the Snowberry clearwing, Hemaris diffinis, which turns into a beautiful moth. When it reaches that stage, it will have clear wings (hence the common name) and look similar to a bumblebee. How cool is that? Notice the black dots around the spiracles on the side of the caterpillar, and how the horn changes colors from yellow to black towards the tip. Marvelous! While I was moving the caterpillar (first by stick, but when it wouldn't cooperate, just by picking it up), I turned around and noticed another person coming up the sidewalk behind me, looking at me like I was crazy. I tried to explain that I was moving a caterpillar so that it wouldn't be squished, but I'm pretty sure it didn't make me seem less crazy to him.
This is a common occurrence in my life. 

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Science Video Friday: Invasive species are a nuisance


Invasive species: from North America to New Zealand to Antarctica, they're a problem. Invasive species, when transported to a new environment, have the capacity to overwhelm the ecosystem and throw it off the natural balance that has been reached by the indigenous organisms. This causes severe damage to the ecosystem, and can have many unforeseen consequences: among them local extinction of native organisms and even increased flooding due to increased storm water runoff.

Here in Southeastern Ohio, some of the more common invasive organisms I see are Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), and the dreaded Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica). From what I've seen, Japanese honeysuckle and knotweed are especially nasty invaders, and can take over forests and other areas without prejudice. In the case of Japanese knotweed, it spreads via rhizomes, making it even more difficult to eradicate. One of the major problems of invasive plants, and also the reason why they can propagate so efficiently, is that they don't have many insects that feed on them. The native insects don't have the machinery to digest the invasive plants like they do for the natives, so the invasives spread without much stopping them. Some insects do feed on these invasives, but it's not to the extent of the number that feed on them in their native environment.

Interestingly enough, I've observed Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) feeding on the leaves of Japanese knotweed. Unfortunately, Japanese beetles themselves are an invasive species, so that's not really a solution to the problem.

While much of what's published on invasive species is about their detrimental effects on the environment, they're not all bad. As discussed in this article from Penn State University, some invasive species can have positive effects for birds. Unfortunately, this positive effect is inconsequential when compared to all the harm invasive species bring to the environments they colonize.

While many of the examples I used were invasive species native Japan, it of course doesn't mean that that is the only place our invasives come from. We have invasive species from all over the world, these examples were just the most well-known to me. Besides, our indigenous North American species have become invasive on other continents as well. Ah, globalization!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Wheel Bug Emerges

I came home today to the most wonderful surprise I've had in a long time:

Arilus cristatus, the wheel bug, in all of its salmon-colored glory.

For those of you who aren't familiar with my love of this particular insect, the wheel bug is my absolute favorite insect. Why? To list a few reasons, it's an assassin bug, it's the largest terrestrial true bug (Order Hemiptera) in North America, and it has that ridiculously interesting cogwheel protuberance on its pronotum. This bug is unique and when you see it, you know what it is and that you shouldn't test its patience.

The fresh new bug on the left, with its out-of-style skin on the right.

Anyway, what we're actually looking at here is the wheel bug right after it has molted out of its 5th instar. Wheel bugs go through a nymph stage of life with five separate growth periods (instars), and it sheds its skin between each period, growing as it does so. At the end of its fifth instar, it has finished its nymph stage and emerges as a fully-formed adult: with wings and its characteristic cogwheel. This wheel does not appear in any of the nymphs. If you're lucky and can catch the wheel bug soon after it has molted its final larval skin, you're in for a treat. It emerges as a beautiful red/pink/orange color....let's call it salmon. 

The wings still have a leathery sheen to them, and are clear enough that you can see the white and red-striped abdomen.

Unfortunately, this salmon color doesn't stick around forever, and fades to jet black within a few hours. Though I suppose in the long run, it's better for camouflage reasons. It's not as striking as the red of course, especially after its yellowish-gray pubescence overtakes its body, but it's functional.


If you want more information on wheel bugs, you can check out a previous post of mine here. 


Sunday, 10 July 2011

Cedar Bog....well, it's a fen

This weekend placed me in Dayton, Ohio for the Midwest Native Plants Conference. It was beyond spectacular and I was bombarded with new information everywhere I turned. The conference committee was gracious enough to award me with a scholarship to attend the conference, so I tried to squeeze all the information I could out of the three short days the conference took place. The conference was very well-planned and went smoothly, by the end of the weekend I was exhausted. Really though, I would make sure all my weekends were filled with biology like this one if I could.

The conference hosted some amazing speakers, particularly Steve McKee and Jim McCormac. Steve talked about Botanical Detective Work and his adventures with searching for plants in Richland County that haven't been looked for in over 100 years, which lit a fire under me to go explore Washington County some more. It's amazing what can slip under our noses due to simply not paying attention to what's growing (or crawling!). Jim gave a talk about hummingbirds and the ones we're likely to see in Ohio, very neat stuff. There were some beautiful pictures included to boot.

On the last day of the conference, Sunday, everyone split up into small groups to head into the field. My particular group headed to Cedar Bog, south of Urbana, and I lucked out with who else joined the group: Steve and Jim were both there, with Jim leading it, and we also had Cheryl Harner and Nina Harfmann. The group was in very capable hands. Essentially, if we passed by a plant, one of them would know what it was. Needless to say, I was writing down names like crazy.

Now, Cedar Bog is actually a fen. What's the difference? A bog is acidic, low in minerals, and doesn't really drain. A fen, however, is fed by water, neutral or alkaline, and supports more than Sphagnum moss. But, it was called a bog before it was recognized as a fen, so the name sticks.

Anyway! We found a massive amount of plants and animals during our trek, and it was extremely rewarding. It was the best use of a morning I've had in quite a while. By the end of it, I had taken pictures of 59 different species. That's pretty darn good, I'd say. Having said that, it's time for some pictures.

She has all her limbs, it's just a weird angle, don't worry!

 This beauty descended on a single strand of web and hung around long enough for us to get some nice shots of her. It's a female dark fishing spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus. You can tell it's a female from the sheer size of it: males are smaller. Due to their size, they can take out some pretty sizable prey.


This guy's tricky.

 What at first looks (and sounds) like a bumblebee is actually a robber fly, family Asilidae, Laphria species. Robber flies can be quite large and are vicious when they take down their prey. This one is a bee mimic, which is pretty evident, and if you want to know more about its mimicry, head over to Jim's blog: he's written a good summary of it. Robber flies are my favorite example of why it's important to pay attention to insects. You might think it's a common insect at first, but if you look closer, you'll often be surprised. Something I always look at when I hear a loud buzzing sound from an insect is the eyes. A robber fly's eyes will be very different from what you're used to seeing on a bee's body, so that's the quickest way to separate them. This one happened to be at eye level and caught me off guard after I turned away from the fishing spider. I scrambled for my camera and it flew off the leaf, but thankfully it landed on another one nearby. I'm glad I didn't scare him off, especially since I had already let an assassin bug get away from me a few days before, and later this day a tortoise beetle would escape from my lens. You can't win them all, but when you win one of these huge charismatic flies, you feel a bit better.



This is Michigan lily, Lilium michiganense, and just too beautiful to pass up. This picture turned out very well, and it's such a treat to run across a flower as vibrant as this one.

So that's where the Valentine's Day heart comes from.

Our group reached an open area in the fen and was taken aback by the plants and insects we found hanging around in the sun. I saw my first  Elfin Skimmer, Nannothemis bella, darting around, and also these Seepage Dancers, Argia bipunctulata. The dragonflies were much tinier than what I'm used to, which was super cool. Both species are endangered, making Cedar Bog a very important place for the survival of these two species. 

 Female Nannothemis bella, a wasp mimic not only in color, but in movement.

I still have 54 species to cover, so this Midwest Native Plant Society/Cedar Bog story arc will be elaborated upon in future posts, for sure. The diversity of the place is astounding, it still wrinkles my brain. If you haven't been there before, make sure to add it to your list, it's well worth the trip. 

 

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Science Link Dump

I spent about an hour today after work reading a variety of science articles I found and wanted to aggregate them all here for those of you who feel inclined to read some of them. Sometimes I'll post them to Twitter, but 140 characters isn't really enough to explain some of them.

So let's start it off with a gastropod video:



The video was taken by Kerry Weston with the New Zealand Department of Conservation and I certainly was not expecting it to go the way it did. When I think of snails, I don't normally think of words such as stealthy, carnivorous, and brutal as associated with them. But apparently I have been shown the error of my ways. It's so great when that's demonstrated in such a blunt way.

This next video is from NPR and we switch our focus onto the hydrogen bomb.

A Very Scary Light Show: Exploding H-Bombs In Space

If you want a larger video, you can click on the embedded one and you'll be taken to the Vimeo website. I'm always interested in watching old footage of nuclear explosions. It's from a vastly different time, when we weren't really sure of the effects of radiation. We've come a long way since then. I also get the feeling from some of these videos that the US government (and the Soviets as well) were treating their nuclear tests like a kid with a new toy--wanting to see how big of an explosion they could produce, and how many islands they could destroy. I have a nifty chart from a 1996 issue of Popular Mechanics that seems to confirm that:


The following link is for you fans of mathematics out there: MathematiciansWant to Say Goodbye to Pi. Math isn’t my forte, which is why I’m studying Biology, but I try to appreciate it. I’m curious to watch arguments unfold over different concepts, it shows that the science is still changing and the ways of expression are being shaped even today. The article lays out some good arguments for using Tau over Pi, and I’m inclined to agree. It seems akin to an argument about using the Metric system over the United States customary system.
But really, I’m mostly interested so that I can watch and read the arguments over which system is better unfold amongst the mathemeticians. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to listen to informed people argue. Especially over a core science.

Moving away from the specialized subject-specific material, the next article is a wonderful piece about science’s place in diplomacy that’s from Scientific American’s guest blog: LindauNobel Meeting--Peter Agre and Torsten Wiesel: Nobel laureate scientificdiplomacy builds bridges.

I love reading articles that tackle where science intersects with other areas of life. Frankly, there’s not enough being written about that subject, which is a shame. Science hits every area, even if it’s not so obvious at first. There’s a real potential for science to do good in all areas of life and for it to work with other professions. Many times, it will be possible in a surprising way that’s pretty darn novel.

To add another link from Scientific American’s guest blog, I think it’s time for some trivia: Lindau Nobel Meeting--Sentences That WinNobel Prizes.

Obviously there isn’t such a thing as “Nobel Prize-winning sentences,” but it’s neat to compile a representative list from the papers of Nobel Laureates. My favorite is the one from Sir Harold Kroto:

"We are disturbed at the number of letters and syllables in the rather fanciful but highly appropriate name we have chosen in the title to refer to this C60 species."

Science and humor in the same sentence? Blasphemy!

I’m finishing this post with a webcomic from Abstruse Goose, a delightful comic that focuses on many topics, including science. When the topic of the day is science, it’s always insightful, and can be uplifting. This particular comic combines science, maps, and The Lord of the Rings, so where can you go wrong with that? Nowhere, that’s where.


Permanent link

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Boy do I love nature quotations

So I have another post started that will explain what I've been up to with my research project, but in the meantime, I have this one.

I was reading Richard Conniff's blog and came across his post Learning to Feel at Home. It's filled with great quotations about nature, but one quotation in particular struck me as outstanding. It's lent me a nice springboard for my eventually presentation about my project, and so I'm thinking about starting it off with this picture as the first slide.


It's simple, which is part of the reason why I like it. I also expect my audience to not quite understand assassin bugs (or even know anything about them) when I start my presentation, so I think this will help them to understand where I'm coming from and why I chose to pursue my project.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Summer of the Reduviidae: The Beginning

Let's just say that my summer project with assassin bugs is going well so far.


More to come soon!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Late Night Beetle Collecting

I decided to turn on the outside lights for about a half hour tonight to see if anything would fly up, and I got some good results! Right now I'll post the pictures that I took tonight, and I'll elaborate tomorrow. I caught a few of the beetles and am keeping them to hopefully identify later and get a closer look under better light conditions. It was about 52 degrees tonight, so still a bit chilly for more insects to be flying about, but once summer warms up more, there will be all sorts attracted to lights.