Showing posts from 2012

December's Centipede

Ohio's had a warm December so far, and I have only seen a few snowflakes here in southeast Ohio. This week has been moderately warm, with temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s (Fahrenheit, that is). We've had a few cold snaps, so I've pretty much stopped looking for any arthropods, except for lady beetles and marmorated stink bugs in my home.

Then I went outside to retrieve the mail today. I spotted something moving on the porch and took a closer look: it was a centipede! I ran inside to retrieve a vial, almost falling in the hallway due to my wet shoes (it rained today) and frightening the cat, which ran into the living room. I apologized and ran back outside, just in time to catch the critter before it left the porch and disappeared into the yard.

I took it back inside and examined it: it was one of the largest centipedes we have in Ohio, Scolopocryptops sexspinosus. It's in the family Scolopocryptopidae and only has 23 legs--not 100 (no centipede has 100 legs, desp…

Entomology Art - ESA 2012

I'm a member of the Entomological Society of America and they had their annual meeting last month. In anticipation of the meeting, they sent out reminder postcards to everyone, urging people to register. I had other things going on and couldn't attend, but the postcard was too cool not to share.

That's just a scanned copy, so the colors don't pop like they do on the actual postcard. But it turns out that the ESA has a poster version of this card! They printed 200 and you can order one here while they're available. I may just end up hanging my postcard on the wall instead of ordering the poster, but it's nice to see insect art. It's a good reminder that the arts and sciences aren't diametrically opposed.

Old Entomological texts are the best

Seriously. I'm not sure if it's just because I'm reading papers published a hundred years and the context of the written text is different from what I'm used to today or what, but there are so many great paragraphs hidden away in yellowing papers that are now digitized. A great resource for these papers is the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a cooperative effort by libraries to digitize biodiversity records and make them available online--for free.

It has great search features and has provided me with a lot of great information that I wasn't able to find anywhere else. It's also a nice resource for finding beautiful old pictures of plants and animals, which led me to search it today for a picture of the wheel bug. Instead, I happened upon a page from a circular released by the United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Entomology in 1904.

Instead of finding info about the wheel bug, I found a paragraph written by someone who did not like ambush bugs:

The Golden Wheel Bug

Every so often, animals can be a different color than what they normally are. The most recognizable case is animals that have albinism or leucism. At other times, you may even see a pink katydid.

Recently, my girlfriend came across a dead wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) on a sidewalk and noticed it wasn't quite the dusty gray that most wheel bugs are. It was much more vivid: its wings had a golden shimmer to them.

While the lighting isn't optimal, you can see the golden color pretty well. Compared to the normal color of a wheel bug, it's a noticeable difference.

I'll try to get a picture of two pinned wheel bugs side by side for a better comparison and will update this post soon. Isn't it neat? You never know what nature will throw at you.

"Why do you collect insects?"

That's a good question, and whenever I'm asked that I usually get a shocked look as I explain how I collect insects and the process of killing them. To entomologists, it's not such a big deal, especially if you've been collecting insects for a while, but the general public might see it as a hypocritical approach: if entomologists love these bugs they're collecting, why are they killing them rather than letting them live?

I always strive to explain that I collect for a purpose and do my best not to let my collected specimens go to waste by giving them a label and properly processing them, but it can be tough to get the point across.

Thankfully, Greg Pohl, the president of the Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild, has written a letter that stands as the best defense of insect collection I've read. It's a thorough and very informative piece, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

Personally, using insect collections as teaching tools has been the most successf…

Grad School Preparations

I am now preparing to apply to grad schools. I've been working on nailing down exactly what I want to do over the past few months, and what schools would allow me to reach my goals, and I'm finally at the point where I can seriously start the application process.

Canada, Ohio, Arkansas, Arizona, and Illinois are looking to be strong contenders.

I would like to incorporate millipede research into my graduate work, but that isn't a make or break thing. I would like to stay within the field of systematics or ecology, though that's not set in stone either if I find a really neat project.

My final goal is still to work in a natural history museum so that I can merge research with science outreach, and we'll see how I get there--or if I find something else along the way.

A huge thanks goes out to people like Crystal Ernst, Morgan Jackson, and Chris Buddle for giving me support thus far in my journey, and for sharing their experiences and knowledge.

And of course, the Biology …

More Caterpillar Parasitoidism

I'm finding interesting insects as I go back through my collection vials and inserting the final labels. The vials include a bunch of organisms I've collected over the years, and one in particular I just processed brought back some memories.

This is a pretty caterpillar called Leucostigma orgyia, more commonly known as the white-marked tussock moth. I picked it off a tree during the summer of 2010 and took it home to raise into a beautiful moth, as this was around the time my interest in insects was really starting to increase.

Things didn't quite go as planned.

My caterpillar friend had been parasitized! As I came to learn later, this is a pretty common occurrence, but this was the first time I had witnessed it. I cover parasitoidism in this post, but the short version is that a small wasp (in the family Braconidae) had found this caterpillar and injected some eggs into it, which later hatched and found on the insides of the caterpillar. Once the wasp larvae had their fill, …

Mushroom & Millipede Hunting

Yesterday was a nice day outside, and I figured it would probably be one of the last before the snow started falling. I decided to take advantage of this, and set off to find some mushrooms. (Also, it was snowing when I woke up this morning, so I was correct in my assumption. Maybe I should take up weather forecasting.)

I packed some collecting supplies and set off for the nature trail near my old elementary school. It has a nice array of habitat types and gratuitous amounts of decaying logs, so I was optimistic that I would find some nice mushrooms. However, almost immediately after I stepped onto the trail, my trip turned into millipede hunting. It's just too difficult to resist turning over every decaying log I find in hopes of getting some millipedes out of it.

My habit ended up paying off: I found many millipedes and collected 7 specimens from 4 separate species. It's astounding how many little critters live in decaying wood and the surrounding leaf litter. It's a minia…

Neglected Collections

After my college graduation last May, I've been using my free time to go back through the bug collections I did while still an undergraduate. I had a lot of material left over--both dry specimens and ethanol specimens, along with photographs and lists to organize. I never quite had the time to do it while taking classes (or at least, that's what I tell myself), so I'm very glad I can take care of it now.

I've had this blog post about respecting your specimens gnawing at me since I read it during the summer, and felt a bit guilty. I had some pretty crappy labels with my specimens, or even worse, no labels at all! For some, I could remember exactly where I was standing when I collected them, so it wasn't a huge problem. But for others...well, those just had to be thrown out as useless.

Some of my specimens were new to the collection and represented unique information, so I wanted to make sure they were properly labeled and taken care of. With that mission in mind, I…

Entomological Smackdown

"Yet the law of priority compels its adoption, and one's regret is perhaps to a certain extent lessened by the satisfaction derived from abolishing a name so ill-formed and so ill-sounding as Opisthemega." -R.I. PocockThe above is taken from a manuscript clearing up confusion about the genus Theatops, which includes a few large centipedes with surprisingly fat terminal legs.

It's burying into the ground here, with the terminal legs trailing at the top of the picture. Yes, it can pinch with them.
There are many hidden gems like these in scientific publications, and it's always a joy to come across them. You're reminded that the entomologists writing them are people too. And I must agree, Opisthemega is a terrible name.
Reference: Pocock RI. 1888. Annals And Magazine of Natural History. 1:283-290. Link.

Science Video Friday - I Lichen This Post

The wonderful Field Museum in Chicago featured this video about Steve Leavitt and his lichen research, which hit my soft spot for these organisms.

Marvelous Mossy Millipedes

I learned a new word recently: epizoic. It's related to epiphytic, which describes the relationship of plants that grow on top of other plants (think of bromeliads or lichens that grow on trees). While epiphytic plants have a house, epizoic plants have a mobile home---they grow on top of animals.

And what do some mosses use as a mobile home? Millipedes! In a paper published in December 2011, S. Daniela Martínez T. et al. describe this relationship between 10 species of mosses and a tropical millipede, Psammodesmus bryophorus.

Obviously this millipede is at the cutting edge of fashion.
Field work for this study was done at the Reserva Natural Río Nambi in Colombia. As the scientists sorted the 124 millipedes they collected, they noticed that some of their P. bryophorus specimens looked a bit green...because they had moss growing on their backs. (Sadly, the paper doesn't indicate whether or not the mosses caused any uncomfortable itching.)
Intrigued, they set to work and checked the…

The Top of the Gob Pile

I was inspecting an area with an acid mine drainage problem last Wednesday for work and we found the source pretty easily: a massive gob pile. What's a gob pile? It's the pile of stuff left over from coal mining. There's a lot of different materials in it, including a lot of shale, giving it a black color. It's an ugly thing that causes lots of problems, but regulation in the US has stopped companies from abandoning them since 1977.

Interestingly enough, there were a few plants growing on the top of the pile, and a few old stumps, which held some biology after all.

This tiny grasshopper blended in with the fall colors, until it jumped onto a patch of moss.

Pixie Cup Lichen, Cladonia pyxidata, grew in a couple patches.

British Soldier Lichen, Cladonia cristatella, made itself known with its bright red caps. Those red caps on the stalks hold its spores.

And since I can never resist turning over a decaying log, I was rewarded with this scarab beetle grub. Not sure what it is, …

Science Video Friday - The Naturalist President

There are a lot of reasons to admire Theodore Roosevelt, America's 26th president. Chiefly among them to me is his passion for conservation. This video from The American Museum of Natural History explores the roots of his passion, which grew from his interests in natural history during his youth.

A Herd of Zebras

After enjoying a meal in the park a few weeks ago with my girlfriend, I stopped by a sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) to check for any insects. The sweet gum is abundant in Ohio and is one of my favorite trees. It reminds me of when I was a kid and would throw the seed balls at my friends. Good times.

I noticed an orange bug near the trunk of the tree and stooped down to investigate.

Success! I had found Pselliopus barberi, a species I like to refer to as the zebra-striped assassin bug. I kept looking and found another one. Then another. And another....all in all, I counted 29 in total! There were about six pairs which were mating, though I disturbed a few (as you can see in the above photo).
It's not every day that you find so many insects in one place. So what was going on?
The answer lies in the season. This species overwinters as adults, so when it starts getting colder in the fall, the adults band together to find hiding places under bark and wrinkly crevices on trees. So…

This centipede is so happy!

Quick! Describe centipedes in one word!

You said "optimistic," right?

Because the face on the back of this centipede's head is super happy, even when suspended in ethanol. This is a centipede in the genus Strigamia, collected last October from leaf litter when I was searching for millipedes. I wonder if other species have different faces...

A Portfolio of Historical Insects

I had some extra time after work today, which I used to visit Marietta College's Special Collections. They keep scores of old documents, many dating back to when the Ohio Company of Associates first established Marietta in 1788 as the first settlement in the Northwest Territory. What I was after today, however, had an Entomological bent to it.

Samuel Prescott Hildreth, a doctor who lived in Marietta during the early to mid-1800s did some of the first work in Ohio studying insects. He was a naturalist and published the first observations of the periodical cicada's 17 year life cycle, which is what I was after. I didn't find any of his cicada papers, but the librarian did bring me a book he wrote and illustrated, entitled "Portfolio of Insects."

This book includes paintings by Hildreth of various insects from Marietta and elsewhere in Ohio. When I first opened the book, I was greeted with beautiful illustrations of the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) during all of …

Dancing Stick

The species I find in the county never cease to amaze me.  This delightful stick insect, for example, takes a discerning eye to pick out in the forest.

"My dream in life is....TO DANCE!"
But not really. This guy found me when he started to crawl on a friend during a recent potluck. It's a Northern Walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata, the continent's most common walkingstick. It's about three inches long, but looks bigger because of how long its legs are. 
Its limbs are leafy green and its body looks like it's been sculpted straight from a tree, giving it some terrific camouflage. I've been observing it in an insect cage for the last few days and it truly is a remarkable insect. Walkingsticks are the world's best method actors, taking their role as a stick very seriously. 
...which is a good strategy, as birds are liable to pick these guys right off the plants they're feeding on.

Science Video Friday - Gangnam Style Science

If you haven't yet heard of the massively popular video Gangnam Style, click that link to check it out. Personally, I'm more of a Call Me Maybe guy, but to each his own.

But what if you add Bill Nye the Science Guy to Gangnam Style? Well, I end up liking the video a whole lot more.

This is where social media meets science, and it is glorious.

Species of the Beiser Field Station

I've been busy lately, in a good way. My current project is identifying all the species of insects, spiders, millipedes, and other arthropods I've found at the Barbara A. Beiser Field Station (BBFS) over the past few years as an undergraduate at Marietta College. I spent many hours at the field station and thoroughly explored much of it, taking many photos along the way. I have an article about my experiences coming up in the next issue of the Marietta Natural History Society's newsletter, which I'll link to when it comes out.

UPDATE!: You can read my article here (PDF warning). It starts on page 4, titled Beiser Browsings.

So far I've identified around 200 arthropods from BBFS. The timeline for my sightings and collections goes back to 2010 or so, when I first started going there for things like labs and work days, and the identifications have been a long time in coming. It feels great to have so many identified though, as there hasn't been a taxonomic inventory…

Science Video Friday - A mass of harvestmen

After attending a harvestman workshop this past summer, I've become quite interested in the Opiliones. They're a much more diverse group than I previously thought. One of the things I've been searching for since then has been a massive gathering of them, which this lucky person found.

Neat? Or terrifying?
Definitely neat. Come on, harvestmen don't even have venom glands!

R.I.P., Richard Hoffman

I recently learned that Dr. Richard Hoffman, the emeritus curator of the Department of Recent Invertebrates at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, passed away a few months ago. This is sad news, and it affected me more than I expected.

I never met him, but after I started researching millipedes, there was no getting away from his work. It's difficult to find a millipede article without at least one citation to Dr. Hoffman, and usually you find more. He laid the foundation for millipede research in North America, and boy was he prolific.

His research interests weren't solely limited to the millipedes, however. He also studied reptiles and amphibians, and other arthropods. Just today I received a publication about the Assassin Bugs of Virginia authored by Dr. Hoffman in 2006, one of the hundreds of publications he authored during his life.

Dr. Hoffman will be sorely missed, but certainly won't be forgotten by anyone with even a passing interest in millipedes.

For more infor…

Science Video Friday - Parasitoidism in action

For parasitoidism being as gruesome as it is, the following video is surprisingly cute. I'll attribute that to the soundtrack. It also doesn't hurt that these wasps are parasitizing the eggs of an invasive stink bug, Halyomorpha halys, the brown marmorated stink bug.

Late Summer Insects: Now showing!

Summer's starting to wind down (despite the temperature still hovering around 90 degrees on a daily basis), and that means new insects are now starting to make their appearances. One of my favorite groups are the assassin bugs, family Reduviidae, and late summer happens to be one of the best times to study them. Ohio's most charismatic species reach adulthood during this time, including the wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) and the jagged ambush bugs (genus Phymata).

The ambush bugs are small, stout assassin bugs in the subfamily Phymatinae. The family contains three genera in North America, and the most commonly-seen ones are in the genus Phymata. The subfamily hasn't received as much study as the rest of the assassin bugs, so your best bet for identification is to check out BugGuide's page. Dan Swanson has done some great work to figure out how to identify the Phymata spp., but it can still be tough.

A jagged ambush bug, Phymata sp., awaiting its next victim on wingstem.

"It looks like an uncooked sausage"

One of my mantras when I go out to look for bugs and other critters is "Turn over that decaying log." You always have a great chance of finding neat stuff when you look through decaying wood, including creatures such as centipedes, millipedes, spiders, slugs, and of course, insects.

Today was no exception.

"O hai!"
After rolling over a particularly good log, I looked into a hole bored into the wood and found what one girl described as "an uncooked sausage" before she backed away to find some prettier biology. Despite its leathery appearance a bird or small mammal would look upon this beetle grub with much more glee. Then it would gobble this sucker down in a heartbeat.
A grub in the hand is worth...two in the log?
Judging by the size of this grub, I'm guessing that it's a grub of the Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus), though I'm not completely sure. I've uploaded it to BugGuide and hope to hear back about it soon. 
While decaying logs ma…

If it looks like a wasp, it's a beetle

The Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) in my backyard has been a constant bane of my existence ever since it started to creep in a few years ago, but today it yielded some nice results. When it flowers during the summer, it brings in a lot of pretty bees and wasps, and today I found a wasp-mimic beetle.

The venerable locust borer, Megacyllene robiniae, was busily sticking its head into the knotweed flowers until I disturbed it. I took a few photos, then lifted my camera and realized the beetle was gone. Luckily, I was able to snap this photo of it folding out its wings to escape the paparazzi.
The locust borer is a longhorned beetle in the family Cerambycidae and develops as a larva inside of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), from which it emerges as an adult in the fall. It then nectars on flowers such as goldenrod and searches for a mate. This species takes its Batesian mimicry to the max--even the top of its abdomen, normally covered by its elytra--has the yellow markings that…

Science Video Friday - A Centipede's Song

It's time for a musical Science Video Friday, courtesy of a fan of house centipedes, Scutigera coleoptrata. I was very pleased after I found this video--not only is it about our many-legged friends, but it's very good and catchy. I sometimes find myself singing it from time to time. And some of the photos he features are pretty cute.

Science Video Friday (on Saturday!) - Curiosity ignored the cat, landed on Mars

NASA continues to be the most inspiring arm of government we have in the United States. At the beginning of the week, millions of us followed along on the web as the newest Mars Rover, Curiosity, landed on Mars to begin its study of chemistry and geology on the Martian surface. A full-fledged mobile science laboratory, it landed on Mars safely after the "7 minutes of terror" experienced by mission control in Pasadena, California.

The Internet erupted in joy when Curiosity transmitted back its first image of  Mars, seven minutes after landing. For a video of the descent, NASA has kindly provided one, embedded below.

And as usual, XKCD has succinctly summarized just what exactly NASA accomplished.

For more info on the landing:
Yahoo News
Washington Post

The Thrill of Discovery

Max Barclay, the collections manager in the Entomology department at the Natural History Museum in London just posted something on Twitter that I had to share. It's an account Alfred Russell Wallace wrote about the butterfly Ornithoptera croesus, when he found a male of the species in Indonesia. From his book, The Malay Archipelago, 1869:
"The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause." The butterfly is now known as Wallace's Golden Birdwing, and he wasn't kidding when he wrote that other naturalists wo…

Cicada Killers, Human Friends

Wasps: one of the most feared groups of insects. They're also one of the most hated, namely because of the propensity of some species to sting. If you've found yourself at the business end of a wasp, you probably weren't too happy. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that this is how many people view wasps:

But perhaps wasps don't deserve such a bad reputation. Many species of wasps play important roles in the ecosystem, including parasitism of caterpillars and pollination of flowers. Some aren't aggressive towards humans, for example the Eastern Cicada Killer, Sphecius speciosus.
Intimidating at first, sure. But not a threat!
This wasp isn't interested in ruining our day. The male might be interested in us at first, but that's because he's curious: he patrols his territory looking for females. If something new moves in, he has to check it out to see if it's a female he can mate with. You know, kind of like a teenager. The males can't even sti…

Recap: Midwest Native Plants Conference 2012

This weekend was a complete rush for me. Finally, after an entire year of waiting, it was time to attend the 2012 Midwest Native Plants Conference. This conference brings together gardeners, naturalists, and scientists from all walks of life for three days to learn about the ecology of native plants and their effects on other wildlife, such as birds and insects. It's a magical time, full of interesting people and lots of knowledge jam packed into the Bergamo Center outside of Dayton, Ohio.

This year's speakers included: Cheryl Harner, who spoke about native plants as habitat; Ian Adams, who wowed us with beautiful pictures of dragonflies and damselflies; Marielle Anzelone, who taught us that there's a lot of botany to find in New York City, and the keynote speaker, David Wagner, the man who literally wrote the book on caterpillars. Not one session went by without multiple gasps of excitement from the crowd--these were top notch speakers. This isn't even mentioning the m…