Dec 112014
 

Nature published an article this week with some nice infographics that illustrate the astonishing number of species considered threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is pretty depressing, at least if you look at the vertebrates. In what was a nice surprise, they actually included data on insects in addition to the fuzzy wuzzy taxa, noting that there are currently 993 species of insects considered threatened by the IUCN.

993 species is quite a lot, right? I mean, mammals have 1,199 threatened species, and birds 1,373, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that insect conservation is actually not too far behind the curve. But what happens when you dig a little deeper into that data?

If I were to ask you what you thought the order of insects is with the highest number of IUCN listed species, I’d be willing to bet you’d guess moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), or possibly beetles (Coleoptera). I know that’s what I assumed. I’ve prepared a few interactive graphs of my own to help break down what those 993 species are, and how they fit into the larger picture of insect diversity (hover over wedges to see percentages, and over taxon labels to find some of the smaller wedges). And surprise, it’s probably not what you were expecting.

That’s right, dragonflies, damselflies (the Odonata), grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets (the Orthoptera) together make up more than 50% of the 993 threatened insect species. Surprised?

Next, let’s examine the total number of species that have been assessed by the IUCN, which includes the 993 species listed as threatened, plus extinct species, species considered not at risk, and species where there is insufficient data to make any conclusions.

Somewhat unbelievably, 53% of all insects assessed by the IUCN belong to the Odonata. 53%. Talk about a massive skew in the data. For context, compare the IUCN’s assessment numbers to the total known diversity for each insect order.

Look at the relative sizes of the blue Odonata wedge and the red Orthoptera wedge across all three graphs: when we look across everything we know about insect diversity, 50% of IUCN threatened insects species belong to just two orders of insects, which together make up only 2.5% of the total insect diversity. Incredibly, nearly half of all known Odonata have been assessed by the IUCN. Compare that to some of the major orders (major both in the sense of diversity and ecological/economic impact), like flies (Diptera) where 8 (the Where’s Waldo slice of pie near the top of the Assessed Graph) out of the 150,000 160,000 species we have names for have been formally assessed.

8 species of flies.

Out of 150,000 160,000.

Wow.

What’s more, some other insect orders which you would think would be correlated to the high assessment numbers of mammals and birds, specifically their ectoparasitic lice (Pthithiraptera, here included in the Psocodea) and fleas (Siphonaptera), have been completely neglected, with only 1 louse and 0 flea species assessed. Granted not all ectoparasites have high host specificity (case in point, the Passenger Pigeon louse), but when you realize that conservationists working to save charismatic species like condors and black-footed ferrets have likely caused the extinction of their respective lice (none of which are included in the IUCN Red List by the way), and add in the fact that we’ve only described a tiny fraction of the total diversity of insects, we need to assume that the conservation status of insects is being dramatically, drastically, underestimated.

It certainly seems like conservation biologists have been preferentially looking at the bigger insects (Odonata, Orthoptera and Lepidoptera make up 75% of assessed species), and pretty much ignoring the rest. It’s hard to argue with that strategy considering how difficult it is to find, identify, and track smaller insects like beetles, flies and bugs, but if we want to give a proper status report on the state of global biodiversity, we have a lot of work left to do, and any interpretations involving insect diversity need to be taken with a goliath beetle-sized grain of salt.

And no, the goliath beetle, one of the largest insects alive today, hasn’t been assessed by the IUCN either. Go figure.

Nov 282014
 

When identifying insects, the further you want to identify them, generally the smaller the morphological characteristics you need to look for are. For instance, to recognize the taxonomic order Diptera, you need only count the number of pairs of wings an insect has (usually…), but to identify a fly to species, you may need to hone in on the presence or absence of a single bristle on its thorax, or middle leg, or genitals. But what about species or populations where even these characters may be too similar to confidently tell distinguish, and where you could potentially be overlooking and unknown amount of diversity, better known as the elusive cryptic species? Well, you could look at their DNA, and try to see if there are any differences there, or, if you work on black flies, you could literally look at their DNA. Like, actually looking at the shape and patterning of their chromosomes, specifically special clumps of DNA found in larval black flies called polytene chromosomes.

Polytene chromosomes are the jumbo-sized versions of normal chromosomes only found in cells involved with secretion, and for whatever reason, are only present in springtails (Collembola) and true flies (Diptera). Rather than replicating and then splitting themselves up amongst a series of daughter cells like normal chromosomes, polytene chromosomes replicate themselves over, and over, and over again, sticking together in clumps of hundreds to thousands of complete chromosomal strands all woven together into a thick rope of genetic instructions. By banding together like this, these special chromosomes reveal all kinds of fascinating information about species and speciation.

Starting in the 1930’s, while scientists were only just beginning to understand what chromosomes were and the role they played in genetics and heritability, dipterists began to notice that polytene chromosomes provided an untapped source of morphological characters to work with. Black fly taxonomists in particular latched onto this new dataset, largely because these over-sized chromosomes were easy to find in the silk glands of larval black flies, and provided a simple and low cost means of identifying species. Patterns of black and white bands, the locations and sizes of bulges, blisters, and rings of Balbiani all appeared to be conserved within populations and species, and with only 3 chromosomes to deal with, taxonomists, already tuned to look for the slightest differences and similarities between specimens, began to find all kinds of useful information; specific banding patterns that would be inverted in some species, but not in others; whole arms of chromosomes getting spliced onto the “wrong” chromosome; all three chromosomes getting jumbled up and stuck together in the middle like a genetic pinwheel with what they called a chromocenter.

Black-fly-cytology-diagram

By studying these “macrogenomes”, Simuliidae experts have been continuing to refine what a black fly species really is, and are beginning to unlock the mysteries of cryptic diversity.

Take, for example, work recently published by a group of black fly experts on the Old World subgenus Simulium (Wilhelmia). These flies originally came to the group’s attention due to an outbreak of black flies in Turkey which was driving down livestock production and tourism due to the sheer numbers of biting adults (those in Northern Canada can surely commiserate), and in order to figure out what species was responsible, decided to take a closer look. A much, much closer look, specifically at their polytene chromosomes.

After sampling larval black flies from across Europe, they discovered that what had recently been considered one generalist species found from England clear across the continent to at least Kazakhstan, Simulium (Wilhelmia) lineatum, was actually at least 3 species, each with unique differences in their chromosomes, and which replaced each other in streams as you head East!

Here you can see where the “actual” Simulium lineatum is found (blue) (although the authors note that something funny may be going on with the English specimen’s chromosomes, which could lead to further splitting), and where each additional species crops up as you move east, with Simulium balcanicum in green, Simulium turgaicum in red, and Simulium takahasii in yellow. The orange area without any data points is a void in the team’s data, but they have reason to suspect that several species recently described from China will fit into the pattern discovered in the west. Now that the team has worked out these basic limits for each species, they also hope to explore whether or not these species may be successfully mating with one another despite the differences in their chromosomes, or whether hybridization can occur between species pairs. All of this new information will in turn help us understand the intricacies of polytene chromosome taxonomy further, and continue to adapt black fly taxonomy to fit the total evidence available.

So by peering deep within the silk glands of black fly larvae, we can now weave together the ways in which simuliids diversified, and begin to understand the web of underlying mechanisms that make one species become two, or three, or more. It just goes to show that literally no matter how closely you look, there will always be surprises waiting to be found when it comes to fly taxonomy.

—-

 
Adler P.H., Alparslan Yildirim, Onder Duzlu, John W. McCreadie, Matúš Kúdela, Atefeh Khazeni, Tatiana Brúderová, Gunther Seitz, Hiroyuki Takaoka & Yasushi Otsuka & (2014). Are black flies of the subgenus Wilhelmia (Diptera: Simuliidae) multiple species or a single geographical generalist? Insights from the macrogenome , Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, n/a-n/a. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bij.12403
 
Adler, P.H., Currie, D.C., Wood, D.M. 2004. The Black Flies (Simuliidae) of North America. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY & London, UK. 939 pp.

Nov 252014
 

The trailer for Jurassic World, the latest instalment in the Jurassic Park franchise, was released today, and well… see for yourself.

While scientists have apparently figured out how to genetically modify dinosaurs (which I thought was the entire premise of the original when they spliced frog DNA into ancient Dino DNA, but whatever, GM-OH NOES!), they still haven’t hired an entomologist to tell them which amber inclusions are mosquitoes (family Culicidae), and which are crane flies (family Tipulidae).

Oops.

Oops.

No big deal though, crane flies and mosquitoes are close enough, right? Well, actually they’re about as closely related to one another as velociraptors are to sea turtles (and only a little more closely related than humans are to Tyrannosaurus rex).

I think we can all agree that Jurassic World would have a much different mood if it climaxed with this

than it does with this

So for all you Hollywood producers out there looking for an entomology consultant to save you from embarrassing oversights, have your people call my people; we can fix this. But in the meantime, save me a seat when Jurassic World hits theatres.

—-

P.S. About that Mosasaur. While we know marine mammals like killer whales can be bitten by mosquitoes (a captive killer whale in San Antonio contracted and later died of West Nile Virus back in 2007), the odds of a mosquito biting a wild mosasaur in the ocean, and then flying, fully leaden with blood, back to shore, only to be immediately entombed in sap running down a tree trunk and preserved for a few million years as an amber inclusion, are a bit of a stretch.

There’s a chance I may be overthinking this.

Oct 312014
 

It’s that time of year again, when spiders make their triumphant return to become decorations rather than despised, and when everything normally considered scary is fun, at least for one night: it’s Hallowe’en!

As in past years, the University of Guelph Insect Systematics Lab took to the pumpkin patch and came back with some new insects to be added to our glowing growing collection.

Ento-Lantern 2014

This jumping spider in full display mode is ready to take back the night. Design by Jonathan Wojcik, carved by Meredith Miller, Tiffany Yau, Steve Paiero, and myself.

Trich(optera) or Treat! These larval caddisflies went all out with their costumes this year. Designed & carved by Meredith Miller, Steve Paiero, Tiffany & Jocelyn Yau, and myself.

Trich(optera) or Treat! These larval caddisflies went all out with their costumes this year. Designed & carved by Meredith Miller, Steve Paiero, Tiffany & Jocelyn Yau, and myself.

Sticks & stones won't break this caddisfly's bones... mostly because caddisflies don't have bones.

Sticks & stones won’t break this caddisfly’s bones… mostly because caddisflies don’t have bones.

Caddisflies get hyped for Hallowe'en at an early instar, as this one created by Meredith Miller clearly demonstrates!

Caddisflies get hyped for Hallowe’en at an early instar, as this butternut squash creation by Meredith Miller clearly demonstrates!

If you & your friends or family created your own Ent-O-Lanterns this year, drop a link in the comments so we can all enjoy!

Happy Hallowe’en!

 

UPDATE:

Sally-Ann Spence (@minibeastmayhem) shared this fantastic scary-b beetle on Twitter

Oct 142014
 

Cyanide: poison of choice for jilted lovers, mystery writers, and entomologists alike. But we’re not the only ones to employ this potent potable in our chemical arsenal; polydesmid millipedes have been defending themselves with cyanogenic compounds for millions of years.

Of course, when one organism figures out a new way to protect itself using something that kills lesser creatures, it’s usually not long until somebody else evolves the ability to capitalize on that protection, even when it’s something as deadly as cyanide. Enter 2 new species recently described by John Hash of UC Riverside, Megaselia mithridatesi and Megaselia toxicobibitor, the Rasputins of the scuttle fly world.

Megaselia

Megaselia is an immense genus of Phoridae with a wide diversity of natural histories, so it’s perhaps no surprise that something like cyanide-siphoning could show up here, but that doesn’t reduce the magnitude of such a finding. But how does one go about associating tiny flies unknown to science with murderous millipede defenses?

John works primarily on another genus of scuttle fly that’s also associated with millipedes, Myriophora. Rather than stealing cyanide, these flies prefer to parasitize millipedes protected by another noxious chemical family, benzoquinones. To find these flies, he stresses the millipedes a little by shaking them in a paper towel-lined plastic tube hard enough to piss them off, but not enough to cause physical damage, leading them to exude their defensive chemicals onto the paper towel. John then laid out these poisoned paper towels, and sometimes tied up the annoyed millipedes like the sacrificial goat in Jurassic Park using dental floss, and waited for the flies to come in to the bait. While John was expecting to find new Myriophora species and associations, he states in his paper that discovering a Megaselia/millipede association was a golden example of serendipity in science.

With specimens and natural history notes in hand, John returned to the lab and gave these 2 new species especially fitting names; mithridatesi is an homage to King Mithridates IV of Pontus, who famously immunized himself to a variety of poisons by consuming them in small, sub-lethal quantities, and toxicobibitor, which literally translates to “poison drinker” from Latin.

If you want to hear more about John’s work, and see millipedes on dental floss leashes, check out this video from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which was filmed while John was down helping out with the Zurqui All Diptera Biodiversity Inventory in Costa Rica. It was while he was here, surrounded by dozens of other dipterists, that he discovered the poisonous habits detailed in this paper. That certainly makes for a killer field trip if you ask me, even without the cyanide.

—-

Hash J.M. (2014). SPECIES OF MEGASELIA RONDANI (DIPTERA: PHORIDAE)
ATTRACTED TO DEFENSIVE COMPOUNDS OF CYANOGENIC
MILLIPEDES (DIPLOPODA: POLYDESMIDA), Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 116 (3) 273-282. DOI: DOI: 10.4289/0013-8797.116.3.273

 

If you’re curious, I asked Millipede Man Derek Hennen about the biology of cyanide-laced millipedes, and he provided a few references and info.

Sep 022014
 

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of one of our most iconic emblems, the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). The web is alive with tributes to Martha, the final individual of her species, and cautionary tales of conservation and how we should be working to prevent this happening to any other species. There has also been considerable discussion and debate recently whether the Passenger Pigeon may be a candidate for “de-extinction”; the theoretical process of bringing a species back from the void through cloning and genetic engineering. Seeing how I generally dislike vertebrates dominating the biodiversity news cycle, I figured we could all use a slightly less depressing story about extinction, de-extinction, the role of natural history museums in conservation, and of course, taxonomy.

As we’re beginning to understand, no species is an island unto itself. Every individual is an ecosystem of parasites, predators and symbionts, and thus when one species disappears, its co-dependents are just as likely to vanish, usually without us even realizing it. Allow me to share the story of Columbicola extinctus, a chewing feather mite that quietly faded into the night likely years prior to Martha’s high-profile demise on September 1, 1914, and which we only learned about 20 years after that.

Columbicola columbae, a species closely related to Columbicola extinctus (it seems the differences between them are slight modifications of the head and genitalia; feel free to use your imagination). Photo by Vince Smith, used under CC-BY license.

Working from a preserved Passenger Pigeon specimen collected in 1895 and housed in the Illinois Natural History Survey, Richard Malcomson discovered and described Columbicola extinctus in 1937, noting he had only seen 15 specimens of this new louse. In what may be the saddest etymological discussion I’ve seen, Malcomson says:

“Dr. Ewing of the National Museum, Washington, D.C., suggested the name of extinctus which surely is a suitable one for the Passenger Pigeon is now extinct and probably has carried the parasite into extinction with it.”

And so humanity carried on, parading the Passenger Pigeon out as the flag-bearer for extinction, while its lowly louse faded from memory. That is, until 1999, when, like a phoenix louse rising from the ashes of its host, Columbicola extinctus out-lived its name. While reviewing the genus Columbicola, Dale Clayton and Roger Price discovered that Columbicola extinctus wasn’t found solely on the Passenger Pigeon, but was in fact still alive and well on the Passenger Pigeon’s closest living relative, the Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata)! What’s more, Columbicola extinctus was found on Band-tailed Pigeon specimens collected all up and down the Pacific coast, from California to Peru! As Clayton & Price note

“Our study reveals no consistent differences between Columbicola specimens from the extinct passenger pigeon and those from the extant band-tailed pigeon, C. fasciata. Thus, there is no longer grounds for considering this species of louse extinct, despite its unfortunate specific epithet.”

It’s worth considering how bird specimens preserved and maintained in a natural history museum allowed taxonomists to not only find a species at a time when it was believed to be extinct, but to also resurrect that same species 60 years later, redefining the term “de-extinction” before it was trendy. Sure, Columbicola extinctus’ species epithet may be a little premature, but it also serves as an important reminder that while extinction is usually forever, nature sometimes finds a way.

And should someone ever succeed in bringing the Passenger Pigeon back from extinction (however unlikely that is or may be to occur), we’ll be able to reunite two species who’s lives and legacies were intimately intertwined, and who were each thought to be lost to time and humanity. A fairytale ending if ever I’ve heard, albeit one that probably won’t make it to Disney.


Clayton D.H. & Price R.D. (1999). Taxonomy of New World Columbicola (Phthiraptera: Philopteridae) from the Columbiformes (Aves), with Descriptions of Five New Species, Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 92 (5) 675-685. DOI:

Malcolmson R.O. (1937). Two New Mallophaga, Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 30 (1) 53-56. DOI:

Aug 112014
 

After our adventure in Iceland, it was time to move on to Copenhagen, Denmark and kick off my European museum tour in earnest. Arriving after dark on Thursday, I couldn’t see much of the city as I rode public transit from the airport to Dave’s apartment, but the first thing that struck me as I left the subway terminal was the delicious smell of baking bread & pastries! For a moment I wondered whether perhaps Denmark actually smells like actual Danishes (the pastries), but then realized it was just the bakery across the street, much to my disappointment.

Coming from North America, it was striking how cramped city living is in Copenhagen. While the main living rooms of the apartment where I was staying were quite sizeable and charming in an historical kind of way, I soon learned the origins of the term “water closet”. Most places I know have a coat closet directly inside the entrance way, but in this apartment complex at least, that closet has been converted into a full 3-piece bathroom totalling at most 10 square feet of floor space, including that taken up by the toilet and sink! I’ve never seen a room so comically small (yet functional) in my life, and will certainly greet washrooms in Canada and the US with an all new appreciation. Needless to say showering the next morning was an experience, yet surprisingly manageable.

The first stop of my magical mystery type tour, the Copenhagen University Zoological Museum. #Museum #Entomology #NatHist #OMGGiantGeese

Friday morning I accompanied my hosts Dave & Adam to the University of Copenhagen Museum of Zoology. Walking through the basement hallways, we wandered past a taxidermied horse that was apparently a queen’s favourite, as well as a giant whale skeleton in a loading bay being prepared for the museum’s collection. “Little” details like these make travelling to natural history museums new experiences each and every time, because you never know what you’ll stumble across while you’re there!

No big deal, just a whale skeleton being prepared in the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum basement... #ActuallyABigDeal #NatHist #museum

The insect collection in Copenhagen is quite expansive, and includes the very important primary type collection of Johan Christian Fabricius (among others). Unfortunately, being more than 200 years old, many of Fabricius’ types are significantly damaged, with many having nothing but odd body parts stuck to a pin, or even an empty pin with naught but a label attached! This will make things a little more difficult in the future as we try and tease apart what these authors were thinking about when they described their species, but that’s the way things go with taxonomy. I’ll be spending another day at the end of my trip here, which is lucky because I didn’t end up getting all the work I wanted to get done, and instead had to do some last minute planning for the next stages of my trip and meeting with a revolving door of visiting scientists in town before the Diptera Congress.

Before I attend the 8th International Congress of Dipterology next week, I'm sorting specimens and exploring the Copenhagen Zoological Museum in Denmark, and this was one of the first specimens I picked up. This is Rainieria antennaepes, a common species of stilt-legged fly native to eastern North America. This specimen was collected in the University of Guelph Arboretum sometime between August 13th and 19th, 1994, by Danish entomologist Verner Michelsen, while he attended the 3rd International Congress of Dipterology (which was held in Guelph). I've travelled more than 6,000 km to attend the same conference exactly 20 years later, and have provided an identification for a specimen that was collected practically in my own backyard. It just goes to show you never know what you'll find in a Natural History museum!

We were up bright & early the next morning (Saturday) and riding the bus across Copenhagen with luggage in tow to pick up my rental car, which luckily turned out to be a massive upgrade from the uber-compact I had booked to a luxury SUV with all the bells and whistles! The unexpectedly nice car will make the road trip even more fun I think, and without the need to play Tetris with our luggage. Also, as it turns out, we were especially lucky to get the upgrade with built in GPS, because the pay-as-you-go cell phone card I picked up in Denmark and was planning on using for navigational purposes stopped working the moment we drove into Germany. I think I’d be somewhere between Rome & Budapest by now had I been relying on road signs, so we’ll chalk this up to luck and good karma.

My valiant steed for the next few weeks, which ended up being a sweet free upgrade from Avis! Let the roadtrip begin! #AdventuresWithManualTransmission

Driving through Denmark and Germany turned out to not be nearly as tricky as I had worried it might be. There were a few quirks, like Germany’s insistence on placing their traffic signal lights on the near-side of intersections, right above the first person in line’s head and practically impossible to see without a panoramic sunroof (did I mention we were lucky with the car upgrade?), and some exciting new experiences, like taking a mega ferry across the Baltic Sea, and driving on the set-your-own-speed Autobahn highway system in Germany, and we even stopped to look for some insects just outside of Berlin (primarily because we got stuck in a massive traffic jam and needed to stretch our legs for a bit).

I'm on a boat! #PlanesTrainsAndAutomobiles #AlsoBoats

We finally arrived in Potsdam at the Kongresshotel, a huge, sprawling resort complex on a river (it might be a lake, I’m not sure), and soon met up with a large group of Dipterist’s who had also come to town early, enjoying a few beverages and a late supper before retiring for the evening. Sunday was a relaxing day for the most part, giving me an opportunity to put the finishing touches on my presentation before we went out to find something to eat nearby. Turns out there isn’t anywhere nearby to eat, but we did manage to wander into what appeared to be an abandoned rowing club and then accidentally crashed a fancy birthday party at the local canoe club… Tourists, I tell ya! We eventually ended up eating back at the hotel, and then attended the opening mixer with nearly 400 Dipterists from around the world! It was a nice evening with plenty of good food, free wine, and great conversations with old friends and new colleagues alike.

 

Aug 082014
 

I’m in Keflavik International Airport waiting for my flight to Denmark. It’s only been 32 hours since I arrived in Iceland, but in that short time I’ve bared witness to more natural beauty than I ever expected, and been introduced to a country that is quirky, friendly, and so full of new experiences to be had that I need to come back.

Everything about this visit to Iceland has been exciting, from the moment I stepped foot on the Icelandair plane to the bus ride through the beautiful coastal scenery back to the airport. My 5-hour flight from Toronto to Reykjavik was fantastic, in large part because the flight was full of Icelandiana. The flight attendants handed passengers a bottle of glacier water when they stepped on the plane; the pillows came with an Icelandic lullaby translated on them (which was actually kind of creepy, including a line about sleeping with one eye open, but the sentiment was appreciated); the air sickness bag had a map and an explanation of the ocean currents that swirl around the island bringing mild yet unpredictable weather; the pre-flight safety video was shot not in a plane, but in the vast wilderness of Iceland, with each of the usual emergency procedures beautifully worked into the experiences of the main character as she explored the country. The inflight entertainment included local documentaries and cooking shows, giving you a head’s up about what to do and local food to watch for. Unfortunately, the only downside was that I couldn’t sleep, setting me up for a long day, but even a long, sleepless day couldn’t dampen my experiences here.

So excite! Next stop, Iceland!

 

After landing in Iceland, and finally securing my baggage (with special thanks to the jerk who pulled it off the baggage carousel and left it upside down after they realized it wasn’t their bag, leaving me to think it hadn’t enjoyed the same flight as I had), Dave and I caught a transfer bus (Gray Line Bus Tours) to Reykjavik, which is about 45 minutes from the international airport. At this point my body was still thinking it was 4am, and so we made a slight decimal place error when calculating the conversion of Icelandic Kronors to Canadian dollars for the bus, but at about $40 round-trip from airport to hotel, it was still well worth it.

The bus ride itself was great, and featured free wifi and a spectacular view of the coastal lava fields between Keflavik and Reykjavik. Mountains rose from every angle, while the ocean followed us all the way into the city. The mounds of moss-covered lava were incredible, and I wish we had been able to get out of the bus and explore these areas.

IcelandDay1-5

 

We had a little trouble finding an affordable hotel in Reykjavik (possibly because we booked it two days before we arrived), but ended up at the Capital-Inn Guesthouse, a nice place with clean, comfortable rooms, an eclectic breakfast selection, and friendly staff. The only downside was the $15 cab ride into the city centre, but apparently the city bus system is efficient and can get you there as well. They were also nice enough to let us check into our room early, which gave me a chance to snag an hour nap before heading back into Reykjavik’s downtown core to begin exploring the country.

Because we only had a short time in the country, we signed up for an afternoon bus tour (again with Gray Line Bus Tours) of the Golden Circle, a 6-hour loop through some of the geological treasures near the capital region. At only 9000. kr (less than $90cad), this trip was a phenomenal deal. Again we had free wifi on the bus, and more importantly, an incredibly well informed tour guide, who gave a nearly 6-hour lecture on Iceland, seamlessly transitioning from cultural history to natural history, and from geology to politics and ideology. I’ll admit that I didn’t catch everything she discussed, but that’s largely because I was pretty sleep deprived and much too enchanted by the passing scenery outside my window. I did appreciate her discussion of lake ecology and the role that “black lice” (which she said were midges, although I’m not sure whether she was referring to chironomids or biting ceratopogonids), and especially for giving flies a nod when discussing the pollination biology of Iceland (yes, she actually talked about pollination biology on a tour bus, which should be a requirement of all bus tours as far as I’m concerned). But really, the star of this show was Iceland itself.

So, yeah, #Iceland is unimaginably beautiful.

I walked through the land without a continent, the Rift Valley of Iceland in Þingvellir National Park, where the European and North American tectonic plates are pulling their separate ways and ripping Iceland asunder. On the surface, fields of moss and wildflowers sprinkle the landscape, covering nearly every square inch of the surface not covered by clear, blue lakes, while huge cracks in the lava fields betrayed the violent geology going on beneath our feet. I could have explored this region for hours, poking around the rifts and taking in the crisp, fresh air, but all too soon we were back on the bus, and driving from North America to Europe in a matter of minutes. Volcanoes rose up around us, and we were treated to tales of giants and elves inhabiting the rockiest parts of the countryside, coming down at Christmas to bring gifts for the good and punishments for the not.

 

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

Soon we arrived at Gullfoss, the Golden Falls, and took in raging torrents and dancing rainbows of glacial melt water pouring down from the horizon and into the valley. The sun began peeking out from behind the clouds while we were here, highlighting the brilliant white glaciers off in the distance. A two-tiered waterfall with a 90o bend between tiers was something to behold, especially against the gray walls of the river valley. Again, mosses and small wildflowers filled every crack and crevice, providing a micro landscape to rival that of its surrounding geology.

 

Beauty at every scale

Beauty at every scale

Our final stop of the tour was the Geysir geothermal area. The largest erupting hot spring in this area was named Geysir in the 13th century, and lends it’s Anglicized name to similar erupting geysers around the world, while itself settling down to only spout steam and the occasional eruption in recent years. With the ever-present mountains as backdrop, the remaining erupting geyser thrilled crowds as it erupted 100 feet into the air as a plume of near-boiling water and steam at random intervals. Pools and streams formed from thermal springs sparkled blue, white and gold in the late afternoon sun, and the air was filled with steam wafting along on a gentle breeze.  I watched for hot spring associated insects, but only caught a glimpse of something before losing it amongst the mists.

Strokkur

Strokkur

With that, our Golden Circle tour came to a close, and we were shepherded back onto the bus for the journey back to Reykjavik.

 

Dinner in downtown Reykjavik followed by a walk in the late evening sun (sunset this time of year is after 10pm, which certainly didn’t help my inner clock), and then back to the hotel to finally crash for the night, in preparation for my final hours in Iceland.

Geothermal features in the Geysir area

Geothermal features in the Geysir area

Seeing as I’m on this trip to visit natural history collections, I figured it was only proper to visit The Icelandic Phallological Museum. With an admission of only 8 Euros, and a room chock full of mammal penises caringly preserved and presented for the world to see, this was something I had to see. Giant whale phalluses were mounted on the wall like trophy stag horns, while glass columns 6 to 8 feet tall guarded fleshy, coiled whale members preserved in formalin.

I mean, where else can you find taxidermied whale dicks mounted on the wall like trophies? This is from a beached Sei Whale.

The museum staff carefully erected signs and exhibits on every possible surface, and featured an impressive array of native and foreign wildlife, from blue whales to field mice, to be compared and contrasted against one another. It’s not often a natural history museum gives visitors the chance to play amateur anatomist, especially with organs as large and variable as these. And yes, there were even a few human specimens, donated post-mortem by elderly Icelanders, much to the dismay of the executors of their estates, I’m sure. While I and many other visitors couldn’t help but giggle the moment we stepped through the front door, it wasn’t long until each quelled their inner 12-year old and began gazing closely into the containers and pointing out the ways in which evolution has molded and shaped the male form.

They also had more classical preservation methods on display. This is a killer whale in the foreground, with various other whales, seals, and bears in the background.

All I had left was a walk through the streets of Reykjavik among the brightly painted row houses and bold street art plastered around the market area, and I was soon on my way here, the airport. I will certainly have many more stories to be made in the coming weeks of my travel, but I’m not sure how they will compare to these first 32 beautiful hours in Iceland.

Reykjavik street art is the best street art. #Diptera #Iceland

Aug 052014
 

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me since my qualifying exams. I’ve travelled up to Ottawa a few times to work with my co-advisor and gather a big, new DNA dataset, I’ve put my Google-fu and Google Translate skills to the test, and I’ve learned how spoiled I am by the ease of booking hotels in North America.

All of that hard work is about to payoff though, as I’m heading out for a grand European tour! Starting with a red-eye flight Tuesday evening, I’ll be attending the 8th International Congress of Dipterology (ICD8), and spending 2 weeks on the roads and in the natural history museums of Europe.

This is the second ICD I’ll have attended, and just like the last one in Costa Rica, I’ll be blogging all the way through about the things I learn, experiences I have, and whatever else comes up. I’ll also be tweeting, Instagramming & Vine-ing my way across the continent afterwards as I visit natural history museums and entomology collections looking for important type specimens of Micropezidae described by some of entomology’s biggest names over the past 250 years.

Starting with a quick stop in Iceland to explore, I’ll move on to Copenhagen to visit the Natural History Museum of Denmark, and then will be driving down to Potsdam, Germany to present my newly acquired data at ICD8 and fill my head with all kinds of new knowledge about flies & dipterology. After that I’ll be hitting the road with fellow PhD student & blogger Kai Burington to visit museums in Stuttgart, Munich, Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, and Muncheberg before heading back to Denmark to visit friends and fly home.

Before things kick off, I’d like to thank the Smithsonian Institute and the S.W. Williston Diptera Fund for making this trip possible for me with a Diptera Research Grant. If you’d like to help make future opportunities like this possible for graduate students like myself or others interested in dipterology, I’d encourage you to donate to the S.W. Williston Fund. You can find more information about S.W. Williston and the Smithsonian endowment fund program here.

It’s going to be a whirlwind trip, and I hope you’ll join me as I try and share my European adventure with you.

williston_logo_large

Jul 242014
 

If you follow this blog,  you’ve probably already heard about the OMG LARGEST AQUATIC INSECT FOUND IN CHINA!!!1! that’s been making the rounds this week. If not, take your pick of news outlets covering this random and bizarre press release.

As is the case whenever insects break into the mainstream news cycle, I’ve had various interpretations of the story sent to me by text message, Facebook, Twitter, passenger pigeon, etc. While I certainly appreciate friends, family and followers making sure I saw it, I must say I was a little dumbfounded why, of all the newsworthy insect stories this week, this is the one that went viral.

After thinking about it a little longer, I came to the shocking conclusion that it’s probably because it’s a huge insect (d’uh), and more importantly, because it was found somewhere that isn’t North America. The latter is important because it automatically has the allure of being exotic, and something that can only possibly exist outside of our ho-hum existence in boring old North America.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: there be giants here, too.

In fact, we have our very own gigantic species of Megaloptera (the same group of insects that is currently dominating the mountains of China and  clickbait news sites) in eastern North AmericaCorydalus cornutus.

Two male Corydalus cornutus specimens with various household items, because apparently that's how scientific measurements are made and I didn't have any eggs in the lab.

Two male Corydalus cornutus specimens with various household items, because apparently that’s how scientific measurements are made these days and I didn’t have any eggs in the lab. Also, Canadian quarters are the same size as American quarters in case anyone thinks I’m pulling a fast one with funny money.

Not only do we have such monster insects in North America, they can often be found in your neighbourhood! These two were collected in Guelph, Ontario, less than an hour outside of Toronto.

Why exactly is a slightly larger insect (the specimens pictured here have a wingspan of 15cm while the Chinese specimen was 21cm) so astounding to people when something larger than their iPhone could literally fly into their life any moment now*? For one, dobsonflies depend on clean streams and rivers to survive, and if your urban watershed has been degraded or polluted, then your chances of going toe-to-toe with one of Nature’s Giants aren’t going to be great. Add to that the fact that they’re generally more active at night and you have a phantom that can only conceivably be found in far away places and comic books.

It just serves as another reminder that just because an insect is massive, don’t assume you can’t find something similar for yourself close to home. Also, giant insects with their wings spread create headaches for insect museums…

A less than ideal storage solution for giant Megaloptera specimens

A less than ideal storage solution for giant Megaloptera specimens

 

*- I had a female Corydalus nearly drop on my head while walking the dog in downtown Guelph late at night a few summers ago. I’m not sure who was more startled, me, the dog, or lady dobsonfly!