Nov 092016
 

To: The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, P.C., M.P., Prime Minister of Canada, Ottawa

Last night we watched as our neighbour and closest ally elected someone who everyone predicted was unelectable. Someone who centred their campaign on lies, bigotry, and fear; of others, of science, of reality. We watched as state after state after state endorsed these messages with their votes, and we wondered together how this could happen, and what do we do next?

What we do next is largely up to you. It’s the job you applied for, the job we elected you for, the job we need you for. Don’t worry, we as a nation of diverse and proud people will be here to provide guidance, and support, as you navigate the intricacies of a world waking up to an outcome that seemed beyond odds only hours before. But we need you to lead.

We need you to lead. We need you to lead here at home, to help us stamp out racism, bigotry, and xenophobia, to not allow these tones to resonate and spread like a mould beneath the surface of our society. We need you to lead for the downtrodden and disadvantaged, the refugees and the first nations, those struggling to survive on thinning dollars and those inspired to study despite growing tuitions. We need you to lead away from home; to advocate for an environment in jeopardy, for decisions based on evidence, not evangelism, and for peace in a world divided. We need you to lead our country, and in turn, make our country a leader.

Now is our chance to lead, together. We can shoulder burdens we’ve allowed others to carry on our behalf. We can lead the shift towards clean energy, towards humanitarian aid and equality, and towards a future we will all be proud to call home. Together, we can overcome the obstacles facing our society. Together, we can set the example of prosperity, equality, and responsibility. Together, we can lead. Together.

Together we’ll face opposition: from people who value individual wealth before global health; from people who fear change more than consequences; from people who have lost hope in a system that has let them down time and time again. But together we can embrace these people, and lead them through a world that is evolving, reminding them that we are all just people. Together.

So, invest in science, but also in art. Bring health care to those who need it, education to those who want it, and security to those who rely on it. Inspire those who can afford to give to do so, and support those who can’t, yet aspire to. Reach out beyond our borders, and don’t bend to belligerence. It won’t be easy of course; leading never is. But we can do it.

Together.

Jun 182016
 

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been tracking the newly described animal species that have made the news with their introduction to science, with the intent of understanding what factors make a new species newsworthy. I’m still collecting data and figuring out how to make sense of it all, but in the process I’ve come to realize that a fair number of taxonomists and journals are either unaware of the rules of nomenclature, or perhaps just don’t care.

There are a surprisingly large number of rules that govern how and where new species of animals can be legitimately described, rules that are created and occasionally adapted by the governing body of animal taxonomy, the ICZN. These rules are in place to ensure the language of biodiversityspecies, genus, and family names—are consistent and stable worldwide, ensuring that when a scientist in China refers to the genus Micropeza, scientists in Canada, Peru, and South Africa can all understand explicitly what the organism they are referring to is. Without stable names agreed on internationally, we would have a gigantic mess on our hands, and all of biology would grind to a halt.

One of the important tenets of stable names is establishing what name came first, and then using it forever (barring some scenarios in which the oldest name can be suppressed, which we won’t bother going into). This is called the Principle of Priority, and may be the most important (and sometimes, trickiest) rule to follow. Obviously, when trying to address what name was created first, it’s vital to know the exact date that name met all the criteria set forth by the ICZN and was officially coined. Again, there are a lot of rules that stipulate when a name is considered “official”, but one in particular is, for some reason, apparently being ignored more often than the others, and which can cause names to become complicated, quickly.

This rule, introduced in 2012, allows for new species names to be published in digital format (either as an early view version ahead of traditional printing, or entirely digital, like PLoS One for example). Up until this rule was introduced, only names published in journals or other publications that were printed out on paper (in multiple copies) and distributed to a couple of libraries were considered legitimate. But, recognizing that the world of scientific publication is changing (rapidly), the ICZN finally adopted a new rule allowing names to become official in digital publications, but only if the authors take one extra step: register their publications in a new database called ZooBank. This registration process does two things: 1) it allows for papers that have new names introduced in them to be more easily tracked, and 2) the registration process includes a stipulation that the journal intends to archive a non-editable PDF of the paper, so if the internet and all digital media are destroyed, we still (hypothetically) have records of these new names (although I reckon we’ll have bigger issues to deal with than worrying about correct taxonomy in that situation…). Regardless of the intent, these are the new rules, and for any names published in a digital format, the paper must be registered in ZooBank (and state in the paper somewhere that it has been), a process that takes less than 10 minutes to do. Simple enough, right? Apparently not.

In the past 6 months, of the roughly 120 taxonomic papers that have made the news, I’ve found at least 5 that have failed to meet this ZooBank qualification, meaning that any names introduced by the authors aren’t actually real (yet). Five papers out of 120 may not seem like that big a deal, but when you expand that ratio to the roughly 15,000 new animals species described every year, we’re potentially looking at 600 new species that unknowingly remain without an official name!

So what’s the big deal if a few more species remain nameless, there are millions left to be discovered anyways, right? And if the name is being published as an early view in a journal that still releases paper copies, the names will eventually become official once the paper versions are printed and distributed (perhaps weeks or months later). Basically, for scientists that have spent months or years examining specimens and collecting data only to fail to meet this one tiny requirement is akin to a person running a marathon, and then stumbling and falling on the very last step and being disqualified from the race, yet celebrating their “accomplishment” anyways. It may be awkward, or embarrassing, and it should be avoided by all means necessary, but won’t it all get fixed eventually? Well…

Besides the professional embarrassment, there’s a big problem just waiting to happen when names aren’t correctly, and formally, published: someone else scooping the naming rights for your species. Until the name is fully published and all the qualifications met, either by the name being printed out on paper when its assigned issue is published, or alternatively by someone else publishing their own paper that does meet all of the rules, there is no requirement that the name proposed by the original authors actually be used. In fact, nothing is stopping anyone from finding one of these inadequately named species, and turning around a quick paper coining a name of their own for the taxon, establishing priority and ensuring they are recognized for eternity, and not the people who did all the hard work. This type of taxonomic sniping isn’t unheard of, although to my knowledge there have not been any examples of ZooBank robbing, yet.

Is it shady? Definitely. Is it likely to happen? Eventually. Is it avoidable? Absolutely.

So as I’ve stumbled across these named-but-actually-unnamed species by accident, I’ve been sending out cautionary messages on Twitter reminding taxonomists or anyone else in the process of describing a new species about the ZooBank rule, or straight-up condemning repeat-offender journals and advising people not to publish new names in them (looking at you Scientific Reports). Which is what I did again Friday afternoon regarding another new species, published in a prestigious journal that should know better, but which failed the ZooBank test. Unlike previous times however, I linked to the paper, and called out the journal directly, mostly because I hold it in high regard, and also because subtweeting an entire field of science clearly wasn’t working.

To my surprise, within 30 minutes my cell phone was ringing, and the lead author of the paper in question was on the line asking not only what they did wrong, but more surprisingly, that I please delete my tweets calling attention to the issue. The author was aware that the ICZN had recently changed the rules to allow digital publication but didn’t know the specifics, and the journal they submitted to had apparently not published a new species description since the changes came into effect, and so weren’t prepared to comply on the author’s behalf either.

I ended up spending a good deal of time explaining the ZooBank rule to them, and suggesting how they can work with their journal editor to fix it, but I remained uneasy about deleting and retracting my tweets. However, after talking more with the author, and recognizing that they were genuinely afraid of a specific person known for their unscrupulous taxonomic practices learning of their mistake and taking advantage of it, I agreed to take down my tweets, but with the understanding that I would be disclosing the series of events and actions here, albeit with their anonymity intact. Frankly, the taxonomic community has enough challenges facing them, and I’d rather not contribute to those challenges further simply to prove a point at the expense of someone else’s hard work.

So be warned, readers working to document and describe Earth’s biodiversity! Spend some time learning the rules of nomenclature, and ensure that the journals that you submit your science to are equally knowledgeable of what it takes to name a species. And if you’re unsure of a journal’s dedication or experience publishing taxonomic research, take the responsibility for your hard work into your own hands and register your taxa and your papers yourself, and avoid the potential pitfalls of naming species in the digital era. You’ll be glad you did when you see your species spoken of with the name you intended!

Jan 022016
 

Another year has come to a close; papers were written, grants awarded, and theses… progressed? Regardless, 2015 continued the trend of challenging but ultimately rewarding solar orbits for me, marking some pretty major milestones, and forecasting a few others. As we head into the great unknown of 2016, I hope we can look forward to the same incredible quantity & quality of science writing, videos, and podcasts that were produced in 2015. I found a lot of inspiration in the creativity & talent of science communicators (and other types of communicators) this past year, and learned a lot of interesting information, all while being endlessly entertained.

If you find yourself needing some inspiration of your own this coming year, or just want to be entertained at the alter of science, here are my favourite reads, watches, and listens from 2015.

January

There’s no better way to tackle a new year than head on, which is exactly what this ant-decapitating phorid fly does, albeit in an entirely new way. Ed Yong covers this cool story with his usual panache, and brings the struggles of the undergrowth to life in vivid detail.

When it comes to other media, nothing quite got under my skin (in a good way) like Piotr Naskrecki’s video detailing the life cycle & effects of Dermatobia hominis, the Human Bot Fly. With stunning macro videography and time-lapses, as well as a narration that details first-hand what the entire experience was like, this is one video that has truly stuck with me.

February

In February, the Entomological Society of America commissioned a series of biographical articles detailing the lives and work of 5 female entomologists. All 5 articles were astonishingly good, but Tanya Josek’s creative chronicling of Berta Scharrer’s life by way of a first-person Twitter feed was so fun and personal that I haven’t forgotten it.

March

Continuing the trend of celebrating female entomologists, David Maddison and Kip Will tell the story of Hilary Hacker, an entomologist who published a high-quality and massive monograph about a subgenus of carabid beetles, but who then seemed to disappear from entomology. After some sleuthing, David & Kip come face to face with the woman who their own work is built upon. Great stuff.

Meanwhile, in southern California, Aaron Pomerantz was putting together this fantastic video explaining how researchers at the Natural History Museum of LA County discovered 30 new species of phorid flies in the backyards of Los Angeles.

Bonus good read: Catherine Scott on the bizarre biology and natural history of Bolas spiders.

April

There are a number of ways maggots can cause problems for us (see above), but Cassandra Willyard details one way in which we used science and ingenuity to fight back against a major veterinary pest, the New World screwworm.

If reading about myiasis doesn’t shake you up, I guarantee Love + Radio’s The Living Room (aired by RadioLab, which is where I originally heard it) surely will. This radio tale is as unsettling as it is magnificent, and I guarantee you’ll have a mix of emotions and opinions upon its conclusion.

Bonus good read: Familiarize yourself with Dunn’s Provocation, especially if you’re interested in global biodiversity and figuring out how many species we share this planet with.

May

What happens when you browse through 70 year old entomology papers? For Dez Huber, it was the discovery of a bizarre beetle that can reportedly live where no insect should theoretically be able to: in wood submerged in saltwater for years or even decades. Natural history and historical literature at its finest.

Some mysteries don’t take 70 years to unfold of course, especially when dead things are involved. Erika Engelhaupt details one such example, explaining how using rat poison lead her to be sitting in her car with the headlights glaring through her front windows.

June

With what may be the strangest method for immobilizing prey I, or my inner 12 year-old, has ever heard about, Gwen Pearson explains how the beaded lacewing knocks out its prospective dinner with a well-aimed and particularly noxious fart. Really.

June also featured a trio of astoundingly good podcast episodes. The Adaptors podcast explores the complicated world of lichens and how their delicate balance is being impacted by climate change and air pollution. Reply All went from mistaken email identities to the story of a girl guide troop in the most unlikely of locations: a WWII internment camp in China. Finally, Mystery Show picks up the case of a novelty belt buckle with a toaster on it, and attempts to track down its original owner, with absolutely delightful conversations along the way.


Bonus good read: Helen MacDonald and her love of field guides and identifying nature.

July

Possibly the greatest piece of science writing I read all year, The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz is a masterpiece, marrying geology with policy and disaster with community, creating one of the most terrifyingly incredible stories ever. Do not miss this one.

Shaena Montanari takes on the four-legged fossil snake discovered this year, while boldly and openly tackling an issue many paleontologists and taxonomists seem loathe to acknowledge: the import and export of natural history specimens, and the legal, moral, and ethical ramifications of global biodiversity research in the absence of collaboration.

Bonus good read: Paul Rudd classifies ants, and puts astronomers in their place.

August

In August, I spent most of my reading time sitting on a dock at the cottage where WiFi is definitely lacking. Luckily I brought 2 excellent books with me, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend everyone pick up.

Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated our Bedrooms and Took Over the World by Brooke Borel

Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated our Bedrooms and Took Over the World by Brooke Borel

Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas Emlen

Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas Emlen

Infested by Brooke Borel is a wonderful examination of the rise, fall, and rise again of bed bugs in the western world, featuring a whole suite of interesting human characters throughout. Be warned: this one might be a little tough to read while laying in bed.

What can I say about Animal Weapons by Douglas Emlen? Well, it quickly rocketed into my all-time Top 5 list of favourite books about natural history and evolutionary biology. Beautifully written, Emlen shadows the development of human tools of war with the ways in which animals wage battle, tying everything back to natural selection and how it is constantly influencing the world we live and fight in, and adding in personal touches from his years of field work for good measure. I’ll be recommending this book for anyone interested in learning about popular science writing for years to come.

Podcasts are a lot of things. Sometimes they’re interviews or people talking at each other. Sometimes they’re narrative stories told by hosts and subjects together. And sometimes, they’re something special and entirely different. The Memory Palace is the latter; spoken word essays about historical events by Nate DiMeo that are incredible twists and turns through emotions, humour, and education. Craning, describing the launch of Apollo 11, is an audio masterpiece.

September

Kaitlin Janecke has the most astute rallying call for how natural history museums must adapt to the world of social media, and how adopting new technologies and media can expand the missions of these venerated and increasingly beleaguered institutions.

If I had 1,000 legs, I would give Emily Graslie’s Millipedes: The First Land Animals 1,000 thumbs up.

Bonus good read: Ed Yong pleads for the conservation of parasites.

October

At several points throughout 2015 we saw anger and false-environmentalism flare up over the collection & sacrifice of creatures for scientific study, but perhaps none caused as much of a stir as a rare moustached kingfisher from the Solomon Islands. While armchair conservationists raged about the indecency of collection in this day and age, Christopher Filardi expertly explained why specimens are necessary. Even better, Audobon.org published an editorial explicitly agreeing with Filardi, despite strong and vociferous opposition from their commentariat.

Field work doesn’t always go exactly as one might hope, and pride tends to come before the fall, or in Aerin Jacob’s case, before the mud hole. This is The Story Collider at its best.

That being said, sometimes work in the lab doesn’t always go according to plan either. Science Friday shares the a case of a herpetologist who has the worst day of his career, and documents it from start to end.

November

If you have plans to drown a pseudoscorpion this year, make sure to clear your calendar: it could take awhile. Chris Buddle takes us on an adventure to the arctic with a team of collaborators to test the natural history of an odd little arthropod.

The adventurous life of a field biologist can be exciting, but what about family left at home? Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace again with a beautiful audio essay about the unbridled devotion and despair of a women in love with North America’s preeminent naturalist.

December

While it is often overlooked, occasionally scorned, and rarely admired, taxonomy has the ability to inspire and engage with people like few other disciplines. Robin Kazmier shares how 20 new braconid wasp species in Costa Rica are helping to inspire a group of lucky school children, and how a direct attachment to the wasps in their region may impact the future of this area.

Related, some taxonomists still deride new species names that reference popular culture or individuals not deemed “worthy” of patronyms. Rachel Feltman explains exactly why this is a self-defeating attitude, and how a good name can take a species from obscurity to celebrity.

And in the anthropocene, we can use all the help we can get when it comes to conservation. The American Museum of Natural History tackles the issue of extinction with excellence in their Shelf Life episode, Six Extinctions in Six Minutes.

So there you have it, all the things I read, watched, and listened to that I couldn’t get out of my head in 2015. I hope 2016 is a year of unparalleled success and happiness for you and yours, and thanks for continuing to stop by and read my own work throughout the year. It’s been fun.

Nov 272015
 

American Thanksgiving not only marks the beginning of left-over turkey sandwich season, but has also come to represent the official start of the Holiday Season™. Traditionally rung in with the rampant purchasing of sale-priced items, the beginning of Holiday Season™ is now celebrated instead with Black Fly Day. This year, in preparation for ugly sweater parties and more family gatherings than should ever occur in such short succession, I present to you 6 fun facts about black flies that will keep your friends and family utterly enchanted!

Simulium sp from Ecuador Black fly Simuliidae

Simulium (Psilopelmia) bicoloratum from Ecuador (Simuliidae) feasting on my blood.

Continue reading »

Nov 092015
 

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get out of the lab. After another busy summer (which, by the way, disappeared altogether too quickly), my wife and I decided to get away and visit a good friend in Northern California a few weeks ago. While we were in the area, I also made time to visit with friends and colleagues in a trio of museums along the way, and spend some time working through their collections looking for specimens to include in my research. It’s been awhile since I took my camera out of my bag and put it to use, and even longer since I shared a whole series of photos here on the blog, so I thought it might be a good opportunity to share some of what we saw and did!

Although we flew into Sacramento, we set out right away for the coast and spent some time exploring San Francisco. After exploring the Golden Gate area & Sausalito for lunch, we made our way back to the wharf in time for dinner. Pier 39 at sunset proved to be a good decision, and we managed to escape the Fog for our entire visit to the area, resulting in some pretty spectacular views.

_MDJ0584 Continue reading »

Oct 192015
 

As you may have noticed, it’s been fairly quiet ’round these parts the last few months. I’m not sure there’s one particular reason why I’ve let my blogging fall off, but rather a compilation of factors, like doing a PhD (and a number of side-projects…), the ease of sharing brief thoughts on Twitter, and the “P” word: Procrastination.

That’s not to say that I’ve disappeared from the online ecosystem, it’s just that there’s been a shift in the content I’m creating and where I share it. Breaking Bio (the podcast I co-host with a great group of other biologists) is going strong and we’re coming up on our 100th episode, and like I mentioned, I’m finding Twitter an easier way of sharing ideas, opinions, jokes & research news than writing several hundred words here. Of course I’m also playing around with Tumblr and Instagram, and have a bunch of ideas for additional projects if I can make/find the time for them. I was even invited to give a plenary address last month regarding the stuff I do online, which was awesome & humbling, but which also served to illustrate how much I’ve let my blog slide of late.

So while I can’t promise that my posting schedule will pick up anytime soon here, I still consider this blog as my home base online, and the place I go to when I really want to delve into a topic. I’ve always found a warm & receptive audience from you, my readers, and have always appreciated having my ideas challenged or bounced around by everyone who takes the time to read what I write. The support I’ve received online has been incredibly important to me, and I want to thank each and every person who has read, commented or shared something I’ve written here.

But now I have an opportunity to learn a little more about you, and it’s even going to count as SCIENCE! Dr. Paige Brown Jarreau is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Louisiana State University who is interested in the science blogging community. She has previously studied and surveyed the motives of the people who write science blogs, but now she’s interested in finding out who is reading science blogs, which means she wants to hear from you!

So I’ve teamed up with Paige to create a survey of you, the readers of Biodiversity in Focus (and associated products). By participating, you’ll be helping me improve my blog and contributing to SCIENCE on blog readership. You will also get FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks! It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here: http://bit.ly/mysciblogreaders. Paige also successfully raised some money with a crowd-funding campaign in order to provide perks for those that take the time to fill out her survey, so if you help her (and me) by filling out the survey at http://bit.ly/mysciblogreaders by October 30, you’ll be entered to win a $50 Amazon.com gift card (100 available to be won across all surveyed blogs)! It’s a Win-Win-Win: Paige gets data to help her research, I get to learn a little more about who you are & why you read this blog (and presumably others), and you have a chance at winning some money (plus the guaranteed feeling of personal satisfaction for making those first two Wins possible)!

If you want to hear more from Paige, we spoke to her on Breaking Bio last year and talked all about her interest in the science of science communication and blogging:

 

Sep 292015
 

What makes a good mystery? Well, usually a death is involved, there’s an unexpected plot twist along the way, and undoubtedly a shadowy figure no one expects ends up playing a central role. Toss in a few scorpions, a handful of maggots, and a dead body and you’re well on your way to a New York Times bestseller! But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, s0 allow me to set the scene.

Mesobuthus martensii

The Chinese scorpion, Mesobuthus martensii, is a species of medical interest, not just because it has a stinger and can inflict injury on others, but because the chemicals of its sting are being explored for our use in medicine. Peptides produced in the stinger have been used as antimicrobial agents, have been shown to reduce convulsions in epileptic rats and cancerous tumours in human cell cultures. However, because of its newfound value to medicine (and a long-standing role in Chinese traditional medicine), wild populations of the Chinese scorpion are declining across their native range (from Mongolia to North Korea and Japan), and the species is now considered vulnerable by Chinese conservation biologists. Needless to say, this is one scorpion species whose natural history would be good to understand, and yet one we know very little about.

Working from a brief and poorly recorded observation of fly larvae hanging around a dead scorpion, a team of researchers lead by Cheng-Min Shi set out to understand the natural enemies and parasitoids of the Chinese scorpion and started by combing Niushou Mountain for scorpions, collecting a few hundred scorpions in the process. They then brought the live scorpions back to the lab and waited and watched to see what would happen. What they found however, raised many more questions: questions that extend far beyond the mountains of Northeastern China.

Of the 317 specimens they brought back to the lab, 73 died within the first nine days, the majority of which soon spawned dozens of wriggling, late-instar maggots. After rearing many of these maggots to adulthood, and sequencing the DNA of both adults and larvae, the researchers were able to put a name on the first recorded parasitoid for this important scorpion species: Sarcophaga (Liosarcophaga) dux, a species of flesh fly in the family Sarcophagidae. Parasitoid flesh flies aren’t that unusual; flesh flies have been recorded in a wide variety of hosts, from grasshoppers and millipedes to crabs, and even frogs. And flies parasitizing scorpions isn’t even that unique; there are tachinid flies that are known parasitoids of other scorpion species. But what is unusual is that we had already found the larvae of Sarcophaga dux before, and they didn’t come out of a scorpion.

It turns out that Sarcophaga dux is actually a relatively common species of flesh fly, known from across Asia and Europe, with a range stretching all the way from Japan to France. The species has even managed to spread throughout the South Pacific, reaching as far away as Australia and Hawaii. Until now we had thought it to have been closely associated with humans, following us around the world and feeding upon our waste, among other things: an adult fly was once captured on a dead body in Switzerland and studied for forensic purposes, while a few maggots were removed from the ear of a newborn baby in Thailand, which, it bears pointing out, is definitely not the same thing as a scorpion. So now we have a species that in some places is a parasitoid, in other places a saprophage (feeding on microbes and fecal matter), but also a sarcophage when the opportunity arises (feeding on dead stuff that it didn’t kill itself). Oh, and it can cause myiasis and survive by eating living tissue, like in that baby’s ear, or in cattle. It’s not uncommon to see a range of species in a genus exhibit each of these different life styles, or even for species to evolve from one life style to another as they shift from generalists to specialists (or vice versa). The Sarcophagidae in particular have evolved parasitic and parasitoidism many times independently, but an all-in-one package like this? That’s unheard of.

How can a species display a life history that ranges from the incredibly specialized role of scorpion parasitoid to a jack-of-all-trades at home in the big, bright world of garbage, dead bodies, and ear canals? By all accounts a parasitoid without its host should die, and a generalist omnivore should not be able to outsmart the immune system of a scorpion. Welcome to the mystery of the unexplainable life history.

Can you tell which specimen comes from where? Left, from Thailand (assumably collected with carrion bait)(Sukontason et al., 2014); Centre, from Thailand, aural myiasis in child (Chaiwong et al., 2014); Right, male reared from scorpion (Shi et al., 2015).

Can you tell which Sarcophaga dux specimen comes from where based on the male genitalia? Left, from Thailand (assumably collected with carrion bait)(Sukontason et al., 2014); Centre, from Thailand, aural myiasis in child (Chaiwong et al., 2014); Right, from China, reared from scorpion (Shi et al., 2015). Click to enlarge and take a closer look.

Clearly something is going on here, and it’s going to take some very careful sleuthing to figure out what Sarcophaga dux really is. By looking at the genitalia of male flies, the tool that cracks the case for most fly taxonomists, you’d be hard pressed to tell which specimens had been raised inside a scorpion and which came from free-ranging maggots. But when Shi and colleagues looked closer at the DNA, they found that the flies they reared from scorpions differed from the rest of the Sarcophaga dux specimens by a consistent 1.25%. And while a genetic difference of 1.25% may seem insignificant, it represents the first clue that Sarcophaga dux may be more than just a single species with a confoundingly diverse life history.

And that’s the best thing about studying natural history and taxonomy. Unlike a mystery novel that’s wrapped up with a nice, pretty bow by the final page, when we begin unravelling one taxonomic mystery, we invariably stumble upon a new wave of unknowns just waiting for our curiosity to be piqued.

Main paper:

Shi, C.-M., Zhang, X.-S. & Zhang, D.-X. (2015) Parasitoidism of the Sarcophaga dux (Diptera: Sarcophagidae) on the Mesobuthus martensii (Scorpiones: Buthidae) and Its Implications. Annals of the Entomological Society of Americahttp://dx.doi.org/10.1093/aesa/sav090

Supplementary papers:

Chaiwong, T., Tem-Eiam, N., Limpavithayakul, M., Boongunha, N., Poolphol, W. & Sukontason, K.L. (2014) Aural myiasis caused by Parasarcophaga (Liosarcophaga) dux (Thomson) in Thailand. Tropical biomedicine 31, 496–8.

Sukontason, K.L., Sanit, S., Klong-Klaew, T., Tomberlin, J.K. & Sukontason, K. (2014) Sarcophaga (Liosarcophaga) dux (Diptera: Sarcophagidae): A flesh fly species of medical importance. Biological research 47, 14.

Jul 032015
 

This week, Nature published a short Correspondence from Giovanni Strona, a biologist “mainly interested in theoretical ecology”, with a positively shocking revelation: taxonomists are selling the naming rights to new species.


I knew having a fainting couch installed next to my lab bench would pay off one day.

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Jun 242015
 

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

When it comes to evocative imagery of North American landscapes, perhaps no other song brings nature to life like Home on the Range. Sung round a campfire, your imagination can’t help but picture the Great American Plains teeming with life and big game under wide open skies as far as the eye can see. Yet, even as Dr. Brewster Higley was writing Home on the Range in 1876, the ecosystem that inspired him was already being drastically altered, and within a decade only a few hundred buffalo would roam where millions had previously.

And while buffalo, or more properly, bison, have largely been extirpated from their home on the range, they left behind an ecological footprint, if not hoofprints, that may influence the ways in which the deer and the antelope, but also the sheep, play.

When we think of animal engineers, we normally think of the beaver, reshaping waterways with dams and lodges carefully crafted with no regard for canoeists or property owners. But bison are known to wallow in their own environmental ingenuity as well, quite literally. Buffalo wallows are depressions in the plains that after decades of communal use by bison herds develop a layer of water-impermeable soil that helps trap water and mud near the surface, which in turn draws more and more wildlife to them during the hot, dry, summer months. These communal baths are even visible from space, and have stuck around for centuries even where bison no longer visit.


By rolling around and washing off all manner of biological material, from skin and hair to dust and plant matter, along with all manner of bodily fluids (bison aren’t adverse to peeing in the pool, so to speak), these wallows, when used, become highly enriched with organic matter. And where there are pools of organically-rich, wet, mud, there are undoubtedly a range of flies just waiting to make themselves at home.

Enter new research by Robert Pfannenstiel and Mark Ruder of the Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases Research Unit of the USDA in Kansas. Pfannenstiel and Ruder wondered whether biting midge larvae (Ceratopogonidae) in the genus Culicoides were more likely to be found in wallows that haven’t been used for generations but which still collected water, or in wallows that rebounding bison have adopted and infused with fresh fertilizer.

When it comes to aquatic fly larvae associated with “Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases”, Culicoides may not seem an obvious choice, with things like mosquitoes and black flies more often drawing our attention. But just as the megafauna of the Great Plains has changed since 1876, so too has its microfauna.

In the late 1940’s, a new disease began to emerge in the sheep and cattle of the Southwest, first in Texas, and then California. Termed “soremuzzle” by ranchers and shepherds, infected livestock, particularly sheep, would develop swelling and ulcers in and around their nose and mouth, become fevered, pull up lame, and in some extreme cases, the animal’s hooves would fall right off. Then, in 1952, immunologists finally put the pieces together and realized “soremuzzle” was actually Bluetongue Virus (BTV), a vector-borne disease only known from Africa and the Mediterranean at the time. Since then, Bluetongue Virus has spread from the American Southwest up throughout the plains and has begun creeping into the Midwest, as well as spreading to all the other sheep-inhabited continents, recently becoming a major concern for shepherds in the UK.

The wide spread of BTV was made possible in part by ranchers shipping infected sheep (which commonly don’t show signs of infection, and can remain infectious for weeks following initial exposure) around the globe, but also by the close relationships among the virus’ vectors, biting midges in the genus Culicoides. In the Mediterranean, the only vector had been Culicoides imicola, but eventually enough infected livestock spread into the neighbouring ranges of Culicoides obsoletus and C. pulicaris in Europe, who then helped spread the disease all across the continent.

Meanwhile, in North America, another pair of Culicoides species with wide ranges of their own found themselves home to BTV, Culicoides sonorensis, and Culicoides insignis, bringing us back to buffalo wallows and muddy waters.

Culicoides sonorensis - Photo copyright Adam Jewiss-Gaines, used with permission.

Culicoides sonorensis – Photo copyright Adam Jewiss-Gaines, used with permission.

Pfannenstiel and Ruder scooped mud from buffalo wallows in and around the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas (where, incidentally, the state song just so happens to be Home on the Range), some of which were currently being used by bison, and some of which had not been visited by bison for years, and reared the Culicoides larvae from each sample in the lab. They found that active bison wallows were home to Culicoides sonorensis (as well as several other closely related Culicoides species), with several dozen specimens reared from mud collected throughout the summer, while relict wallows were not.

All of this leads to an extremely complex conservation conundrum. By bringing back bison, and allowing them to resume wallowing in their wallows, it seems we’re increasing habitat for a fly species that carries a disease not present the last time bison roamed the range. Bison themselves are susceptible to BTV, but like cattle, don’t normally show the extreme symptoms or mortality that sheep do. However, the bison’s range is also home to nearly half of America’s sheep, with more than 2 million heads grazing the same areas as bison once roamed. More bison may equal more Culicoides, which in turn could equal more cases of BTV among livestock, a prospect that likely won’t sit well with ranchers and shepherds in the area.

What’s more, sheep aren’t even the most susceptible plains animals to BTV. While most infected sheep may show clinical signs of BTV infection, usually less than 30% of infected animals actually succumb to the disease. Meanwhile, the deer and the antelope (pronghorn) playing alongside the wallowing bison and grazing livestock experience an 80-90% mortality rate when infected with BTV, and will likely serve to spread the disease further, faster.

Of course, being a vector-borne disease, BTV can only spread as far as its vector is found, and unfortunately, we’ve been caught a little unprepared to answer just how far that may be. Culicoides are difficult to identify, and so we don’t know where these flies may or may not be found currently, and more importantly, where they may spread to in the future as climate change broadens acceptable habitat. Luckily, researchers like Adam Jewiss-Gaines, a PhD student at Brock University, are working to not only figure out where Culicoides‘ are found, but are also developing keys and resources that will allow others to track the great migration of these tiny flies.

Conservation biology is complicated, and fraught with trade-offs, especially when we try to conserve species in landscapes on which we place a high economic value and which we have changed immutably. So while we’ve brought bison from the brink of extinction back to Home on the Range-era levels, we now find ourselves presented with a new range of conservation challenges, and there may yet be dark clouds in our future skies.

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Pfannenstiel, R. S., and M. G. Ruder. 2015. Colonization of bison (Bison bison) wallows in a tallgrass prairie by Culicoides spp (Diptera: Ceratopogonidae). J. Vector Ecol. 40: 187–90.

May 282015
 

Check out this video that Matthew Cobb of Why Evolution is True just found and posted. While it’s primarily showing a pair of swifts (Apus apus) being reunited after a 9 month hiatus in Africa, check out who crashes the party (most easily seen around the 1:10 mark).

That little scuttling thing playing peekaboo from the neck feathers of the male is actually an adult fly in the family Hippoboscidae, and most likely a male Crataerina pallida, the swift louse fly. These flies are ectoparasites of birds, where they bite and feed off the blood of both nestlings and adults.

Hippoboscids, like bat flies in the family Nycteribiidae (sometimes considered a subfamily of the Hippoboscidae) that Piotr Naskrecki has been showing off this week, give birth to live, late-stage maggots that the female has reared and nourished one at a time in her abdomen. The maggots are deposited into the swift’s nest, where they pupate and then scuttle onto their nestling host. According to Hutson (1981), fly populations peak in mid June when the swift nestlings are just beginning to hatch, and steadily fall off from there until most flies are dead by mid to late August, and he stated the flies do not make the migration with the birds.

But, since these flies don’t lay eggs, they must be spending the winters in the nest boxes as pupae, awaiting the return of their hosts year after year. Hutson found that males are more prevalent early in the spring, with females to follow. This leads us to an interesting question of how this louse fly got onto this bird! The fly was already aboard the bird when it entered the box (if you watch closely you can see a white blob that moves around neck is first visible at 0:06, immediately after the male bird approaches the sitting female). This means that one of two things happened: either the male bird has in fact carried its little parasite friend down to Africa and back (something that neither Hutson nor Walker & Rotherham (2010) believe to be the case) (and assuming this was the first nestbox that the bird stopped in, which I take to be the presumption of the ornithologists who posted the video and stated it shows a male reuniting with its mate from last year in last year’s nestbox), or alternatively, the male bird did stop for a time in another nestbox where it picked up its little hitchhiker, and then proceeded on to its longterm mate. This of course raises questions about how committed these birds really are to their mates, and whether they may be getting a little action on the side (or at least exploring their other options) before settling down for the season. Since I know pretty well nothing about bird biology, if someone knows more about swift mating, bonding, and extra-pair copulation, let me know in the comments if I’m way off.

Either way, catching a glimpse of a louse fly playing peekaboo on the neck of its host may raise more questions than the initial emotional response of “WHAT IS THAT THING?!?”, and that’s pretty darn cool.

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