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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

Continue reading »

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.


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.

Mar 202014

Taxonomist Appreciation Day has just come to a close where I am, and it was a lot of fun to see so many people express their thanks for the work that taxonomists do. I highly recommend browsing through the hashtag #LoveYourTaxonomist on Twitter, and seeing what people had to say.

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what taxonomists were up to on this holiest of days. Personally, I reviewed a really great manuscript about an exciting new species of fly that I can’t wait to talk about more when it’s published, but here’s a quick run down of the new animal species* that were officially unveiled to the world on March 19, 2014.



We’ll start small with a new species of yeast, Scheffersomyces henanensis, described from China today.

Ren Y, Chen L, Niu Q, Hui F (2014) Description of Scheffersomyces henanensis sp. nov., a New D-Xylose-Fermenting Yeast Species Isolated from Rotten Wood. PLoS ONE 9(3): e92315. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0092315


This charming creature is Pentacletopsyllus montagni, a benthic copepod that was found deep in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bang HW, Baguley JG, Moon H (2014) A new genus of Cletopsyllidae (Copepoda, Harpacticoida) from Gulf
of Mexico. ZooKeys 391: 37–53. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.391.6903



Allow me to introduce you to Anacroneuria meloi, a Brazilian stonefly named for the person who collected it (Dr. Adriano Sanches Melo). This was one of two new species described in this paper.

Bispo, Costa & Novaes. 2014. Two new species and a new record of Anacroneuria (Plecoptera: Perlidae) from Central Brazil. Zootaxa 3779(5): 591-596. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.9



This odd looking creature, Hydrometra cherukolensis, is actually a true bug! The eyes are the bulges in the left third, and like all hemipterans, they have sucking mouthparts tucked under the head (not visible in this photo). The authors of this study described another species of these strange looking bugs as well.

Jehamalar & Chandra. 2014. On the genus Hydrometra Latreille (Hemiptera: Heteroptera: Hydrometridae) from India with description of two new species. Zootaxa 3977(5): 501-517. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.1



This little leafhopper, Nirvanguina pectena, is only 1/2 centimetre long!

Lu, Zhang & Webb. 2014. Nirvanguina Zhang & Webb (Hemiptera: Cicadellidae: Deltocephalinae), a new record for China, with description of a new species. Zootaxa 3977(5): 597-600. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.10



Not only was Luchoelmis kapenkemkensis described, but so was it’s (probable) larva, an unusual occurrence for insects.

Archangelsky & Brand. 2014. A new species of Luchoelmis Spangler & Staines (Coleoptera: Elmidae) from Argentina and its probable larva. Zootaxa 3977(5): 563-572. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.6



While not a new species, Susuacanga blancaneaui was transferred into the genus Susuacanga from the genus Eburia today. Taxonomists don’t just find new species, they also reorganize genera and species as they gain a better understanding of variations within and relationships between taxa.

Botero R, JP. 2014. Review of the genus Susuacanga (Coleoptera, Cerambycidae, Cerambycinae). Zootaxa 3977(5): 518-528. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.2



The authors of this study not only described a new species of wasp, Ropalidia parartifex, but they also produced a wonderfully illustrated identification key to help others recognize these wasps, as well as recording 6 species previously unknown to occur in China.

Tan J-L, van Achterberg K, Chen X-X (2014) Pictorial key to species of the genus Ropalidia Guérin-Méneville,
1831 (Hymenoptera, Vespidae) from China, with description of one new species. ZooKeys 391: 1–35. doi: 10.3897/



Not only do taxonomists have to be able to recognize new species, they often also need to be able to illustrate how they’re different from one another. Here, the authors drew the final abdominal segments of a male Platypalpus abagoensis to demonstrate how it differs compared to the other 5 new species they were describing; the true intersection of art and science!

Kustov, S., Shamshev, I. & Grootaert, P. 2014. Six new species of the Platypalpus pallidiventris-cursitans group (Diptera: Hybotidae) from the Caucasus. Zootaxa 3977(5): 529-539. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.3



Perhaps the most striking new species described today, Callicera scintilla‘s species epithet literally means glimmering or shining in Latin. Another species was also described in this study, but alas, it isn’t a shiny copper.

Smit, J. 2014. Two new species of the genus Callicera Panzer (Diptera: Syrphidae) from the Palaearctic Region. Zootaxa 3977(5): 585-590. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.8



Of course, not all insects described today are still around to learn their names. This fossil walking stick, Cretophasmomima melanogramma, has been waiting to be discovered for roughly 126 million years!

Wang M, Be´thoux O, Bradler S, Jacques FMB, Cui Y, et al. (2014) Under Cover at Pre-Angiosperm Times: A Cloaked Phasmatodean Insect from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Biota. PLoS ONE 9(3): e91290. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091290



Continuing with fossils, Rukwanyoka holmani represents not only a new species of snake, but also a new genus, and is only known from a handful of vertebra.

McCartney JA, Stevens NJ, O’Connor PM (2014) The Earliest Colubroid-Dominated Snake Fauna from Africa: Perspectives from the Late Oligocene Nsungwe Formation of Southwestern Tanzania. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90415. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090415



What would a story about new species be without a dinosaur? Making headlines as the “Chicken from Hell“, Anzu wyliei was an omnivorous bird-like dinosaur believed to have had feathered arms, which inspired the generic name: Anzu, a Mesopotamian feathered demon. The species epithet, wyliei, however, is in honour of Wylie J. Tuttle, the grandson of Carnegie Museum patrons! There’s no data provided whether young Wylie has the temperament or feathers of a Chicken from Hell, however.

Lamanna MC, Sues H-D, Schachner ER, Lyson TR (2014) A New Large-Bodied Oviraptorosaurian Theropod Dinosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of Western North America. PLoS ONE 9(3): e92022. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092022



Finally, meet Phyllodistomum hoggettae, one of two parasitic trematode worms described today. This species is also named in someone’s honour, specifically Dr. Anne Hoggett, co-director of the Lizard Island Research Station, a research station within the Great Barrier Reef in Australia where the researchers conducted their work. Whie it may not be a dinosaur, it’s still an honour to have a species named after you, even if that species is a parasitic worm that lives in the urinary bladder of a grouper…

Ho, H.W., Bray, R.A., Cutmore, S.C., Ward, S. & Cribb, T.H. 2014. Two new species of Phyllodistomum Braun, 1899 (Trematoda: Gorgoderidae Looss, 1899) from Great Barrier Reef fishes. Zootaxa 3779(5): 551-562. doi: 10.11646/zootaxa.3779.5.5


If you’re keeping track at home, that’s a total of 22 new animal species described in one day, which is actually below the daily average (~44 new species/day)! This isn’t including all the other things taxonomists work on, like identification keys, geographic records, phylogenetics, biogeography and the various other taxonomic housekeeping that needs to be constantly undertaken to ensure the classification of Earth’s biodiversity remains useful and up to date!

So the next time you look at an organism and are able to call it by name, take a moment to think about the taxonomist who worked out what that species is, gave it a name, and provided a means for you to correctly identify it, and perhaps check to see what new creatures are being identified each and every day!


*- That I could find. I imagine there are more that were published in smaller circulation or specialized journals that I’m not aware of as well.

Jan 072014

The extreme cold snap encompassing a large portion of continental North America (termed a Polar Vortex, which you can learn more about via NPR and Quartz) has made it dangerous to remain outside for long, even when bundled up in more layers than a Thanksgiving turducken. While we can rely on our technological ingenuity to find solutions to this chilling problem, what about our insect neighbours who have been left out in the cold?

Eurosta solidaginis has a warning for you.

Eurosta solidaginis has a warning for you.

Most insects seek shelter in the fall before temperatures begin to dip, either laying their eggs in sheltered locations, or hiding out as larvae, pupae or adults in the comparative warmths of the leaf litter, deep within trees, or even taking advantage of our warm hospitality and rooming with us in the nooks & crannies of our homes. But what about species like the Goldenrod Gall Fly (Eurosta solidaginis) which are literally left hanging out in the middle of nowhere and completely at the mercy of Jack Frost?

Polar Vortex vs. Goldenrod Gall Fly. Polar Vortex map courtesy of RightWeather.com, Eurosta solidaginis range map from Foote et al. 1993

Polar Vortex vs. Goldenrod Gall Fly. Polar Vortex map courtesy of RightWeather.com, Eurosta solidaginis range map from Foote et al. 1993

If you live in eastern North America, you’re probably familiar with the Goldenrod Gall Fly, even if you don’t realize it. This fruit fly — the ripe fruit kind (family Tephritidae), not the rotting banana kind (family Drosophilidae) — is one of the more ubiquitous insects, and is found pretty well anywhere goldenrod grows, including in urban environments like parks & abandoned lots. Adults are weak fliers and aren’t often seen unless you’re actively looking for them, but in this case, it’s the larvae that you’ve likely seen a hundred times — rather, you’ve likely seen their makeshift homes a hundred times. The larvae of this species live within the stem of goldenrod plants (Solidago spp.), and trick the plant into growing a big spherical nursery for the fly maggot to live & feed in (technically called a ‘gall’), and which stands out like the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square, albeit without the mirrors and spotlights of course.

Goldenrod Gall Fly galls in Guelph, Ontario

Goldenrod Gall Fly galls in Guelph, Ontario

While these galls provide a modicum of protection from predators and parasitoids (although some still find a way), they don’t provide much, if any, insulation from the elements, meaning that the larvae must be able to survive the same air and windchill temperatures that we do. To do so, Goldenrod Gall Fly larvae are not only able to safely freeze without their cells being torn apart by tiny ice daggers by partially drying themselves out, but they also change the temperature their tissues freeze at by manufacturing anti-freeze-like chemicals. Together, these cold-tolerance strategies allow the maggots to survive temperatures as low as -50°C (-58°F)! Just take a moment to consider what it would feel like to stand outside almost anywhere in central North America on a day like today wrapped in only a few layers of tissue paper; BRRRRRRR!

All that stands between a Goldenrod Gall Fly maggot & the extreme cold is a few centimeters of dried plant tissue.

All that stands between a Goldenrod Gall Fly maggot & the extreme cold is a few centimeters of dried plant tissue. (The maggot is the little ball of goo in the bottom half of the gall)

For us, the multiple warm layers of clothing we bundle up in on days like today allow us to survive and eventually have children, thus passing our genes along, despite living in a habitat that is occasionally unfit for human life. It would stand to reason then that other organisms would also enjoy the same benefits and evolutionary advantage from thermal insulation, but, for the Goldenrod Gall Fly at least, the complete opposite is true! Goldenrod isn’t exactly the most robust structure, and it doesn’t take much effort from the wind, passing animals like people or dogs, or other not-so-freak phenomena to knock goldenrod stems over, allowing galls to be buried in snow and protected from the harshest temperatures (snow is an excellent insulator, and temperatures in the snowbank generally hover around 0°C (32°F)). This would intuitively seem like a good place to be if you were fly maggot, out of the daily temperature fluctuations and extreme cold and in a more stable environment. However it turns out that individuals that mature in galls on the ground and covered with snow are at a significant disadvantage evolutionarily speaking, with grounded females producing 18% fewer eggs than females who grew up fully exposed to the elements (Irwin & Lee, 2003)!

This Goldenrod Gall Fly, while warm(er), will likely produce fewer offspring when it emerges (assuming it's a female).

This Goldenrod Gall Fly, while warm(er), will likely produce fewer offspring when it emerges (assuming it’s a female).

Why might that be? Well, let’s think about it for a moment. If you’re a fly maggot hanging out above the snow when it’s -20°C, you’re likely going to be frozen solid and in a cold-induced stasis, not doing much of anything, even at the cellular level. But, if you’re as snug as a ‘bug’ under the snow at ~0°C, your body won’t be frozen, and thus you’ll be forced to carry on with day-to-day maintenance & cellular functions like breathing, waste removal, etc, even if only minimally. When you live in a closed system like a hollowed-out stem gall on a dead plant without any food, any energy you spend on daily functions as a “teenager” putting in time under the snow all winter long means you’ll have less energy you can put towards making eggs as an adult. If you’re a Goldenrod Gall Fly maggot, it pays to be left out in the cold!

Foote, R.H, Blanc, F.L., Norrbom, A.L. (1993). Handbook of the Fruit Flies (Diptera: Tephritidae) of America North of Mexico. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca NY. 571pp.

Irwin J.T. & Lee, Jr R.E. (2003). Cold winter microenvironments conserve energy and improve overwintering survival and potential fecundity of the goldenrod gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis, Oikos, 100 (1) 71-78. DOI:

Some additional thoughts: You’d think that a nearly 20% difference in egg production would create significant evolutionary pressure for Goldenrod Gall Fly females to select the strongest, least-likely-to-break-and-fall-over goldenrod stems. It’s possible that the randomness of goldenrod stem breakage negates any evolution of host plant selection, but I would tend to doubt it. I did a quick Google Scholar search to check whether anyone had examined this in greater detail, but I didn’t see anything. Perhaps an avenue of future study for an evolutionary biology lab out there?

Nov 292013

On the island of Raivavae, one of the Austral Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, buried deep beneath the surface of a swamp in mud accumulated at the foot of a stream for thousands of years, scientists have found all that remains of a unique new species of Black Fly (Simuliidae): larval head cases left behind when the flies molted into pupae. These subfossils, not yet hard and mineralized like conventional fossils yet still preserved in near-perfect condition by the mud, not only raise the question of how a tiny little fly found its way to an island in the middle of nowhere, but also provide the only evidence of a murder mystery 2 million years in the making.

The missing species on Raivavae is Simulium Inseliellum raivavaense, recently described by Douglas Craig of the University of Alberta and Nick Porch of Deakin University in Australia, from material collected in 2010. Despite the subfossil larval head capsules being the only “specimens”, Craig & Porch were able to determine S. I. raivavaense was a new species based on the shape, position, and number of teeth on the hypostoma, essentially the lower lip of a black fly larva’s mouth.

Cook-Islands-Simulium-Hypostoma Continue reading »

Nov 222013

In the jungles of southern Mexico there are treasures that glitter and sparkle more than even the most luxurious displays at Tiffany’s, so rare we’ve only ever caught a glimpse of them once. These jewels are made not of stone, crystal or precious metal, but rather segments, cuticle and a punctate mesonotum. Yes, like usual, I’m talking about a fly.

And what a beautiful new Soldier Fly (Stratiomyidae) it is! Meet Paraberismyia chiapas Woodley, which has only just been described, despite having been a prized possession for nearly 20 years.

Paraberismyia chiapas Woodley - Female holotype (Figures 1 & 2 from Woodley, 2013)

Holotype Female of Paraberismyia chiapas Woodley by Norm Woodley CC-BY (Figures 1 & 2 from Woodley, 2013)

A member of the Beridinae, a subfamily of soldier flies known for their colourful & metallic appearance, Paraberismyia chiapas had been recognized as an undescribed species by Norm Woodley in 1995 when he described the genus Paraberismyia, but because he only knew of a single female specimen at the time, he decided to hold off on formally describing the species until he could locate additional specimens. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and a second specimen of Paraberismyia chiapas has yet to be collected, so Norm decided to not wait any longer and published this and 2 other new species in the journal ZooKeys earlier this week.

Having only a single specimen collected in 1985 by Amnon Friedberg (who happens to be the same guy who studied and described several of the “ant-winged” fruit flies that went viral earlier this month — the dipterological community is an incestuous little group…), we don’t know much about this species, other than it lives in the Chiapas region of Mexico (hence it’s species name) at an elevation of 2,000 metres.

Despite there being a large entomological survey project going on in the region for the past 5 years (the LLAMA project, which, while focused on leaf-litter arthropods, you could imagine would have collected a bright green & gold fly that likely breeds and develops in leaf-litter like other members of the Beridinae), Paraberismyia chiapas has yet to make a second appearance, leaving many questions about it’s apparent rarity unanswered: is this species only found on a single mountain top, or is it restricted to a small expanse of high elevation habitats in the southern Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range? Is the window when adults are actively flying so short that other expeditions have just missed it? Or more concerning, has Paraberismyia chiapas disappeared completely, stolen from us before we had even given it a name? Obviously we can’t answer any of these questions, or the hundreds more regarding it’s biology and natural history (including why it’s so stunningly coloured), until someone hits pay dirt and rediscovers this little gem.

The other 3 species in the genus Paraberismyia are equally stunning, and I highly recommend taking a look at them (the paper is open access).
Woodley N. (2013). A revision of the Neotropical genus Paraberismyia Woodley (Diptera, Stratiomyidae, Beridinae) with three new species, ZooKeys, 353 25-45. DOI:  (OPEN ACCESS)