Jan 062015

Natural History Collections are the Libraries of biology. They collect, protect, and maintain the specimens that allow us to understand how the natural world works, and then they make them available for people to use, study and enjoy, usually for free. Every specimen is irreplaceable, a priceless first edition that allows us to explore, interpret and compare the unique ways in which evolution, ecology, and the environment have shaped not only the species we share this planet with, but also ourselves.

Imagine a library without a librarian. What do you suppose would happen? For one, there wouldn’t be any new books added for you to borrow, enjoy, or learn from, so you better like the classics and not be interested in keeping up with the New York Times Bestseller List. That’s assuming of course you can even find the books you’re interested in, because without someone to make sure they’re kept in their proper spot and order maintained, shelves will devolve into chaos, and it won’t be long until insects, microbes, and the environment begin to decompose the entire collection into piles of poorly organized dust.

The same is true for biological collections, only the librarians are called curators. Without a curator, a natural history collection is nothing more than a poorly organized pile of dust in waiting. No museum in their right mind would allow the very core of their existence decompose like this, would they?

The Royal British Columbia Museum is thinking about it. The CEO of the museum, Professor Jack Lohman, is of the mind that the Entomology Collection no longer needs a paid curator, and that the money earmarked for employing one could be better spent elsewhere in the museum. He couldn’t be more wrong.

The last entomology curator, Dr. Robert Cannings (who happens to be a dipterist who did his PhD at the very lab bench that I’m doing mine at now) retired in 2012 after a 32 year career as Curator of Entomology. He has stayed on as Curator Emeritus, but the museum has yet to hire his replacement, and has now publicly stated that they likely won’t.

Let’s return to our library metaphor again for a moment to illustrate how poor, and unprofessional, the decision to let the RBCM entomology collection go without a curator is. According to their website and this information sheet put together by the collection staff (PDF), the entomology collection at the RBCM was established in 1886, and now holds roughly 600,000 specimens. Compare that to the Canadian Library of Parliament, the most prestigious library in Canada that is attached to our Parliament Buildings and which serves as the official repository and resource for our government. It was founded a mere 10 years before the RBCM entomology collection, in 1876, and also houses 600,000 items today. The difference is that Library of Parliament employs 300 people to keep it running and functional, while the Royal British Columbia Museum Entomology Collection currently employs 1 collection manager, and has been deemed undeserving of a curator to maintain its esteemed history.

That is unacceptable.

But it’s not too late. Professor Lohman has agreed to hear arguments for why the entomology curatorship position should be filled, and will delay making a final decision until January 22, 2015.

Natural History Collections matter. Entomology matters. Curators matter. Please join me in letting Professor Lohman know that this is not an issue that should even be negotiated, never mind cut outright. Write him a letter (his address & email are below). Tweet at him using @RoyalBCMuseum and share why museums and the collections they maintain matter to you; tweets including the museum’s Twitter handle seem to go directly onto the front page of the museum website for all to see!

Stand up for entomology research in Canada. Don’t let 129 years of natural heritage turn to dust.

Write to:

Prof. Jack Lohman

Chief Executive Officer

Royal British Columbia Museum

675 Belleville St,

Victoria, BC V8W 9W2


And send a copy to:

Peter Ord: Vice President, Archives, Collections, and Knowledge


Aug 052014

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jul 022014

Even though all specimens in a natural history collection (should) have a label explaining where, when & how they were captured, sometimes that doesn’t include the full story behind how a specimen came to rest in the collection. Consider the following.

While enjoying a few cold beverages on a hot summer’s evening on the porch of a friend’s cottage, our conversation was interrupted by the *thud* of a beetle bouncing off the siding. Attracted to the lights of the cottage, a Lucanus stag beetle found itself suddenly the highlight of the evening, and I quickly scooped it up and placed it into an inflated Ziploc bag, intending to photograph it once I got home the next day.

Things got busy though, and I ended up stashing the baggy & live beetle in my backpack to take into the lab and photograph instead. The next morning I walked to work, told my lab mate about my great beetle find, and pulled the Ziploc bag out to proudly display my specimen. Rather than a glorious reveal however, and all I had in hand was an empty Ziploc; apparently the beetle had had enough of waiting around and had chewed its way to freedom!

I proceeded to empty my backpack, searching every crack & crevice in search of the missing stag, only to conclude it had not only escaped its plastic cell, but also my zippered backpack as well! As I sat and wondered where it may have made its dramatic escape (perhaps the greeting card store in the mall I had stopped at on my way in to work, a scenario that I couldn’t help but giggle over) and cursed my beer-induced logic that a Ziploc bag was sufficient to imprison a two-inch beetle with formidable jaws, I resigned myself to the fact that I had been outsmarted by the Houdini of the beetle world.

A few nights later, while sitting on the couch at home watching late-night TV, I heard what sounded like plastic shooting across the laminate floor, emanating from where where our cat, Callie, was playing across the room. When I got up to see what trouble she was getting into, low and behold there was my missing stag, skittering across the floor after a playful thwack from the cat! While certainly dead, considerably dried up, and covered in an embarrassingly thick coating of dust from spending time under the furniture, it was also miraculously complete, not even missing its lamellate antennae or fragile tarsi.


Callie, Stag Hunter

Callie, Stag Hunter

A week soaking in ethanol on my desk (out of reach of the cat, who was unimpressed with me confiscating her new toy) to rehydrate, and voila, a perfectly good specimen ready to become a part of the scientific record! It’s impossible to predict how this specimen may contribute to our understanding of biodiversity and stag beetle biology in the future, and while its official label data will provide future researchers the necessary context to use this specimen as a data point, the full story of how this beetle wound up in our collection is yours.

It just goes to show that there’s more to a specimen than meets the eye, or the label.

The escaped Lucanus stag beetle (Lucanidae), pinned, labelled, and ready for science.

The escaped Lucanus stag beetle (Lucanidae), pinned, labelled, and ready for science.

Feb 012014

A while ago I started a weekly link round up series, but unlike Ed, Chris and Malcolm, I quickly became inundated with too much good stuff and it was taking me way longer to put together each week than I felt comfortable doing, and eventually allowed it to drop.

But, there is some truly awesome work being done across the internet bringing attention to entomology and science in general, so I figure I’ll try and do a monthly recap of some of the stuff I come across and that I think should be read/watched/listened to by more people! Here’s this month’s crop of awesomeness (in chronological order). Continue reading »

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)

Nov 062013

There’s a pretty remarkable fly photograph making the rounds of social media today, and while it originally had me going “Oooooh!”, the more I think about it, the more I feel like we’re staring at clouds.

It started when Ziya Tong tweeted a photo of a Goniurellia tridens (a fruit fly in the family Tephritidae) displaying its wings:

Continue reading »

Oct 312013

As has become tradition in the University of Guelph Insect Systematics Lab, when Halloween rolls around, we pull out the knives & hand tools and make a trip to the produce aisle to get ready for a new Ent-O-Lantern. This year our lab is considerably smaller than in the past (4 grad students, an enthusiastic undergrad, and a significant other), but what we lacked in sculptors, we made up for with dedication!

So what was this year’s creation? Behold, a nightmare for social wasps everywhere, the Spooky Strepsiptera!

Spooky Strepsiptera for Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Spooky Strepsiptera looking for love in all the right places — Ent-O-Lantern 2013

That pumpkin wasp doesn't stand a chance with a Strepsiptera salad hanging around -- Ent-O-Lantern 2013

That pumpkin wasp doesn’t stand a chance with a strepsipteran salad hanging around — Ent-O-Lantern 2013

The big male twisted-wing parasite riding atop a poor wasp’s abdomen is in search of females, who spend their lives wedged beneath the tergites of a social wasp’s abdomen, only to be consumed from the inside out by their own progeny! Yes, everything about the Strepsiptera is nightmare fodder.

Strepsiptera are also renowned for their odd wing morphology; males have a single pair of functional wings while their second pair of wings have evolved into haltere-like knobs, similar to true flies in the order Diptera. Unlike flies however, the functional wings of Strepsiptera are the hind wings, while the fore wings form the haltere-like knobs!

Needless to say, there was a lot to take into consideration when putting together this pumpkin. Here’s the ingredient list and a fully lighted photo to show how it all went together.

Pumpkin – carved to look like a wasp abdomen

Orange Bell Peppers – female Strepsiptera poking out from under the pumpkin tergites

Butternut Squash – thorax and abdomen of the male, carved with great care to show tergites & segments

Sweet Potato – head

Ornamental corn – compound eyes

Cauliflower – filiform antennae

Dried Mango Slices – maxillary palps

Carrots – legs (jointed with wire)

Cabbage – “twisted” functional hind wings which give this order their common name

Bell Pepper stems – fore wing “halteres”

Ent-O-Lantern 2013 Construction

Ent-O-Lantern 2013 Construction

We just do these big creations for fun, but our department also held a pumpkin carving social event at lunch, so we washed off our tools and put together a true horror show from a single pumpkin: Frankendrosophila!

Well, not really Frankendrosophila, just a Drosophila who’s been subjected to some genetic tinkering with his Homeobox transcription genes, resulting in Antennapedia! SCIENCE!

Drosophila Antennapedia Horror show for Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Drosophila Antennapedia Horror show for Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Antennapedia in the light -- Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Antennapedia in the light — Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Thanks to Meredith, Nichelle, Grace, Jordan & Steve for getting into the spirit of the season and putting together 2 awesome Ent-O-Lanterns this year!

Did you carve an Ent-O-Lantern this year? Leave a link in the comments below so we can all marvel at your insect geek pride!


Aug 142013

The Bug Chicks (aka Jessica Honaker & Kristie Reddick) are two of the most enthusiastic, creative and hilarious entomologists I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. They’ve dedicated their careers to educating people (especially kids) about insects and related arthropods through interactive workshops and field camps, as well as with a whole series of videos showing the weird, wacky and wonderful ways in which insects go about their lives, and why they’re important in ours (their earwig video is probably my favourite, I highly recommend checking it out).

The Bug Chicks have done an amazing job on their own so far, but they want to reach an even larger audience and are gearing up for an epic cross-country road trip/web-series to show off some of the incredible insects that can be found in our own backyards. Check out the promo trailer:

Honda is lending them a brand new van and Project Noah (a web & mobile natural history app supported by National Geographic) is making sure all the cool stuff they find is accessible to viewers around the world, but Jess & Kristie still need some help from you to make their dream a reality. They’ve set up an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to help raise the money they need to haul that crazy couch from the forests of Oregon to the deserts of Arizona, and from the mountains of Yellowstone National Park to the beaches of Assateague State Park in Maryland. They’ve got some great perks for those that donate, ranging from “Bug Dork” bumper stickers and insect artwork to classroom lectures for your favourite student!

At a time when science programming on network and cable TV has been replaced with fauxumentaries and fear-mongering reality shows, we NEED people like The Bug Chicks to help inspire and educate future generations of scientists, biologists, and entomologists. Jess & Kristie are two of the finest role models you could ever want, and I fully believe that they have the potential to change the landscape of educational video programming with their work!

So if you can, check for change under your couch cushions, donate a few dollars (or as much as you can afford) and help spread the word by telling your friends and neighbours! There’s only 9 days left in their campaign, and while they have a long ways to go to reach their goal, every dollar will help them bring quality educational entertainment to you and the rest of the world.

Donate to their Indiegogo Campaign HERE.

Finally, we talked to The Bug Chicks about their campaign recently on Breaking Bio, where they announced their partnership with Honda, and explain what they hope to do on their trip, give some hints about some of the cool stuff they’re hoping to find, and share why it’s important for there to be strong, women role models online and in the real world.

May 072013

The east coast is about to get a little more crowded, and whole lot louder, as Brood II of the 17-year cicada (which is actually a synchronized cohort of three different species: Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada cassini, Magicicada septendecula) prepares to make its first appearance since 1996.

Conceived, laid and hatched while the Macarena was sweeping the globe, Brood II has since been biding it’s time underground in nymphal form, feeding off sap stolen from the roots of trees and counting down the years until it was time to make their grand appearance. But how DO they count down the years? 17 years is an incredibly long time, especially when you live more than a foot underground, insulated from traditional stimuli like photoperiod and temperature.

Richard Karban, who wrote that he’s dreamed of tricking periodical cicadas into emerging early for most of his adult life, had an idea, and designed an elegant experiment to see if he could confuse his cicadas by accelerating the life cycle of the trees they were dependent on.

Rather than making a poor graduate student sit and wait 17 years for a cicada to emerge, Karban dug up and transplanted 15-year old Brood V nymphs from Pennsylvania onto potted peach trees in his University of California, Davis lab, a difficult procedure that involves potatoes and a cross-country road trip with some unusual company, and which had failed the 3 previous times it was attempted. This time however, Karban successfully managed to transplant 13 nymphs, with 11 surviving on his accelerated-cycle trees which underwent 2 flowering cycles per year (bud-> leaf-> flower-> leaf drop-> dormancy-> bud-> leaf-> flower-> fruit-> leaf drop), and 2 surviving on his control trees which only underwent a single cycle per year (bud-> leaf-> flower-> fruit-> leaf drop-> dormancy).

Back in the wilds of Pennsylvania and on the control trees, Brood V adults were expected to emerge in the spring of 1999, which is exactly what they did. However, the ones who were feeding on the accelerated-cycle trees got the party started a full year early, with 8 of the 11 individuals emerging right when Karban hypothesized they would: spring 1998!


Karban realized his dream, having successfully fooled a few periodical cicadas into emerging early, and in the process showed that cicadas are able to count the seasonal cycles (or phenology) of their host trees to keep track of time rather than relying on other direct stimuli. The exact mechanism by which cicadas keep track of how many cycles have passed is still not well understood, although it’s probably safe to assume that the cyclic availability of tree sap & nutrients influences the development of the nymphs in some way. The fact that there are still such large pieces of the phenomenon still waiting to be understood is just as exciting as the prospect of millions of brightly coloured bugs emerging en masse to serenade you this summer.

So, if you happen to find yourself on the East Coast in the coming weeks, stop and take the opportunity to listen to a symphony 17 years in the making. And if you notice a subtle-but-catchy Latin beat to the buzz of periodical cicadas, just be glad it’ll only last a couple of weeks; those poor cicadas have been humming the Macarena to themselves for the past 17 years!

Photograph by C. Simon. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000892.g003. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

Photograph by C. Simon. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000892.g003. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

Karban R., Black C.A. & Weinbaum S.A. (2000). How 17-year cicadas keep track of time, Ecology Letters, 3 (4) 253-256. DOI: