Sep 022014
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Jul 242014
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A less than ideal storage solution for giant Megaloptera specimens

A less than ideal storage solution for giant Megaloptera specimens

 

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

Feb 132014
 

Skeleton just might be the most insane sport in the Winter Olympics: athletes run as fast as they can, lay down head-first on what is essentially a lunch tray with blades affixed to the bottom, and then go barreling down an icy tube at speeds of up to 140 km/h, experiencing up to 5x the force of gravity on tight turns, all with their faces mere inches from the the surface of the track. I can only assume there was alcohol involved the first time somebody thought to try this, but it has since become one of the most exhilarating sports to watch in the Winter Olympics.

 

Shelley Rudman of Great Britain prepares for the Skeleton competition in Sochi, Russia. Photo by Nick Potts/PA.

Our insect competitors may not be going at the break-neck pace of human Skeletoners, but I think we can agree the end result is just as exhilarating. Hailing from the Amazon and proudly representing Team Arthropoda, meet Euglossa orchid bees and their very own death-defying Skeleton courses, Coryanthes bucket orchids.

Incredible, is it not? It’s fitting that the Insect Skeleton event starts today considering yesterday was Darwin Day, the 205th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Darwin was particularly enamoured by orchids and their convoluted reproduction strategies, and wrote an entire book on the subject in 1895, specifically marveling at the intricacy of Coryanthes pollination biology.


Darwin C. (1895). The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilized by insects, D. Appleton and Co. New York, New York., DOI:

Special thanks to @Bex_Cartwright for helping me figure out the Coryanthes/Euglossa combination.

Feb 122014
 

Here in Canada, cross-country skiing is a favourite winter pastime, with people eagerly awaiting the first snow by waxing their skis and stocking up on hot chocolate for after their trek through the wilderness. The Norwegians however, have shown this week that cross-country skiing is their sport at the moment, having taken home 8 medals in cross-country skiing events (6 in cross-country, 2 in biathlon) already!

Cross-country skiers from Switzerland, Sweden and Norway push towards the finish line in the skiathlon. Photo copyright Guy Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

In my experiences with cross-country skiing, I found it was much easier to stay upright when moving, and that stopping generally resulted in a cold, snowy crash followed by some awkward struggling to get back on my skis.

In a way, that’s a lot like Chionea winter crane flies (Limoniidae — or Tipulidae, depending on who you ask), a genus of wingless flies which are commonly seen running across the snow on sunny days across North America and Europe. It’s been reported repeatedly that when on snow, Chionea are in constant motion. Why might this be? Princeton entomologist Warner Marchand believed it might have been to avoid freezing to the snow, a conclusion he came to after observing winter crane flies on the balcony of his vacation home over several days. Sigmund Hagvar, an entomologist working in Oslo, Norway, on the other hand, sat and counted the number of steps Chionea araneoides individuals took across the snow, and found they took ~85 steps/min when temperatures approached 0°C, while slowing to only ~40 steps/min when the air temperature was -5°C! He suggests that the continuous movement may enable these flies to live and breed at such cold temperatures, noting that at -6°C they begin to go into chill coma and die. With temperatures expected to be just above freezing at the Sochi Cross-Country Skiing this week, Chionea araneoides may be hot-stepping their way to a medal!

Chionea araneoides from Mørkved, Bodø, Norway. Photo copyright Geir Oersnes.


Hagvar S. (1971). Field Observations on the Ecology of a Snow Insect, Chionea araneoides Dalm. (Dipt., Tipulidae), NORSK ENTOMOLOGISK TIDSSKRIFT, 18 (1) 33-37. Other: Link

Marchand W. (1917). Notes on the habits of the Snow Fly (Chionea), Psyche, 24 142-153. Other: Link

Feb 112014
 

While many in North America may recognize the Ski Jump from the brief clip fully encapsulating the agony of defeat in ABC’s Wide World of Sports intro, this event is quite popular in northern Europe. Supposedly originating in Norway when an army officer was showing off for his troops in the late 1800s, the men’s ski jump has been included in every Winter Olympics to date, while 2014 marks the first time women have been allowed to fling themselves off a mountain and sore for Olympic gold!

Kamil Stoch of Poland sores above the Olympic rings in Sochi, Russia on his way to a gold medal. Photo copyright Lars Baron/Getty Images.

Little known fact: the bar that ski jumpers sit on at the top of the hill before launching themselves down the slope used to be a raw log imported from the jungles of Central America to help encourage international inclusion*, and with it would often come gliding ants (conveniently for this story Cephalotes atratus), who would show off their own ability to fly!

Cephalotes atratus gracefully floats back to earth while attempting a world record in the Formicid Tree Jump! Photo copyright Alex Wild.

So how do ants measure up to our advanced aerodynamics, years of practice and training, and our pursuit for the thrill of victory? Surprisingly well, all things considered. With absolutely perfect form achieved with models in a wind tunnel, humans can attain a maximum horizontal glide of between 1.13m and 1.34m for every metre they drop, depending on the in-flight technique employed by the athlete. That means that when the women ski jumpers take off later today, they’ll be aiming for flights of nearly 100 metres, finishing with safe and graceful landings down the mountain, while only** falling about 80 metres!

By comparison, Cephalotes gliding ants have been found to majestically sore about 0.18m for every metre dropped. While they certainly won’t be challenging our athletes, it is more than sufficient to allow the ants to glide a few feet towards their tree trunk should they fall from their arboreal nests, avoiding a very long hike from the ground!

I guess it all comes back to form vs. function, and in this contest, I think we can clearly consider Team Arthropoda the winner.

—-
Yanoviak S.P., Munk Y., Kaspari M. & Dudley R. (2010). Aerial manoeuvrability in wingless gliding ants (Cephalotes atratus), Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277 (1691) 2199-2204. DOI:

Ito S., Seo K. & Asai T. (2008). An Experimental Study on Ski Jumping Styles (P140), The Engineering of Sport, 7 9-17. DOI:

—-

*Not really.

**I’m not sure I should be able to say “only” and “falling 80 metres” in the same sentence.

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 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 »

Sep 172013
 

Remember the last time I wrote about the Jewel Beetle Field Guide and said international orders “should begin shipping by June“? Ya, about that…

Co-Author Adam Jewiss-Gaines has been secretly hoarding books. (Not actually)

Co-Author Adam Jewiss-Gaines has been secretly hoarding books, Scrooge McDuck-style. (Not actually)

It turns out that we were much more successful spreading the word about the field guide than the Canadian Food Inspection Agency had expected, and ended up having significantly more orders come from outside of Canada than the CFIA had budgeted for!

Out of money, and with more than 1,000 people patiently awaiting their copies, we were in a tight place this summer. Thankfully, Michael Bohne of the US Forest Service in New Hampshire came to the rescue and arranged to distribute all of the US orders. Mike and his crew received the massive shipment of books last week, so I think it’s safe to say (famous last words) that the field guide should be hitting mailboxes across the US in the next few weeks! I want to say a huge Thank You to Mike and the US Forest Service for helping us get the field guide where it needs to be, and also thanks to everyone who put up with all of the unexpected delays the past several months.

Now, with all this good news, there’s also a bit of bad news. Because of the budget crunch, we’re not going to be able to fulfill orders outside of North America. I feel absolutely terrible about offering the book to anyone, anywhere and then being forced to backtrack, but the CFIA just doesn’t have the money to cover it, and unfortunately neither do I. My sincerest apologies for those beetle-maniacs who were looking forward to getting a copy.

However, here’s a consolation prize for anyone who’s missing out on the hardcopy: you can now download a complete PDF of the book, in either English or French! It may not be quite as nice as a copy on your shelf, but it comes with other perks, like being easily searchable and with high resolution photographs throughout! Since the files are so large, I recommend right clicking on the link and selecting “Save Link As”, which will download the PDF to your computer rather than try and open it in your browser.

Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) of Northeastern North America – ENGLISH (PDF – 281 MB)

Guide des Buprestes (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) du nord-est de l’Amérique du Nord – FRANÇAIS (PDF – 281 MB)

If you live in North America, there are still some hard copies available, which can be ordered by calling 1-800-442-2342 and placing your order with Service Canada. US orders might take a little longer to ship as they will be waiting for a critical mass to ship copies out rather than one at a time.

Finally, Glendon Mellow, the science artist & illustrator who provided several of the illustrations in the field guide, has prints (and other items) of the field guide artwork available for purchase in his online store. If you’re a fan of the book, or jewel beetles in general, why not support Glendon, and get a little jewel beetle art for your home or lab!