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!

Sep 042013

Things I didn’t expect to do today: talk about flies live on BBC Radio 2!

I made my radio debut this afternoon when I helped out with Simon Mayo’s Homework Sucks! segment of Drivetime. Homework Sucks! is a regular feature where listeners send in questions (whether from their kids homework or otherwise), and the BBC finds experts to give a hand with the answers.

Today’s question: Can insects smell, and if so, how far away can they smell things? You can listen to my answer thanks to the recorded and archived edition of the day’s episode on the BBC website (skip to 1:39:30 for my segment).

So how’d my first brush with the mainstream media happen? I got a call from Richard Levine, the Public Affairs Officer for the Entomological Society of America, asking if I’d be interested in the opportunity to speak on the BBC about how flies smell. There was a catch though: the segment was going to be live, and was going to start in less than 10 minutes! So, I ran across the lab, grabbed R.F. Chapman’s The Insects: Structure and Function off the shelf, quickly refreshed my memory on volatile chemoreception in insects, then jumped on Google Scholar to see if I could find an estimate of how far away some insects can sense scents (which isn’t easy when your fingers are quivering from the adrenaline rush & nerves). Before I even had Chapman opened, a BBC producer had called me to explain what was going to happen and to get my details figured out, and then 5 minutes later another producer called and I was on hold waiting for my opportunity to go on the air! A few minutes after that I had given my spiel, and was sitting at my desk wondering what had just happened, while trying to dissect what I had said and whether I could recall making any goofs!

While I was sure I stumbled and mumbled my way through it at the time, I actually think I sounded pretty coherent after listening to the recording, and it would seem people enjoyed it as well (thanks for the feedback to those who’ve given it!). I’m giving a lot of the credit for me not sounding like a bumbling n00b to Breaking Bio, which has provided me the opportunity to practice talking about science in an informal setting, and in a digital format. It just goes to show that goofing around on the internet with your friends can have surprising benefits for your work!


Aug 232013

This morning, shark mega-enthusiast & PhD student David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) tweeted

Here’s the screen cap image a little larger if you can’t make it out (click to embiggen further):



Is reverse Google Image search able to identify sharks to species? Yes, David included the search term “lemon shark” (David just let me know that Google included the text search terms itself… my mind is blown), but the fact that Google returned “Best guess for this image: lemon shark” might imply that they’re playing around with visual identification services, not just photo comparison. Considering how well reverse image search does at aggregating similar images, how many shark images are online & indexed by Google, and that many of those images are probably tagged with a species name nearby or in the metadata, I think the concept is entirely plausible.

Seeing how insect ID is kind of important to me, I tried it with a few of my insect photos, and got nothing. I even tried improving the odds by using search terms like David HAL 9000 Google did, and this is all I got:



I was beginning to get discouraged, but Marianne Alleyne (@Cotesia1) made a good point: perhaps it was the fact that David was sitting on the shark that mattered!

So, I reverse Google Image searched this photo

Fly Wrangler_20130823


And it still failed.

Apparently Google things this fly wrangler looks like a bride. Not really sure what to make of that...

Apparently Google thinks this fly wrangler looks like a bride. Perhaps their search algorithm could use a little more work after all.

Clearly Google loves sharks and hates flies (and passenger pigeons). Not cool Google, not cool.

I guess we’ll just have to stick to other web-based tools for identifying flies for a little while longer. Darn.