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 142014

Cyanide: poison of choice for jilted lovers, mystery writers, and entomologists alike. But we’re not the only ones to employ this potent potable in our chemical arsenal; polydesmid millipedes have been defending themselves with cyanogenic compounds for millions of years.

Of course, when one organism figures out a new way to protect itself using something that kills lesser creatures, it’s usually not long until somebody else evolves the ability to capitalize on that protection, even when it’s something as deadly as cyanide. Enter 2 new species recently described by John Hash of UC Riverside, Megaselia mithridatesi and Megaselia toxicobibitor, the Rasputins of the scuttle fly world.


Megaselia is an immense genus of Phoridae with a wide diversity of natural histories, so it’s perhaps no surprise that something like cyanide-siphoning could show up here, but that doesn’t reduce the magnitude of such a finding. But how does one go about associating tiny flies unknown to science with murderous millipede defenses?

John works primarily on another genus of scuttle fly that’s also associated with millipedes, Myriophora. Rather than stealing cyanide, these flies prefer to parasitize millipedes protected by another noxious chemical family, benzoquinones. To find these flies, he stresses the millipedes a little by shaking them in a paper towel-lined plastic tube hard enough to piss them off, but not enough to cause physical damage, leading them to exude their defensive chemicals onto the paper towel. John then laid out these poisoned paper towels, and sometimes tied up the annoyed millipedes like the sacrificial goat in Jurassic Park using dental floss, and waited for the flies to come in to the bait. While John was expecting to find new Myriophora species and associations, he states in his paper that discovering a Megaselia/millipede association was a golden example of serendipity in science.

With specimens and natural history notes in hand, John returned to the lab and gave these 2 new species especially fitting names; mithridatesi is an homage to King Mithridates IV of Pontus, who famously immunized himself to a variety of poisons by consuming them in small, sub-lethal quantities, and toxicobibitor, which literally translates to “poison drinker” from Latin.

If you want to hear more about John’s work, and see millipedes on dental floss leashes, check out this video from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which was filmed while John was down helping out with the Zurqui All Diptera Biodiversity Inventory in Costa Rica. It was while he was here, surrounded by dozens of other dipterists, that he discovered the poisonous habits detailed in this paper. That certainly makes for a killer field trip if you ask me, even without the cyanide.


MILLIPEDES (DIPLOPODA: POLYDESMIDA), Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 116 (3) 273-282. DOI: DOI: 10.4289/0013-8797.116.3.273


If you’re curious, I asked Millipede Man Derek Hennen about the biology of cyanide-laced millipedes, and he provided a few references and info.

Jul 102013

In what will probably be the only blog post I ever write about plant taxonomy, I bring you one of the greatest natural history papers ever published:

Cneoridium dumosum (Nuttall) Hooker F. Collected March 26, 1960, at an Elevation of about 1450 Meters on Cerro Quemazón, 15 Miles South of Bahía de Los Angeles, Baja California, México, Apparently for a Southeastward Range Extension of Some 140 Miles

R.  Moran, 1962 (Madroño, 16)

Yes, that’s the full title of the paper. The introduction/methods/results/discussion reads as follows:

I got it there then (8068).

which is then followed by almost a full page of hilariously detailed acknowledgements thanking everyone who had a hand in this rigorous scientific study. You can read the full work in all it’s glory here.

In case you were curious, Cneoridium dumosum (or bushrue as it’s commonly known) is a species of flowering citrus shrub known from southern California and, thanks to Dr. Moran’s dedication to publishing his findings,  northern Mexico.

Cneodidium dumosum flowers, which in this humble entomologists opinion, are fully deserving of such an awesome place in the history of the taxonomic literature. Photo by Stickpen, public domain.

I can’t help but wonder how a journal would react should you try something like this today; would they have the good nature to publish it, or is this an auto-reject-in-waiting?

Thanks to Chris MacQuarrie for his photographic memory archiving the entire discussion section of this paper and bringing it to my attention, and Rafael Maia for helping to get me a copy of the full text. My sincerest apologies to Rafael’s lab mates for his subsequent & uncontrollable laughter.

UPDATE (July 12, 2013): After George Sims inquired about the “(8068)” in the comments below, I turned to Twitter to crowd source the answer, and sure enough, got an answer! Tyler Smith (@sedgeboy), a botanist at Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada in Ottawa, hypothesized the number was the author’s collection number for the specimen, and then proved his point by finding specimen #8071 in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s database, which was collected on the same day and at the same location! Why Dr. Moran didn’t include this with the rest of the collection data in the title of the note is a bit odd, but as nothing else about this note is “normal”, I suppose anything goes!

Also, David Shorthouse (@dpsSpiders) found Dr. Moran’s obituary, which provides an interesting overview of the life of a legendary naturalist and field biologist.

Moran R. (1962). Cneoridium dumosum (Nuttall) Hooker F. Collected March 26, 1960, at an Elevation of about 1450 Meters on Cerro Quemazón, 15 Miles South of Bahía de Los Angeles, Baja California, México, Apparently for a Southeastward Range Extension of Some 140 Miles, Madroño, 16 272-272. 

Mar 102013

Dear io9,

I appreciate all the work you do to bring science news to a large and enthusiastic audience, and I’m a frequent reader myself, but as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately in a recent post one of your authors blew it in a big way.

In “Too many fly bites can lead to death by bug-spit poisoning”, Esther Inglis-Arkell repeatedly states that black flies inject their larvae into the bodies of the birds or people their feeding off of, and that humans are carriers of their young.

No. Just, no.

Black fly larvae are 100% aquatic, living in streams, rivers & flowing water all over the world. In some places — like northern Canada, so infamous for its black fly populations there have been songs sung about them — rivers and streams can be black with fly larvae attached to rocks and other material under the water (check out this post by Crystal Ernst to see just how many larvae can be found in the cold waters of the Great White North).

Yes, like most blood-feeding invertebrates, black flies employ anti-coagulant-laced saliva to keep the good times flowing, but there certainly aren’t fly babies in that spit. Some species of black fly in Africa and South America can transmit a nematode parasite through their saliva (Onchocerca volvulus, responsible for River Blindness, a non-fatal disease), and, as evidenced by the paper that inspired Inglis-Arkell’s post, too much fly saliva can be a bad thing, but to fear-monger that there could be fly larvae swimming in your blood isn’t cool.

Now, I recognize that Inglis-Arkell acknowledged her mistake in response to a commentor who also pointed out the error, but that acknowledgement is buried in the comments, and, unless a reader goes looking for it, will likely remain unread. Why not correct the post (preferably in a way that doesn’t hide a mistake was made) or at least add a footnote that clearly states the author’s mistake? That’s the great thing about web publishing: you can immediately clear up mistakes when they’re uncovered instead of waiting days to print a retraction or correction like in the olden days (i.e. less than 10 years ago). Your web stats show that more than 36,000 people have read articles by Ms. Inglis-Arkell today alone, meaning there are a huge number of people potentially leaving your site with a horribly inaccurate impression of black fly biology.

And that’s the real shame, because despite their bad reputation, black flies are fascinating creatures and are actually kind of cute, especially when they’re biting someone else.

Simulium sp from Ecuador Black fly Simuliidae

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

UPDATE 2013-03-10 20:30: That was fast! Less than 15 minutes after I tweeted a link to this post, io9 responded saying they were correcting their original article, and included links to those who pointed out the problem! Well done io9, well done!

Feb 232013

When I woke up Wednesday morning, I never could have guessed that I’d stumble across the most bizarre and terrifying fly-related idea I’d ever heard later that day. But then again, the internet is a weird and wacky place, so perhaps I should have known better.

While innocently looking for scanning electron micrographs of bot fly larvae (Diptera: Oestridae), I chanced upon Insecti-cure, a website promoting, among other things, a “treatment” for fat removal involving intentional bot fly infestations. Really.

Bot fly larvae are THE safest way for fat to be removed.

the maggots are planted next to the stomach, and will eat around the organs, the treatment, is of course painless, after you have had your injection of morphine and you will only be there for 8hrs, you will be subject to 300 larvae which have antiseptic saliva, to literaly eat the fat away, before this operation you wil need to contact us 3 weeks before in order for us to get our orders ready and don’t worry after the morphine you wont be able to remember anything, even if you are squeemish!

Insecti-cure Continue reading »

Dec 162012

The response to the jewel beetle field guide has been incredible thus far, with nearly 900 people requesting more than 1300 copies in less than 2 weeks! With all this attention to beetles around here lately, I figured I’d post a little reminder about which insect order still rules these parts.

Sarcophagidae flesh flies emerging from the abdomen of a Buprestis consularis beetle

Proof that 2 parasitic heads are more gruesome than 1. Parasitic flesh/satellite flies (Sarcophagidae) forever entombed as they attempt a late emergence from the abdomen of a captured Buprestis consularis jewel beetle. Photo by Adam Jewiss-Gaines.

We came across this little tragedy while examining and photographing specimens for the field guide, and Adam Jewiss-Gaines did a great job of bringing their sorry plight to life (so to speak) in this image-stacked photo.

I tried to track down what species (or even subfamily) these flies may be, but I couldn’t find any record (in my admittedly quick search) of sarcophagids using Buprestidae as hosts. According to the Manual of Nearctic Diptera Vol. 2, these little guys likely belong to the subfamily Miltogramminae (based on their seemingly bare arista), which are commonly known as satellite flies for their habit of orbiting ground nesting bees and wasps and kleptoparasitizing their collected prey, but I’m unsure whether they will parasitize free-living beetles. If they are in fact members of the Sarcophaginae (some of whom do have bare arista), perhaps these individuals are members of the genus Sarcophaga, species of which have been reared from beetles and various other insects.

Without being able to examine the rest of their bodies, I may never know what these flies are, but I find it fascinating that they matured and began their escape only to be killed and preserved within our collection!

While we’re talking about flesh flies, I want to call your attention to some absolutely amazing Scanning Electron Micrographs of male sarcophagid genitalia taken by my friend Dave Cheung. Not only are the genitalia bizarre and the micrographs beautiful, but Dave has worked his magic and made them both zoomable and rotatable, creating pseudo-3D models! Check them out — I guarantee they’ll blow your mind!

UPDATE Dec. 17, 2012: Never mind about this being a free-living beetle! I double checked the specimen label, and this beetle was actually collected from a Cerceris fumipennis colony in Highland Hammock State Park, Florida, which almost certainly makes these Miltogramminae satellite flies.

Information regarding Sarcophagidae biology was taken from SarcoWeb, a website created and maintained by Dr. Thomas Pape which is dedicated to the study of flesh fly taxonomy.

Sep 092012
Hogna lenta group wolf spider portrait

Hogna lenta (or something closely related in the H. lenta species group) – Archbold Biological Station, Florida. These large wolf spiders are easy to spot at night by shining a flashlight off their large eyes, which reflect back a greenish light, much like mammal eyes, despite being completely different physiologically.

What would a lesson from Thomas Shahan be without a super close-up portrait of a spider? I’m stealing Dave Walter’s phrase “Adventures in Spider Misidentification” for this one though. When I took these photos I figured it’d be a cinch to identify this big spider because of those bright red margins on the chelicerae, but apparently that’s a pretty common trait in many wolf spiders (family Lycosidae). Not only that, but there is a huge amount of intra-specific variation in colours and patterns in this species group, making me less than confident in my ID of Hogna lenta.

If you have a better suggestion on the ID of this hairy hunter, please let me know! Here’s another photo that may be more useful for identification purposes.

Hogna lenta group wolf spider dorsal

Hogna lenta wolf spider – Archbold Biological Station, Florida

Aug 092012

Fact: flies are the coolest insects.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at this newly described weevil, Timorus sarcophagoides Vanin & Guerra, from Brazil, which is doing everything it can to fool you into thinking it’s a flesh fly (family Sarcophagidae).

Timorus sarcophagoides habitus Weevil Vanin & Guerra Continue reading »

Jul 272012

So now that National Moth Week is in full swing and you’ve been checking your porch lights at night and flower beds throughout the day, you’re probably looking for some way to identify all the great new additions to your natural history lists.

There are a variety of guides, keys and other identification resources out there for Lepidoptera, and while I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t taken much time to look through them, these are the ones I turn to first when I absolutely need to identify a “lep”.

Butterflies & Skippers

National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American ButterfliesButterflies are what my friends and I like to call “honourary birds” because there are so many people out looking for them, and there are a large number of field guides produced to help with their identification. My personal choice is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies, which has fairly good live photos and detailed life history information. If I were to nitpick, I’d wish for actual range maps rather than range descriptions, and more photos of the butterflies would be nice (especially for those species which are only illustrated with one photo — a couple of times I’ve not been able to ID my photos because the representative photo had its wings closed while my photo had its wings open or vice versa).

I recently downloaded the digital app version of this field guide for my iPhone, and absolutely loved it! The Audubon Society has added plenty of new photos and still included all of the natural history information from the print edition (although still no maps…). Being in a digital format means that searching for species is a breeze, and they’ve added some social media connectivity, allowing you to share your finds from the field to Facebook. They also offer personal accounts so you can keep lists of your sightings which work across all of their field guide apps (I also have their North American Insects, Birds, Mammals, Flowers and Trees apps on my phone). I love having all this natural history information literally in my pocket and available whenever and wherever I may be!

Normally $10 (which is cheap compared to the print version at $15-25) the app is available for both Apple and Android devices. Even better, the team at Audubon has dropped the price for the app to just $0.99 until Sunday July 29th in honour of National Moth Week! Definitely a great deal and well worth a Loonie (or dollar bill).


Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North AmericaUntil recently I never really had a good guide to moths that I could reliably get IDs from. Normally I’d have to figure out what family they belonged to, and then start searching through BugGuide to find a photo of something that looked about right. Needless to say, that took a long damn time and resulted in me not paying much attention to moths beyond a casual ID of big species.

All that’s changed now that I’ve got a copy of David Beadle & Seabrooke Leckie‘s Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. This field guide is fantastic, and a great addition to both the Peterson field guide family and my collection. The book seems nearly comprehensive for the area (there are a few noticeable things not included, like the wingless female Fall Cankerworm I showcased the other day – the winged male is included though), apparently including nearly 1,500 species, ranging from tiny micro-moths to big eye-catching species, and the photos are excellent for helping with identifications. Its taken me a little bit of time to learn the different groups and body forms of moths that are used to group similar things together, but the authors included a really useful silhouette guide at the back of the book to help n00bs like myself (one nit pick: I wish they had included page numbers under the silhouettes directing you to the start of the appropriate section). Every page also includes a life-sized shadow for a moth on the page, with the remaining images on the page displayed to scale appropriately. Because the guide includes so many species it can be tough finding the correct group to start with, but there’s only been a couple of species that I’ve been stumped by so far. At 610 pages it’s not a small guide, and there is very limited natural history information included, with the authors choosing to include bigger photos over other information (which is fine with me). Plus they have graphical range maps and flight periods, and indicate how common or rare each species is which I really like.

I can definitely see myself picking up a 2nd copy to leave up at the cottage, and I can see myself paying a little more attention to moths from now on now that I’m confident I can identify them!

Technical Keys

Of course if you can’t seem to identify a moth or butterfly, you can always turn to a technical key like Jason Dombroskie’s CJAI matrix key to the Lepidoptera of Canada (I wrote up my thoughts on it previously). It’s certainly not for beginners, and usually requires a dead, preserved specimen and observation under a microscope or magnifying loupe, but if all else fails, it is as good a resource as any.
Do you have a favourite guide to identify moths and butterflies? Feel free to leave your suggestions below in the comments, I’m always looking to expand my collection!