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.

Jan 202011

Lately I’ve showcased a number of scientific papers that I’ve dubbed “Cool Science”; today is no exception, except this paper is cool for what should be all the wrong reasons. But let me start at the beginning.

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Oct 042010

Beto & Patricia - El Copal Reserve OwnersWhat started as an unproductive sugar cane and cattle farm has been transformed into a leading ecolodge and biological reserve. The El Copal Biological Reserve is the result of a decade’s hard work and determination by Beto and Patricia Chavez; owners, operators, and advocates for sustainable sources of income in rural Costa Rica.

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Sep 022010

Milky Way Galaxy over the jungles of Costa Rica

The star viewing over El Copal was absolutely fantastic and gave me a great opportunity to practice some astrophotography in the evenings. I’m still refining my techniques, and my equipment isn’t great at handling long exposure noise, but this is by far my best attempt at capturing the Milky Way and all the potential of the universe! Of course, when I see photos like this one I realize I have a long ways to go, but that just means I have an excuse to keep trying!

Aug 272010

After last night’s escapade, I took the opportunity to sleep in, and ended up missing breakfast. I’ve had enough rice, beans and eggs to last me awhile so I wasn’t too upset. My feet were in no shape to be shoved back into rubber boots, so I took what was left of the morning off from collecting and worked inside. I wish I could have explored one last area, a meadow that was over-filled with mantisflies (Mantispidae), but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it this time. After lunch everyone prepared to leave, and before we knew it, we were pulling away from the ACG and headed back to San Jose. Our luxury bus was a nice ride, and it wasn’t long until we pulled into Puntarenas for dinner, meeting up with another group of dipterists who traveled to Monteverde while we were at ACG. Our dinner wasn’t too bad, but the stray cat wandering around the restaurant created a strange ambiance. Another hour and a half and we were back at the Adventure Inn in San Jose. A quick repacking of gear for our flight home, and it was time for bed one last time in Costa Rica.

Our travel day started bright and early at 5:30 in order to grab our complementary breakfast before heading off to the airport. We were pleasantly surprised to find no lines throughout the airport, and we breezed through exit taxes, check-in, and security without any significant waiting. A quick stop in the airport gift shop, and soon we were ready to board our flight back to Dallas. For whatever reason our flight was chosen for a secondary security check, including bag searches for everyone and pat downs for an unlucky few. An uneventful flight gave me the chance to start and finish a new book (Generation A by Douglas Coupland, watch for a review in the near future) and before I knew it we were descending into Dallas. Due to some complications with our export permits, Gil (who is traveling on a student visa to start with) was tasked with carrying all of our specimens into the country, and since our final flight destination was Detroit, we were all a little unsure how customs and agriculture would react to our insects. Our fretting was compounded slightly by a short lay-over (<2hr) and the long line out of the baggage area had us all slightly concerned. Luckily none of us ran into any prolonged issues, including Gil, and everyone made it to the gate in time for our next flight (which was ultimately delayed 30 minutes anyways). Dinner was a Big Mac that tasted like filet mignon (a guilty pleasure of mine after every trip to the tropics) and our flight into Detroit was fast and comfortable. A late night drive back to Guelph and after 2.5 weeks I was back home.

Although no longer than any of my previous Neotropical trips, this trip felt like I was away for months. My theory is the multiple locations we traveled to combined with a heavily intellectual load at the congress created this illusion, but the trip still stands as one of my more memorable adventures. The number of kind, generous people we met, both locals around Costa Rica and dipterists from around the globe, was fantastic and was definitely the leading factor in the success of the trip. Costa Rica lived up to all that I had heard of it, with beautiful habitats, fantastic infrastructure, and friendly smiling people. The photos and memories I brought home with me all add to the experience, and I know that this won’t be my last trip to Costa Rica!

Aug 262010

With a full day’s collecting (as unproductive as it was) already under my belt, I’m ready for some dinner, and the cook staff at ACG provides the best meal of our visit; fried fish and purple salad, plus the ubiquitous rice and beans I take out of pure hunger. I finish my dinner in a hurry, as our next adventure will be beginning shortly; a trip to the beach searching for nesting sea turtles. Although the chances are low that we’ll actually witness an arribada, the opportunity to explore another region of this conservation area was all I needed to sign up. We’ve been warned that the rainy season is not the best time of  year to even get to the beach, and it was pointed out that most surfers don’t bother trying to get there this time of year. I see this as an added bonus, the opportunity to get to an area almost devoid of human presence, a stark contrast to today’s “tourist trail”.

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Aug 222010

“Life’s a journey, not a destination”  Aerosmith

I awake in time for a hurried breakfast before the bus departs for Rincon de la Veija, our destination for the day. Rice, beans and scrambled eggs again, so I choose some toast and cereal and sit off on my own to gain a moment of solitude before another long day. We soon load onto the school bus that’s delivered many a generation of child and which will hopefully last one more trip with us aboard. Settling into my seat, or what’s left of it, and enjoying the scenery of jungles, pastures, and forested volcanoes rising up to the clouds, I ignore the growing discomfort settling in my back from the aged seat. It seems the seats are not the only components lacking functionality, with each rock and bump being translated directly from the road to my body with little dampening as we turn onto the winding road up the mountain. The grasses introduced from Africa for cattle pasture roll on and on along the sides of the volcanoes, with vultures, iguanas, and flycatchers each choosing a fence post to admire the morning sun from. As I readjust in my seat to find a scrap of padding for the umpteenth time, the bus pulls to a halt and the driver jumps out without a word. As I watch from my seat while he looks under the bus and then down the road with a puzzled look, I decide that perhaps today marks the end for this decrepit vehicle. Apparently the transport boss and our local coordinator feel the same way and it isn’t long before they’ve joined the driver looking back down the road with concerned faces. Information trickles in now that the battery has fallen out of the bus somewhere along the road, but not to worry because we’ll keep on driving. A few turns more and the bus decides that in fact we won’t keep driving, coming to a silent stop and then rolling back down the mountain before the driver applies the brakes. I can’t help but laugh at the situation, but also wonder what happens next. It seems we’re within a short walk to the outer edges of the conservation property and that a new bus will be brought in shortly to take us up to our true destination. In the meantime, they say, we can collect and explore the stream meandering its way down the volcano, a welcome and unexpected break from the mechanical chiropractor misaligning my back.

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