Nov 272015

American Thanksgiving not only marks the beginning of left-over turkey sandwich season, but has also come to represent the official start of the Holiday Season™. Traditionally rung in with the rampant purchasing of sale-priced items, the beginning of Holiday Season™ is now celebrated instead with Black Fly Day. This year, in preparation for ugly sweater parties and more family gatherings than should ever occur in such short succession, I present to you 6 fun facts about black flies that will keep your friends and family utterly enchanted!

Simulium sp from Ecuador Black fly Simuliidae

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

Continue reading »

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.

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 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.

Aug 062013

Evolutionary biology is dramatic. Species come, and species go. Simple, random mutations allow organisms to exploit bold new resources. A year’s worth of field data can hinge on the immediate availability of duct tape. You get the idea.

After discussing these thoughts on Twitter with @Sciencegurlz0, @sciliz & @cbahlai this evening, we’ve come up with a way of conveying the events occurring in research labs and backyards around the world in a manner befitting their seriousness: a YouTube series featuring abstracts of evolutionary biology papers being read dramatically by professional actors.

Picture it: Hugh Jackman belting out the abstract for “Macrophages are required for adult salamander limb regeneration“, or Jenny McCarthy sharing her talents to pass along the “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975–2009, Featuring the Burden and Trends in Human Papillomavirus (HPV)–Associated Cancers and HPV Vaccination Coverage Levels“, or Sir Patrick Stewart providing a dramatic reading of, well, anything really (although I’d suggest “Space travel directly induces skeletal muscle atrophy“). Yes, I believe this is what the internet was made for.

While the videos would be highly entertaining and have the potential to go viral, I’d accompany them with explanatory write ups of the paper in question. The silly-sounding readings would serve as the hook to pique people’s interest in the science (i.e. what on earth is Hugh Jackman singing about), and encourage them to read more about the paper with the help of a skillful synopsis provided by one of the many talented science writers currently at work on the web.

While I think the idea has a lot of potential, we don’t have the connections to make it a reality (I’m not sure I know any actors personally, famous or otherwise). So, I’m throwing the idea out into the web with the hopes that a connected and creative person out there will run with it. The online science community is a large and diverse place, and I’m sure there’s someone who can make this a reality.

The only thing I ask is that you send me a link when you roll it out, because I’d really love to watch Samuel L. Jackson ad lib “Germs on a Plane: Aircraft, International Travel, and the Global Spread of Disease“.

Oct 122012

I just got finished talking about insects with a swarm of high school students, educators and other entomologists, and I’m jacked up!

What an absolutely incredible hour of lightning-round outreach! The students were asking great questions, and more importantly, appeared to be thinking about the answers they received and responding with follow-up questions or comments. I’m guessing that there was about a 7:1 ratio of students to entomologists, and the stream of questions, answers, comments and observations was going so fast I could hardly keep up. I personally answered questions about diversity, fly behaviour, mosquito-vectored diseases, taxonomy, morphology, physiology, how I got interested in entomology and a whole bunch more, and I was typing as fast as my stubby little fingers could go!

What makes #SciStuChat so important in my mind is the way in which students are encouraged to meet, talk and ask questions with real, working scientists. I would have killed to have an opportunity like this when I was growing up, and I’m more than happy to provide an hour of my time to help connect with the next generation of potential scientists and perhaps turn them into future colleagues!

If you’d like to check out (or better yet join in) #SciStuChat, it’s held on the second Thursday of every month throughout the school year with a new main topic each month. Until then, check out what we were talking about tonight, and consider joining in next month! Continue reading »

Jul 012012

Parliament Hill & Canada Day StageWhile working on my MSc in Ottawa back in 2008, my wife-to-be and I decided it would be appropriate to celebrate Canada Day on Parliament Hill with thousands of our fellow Canadians1. After spending a beautiful day taking in our country’s history with a full range of festivities including the RCMP Musical Ride, a stellar concert series that ran all afternoon, and speeches by politicians and other notable Canadians, we settled on the main lawn in front of the Peace Tower for an evening concert series and some killer fireworks. Continue reading »

May 092012
Ryan Fleacrest

Ryan Fleacrest Approves of these Insect Songs

I’ve mentioned before how useful Twitter can be, and how the #hashtag can be a real life saver for researchers and entomologists. Today however, the #hashtag reached an all new level of awesome, and provided the Twitterverse with an afternoon’s worth of free comedy.

#InsectSongs is where cheesy Saturday afternoon music anthology commercials meet entomology, with countless creative song titles scrolling down the screen. I’ve Storified some of my favourites here (grouped by taxonomic order of course), but be sure to check out the full list of Bugboard 100 hit titles!

Insect nerds are a creative lot and they put their hivemind to work coming up with some amazingly Punny #InsectSongs!


Ironically there were a large number of Beatles songs included in this list…

Of course if you want to hear some actual music about insects, check out my Tuesday Tunes playlist.

Apr 022012

The Geek In Question posted an awesome graph representing the stages and challenges of scientific publication. You should go check it out right now if you haven’t seen it yet, because it’s spot on! I’m right in the middle of the graph (you know, the big pit of despair part) on a couple of manuscripts currently, and am really looking forward to that beer-drinking phase!

Until then, I figured I’d join in and provide my take on the taxonomic process, which has it’s own series of highs and lows!

Fun look at how species are described


This may seem intimidating, but trust me, I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life! I also might be exaggerating a little bit in some of those low areas (except for the phylogenetics software, that stuff blows), but nothing beats the highs of collecting, species discovery, and making your work accessible to the world!



Dec 132011

Ryan FleacrestSeeing as it’s Science & Social Media week, and Klout (a metric service which aims to calculate the influence you have through social media websites) thinks I’m influential about beer, I thought I’d share with you a little about Untappd, a social network for beer enthusiasts!

Almost all the entomologists I know enjoy a nice cool beer after a day in the field or following the publication of a manuscript, and with quality microbreweries increasing their distribution distance, it’s a good time to be  a beer drinker!

Untapped LogoUntappd is really quite a simple network; you share what type of beer you’re drinking, perhaps include where you’re enjoying it or a photo, and you can provide a rating out of 5 stars and a comment, all of which can be seen by your digital drinking buddies! It’s a pretty good way to discover new beers, and of course there’s a badge system included as an incentive to try new things. This is the perfect network for all those who enjoy a little #drunksci from time to time!

I’m finding that I can find an entomologically-themed song for any topic I want to discuss, and luckily enough today is no exception! So sit back, crack a brew, and enjoy this week’s song; Hey Bartender, There’s a Bug in My Beer by Eddie Pennington & Warner Williams!

If you end up joining Untappd, be sure to save a seat for me!

This song is available on iTunes – Hey Bartender, There’s a Big Bug In My Beer – Down Home! Saturday Night