Mar 142015

It’s March 14, 2015, which, in North America at least, makes it Pi Day (3/14/15), a day where people celebrate the most well-known mathematical constant with delicious baked goods and puns.

But in Middle-earth, the magical and engrossing world created by J.R.R. Tolkien as the setting for his tales of rings, hobbits, and adventure, Pi Day could coincide with the elven celebration of the Diptera! In Quenya, the ceremonial language of the high elves in Middle-earth, the word “fly” (in the entomological sense) translates directly to pí.

pí - Diptera in Quenya

Translation and Tengwar courtesy of Lee Jaszlics (biologist, photographer, and Quenya aficionado)

Coincidentally, flies actually make their debut in the world of Middle-earth on March 15, 3019 (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter II – The Land of Shadow) as Frodo and Sam wander through a riverbed deep within Mordor. Tolkien writes:

To their surprise they came upon dark pools fed by threads of water trickling down from some source higher up in the valley. Upon its outer marges under the westward mountains Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead. And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life. In the glens of the Morgai on the other side of the valley low scrubby trees lurked and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives. The sullen shrivelled leaves of a past year hung on them, grating and rattling in the sad airs, but their maggot-ridden buds were only just opening. Flies, dun or grey, or black, marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar-thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled.

The dancing midge clouds are easily explained, but I spent a lot of time trying to find a fly species that would fit Tolkien’s description. It turns out that “dun or grey, or black, marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch” is a surprisingly rare combination in the Diptera. In fact, I couldn’t find any species of flies that could be described as dark with red splotches! Certainly there are species that are dark with red heads, including micropezids in the genus Scipopus, or signal flies in the genus Bromophila (as recently discussed by Piotr Naskrecki), and many flies are known for literally having red eyes (think of your friendly kitchen Drosophila), but unlike beetles, red blotches or spots seem to be rare in flies.

Scipopus sp. from Bolivia

Scipopus sp. from Bolivia

The only solution I could come up with that fit the general description and habitat of these Morgai flies was perhaps a species of Chrysopilus snipe fly (Rhagionidae), commonly called golden-backed snipe flies here in regular Earth. These flies have a blanket of magnificent golden pile on the top of their thorax, which can be brushed off giving the appearance of the Eye of Sauron (although they are certainly not blood suckers or pests). Perhaps under the evil influence of Sauron, a new species of  Chrysopilus arose in Morgai, developed a taste for orc blood, and took to the air to reign terror from the skies.

Chrysopilus thoracicus from Ontario on the left, with its Tolkienian cousin Chrysopilus "morgai" on the right

Chrysopilus thoracicus from Ontario on the left, with its Tolkienian cousin Chrysopilus “morgai” on the right

So on this Pí day, I hope you’ll not only herald the popular mathematical constants, but also the dipteran variables that make our natural history interesting, and our literary history magical.

Of course, the best possible way to celebrate would be to follow James Gilbert’s lead and make a Pí Pie for Pi Day. Mmmm, pie.

Footnote: In the recent video game Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Morgai flies were depicted as eusocial, living in paper hives, and able to drive off nearby orcs with a well-placed arrow. While I may be taking liberties with fly evolution to make a red, blood-sucking snipe fly, calling what are clearly social wasps “flies” gives WB Games a taxonomy fail index of 58. Now there’s some math for you.

Nov 252014

The trailer for Jurassic World, the latest instalment in the Jurassic Park franchise, was released today, and well… see for yourself.

While scientists have apparently figured out how to genetically modify dinosaurs (which I thought was the entire premise of the original when they spliced frog DNA into ancient Dino DNA, but whatever, GM-OH NOES!), they still haven’t hired an entomologist to tell them which amber inclusions are mosquitoes (family Culicidae), and which are crane flies (family Tipulidae).



No big deal though, crane flies and mosquitoes are close enough, right? Well, actually they’re about as closely related to one another as velociraptors are to sea turtles (and only a little more closely related than humans are to Tyrannosaurus rex).

I think we can all agree that Jurassic World would have a much different mood if it climaxed with this

than it does with this

So for all you Hollywood producers out there looking for an entomology consultant to save you from embarrassing oversights, have your people call my people; we can fix this. But in the meantime, save me a seat when Jurassic World hits theatres.


P.S. About that Mosasaur. While we know marine mammals like killer whales can be bitten by mosquitoes (a captive killer whale in San Antonio contracted and later died of West Nile Virus back in 2007), the odds of a mosquito biting a wild mosasaur in the ocean, and then flying, fully leaden with blood, back to shore, only to be immediately entombed in sap running down a tree trunk and preserved for a few million years as an amber inclusion, are a bit of a stretch.

There’s a chance I may be overthinking this.

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.

Feb 102014

It’s that time again, when nations around the world send their top athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics for precious medals, national pride and bragging rights for another 4 years! The 22nd Winter Olympic Games are being held in sunny Sochi, Russia this year, which opens the door for a new team to make its first Winter Olympics: Team Arthropoda!

Throughout the games, these industrious insects, sporting spiders, and other athletic arthropods will be showing they can compete with the best of us mammals, especially under the magnifying glass of international attention inherent with the Olympics — something insects and their kin are used to dealing with by now!

The 22nd Winter Olympiad officially began Friday evening with the opening ceremonies, and extravagant event showing off the natural wonders, history and culture of Russia, including an early shout-out to taxonomist-turned-novelist Vladimir Nabokov and his beloved butterflies! The athletes from each nation paraded into the Fisht Olympic Stadium lead by their flag-bearer, an honour generally bestowed on an athlete considered to be a leader for the team.

Hockey player and 2014 flag-bearer Hayley Wickenheiser leads Team Canada into Fisht Olympic Stadium during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Photo copyright Paul Gilham/Getty Images.

Meanwhile, directly under the Olympic flag on the main stage, Team Arthropoda selected the newly-named Australian jumping spider Maratus avibus to carry their colours, for obvious reasons. Described just in time for these Olympics by Jürgen Otto and David Hill, Maratus avibus is the newest delegate of the peacock spiders, and proudly waved Team Arthropoda’s flag as high as he possibly could, even if it was only a few millimeters.

Stay tuned throughout the 2014 Winter Olympics to find out how Team Arthropoda stacks up against the rest of the world!

Otto J.C. & Hill D.E. (2014). Spiders of the mungaich group from Western Australia (Araneae: Salticidae: Euophryinae: Maratus), with one new species from Cape Arid, Peckhamia, 112 (1) 1-35. Other:

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“.

Jul 092013

Hey blog, what’s new? Oh, that’s right, nothing lately… My bad. To say the past few months have been hectic would be a bit of an understatement, but that’s a tale for another time. To kickstart my bloggy brain cells, I figured I’d ease back into it with a Tuesday Tune, then maybe a new photo, and quite possibly a rage-driven rant observation on society later this week. Fun!

Normally with Tuesday Tunes we get a song that may have insects in the title, the lyrics, or maybe a cameo in a video. This week’s song not only features a great title & lyrics, plus a psychedelic & morphologically awesome video, but also some killer album art!

No, I don’t know why a mosquito is changing a baby, but damn if that’s not a great album cover!

Meet Mosquito by indie rockers Yeah Yeah Yeahs (be sure to watch to the end) –

If you thought natural selection would punish a hyper-obvious mosquito like the one in the video, you’d normally be correct. However, the psychedelic Psorophora ferox would beg to differ!

Psorophora ferox demonstrating that art isn’t always crazier than nature! Photo by Kathleen Chute

Thanks to Dr. Cameron Webb (@Mozziebites) for alerting me to this song when it came out earlier this spring!


This song is available on iTunes: Mosquito – Mosquito (Deluxe Version) by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Sep 142012

Miles Zhang is an MSc student at Laurentian University who, when not trying to catch ’em all, is finishing up his thesis on the taxonomy of parasitic wasps.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade or so, you’ve surely heard of Pokemon (short for Pocket Monsters).  Released in 1996 by Nintendo under the names of Pokemon Red and Blue, this pair of interlinkable RPG (role-playing games for non-gamers) took the world by storm and has now become one of the most lucrative video game-based media franchises in the world.

Like most eleven-year-olds at the time, I was infatuated by these little fictional monsters.  Every day I would run home after to catch the TV show, and boot up the Gameboy as soon as my parents weren’t watching.  Sixteen years later, I have played most of the Pokemon games from all five generations, and have caught most of the 659 Pokemon.

However, this blog post isn’t about how much of a nerd I am! Rather I’d like to highlight the 65 Bug type Pokemon that have appeared throughout the series.  As an entomologist, I would also attempt to match them to their real-life counterparts and briefly discuss their biology.  This will be divided into 5 parts, with each post covering one generation.  In a way, I guess insect taxonomists have a similar goal as a Pokemon master…Gotta catch ‘em all (or at least try)!

Bug Pokemon were one of the 15 types of Pokemon introduced in Gen I, which includes 12 of the original 151 Pokemon found primarily in Pokemon Red, Blue (Green in Japan), and Yellow version of the games.



The inspiration behind these Pokemon are the larval, pupal, and adult stages of swallowtail butterflies (Family Papilionidae).  The red horn protruding from Caterpie is the equivalent of a swallowtail caterpillar’s osmeterium, which are fleshy organs that are normally hidden.  If threatened, the osmeterium can be quickly everted, which is laced with a foul-smelling secretion and used as a defense mechanism.  The caterpillars of the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) also have large, snake eye-like markings on their thorax in later instars, creating the illusion of common green snakes.  The Y-shaped osmeterium further enhances the disguise by mimicking a snake tongue.  It’s too bad this was not utilized in the game, as Caterpie can only use Tackle and String Shot.

Who’s that Pokemon? Its……..a spicebush caterpillar! Photo by Derek Ramsey (GNU FDL)

Metapod is modeled after a swallowtail chrysalis, which can often be found hanging off a branch attached via a silken pad.  As time passes the chrysalis hardens (hence the Harden attack), and the adult butterfly emerges.  While all butterfly wings are covered in scales and can be potentially irritating to the eyes, it cannot produce poison, paralyze or put things to sleep like Butterfree.



Now while some hymenopteran larvae such as the sawflies have larvae with multiple rows of fleshy prolegs, the larvae of stinging wasps (Aculeata) are legless and do not possess a Poison Sting like Weedle.


Venonat-> Venomoth

A gnat (Venom + Gnat = Venonat?) is the common name for various nematoceran flies, and is not related to moths.


Paras -> Parasect

While the Pokemon itself resembles a cicada nymph, the inspiration for these Pokemon might be the Entomophthorales fungus (parasite=parasect?), which enters the digestive tract and expands until it can be seen between the abdominal plates.  The bloated corpses are often found with straightened legs and wings, perhaps to ensure the distribution of fungal spores.


Entomophthora muscae and its victim! Photo by Hans Hillewaert (CC-SA)



Pinsir (haha get it, Pincer…oh puns) is the only non-evolving Bug Pokemon in Gen I, as Scyther can evolve into Scizor starting in Gen II (which I will talk about in the next post).  Stag beetles (Family Lucanidae) are extremely popular in Japan as pets.  The males of the largest species in Japan, Ookuwagata (Dorcus curvidens) can sell upwards of several million yen (tens of thousands of dollars).  As the males have large and distinct mandibles and rather aggressive, they are often pitted against each other for the purpose of entertainment and frequent contestants of the ever ridiculous Japanese Bug Fights (


Stag beetle ready for battle! Photo by Simon A. Eugster (CC BY 3.0)

This concludes the first part of Real Life Bug Pokemon, more to come in the near future.