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.

Apr 082010

Now that you know how to start following someone’s blog, all you need is someone to follow! I’ve compiled some of the blog’s that I check daily, and which cover a variety of different topics!

As always, click on photos to see them larger
Tiger beetle Cicindela sexguttata sitting on a log

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, ready for sunny spring days!

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