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.

May 282015

Check out this video that Matthew Cobb of Why Evolution is True just found and posted. While it’s primarily showing a pair of swifts (Apus apus) being reunited after a 9 month hiatus in Africa, check out who crashes the party (most easily seen around the 1:10 mark).

That little scuttling thing playing peekaboo from the neck feathers of the male is actually an adult fly in the family Hippoboscidae, and most likely a male Crataerina pallida, the swift louse fly. These flies are ectoparasites of birds, where they bite and feed off the blood of both nestlings and adults.

Hippoboscids, like bat flies in the family Nycteribiidae (sometimes considered a subfamily of the Hippoboscidae) that Piotr Naskrecki has been showing off this week, give birth to live, late-stage maggots that the female has reared and nourished one at a time in her abdomen. The maggots are deposited into the swift’s nest, where they pupate and then scuttle onto their nestling host. According to Hutson (1981), fly populations peak in mid June when the swift nestlings are just beginning to hatch, and steadily fall off from there until most flies are dead by mid to late August, and he stated the flies do not make the migration with the birds.

But, since these flies don’t lay eggs, they must be spending the winters in the nest boxes as pupae, awaiting the return of their hosts year after year. Hutson found that males are more prevalent early in the spring, with females to follow. This leads us to an interesting question of how this louse fly got onto this bird! The fly was already aboard the bird when it entered the box (if you watch closely you can see a white blob that moves around neck is first visible at 0:06, immediately after the male bird approaches the sitting female). This means that one of two things happened: either the male bird has in fact carried its little parasite friend down to Africa and back (something that neither Hutson nor Walker & Rotherham (2010) believe to be the case) (and assuming this was the first nestbox that the bird stopped in, which I take to be the presumption of the ornithologists who posted the video and stated it shows a male reuniting with its mate from last year in last year’s nestbox), or alternatively, the male bird did stop for a time in another nestbox where it picked up its little hitchhiker, and then proceeded on to its longterm mate. This of course raises questions about how committed these birds really are to their mates, and whether they may be getting a little action on the side (or at least exploring their other options) before settling down for the season. Since I know pretty well nothing about bird biology, if someone knows more about swift mating, bonding, and extra-pair copulation, let me know in the comments if I’m way off.

Either way, catching a glimpse of a louse fly playing peekaboo on the neck of its host may raise more questions than the initial emotional response of “WHAT IS THAT THING?!?”, and that’s pretty darn cool.

Continue reading »

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.

Feb 012014

A while ago I started a weekly link round up series, but unlike Ed, Chris and Malcolm, I quickly became inundated with too much good stuff and it was taking me way longer to put together each week than I felt comfortable doing, and eventually allowed it to drop.

But, there is some truly awesome work being done across the internet bringing attention to entomology and science in general, so I figure I’ll try and do a monthly recap of some of the stuff I come across and that I think should be read/watched/listened to by more people! Here’s this month’s crop of awesomeness (in chronological order). Continue reading »

Aug 142013

The Bug Chicks (aka Jessica Honaker & Kristie Reddick) are two of the most enthusiastic, creative and hilarious entomologists I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. They’ve dedicated their careers to educating people (especially kids) about insects and related arthropods through interactive workshops and field camps, as well as with a whole series of videos showing the weird, wacky and wonderful ways in which insects go about their lives, and why they’re important in ours (their earwig video is probably my favourite, I highly recommend checking it out).

The Bug Chicks have done an amazing job on their own so far, but they want to reach an even larger audience and are gearing up for an epic cross-country road trip/web-series to show off some of the incredible insects that can be found in our own backyards. Check out the promo trailer:

Honda is lending them a brand new van and Project Noah (a web & mobile natural history app supported by National Geographic) is making sure all the cool stuff they find is accessible to viewers around the world, but Jess & Kristie still need some help from you to make their dream a reality. They’ve set up an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to help raise the money they need to haul that crazy couch from the forests of Oregon to the deserts of Arizona, and from the mountains of Yellowstone National Park to the beaches of Assateague State Park in Maryland. They’ve got some great perks for those that donate, ranging from “Bug Dork” bumper stickers and insect artwork to classroom lectures for your favourite student!

At a time when science programming on network and cable TV has been replaced with fauxumentaries and fear-mongering reality shows, we NEED people like The Bug Chicks to help inspire and educate future generations of scientists, biologists, and entomologists. Jess & Kristie are two of the finest role models you could ever want, and I fully believe that they have the potential to change the landscape of educational video programming with their work!

So if you can, check for change under your couch cushions, donate a few dollars (or as much as you can afford) and help spread the word by telling your friends and neighbours! There’s only 9 days left in their campaign, and while they have a long ways to go to reach their goal, every dollar will help them bring quality educational entertainment to you and the rest of the world.

Donate to their Indiegogo Campaign HERE.

Finally, we talked to The Bug Chicks about their campaign recently on Breaking Bio, where they announced their partnership with Honda, and explain what they hope to do on their trip, give some hints about some of the cool stuff they’re hoping to find, and share why it’s important for there to be strong, women role models online and in the real world.

Dec 082011

For those who were unable to make it to the ESA Annual Meeting this year, I’ll be sharing all 3 of the presentations I gave over the next week or so. The audio is my actual presentation from the ESA meeting (recorded using my iPhone set on the lectern), which I later synced to screen capture video of the slideshow, essentially transporting you through time & space to ESA 2011! Turns out I’m no David Attenborough or David Suzuki, but hearing myself present was actually a pretty useful tool for how to improve in the future!

This presentation was part of the Citizen Scientists in Entomology Research, and aimed at sharing how the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification is a great place for citizen science projects to publish identification aids specifically for their volunteers.


Here are the (slightly modified) slides if you’d like to explore a little further:


If you’d like more information on the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, feel free to explore our published volumes, and if you’ve developed arthropod identification aids of your own, I encourage you to consider publishing them with CJAI!