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 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: urn:lsid:zoobank.org:pub:B53D2909-07C3-4E9E-B8F2-C358650E78AF

Jan 072014

The extreme cold snap encompassing a large portion of continental North America (termed a Polar Vortex, which you can learn more about via NPR and Quartz) has made it dangerous to remain outside for long, even when bundled up in more layers than a Thanksgiving turducken. While we can rely on our technological ingenuity to find solutions to this chilling problem, what about our insect neighbours who have been left out in the cold?

Eurosta solidaginis has a warning for you.

Eurosta solidaginis has a warning for you.

Most insects seek shelter in the fall before temperatures begin to dip, either laying their eggs in sheltered locations, or hiding out as larvae, pupae or adults in the comparative warmths of the leaf litter, deep within trees, or even taking advantage of our warm hospitality and rooming with us in the nooks & crannies of our homes. But what about species like the Goldenrod Gall Fly (Eurosta solidaginis) which are literally left hanging out in the middle of nowhere and completely at the mercy of Jack Frost?

Polar Vortex vs. Goldenrod Gall Fly. Polar Vortex map courtesy of RightWeather.com, Eurosta solidaginis range map from Foote et al. 1993

Polar Vortex vs. Goldenrod Gall Fly. Polar Vortex map courtesy of RightWeather.com, Eurosta solidaginis range map from Foote et al. 1993

If you live in eastern North America, you’re probably familiar with the Goldenrod Gall Fly, even if you don’t realize it. This fruit fly — the ripe fruit kind (family Tephritidae), not the rotting banana kind (family Drosophilidae) — is one of the more ubiquitous insects, and is found pretty well anywhere goldenrod grows, including in urban environments like parks & abandoned lots. Adults are weak fliers and aren’t often seen unless you’re actively looking for them, but in this case, it’s the larvae that you’ve likely seen a hundred times — rather, you’ve likely seen their makeshift homes a hundred times. The larvae of this species live within the stem of goldenrod plants (Solidago spp.), and trick the plant into growing a big spherical nursery for the fly maggot to live & feed in (technically called a ‘gall’), and which stands out like the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square, albeit without the mirrors and spotlights of course.

Goldenrod Gall Fly galls in Guelph, Ontario

Goldenrod Gall Fly galls in Guelph, Ontario

While these galls provide a modicum of protection from predators and parasitoids (although some still find a way), they don’t provide much, if any, insulation from the elements, meaning that the larvae must be able to survive the same air and windchill temperatures that we do. To do so, Goldenrod Gall Fly larvae are not only able to safely freeze without their cells being torn apart by tiny ice daggers by partially drying themselves out, but they also change the temperature their tissues freeze at by manufacturing anti-freeze-like chemicals. Together, these cold-tolerance strategies allow the maggots to survive temperatures as low as -50°C (-58°F)! Just take a moment to consider what it would feel like to stand outside almost anywhere in central North America on a day like today wrapped in only a few layers of tissue paper; BRRRRRRR!

All that stands between a Goldenrod Gall Fly maggot & the extreme cold is a few centimeters of dried plant tissue.

All that stands between a Goldenrod Gall Fly maggot & the extreme cold is a few centimeters of dried plant tissue. (The maggot is the little ball of goo in the bottom half of the gall)

For us, the multiple warm layers of clothing we bundle up in on days like today allow us to survive and eventually have children, thus passing our genes along, despite living in a habitat that is occasionally unfit for human life. It would stand to reason then that other organisms would also enjoy the same benefits and evolutionary advantage from thermal insulation, but, for the Goldenrod Gall Fly at least, the complete opposite is true! Goldenrod isn’t exactly the most robust structure, and it doesn’t take much effort from the wind, passing animals like people or dogs, or other not-so-freak phenomena to knock goldenrod stems over, allowing galls to be buried in snow and protected from the harshest temperatures (snow is an excellent insulator, and temperatures in the snowbank generally hover around 0°C (32°F)). This would intuitively seem like a good place to be if you were fly maggot, out of the daily temperature fluctuations and extreme cold and in a more stable environment. However it turns out that individuals that mature in galls on the ground and covered with snow are at a significant disadvantage evolutionarily speaking, with grounded females producing 18% fewer eggs than females who grew up fully exposed to the elements (Irwin & Lee, 2003)!

This Goldenrod Gall Fly, while warm(er), will likely produce fewer offspring when it emerges (assuming it's a female).

This Goldenrod Gall Fly, while warm(er), will likely produce fewer offspring when it emerges (assuming it’s a female).

Why might that be? Well, let’s think about it for a moment. If you’re a fly maggot hanging out above the snow when it’s -20°C, you’re likely going to be frozen solid and in a cold-induced stasis, not doing much of anything, even at the cellular level. But, if you’re as snug as a ‘bug’ under the snow at ~0°C, your body won’t be frozen, and thus you’ll be forced to carry on with day-to-day maintenance & cellular functions like breathing, waste removal, etc, even if only minimally. When you live in a closed system like a hollowed-out stem gall on a dead plant without any food, any energy you spend on daily functions as a “teenager” putting in time under the snow all winter long means you’ll have less energy you can put towards making eggs as an adult. If you’re a Goldenrod Gall Fly maggot, it pays to be left out in the cold!

Foote, R.H, Blanc, F.L., Norrbom, A.L. (1993). Handbook of the Fruit Flies (Diptera: Tephritidae) of America North of Mexico. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca NY. 571pp.

Irwin J.T. & Lee, Jr R.E. (2003). Cold winter microenvironments conserve energy and improve overwintering survival and potential fecundity of the goldenrod gall fly, Eurosta solidaginis, Oikos, 100 (1) 71-78. DOI:

Some additional thoughts: You’d think that a nearly 20% difference in egg production would create significant evolutionary pressure for Goldenrod Gall Fly females to select the strongest, least-likely-to-break-and-fall-over goldenrod stems. It’s possible that the randomness of goldenrod stem breakage negates any evolution of host plant selection, but I would tend to doubt it. I did a quick Google Scholar search to check whether anyone had examined this in greater detail, but I didn’t see anything. Perhaps an avenue of future study for an evolutionary biology lab out there?

Nov 242010

Cedar Waxwing in berry tree in Spring

This isn’t an insect you say? You’re right; I’m using this Cedar Waxwing to distract you from the recent lack of posts. I’ve been juggling several pressing issues (thesis writing, ESO business, deadlines for external projects, you know the deal) and the blog has been the ball that got bobbled lately. Don’t worry though, I’ve got a couple of important topics lined up to discuss in the near future! Until then, enjoy this symbol of urban Canadian winters, and check back soon for an examination of Canadian Biodiversity Science!