The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Arthropods

This caterpillar is so ridiculous that it got me to pick up my camera (and a short tale about teaching)

O hai.

It’s been a while, no? Yes, yes it has.

I’ve had an interesting summer. I spent most of it at home, puttering and finding small projects to do in between bouts of “real” work. I discovered some new interests (Namely canning. As in putting food in glass jars. Don’t judge.) I did a lot of introspection. I started to feel better than I was feeling at the time of my last post.

I did not, however, partake in many of my usual pastimes: blogging, mucking around conversing with cool people on Twitter, or taking pictures.

That’s right, my camera sat unused for the entire summer. I was spending a lot of time outdoors but just wasn’t seeing my surroundings through the same “lens”, so to speak, that I used to. Walks were taken to accomplish the goal of exercising myself and the dogs. Yard work was done efficiently without my usual distractedness or frequent breaks to dash indoors to fetch my photography equipment upon sighting an interesting critter. I just didn’t seem to notice much of what was going on around me.

Then, this week, I found myself back on campus for the start of the new fall term. This meant, of course, a new batch of undergrads and a new session of the field-based ecology course for which I’m a TA.

During the first lab period, we took a walk in the woods. A simple thing. Something I’ve done frequently this summer.

Something happened on this walk, though. Two things, actually.

Thing 1: This absolutely incredible caterpillar basically fell out of the sky and landed on the professor’s binoculars:

Spiny Oak Slug

A Spiny Oak Slug. I’d never seen one before. It is ridiculous. Its chemically-defended spines make your skin tingle in a burny kind of way when you touch it. (Yes, I touched it deliberately to find out how it felt.) It is basically transparent – you can see its guts right through the flesh of its underside, and the colourful markings ripple behind what looks like clear jelly. People on Twitter yesterday said it looks like a cake, or a parade float. Facebook friends declared it a “pea pod on acid” or a siege engine. I’m inclined to agree with all of them.

It is SUCH a ridiculous animal (seriously, look at that thing) that I felt, for the first time in months, compelled to take a picture of an insect. So I took it home and had a little portrait session. I was worried that maybe I’d forgotten how to use my equipment, but a little mucking around and I was back on track pretty quickly.

Spiny Oak Slug

(There are a few more images on Flickr, if you’re interested.)

Thing 2: The presence of students shifted something in my brain. Instead of just being in the woods, I started to see the woods and its inhabitants through the eyes of the students, for whom everything seemed wonderful and interesting and “oh,wow…cool”. I remembered, for the first time in months, that…well, that yeah: the woods and its inhabitants ARE really freaking cool. I started LOOKING, and SEEING, and FINDING things, and wanted to share them with other people. For the first time in months.

The next day I took my dogs for their usual walk down an old gravel road that’s lined on either side with woodlots, scrubby hedgerows and old fields. I noticed how intensely yellow the goldenrod looked in the warm light of the early morning sun. I stopped to watch a doe and her twin fawns saunter across the road. I saw a butterfly I’d been trying to find for the past couple of years and stopped to watch it lay an egg. I found more ridiculous caterpillars, and felt compelled to bring them home to take their photos.

As the dogs and I walked, I felt a familiar stirring in my chest for the first time in months. A little flutter. It was the warm, connected and awestruck feeling I usually get when I spend time outdoors, because nature is just so freaking cool and wonderful.

And here I am, for the first time in months, wanting to share these experiences with you. And I have more that I want to share later.

So…”hi”. I’m not going to make any huge commitments, but I think I might stick around here for a little while 🙂

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Photo Friday: Faves of 2012

Green Lynx Spider, Peucetia viridans [Explored]Bolitotherus cornutus (Forked fungus beetle) 1Phidippus sp. 2Baby corn snake!Phidippus regiusAnisomorpha buprestoides (Southern Two-Striped Walkingstick, Devil Rider, or Musk Mare)
Brown Anole, Anolis sagreiStriped Bark Scorpion, Centuroides hentziMole cricket, Scapteriscus borelliiSnipe fly, Rhagio hirtus (female)Spider sex - Eris militaris Wasp Mantidfly (Climaciella brunnea)
Stratiomys badia (soldier fly, Stratiomyidae)Variable Fan-Foot (Zanclognatha laevigata) # 8340Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer

Faves of 2012, a set on Flickr.

Over at Compound Eye, Alex Wild is curating submissions of nature and science themed “best of 2012” photo sets. If you have some photos you’re proud of and would like to share, why not leave a link in the comments?

While I didn’t spend nearly as much time taking photos this year as I would have like, I still managed to get a bunch of shots I’m really happy with. Here’s my submission: some of my faves from 2012. 🙂

Poop, not parasites

So a very cool bug photo has been circulating on the web: I’ve seen it on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. It’s a pretty darn great photo:

Photo of a Cereal Leaf Beetle Larva, by Giles San Martin, used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of a Cereal Leaf Beetle Larva, by Giles San Martin, used under a Creative Commons License.

Let’s zoom in on that a little, shall we?

Closeup

Well, my goodness. That’s really something, isn’t it? Here’s the accompanying story circulating on the web:

This is a juvenile form of the Cereal leaf beetle (Oulema melanopus) after being parasitized by Tetrastichus julis, a parasitoid wasp which lays its eggs inside the larva of the beetle. They eggs hatch within the larvae and begin to feed while it is still alive, before they burst out and kill it.These parasites are often used as a biological control, as the Cereal leaf beetle is considered a pest and regularly feeds on crops.

Well, now, that is REALLY something isn’t it? Parasites are so freaking cool.

The problem is, the pairing of this particular image with this particular caption has lead to some confusion. 

While the species identities are correct, and the stated relationship between the two is correct, the caption seems to imply that the skin of the poor beetle larva is stretched shiny-tight and close to bursting from a insanely huge parasite load (indeed, this is how the interwebz has been interpreting it).

This interpretation is only a little bit correct.

The beetle IS parasitized – by one parasite. Just one. 

The rest of that squirmy-looking mass on the back of the beetle is a perfectly normal thing (well, if you’re a leaf beetle anyways): it’s a fecal shield. Yes, fecal shield. As in, “poop”.

Many, many Chrysomelids (leaf beetles) create fecal shields, depositing their feces on their backs. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that the study of fecal shields warrants its own term, apparently. From the section in Caroline Chaboo’s book chapter on Chrysomelid defences entitled, “Fececology” (ha!):

The [Chrysomelid] subfamily Cassidinae has ~3,000 species whose larvae carry a mobile shield made of dried feces, attached to paired processes at their hind end, and held over the body like an umbrella. This shield may be held flat on the dorsum or elevated to hit an attacker. In two other leaf beetle subgroups, the subfamily Criocerinae (~1,400 species) and in some members of the subfamily Galerucinae (~14,000 species) the fecal material is simply piled directly onto the back of the animals, with some falling off as the animal moves around but regularly replenished to maintain coverage of the exposed dorsal surface (Fig. 2b, c). In Chrysomelinae leaf beetles (~4,000 species), the mothers take time to build a fecal case entirely around every single egg.

Compare the photo above with this one showing the fecal shield of a Criocerine Chrysomelid, Lilioceris lilii:

Photo by Luis Sanchez, used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo by Luis Sanchez, used under a Creative Commons License.

Also goey, revolting, and arguably very unsanitary – but normal.

Here’s a different spin on the same theme, this time in a tortoise beetle larva (Cassidinae):

_MG_9225

Photo by Kurt Komoda, on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/komoda/ Used under a Creative Commons License.

Less slimy, and mobile – but normal. (And still poop).

Fecal shields provide camouflage, prevent desiccation (drying out), and, ironically, can deter predators and parasitoids. Some parasitoids, however, can exploit the fecal sheild and may actually be attracted to the plant volatiles (smelly plant chemicals) in the feces. This could be what happens in the relationship shown in the photo, since the T. julis is a well-established predator of the cereal leaf beetle and, obviously, that goey shield is not much of a deterrent.

So, just to clarify what you’re seeing in the original ZOMGPARASITES photo: in addition to piles of poop, the one visible parasitoid larva is the pale, segmented critter in the front near the beetle larva’s head. Now, its placement is a little odd, because T. julis is normally an endoparasitoid, meaning that the mother wasp lays her egg(s) directly inside the body of the host (the beetle larva). In this case, though, it looks like the parasitoid larva is floating in the fecal shield, so I’m not sure what that’s all about. Lousy aim, perhaps? Even if it was a motherly misfire, I have it on good authority (hat tip to Richard Comont) that the photographer reared out the parasitoid and it did indeed grow up to be T. julis.

So. Long story short:

This is a normal fecal shield, people. Not an imminent explosion.

__________________________

ResearchBlogging.org

Chaboo, Caroline (2011). Defensive Behaviors in Leaf Beetles: From the Unusual to the Weird in Chemical Biology of the Tropics, J.M. Vivanco and T. Weir (eds.), 59-69 DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-19080-3_4

Evans, E., Karren, J., & Israelsen, C. (2006). Interactions Over Time Between Cereal Leaf Beetle (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae) and Larval Parasitoid Tetrastichus julis (Hymenoptera: Eulophidae) in Utah Journal of Economic Entomology, 99 (6), 1967-1973 DOI: 10.1603/0022-0493-99.6.1967

Schaffner, U., & MĂŒller, C. (2001). Exploitation of the Fecal Shield of the Lily Leaf Beetle, Lilioceris lilii (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae), by the Specialist Parasitoid Lemophagus pulcher (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae) Journal of Insect Behavior, 14 (6), 739-757 DOI: 10.1023/A:1013085316606

Life in the fast lane (subarctic beetles, part 1)

Sometime in the next few months my first research paper is going to be published (True story! I saw the proofs a few days ago!) The paper is based on 2 months of field work I did during my first summer as a PhD student, waaaay back in 2010. Some of you might remember that I packed up my gear (I traveled light, as you can see), hopped on a few planes and landed in a remote, barren landscape. The “remote” part ended up being pretty much bang-on, but the barren bit…not so much.

The incomparably stunning subarctic tundra is sprinkled with beautiful flowers and is home to incredible wildlife, some charismatic (grizzly bears! wolverines! snow geese!) and others more cryptic but no less important – arguably more important, in fact.

Kug flowers

Flowers from Kug (from top L, clockwise): prickly saxifrage, arctic rhododendron, arctic poppy, yellow saxifrage.

It was these these smaller creatures that I travelled all the way to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, to seek and collect: the insects. As you all know, insects are very important animals: they make up the majority of the world’s biodiversity (even in the Arctic: there are over 2000 species spiders, insects and mites living above the tree line, but only a few dozen species of mammals).  These insects all have very important jobs (or “ecological functions”) that affect the way the ecosystem works: they pollinate plants, they decompose things, they feed on plants and other insects, they bite other animals. When they do their jobs is equally important – if the timing is off, it can affect how other parts of the ecosystem work (think, for example, what might happen if pollinating insects like flies and bees were flying around and visiting plants after the peak blooming period).

Members of my research team have been travelling all over northern Canada, collecting insects and spiders, for the past few years. Most of the time, we collect in a single location for only two weeks. This doesn’t sound like much, but the summers are short and some our latest data (like for spiders, for example) tell us that two weeks is plenty of time to catch most of what’s out there to be caught at high latitudes. Also, we collect like possessed people. Over a hundred traps get set within 24 hours of arrival, and then we’re out all day every day, filling specimen bags and vials with six- and eight-legged critters.

So my time in Kug was pretty unique. Two months represents nearly the entire summer season – the time during which you would expect insects and spiders to be running and flying around. In fact, when I arrived on June 21, there were still piles of snow on the ground and the ice on the inland ponds was just starting to break up.  I left in mid-August, and friends reported that snow was flying two weeks later.

Subarctic summers are short, cold, and yet they’re an utter whirlwind of insect activity. When I was out emptying traps with frozen, wet fingers, sporting my long underwear and a toque, I was still hauling in dozens, even hundreds, of insects and spiders. Those bugs have a very tiny window of time during which they can wake up, move around, feed, mate/grow/lay eggs (for most, this can’t even happen in a single season – their life cycle has to be stretched out over several years) before having to go back to sleep for the winter again. Life for a bug in the north is life in the fast lane.

Me with samples

Whirl paks full of bugs make me very happy (even if I’m very cold)

Having a season’s worth of samples is a rare thing for studies of Arctic entomology – field work in the north, especially in remote locations, is logistically difficult and really, really, freaking expensive, so it doesn’t happen often and when it does it’s usually for a brief period of time.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

The day after I arrived in Kug, my field assistant and I set traps at three different sites on the tundra. At each site, we put 18 traps in a wet, soggy, sedge meadow and 18 traps in nearby dry tundra.

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

We used both “yellow pan” traps and “pitfall” traps. Both are dug into the ground so that insects walking around can fall into them. The yellow ones also attract flying insects (those critters were passed on to other people on my research team). We emptied all 108 traps about once a week, for eight weeks, putting the contents of each trap in its own sample bag every week. That’s a lotta samples.

A "yellow pan" trap, about to be collected.

A “yellow pan” trap, about to be collected.

These great samples allowed me to ask some basic questions about the insect community and how it changes over time (i.e., over the course of the active season). I wanted to find out four things: (1) what insects live in Kug, and what habitats do they live in?; (2) what insects are active at different points in the summer – does the species assemblage change over time? (3) what buggy jobs are being performed at different points in the summer – does the functional assemblage change over time?, and (4) can anything in the environment, like weather, explain any patterns in the way the assemblages change (if they even change at all?)

Over the next few weeks I’m going to touch on each of these points and tell you what I found, hopefully cumulating in a link to the actual research paper 🙂

Published! But not about my research…

Last week I received some very  exciting news: the first paper I worked on as a Ph.D. student has been published! It’s especially exciting because it has nothing to do with my research.

Whaaaa?

That’s right. The paper is not about my research. Well, not directly. But it does touch on something you all know me to be very passionate about: outreach and education.

It’s a book chapter entitled, “Insects in Education: creating tolerances for the world’s smallest citizens”, in a brand-spanking-new book called The Management of Insects in Recreation and Tourism.

(Pardon me for a moment…*ahem*…ZOMG I’M IN A BOOK!!!1!!…o.k., I’m good now.)

I was brought on board to this project late in 2010, after the editor, Harvey Lemelin, expressed interest in the work our research group was doing in northern Canada and the overarching theme of one of our research objectives: Northern Awareness, Education and Legacy. Since I spent a good chunk of my first field season doing outreach, education and training in a northern community, my advisor very generously suggested that I take the lead on the chapter.

Very simply, the book is a multidisciplinary look at the different ways that humans interact with insects. From the description:

[the book] challenges the notion that animals lacking anthropomorphic features hold little or no interest for humans. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on the innovators, the educators, the dedicated researchers and activists who, through collaboration across fields ranging from entomology to sociology and anthropology, have brought insects from the recreational fringes to the forefront of many conservation and leisure initiatives.

Our part of this book involves some case studies based on my and my team members’ experiences and successes working in northern communities and we challenge other entomologists to embrace the idea:

… educational opportunities involving insects engage youth and provide a tangible link to more formal science training and inquiry, and provide benefits for students and researchers.  In additional to longer-term programs, informal or impromptu learning/teaching opportunities are abundant and require little effort from scientists to find and exploit them.  Such opportunities could be as simple and brief as a chat with a local who happens to stop and make an inquiry about the researcher’s work, or a quick display of sweep netting to curious children. These impromptu teaching/learning moments take little time or effort, yet can make a profound impression on the participants, and help foster strong and positive relationships within the community.  working in the north gain tremendous benefits from partnerships in local communities.  …

The time commitment and equipment to pursue local partnerships is minimal, but the impact can be profound.  We have experienced directly the benefits of using arthropods in an educational context in northern Canada, and our experiences suggest the opportunities are untapped. Given their abundance, diversity, importance in northern Canada, and ease and efficiency of sampling, arthropods are certainly one of the best “models” for pursuing further partnerships between schools, communities, and researchers.

As excited as I am about being a contributing factor to this project, it couldn’t have happened without the support and input of my co-authors Kristen Vinke, Donna Giberson and Chris Buddle. Thanks for everything, guys!

If you’d like to get your hands on a copy of the book, it’s going to be released in the U.S. in December, so you can place your order now and have one in time for Christmas! I can’t wait to read the other contributors’ work!

ETA: There is a 20% off discount being offered right now, so get it while the getting’s good! 😀

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