The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Other peoples’ research

A fungus ate this moth’s head

It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good gross-out parasite post, so let’s rectify the situation, shall we?

I captured this gruesome scene at the end of June, in the park where I was camping.

This poor unidentifiable moth met a horrifying end in the grips of an entomophathogenic fungus, which, though technically not a parasite, is nevertheless growing gangbusters out of the moth’s head.

While non-pathogenic fungi use less gory approaches to dispersal and propogation, relying on things like wind and water, entomopathogenic (EP) (entomo=insect; pathogenic=disease-causing) fungi use insects and other arthropods as their food source and means of spore transmission.

EP fungi produce spores that attach to, sprout on, and penetrate the outer shell (or cuticle) of their host.  Once they’ve breached the outer barrier, they feed on the nutrients available inside the host, ultimately killing them. What you see in the photo above is the final stage – the host has been killed, and the fungus has produced mature fruiting bodies from which more spores will be produced.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these fungi is their ability to alter their hosts’ behaviours – sometimes in ways that maximize the likelihood of spore dispersal, and sometimes in ways that actually harm the fungus and help the host fight off the infection – there seems to be a finely tuned evolutionary tradeoff at play in these systems that permits both the fungus and the host to persist and thrive despite the unpleasantness of the interaction between them.

For example, a fungal infection may lead a host to seek out sunlight or other sources of heat; by raising their body temperature (a so-called “behavioural fever”), the host can sometimes make its body inhospitably warm for the invader. Other EP fungal infections, such as those seen in pea aphids, can cause an infected aphid to move to unusual, more exposed parts of the plant to feed. This could be the fungus’ way of ensuring better spore dispersal, or might be the aphid’s way of preventing the fungus from spreading to the rest of its colony. Some fungi seem to make female hosts more attractive to males (presumably to aid in spore transmission), while others cause hosts to seek out elevated sites before their deaths (as was most likely what happened to this moth).

This is all terribly reminiscent of the mind-controlling hairworm I posted about last year, and behavioural changes have also been shown to be induced by insect parasitoids; it’s clear that behaviour modification is a useful strategy for many organisms that rely on a host to complete their life cycle!

Roy HE, Steinkraus DC, Eilenberg J, Hajek AE, & Pell JK (2006). Bizarre interactions and endgames: entomopathogenic fungi and their arthropod hosts. Annual review of entomology, 51, 331-57 PMID: 16332215

Grosman AH, Janssen A, de Brito EF, Cordeiro EG, Colares F, Fonseca JO, Lima ER, Pallini A, & Sabelis MW (2008). Parasitoid increases survival of its pupae by inducing hosts to fight predators. PloS one, 3 (6) PMID: 18523578

Forgotten Photo Friday: “Dory’s Looper”

Despite the sunny weather we’re enjoying at the start of this long weekend, it’s still cool and windy, meaning the bug-shooting opportunities are  pretty typical of early spring (i.e., lousy).  Add this to the fact that I found myself spending the entire day working on another grant application (it’s the life, isn’t it?) and I have no new picture for today’s photo Friday.

However, I remembered that I hadn’t shared this little shot that I took in the fall. As part of her PhD project, my labmate Dory is working on caterpillars living in forest canopies, and was trying to determine the identity of a whole bunch of tiny little looper (Geometridae) caterpillars. I posed one on a white piece of printer paper on a lab benchtop and took a few shots.

The caterpillar complied by being extra cute:

Dory's Looper (Geometridae)

Dory's Looper (Geometridae)

We submitted this image and others to Bug Guide, but alas, we never got an ID on this little critter.

Photo Friday: Jumping Spiders (Eris militaris)

A wonderful thing happened yesterday: my labmate and fellow PhD candidate, Raphael, brought some of his research subjects by our lab, which meant I had live critters to photograph in winter, yay! 😀

Raph’s research focuses on behavioural syndromes in jumping spiders (Salticidae: Eris militaris). It’s hard not to anthropomorphize these little animals – their large eyes, colorful markings and complex body language make them wonderfully personable. They are, in fact, so darned adorable that I couldn’t get arachnophobe-ey around them even if I tried.

The large male was intense, bold and explorative – he was NOT a cooperative subject.  Also, he seemed more interested in showing off his impressive pedipalps than anything else:

Eris militaris male (2)

Eris militaris male

The female was considerably calmer.  And, even though the male is strikingly marked with dark brown and bright ivory bars, I found her more subtle markings more beautiful.

Eris militaris female

Eris militaris female

Eris militaris female (2)

Eris militaris female

Raph placed the male and female under separate petri dish lids, side by side. The female noticed the male. The busy male was too busy exploring to notice her…at least until the dishes were lifted. Then he launched into an impressive display of dance and posturing, tentatively approaching and touching the female – only to be rebuffed three times – until at last his efforts were rewarded with a receptive reply, and they coupled.

Spider sex (which I have never witnessed firsthand before) looks awfully complicated. Or uncomfortable. Or both.

Jumping spider sex - Eris militaris (1)

Jumping spider sex. Hmm. Well that's interesting, isn't it?

Jumping spider sex (2) - Eris militaris

Jumping spider sex - where the business is actually happening.

Spider sex - Eris militaris

Jumping spider sex - the female looking...rather squashed.

I’ve invited Raph to tell us more about his research, and possibly show some of the videos he’s taken of his spiders (including the hilarious mating ritual that took place between the two subjects in the photos here!), so expect a guest post in the near future!

Why I spend so much time on the internet (#ScienceShare)

Internet Forever! (Image from: Allie Brosh at )

Internet Forever! (Image from: A. Brosh

During the course of an average day, when I’m working on any number of academic pursuits from my home office, I visit a bunch of web sites: library data bases, insect identification aids, online scientific journals, statistical software help pages, how-to lab/procedural pages, etc.

I also spend time on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Flickr and a big ol’ pile of blogs.

I’ve been thinking about the title of a talk I’d like to give. It would sound something like, “Why I spend so much time on the internet.” Lately, I’ve had a number of very interesting discussions with other grad students, faculty members, and online sciencey-folks about the roles and effects of social media on the way we think about science, do science, and communicate about science.

Let me be frank: I’m really, really excited by the buzz about the topic (Morgan Jackson provides a great round-up of blog posts at his blog Biodiversity in Focus ), not only in different social media venues, but also in more traditional, academic forums.

A recent paper in the journal of Innovative Higher Education by D. Powell, C. Jacob and B. Chapman provides strong arguments for the benefits to academics of blogging and other social media, with implications for research, teaching and learning, and outreach. I get the sense that academics can more intuitively appreciate how social media can be used in outreach activities, and even in teaching, but many are still very resistant to the notion of incorporating social media in their research activities.

Here are some reasons why scientists should embrace social media:

  • Social media can be used to identify research opportunities and find collaborators.
  • You can get real-time feedback from other researchers, helping you refine your research questions, methods, and interpretation of experimental results, well before the formal publication stage.
  • You can easily get this feedback from a larger, more geographically and disciplinarily diverse base of expertise than you would likely reach via traditional means.
  • From a more altruistic perspective, other researchers can benefit from online transparency and accessibility, often in ways that cannot happen in traditional media. For example, lab methods or data collection instruments can be demonstrated in photographs or video (saving other researchers the trouble of trying to decipher complex methods sections if they’re interested in replicating specific protocols in their own work).
  • Blogging can help you become a better communicator, by improving writing skills and language proficiency.
  • Sometimes journalists get it wrong. You can tell the public about your research in your own words.
  • Blogs, by their very nature, permit the rapid distribution of information to a very wide public audience. Your new paper will get more attention and readership if it gets cross-posted on multiple blogs and Twitter than if it only gets delivered to paying subscribers of a particular journal.
  • You can access alternative modes of funding for your research.
  • It is fun; also personally and intellectually rewarding.
  • Soon, everybody will be doing it: get with the program.

I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek, but I mean it in all seriousness. I will even go so far as to say that scientists must embrace these new tools. I think that social media are going to be the catalysts for a major paradigm shift in the scientific community, in terms of who we perceive as being the audience/receptors of science and who we perceive as being our collaborators.

P.Z. Meyers at Pharyngula cautions researchers not to be dismissive about the role of blogging/blogs in scientific discourse, and highlights the need to develop the pertinent skills:

I can imagine a day when this kind of presentation [blogging about a new study] becomes de rigueur for everything you publish, just as it’s now understood that you could give a talk on a paper. It’s a different skill set, too, and it’s going to require a different kind of talent to be able to address fellow scientists, the lay public, and science journalists. Those are important skills to have, and this kind of thing could end up making them better appreciated in the science community.

Boraz Zivkovic at Scientific American’s A Blog Around the Clock discusses the evolution and future of this paradigm shift in his post, “The scientific paper: the past, present and probable future” more eloquently than I ever could; please take some time to read the entire post.

This evolution will not happen overnight. There is still considerable resistance to the notion that blogs and other new media might have a role in “real” science.

Take, for example, this comment left on the Tree of Life blog (Jonathan Eisen, UC Davis evolutionary biologist), by the author of a paper that was critiqued by both the blog author and commenters:

I would like to provide my response to several comments that have been mentioned here that will not arise in a peer-review setting and that make blogs a dangerous venue for information delivery as it reduces the credibility of findings regardless of scientific support [emphasis mine].

To which I say: “Really? Reeeaaallly?” Blaming the medium for the message (which could have easily been shared between professors in a lunch room, by grad students participating in a journal club discussion, or by a dissenting colleague in a conference talk) is, frankly, asinine.

Blogs encourage discussion, the sharing of ideas, and open debate. We may not always agree with or appreciate what is said (especially if someone is criticizing our own work), but that’s life. Sometimes statements may be made that are not based on factual information, but you can bet your bippy that if misinformation is published (either in the form of a comment or a post) readers will be quick to point it out. Edits or retractions can happen immediately, and we don’t have to wait for the next issue of X journal to come out to hear other opinions or see corrections made.

What is unique, and arguably better, about blogs compared to more traditional discussion venues is that blogs allow real-time discussion in a public forum. To quote Powell et al.:

Conversations about scholarly work that in the past have been restricted to faculty hallways, conferences…publications and response in subscription-based journals are now also occurring in openly accessible online spaces, opening up the dialogues to a broader audience…

Said another way, social media is just another kind of “hallway talk…in a really, really, long hallway”. (Thank you Bug Girl  for that most excellent insight.)

I think nay-sayers need to understand that no one is suggesting that we do away with traditional means of publication (journals, books, conference proceedings, etc.). Rather, social media should be embraced as a compliment to these traditional communication tools.

There are, of course, some kinks to iron out. There are issues of copyright, intellectual ownership, co-authorship, and the risk of being “scooped” by other researchers (although, regarding that last point, read this: “On getting scooped in ecology“). Although Powell et al. mention some of these concerns, no suggestions for addressing them are offered.  While these factors certainly present challenges, surely they are not insurmountable; it simply speaks to the need for additional discourse and the establishment of standards for these new media forms.


Douglas A. Powell, Casey J. Jacob, & Benjamin J. Chapman (2011). Using blogs and new media in academic practice: potential roles in research, teaching, learning and extension Innovative Higher Education

Information exchange (and stuff, too) via social media

One of the benefits of blogging, I’ve discovered, it that creates opportunities for exchange (this is a social medium after all, right?) In addition to information-and-idea-swapping-and-sharing, the swapping or sharing of STUFF can also sometimes be facilitated.

Take, for instance, the shiny, shiny package of shininess that I received in the mail today, all the way from Spain. It contained these:

Lovely little ethanol-filled vials with Carabids (ground beetles) and Buprestids (jewel beetles) collected this summer in Texas, Kansas and Missourri. A PhD student working in Spain sent these to me, as a gesture of thanks.

Back in February, I received an email about the Calligrapha sp. leaf beetles I’d photographed – this student was looking for specimens from North America to contribute to his systematics study on the genus. I agreed to keep an eye out for them, and one day in May I hit the jackpot, finding about 10 specimens. I watched for more all summer but never saw another – even though there were signs of feeding on the dogwood they so love to munch.

Long story short: a fellow grad student got specimens that will hopefully help his research. He, in turn, sent me these beetles he’d collected while visiting the US. He may feel differently, but I think I got the sweeter end of this deal.

Behold, a teaser of the beautimoniousness that is now my Precious:


More pics to come once it’s finished drying. This guy (and probably the others, I haven’t even really looked at them yet) is going on the List of Things That Make Me Gleeful.


The main point of this post is actually not pretty beetles (srsly). What I want to highlight here is that social media can be an incredibly useful tool for scientists wanting to collaborate.

And I’m not even referring to capital-“C” “Collaboration”, as in, where stuff gets written down and terms and funding are agreed upon, etc. etc. I’m simply talking about helping out, and getting help from, other folks. You know, because it’s a Good Thing To Do.

In my experience, it’s a great way to find like-minded science-y people (i.e., ones interested in exchange, sharing, and collaboration) with similar research interests. Secondly, the general public likes to be involved in, and contribute to, science. Putting yourself and your research out there on blogs, Twitter, G+, Facebook, etc., can open doors to both professional and public interest and engagement. I am pretty convinced that it’s well worth the effort…

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