The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

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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., & Müller, 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

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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 🙂

Where?

Warning: this post contains angst.

The third year of my PhD work is quickly coming to a close (Omg. Aak. Eeek.) I’ve been thinking a lot about post-docs. About the type of research I want to do and the type of researcher I want to become in the long run. About fellowships and funding applications. About finding a great lab and a great mentor.

There’s one other unknown that seems to consistently overshadow all these other considerations, no matter how much I try to convince myself that it shouldn’t be super-important:

where am I going to work?

That one word – “where” – stirs up a flurry of other stressful, intrusive thoughts: where will my wife and I live? Will we stay in Canada, or will we have to move to the US or even overseas? Will we be able to find a nice place that lets us maintain the quiet country existence we’ve both come to love? Will we have to sell our beloved old schoolhouse – or maybe we could just rent it out for a while? Will we be ABLE to sell our beloved old schoolhouse if we need to (the real estate market isn’t exactly on fire right now)? And then there’s our pets – if we move overseas we’ll almost certainly have to put them in quarantine – would we be able to manage that? What about our families? What about my partner’s career (she also returned to school last year to pursue a new path as a social worker)? Will we be able to live someplace that recognizes our marriage – will we both be able to get health care and feel safe in a new community?

This issue of “where” is awfully big. I feel like everything else is manageable, but this one…I don’t know. There are a lot of long-term implications and emotional investments wrapped up in “where”, and frankly it scares the poop out of me if I allow myself to think about it too much

I’m not sure what will ultimately settle the “where” question. We might have to simply follow the available funding. Maybe funding won’t be an issue and I’ll be able to carve out a nice niche for myself in a lab more of my choosing, and someplace where my wife can equally pursue her own dreams. (And maybe pigs will fly?)

Half of me wants to ask you other grad students and post-doc-ey and early-career-ey people to share your own journeys and concerns about this process, but the other half of me is terrified of what you’ll tell me (aak!) What were your primary considerations when looking for post-docs/jobs/higher degrees, in terms of the “where” question?

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! 😀

A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science

I’m finally back from an incredible whirlwind tour of entomology conferences. I’ve travelled from Ottawa, Ontario (ESO) to Edmonton, Alberta (ESC) to Knoxville, Tennessee (ESA). I am pooped and my brain is saturated with awesome science.

I was invited to give a talk as part of a special symposium at the ESC meeting: “From the Lab to the Web”. It featured other awesome people like Morgan Jackson, Dave Walters, Adrian Thysse, Greg Courtney and Chris Buddle. In my (not-so-) humble opinion, I think it was a highlight of the conference proceedings. My talk was called “A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science”.  

You can check out some voiced-over slides here, but if you don’t feel like sitting through the entire 30 minutes, here’s a quick round-up of the main points:

1. Social media doesn’t need to be scary or overwhelming. Try to think of it as “hallway talk” – the informal socializing, networking, collaborating and community-building that we do as grad students every day, already.

Our peers are using social media at work. You should too. Image from: syracuse.com

2. Half of Canadians have a social media profile: social media is an important part of the way we communicate and build communities. Academics, especially new faculty, are using social media as a work tool. 90% of academics in the US report using social media – this is nearly twice the average for all other fields of employment. Grad students not using social media in a professional capacity (perhaps especially those considering careers in academia) need to get with the program.

3. Social media can help you:

    • Improve your communication skills. You can practice using non-technical language that anyone, even non-specialists, can understand. Blogging and microblogging are great platforms for this, because your audience is the entire world (and most of them don’t understand your crazy jargon).
    • Get stuff. Like inaccessible journal articles (try the #Icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter), data (you can tap into citizen scientists from all over the world) and funding for projects (the #scifundchallenge on Rockethub.com is well worth a peek if you’ve never heard of crowd-funding).

My Twitter followers. How global is your professional network?

    • Network. Not just within your institution or field of expertise – you can develop a diverse international network of collaborators and colleagues. Being involved in social media allows to you tap into a community of scientists that WANT to engage with you. You will find mentors, friends, allies, and informants in places you never thought possible.
    • Get noticed. By your school, the media and other sciencey organizations. These people are looking for cool research and passionate scientists to feature on their web sites and in articles (which, by the way, can get thousands of readers). You can also use social media and networking sites to get the attention of other academics and boost the citation counts on your articles.

4. Important people – like future thesis advisors, future employers, and faculty search committees – will Google you. Seriously. They’ll do it to learn more about your professional and personal activities. If they can’t find you online, it looks suspicious. Grad students need to take the time to create and cultivate a professional online presence so that the right people can find them when it matters most.

This will not impress your future graduate advisor.

5. Although you want to be Google-able, don’t get caught doing dumb things online. What goes on the internet stays on the internet forever (screenshots can easily create permanent records of stuff you’d rather delete). First impressions are important, so be smart about what you put out there for the world to find.

Criticism is part of the job. Learn to deal with it professionally.

6. Sometimes people on the internet are jerks. You could fall victim to a creepy online stalker (yes, this happens to scientists sometimes), so keep your private, personal information private and personal. Same goes for that of your friends and family members.  Other people might not be creepy, but they might be critical of you and your research. Learn to stand up for your work and practice responding to criticisms in a professional way.

7. Developing a professional online presence takes time, and the upfront investment can be steep, but it’s well worth the effort. Schedule some time in your to-do list to engage with other members of the online science community, and start building your network.  You’ll be glad you did. I know it’s paid off big-time for me.

Again, if you’d like to hear more details, please check out the video.

I know that I’m probably preaching to the converted already, but I’d love to hear about your own experiences (both positive and negative) with social media, either as a grad student or as someone in the workplace (scientists and non-scientists alike!)

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