A Ghost Story

In the spirit(s) of the season, I wanted to share a ghost story from the lab with you all…

comparison of wild type J. haematoloma juvenile (red) and ghost juvenile (white). (photo: Dave Angelini, 2017, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Here in the bug lab, mysteries abound. Dr. Angelini, along with his students and associates, seeks to understand the genetic mechanisms for the extraordinary adaptations that our research bugs display. While many current experiments focus on wing development, one particular feature is as striking as it is mysterious. Continue reading A Ghost Story

Mimics and Mystery Flyers

Bee, Bird, or something else? (photo: Wikimedia commons, BY-SA-2.0)

Have you ever seen an animal that looks somehow like a completely different one? There are actually quite a lot of these mimics out there, hiding among flowers and bumblebees in plain sight! Continue reading Mimics and Mystery Flyers

Inactivity in Animals and the “Lazy” Ants

Ant and the Grasshopper, from illustrated volume published in 1919 (Image: Wiki Commons, public domain)

Most of us have grown up with idea that being both efficient and productive is highly desirable. Early in school, many of us are taught about Aesop’s tale of the industrious ant and the lazy grasshopper. The grasshopper kicks back and enjoys his summer days, while the ant busily gathers grain for the coming winter. When the temperature drops and snow blankets the ground, the grasshopper begs for food from the ant and is effectively shamed for his idle behavior. And maybe starves. Poor guy.

But what if there was more to the story? What if there was an inherent advantage in being a “lazy” worker in a highly efficient system? A group of researchers led by Daniel Charbonneau at the University of Arizona are working to unravel what possible benefits inactivity could have for individuals or systems as a whole (spoiler: sorry, but you can’t just play Candy Crush at work or school all day!). Continue reading Inactivity in Animals and the “Lazy” Ants

The Buzz on Insect Sound

Anybody who has walked outside on a hot summer day and heard the cacophonous ticks, rattles and clicks of insect calls could imagine that there must be something being communicated in all that clatter. While insects produce sounds through their normal activities, such as the buzz of wings in flight or mandibles chewing, often specific behaviors produce sounds that signal a variety of information to the surrounding area. Insects can create sounds through various methods whether they be stridulation (rubbing the body, as in cricket and grasshopper calls), percussion, vibration, click mechanisms or air expulsion. In fact, the level of sophistication in these sounds can be rather surprising. Continue reading The Buzz on Insect Sound

Star Wars and the Naming of Things

Wockia chewbacca, named after the famous furry companion of Han Solo (public domain).

Choosing a name for a newfound species or group of organisms can be a rather daunting task. It should be no surprise that taxonomists and other scientists are sometimes heavily influenced by literature and popular culture when deciding on the perfect name for their research subject. In fact, the website curioustaxonomy.net specializes in documenting the various instances in which scientific nomenclature (the system of names and naming) has honored famous figures in history, mythology and even important places. In honor of Star Wars Day, which is celebrated on May 4th to allow for a fantastic pun, a link to an article listing animals that were named after characters or creatures in the Star Wars universe can be found here. And, as always, May the Fourth be with you! Continue reading Star Wars and the Naming of Things

Springing to Life

Crocus (photo: Dave Angelini, 2017, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

It’s late April and Spring has already reached many places, but it’s just getting to us here in Maine. In fact yesterday was one of the first really nice, warm days. There’s still snow in some spots, but everything is springing to life. People are coming out of their houses (putting away their skis) and getting back into the streets, parks and gardens. I spent a little time in my backyard yesterday, and I thought I’d give a tour of the insects I found crawling out from under rocks, literally and metaphorically.

Continue reading Springing to Life

Damselfly in distress: How sexual conflict shapes behavior

As the days grow longer and the temperature rises, the first vestiges of animal and plant life have begun to shake off the trappings of winter. Tender buds break open to reveal tightly packed profusions of floral color. Bird song greets the early morning sun and small animals stir from their dens. Insects begin to hatch from overwintered eggs or stretch their legs/wings after a long diapause. As the natural world awakens from winter quiescence, much of this activity takes the form of ensuring the continuation of the next generation.

Rambur’s forktail: Male (top) and brightly colored andromorph female (bottom). (photo by Bob Peterson CC BY 2.0)

In that spirit, let’s examine some surprising recent findings on the mating system of a damselfly, known as Ischnura ramburii, or Rambur’s forktail.  While much emphasis is placed on biodiversity in the sense of density of species on the planet, there is often just as much diversity exhibited in the way species approach the ubiquitous problems of life, such as resource acquisition and reproduction. Particularly, conflict between the sexes of a species can influence mating systems, speciation and population dynamics. A mating system is the collection of behaviors individuals in a species use during reproduction. A recent study, conducted by Dr. Eben Gering, looked into how a specific trait, male mimicry in females, evolved due to the unique pressures experienced by Rambur’s forktail damselfly.

Continue reading Damselfly in distress: How sexual conflict shapes behavior

Sporadic Spider Crickets

Cricket, probably Ceuthophilus (photo by Thegreenj, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Spider crickets, camel crickets, cave crickets–whatever you call them, they scare the life out of me!

Spider crickets come from the family Rhaphidophoridae, and from a distance they look like spiders. If you take a closer look at one of them, you can see its long antennae, large hind legs, and shrimp-like body.

Spider crickets can often be found in caves or other cool, dark, and damp areas. However, you may have to watch out, because spider crickets can also be found in the basements of suburban houses, sewers, and even stacks of firewood. They shelter in dark areas because their vision is poor, and they rely on their antennae to feel around for food. The diet of a spider cricket consists of organic compost, but these creatures are also known to eat each other (cannibal crickets?). Continue reading Sporadic Spider Crickets

Wondering in Winter: Where did the bugs all go?

“Winter Scene in Victoria Park, London, Ontario.” (photo by Lisa Birtch, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/A65a6F)

Here in the Northern part of the US, the blustery winds of winter are well upon us. The cold climate forces us to bundle up in warm layers clothes if we choose to brave the frozen world outside our well-heated, insulated homes. With so much of our response to the cold being behavioral, the question may arise as to how other animals endure the harshest time of the year. Some of us may be familiar with the hibernation of other mammals, but how do the creatures that don’t produce their own body heat (ectotherms) manage to survive? Insects have the additional concern of losing heat rapidly due to their diminutive size and small surface area. Most insects, much like members of the plant kingdom, have to survive while remaining in thermal equilibrium with the frozen world outside.

Continue reading Wondering in Winter: Where did the bugs all go?

Is it a Groundhog or Woodchuck?

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? 

 While they are herbivores, Woodchucks, also known as Groundhogs, Land-Beavers, and Whistle-Pigs, prefer the same fruits and vegetables we eat at home. The amount of carrots, apples, beans, peas, and any flowers groundhogs consume adds up to about a 1/3 of their entire body weight, per day!

When they are not eating, woodchucks are probably burrowing, or using their long, sharp claws to dig. These are not your common holes though. Groundhogs are able to build connected multi-chamber burrows, sometimes they even make a bathroom. Located across North America in areas where woodlands meet open spaces, their fanciful homes are put to good use in the winter, when they hibernate. Continue reading Is it a Groundhog or Woodchuck?

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