Sunday, February 12, 2017

Poor Substitutes

Two news stories crossed my Facebook newsfeed and the television news respectively last week that should raise concern for anyone advocating for the conservation of forests and pollinators. What the media hails as milestone inventions could have negative impacts for nature's originals.

© Hassnain Develish and Facebook.com

Hassain Develish's "World of Biology" Facebook group posted the above meme on February 5, describing a new, synthetic "biological leaf." This is actually old news, but this video explains Julian Melchiorri's creation and the potential applications he sees for it. First off, this is not a truly synthetic product. It still requires actual chloroplasts found in plants; and those chloroplasts are embedded in a structure derived from silk. Yes, the silk produced by caterpillars of the domesticated silkworm moth. It appears that there is not much truly unique here, except where you can deploy it. Synthetic leaves can be used where actual plants will not grow.

© Eijiro Miyako and Futurism.com

Meanwhile, Japanese chemists unveiled tiny drones coated with sticky horsehair that they claim could pollinate crops. I learned of this story on CBS News This Morning, and the accompanying video clip was so horrendous a demonstration of "pollination" that I started laughing. A similar undertaking is underway at Sussex University in England, under the leadership of Thomas Nowotny. His lab's drones are larger, but may be able to include GPS and other navigational technologies that the Japanese microdrones have no room for. Not to be upstaged, the Wyss Institute at Harvard University has produced robotic bees, too, and envision that they could be useful not only in pollinating crops, but in search-and-rescue, surveillance, and environmental monitoring.

Do we not see the implied messages in these endeavors? The implications are that we do not need the original, natural, biological organisms. Technology can make things "better" than nature. We can continue rampant deforestation because we can create synthetic leaves. We can tolerate a dwindling diversity and population of pollinating insects because we can make drones that do the job (at least for crops because no plants matter unless they can feed people). The most important, and disgusting, message being sent is this: Non-human organisms must have utilitarian benefits to humanity to justify their existence.

Even if you believe in creation instead of evolution, you must admit that we were instructed by God to serve as stewards of creation, not given the mandate to replace it. Indeed, we are servants to other organisms, and they in turn are servants to us, but not always in such black-and-white, easily understood ways. Nature is complex for a reason, and the many other organisms that are responsible for human success on planet Earth are not always as charismatic as butterflies, bees, and trees. Moreover, while it is natural for any organism to view the world selfishly, to enhance its own dominance, humans can actually succeed in eliminating our predators, parasites, and competitors. We do this at the expense of not only those other species, but at the cost of our biophilia, our innate love and reverence for other creatures.

Remember, insects like bees are also food for other creatures. Tiny metallic drones offer no nutrition to a hungry bird, and would likely kill any predator mistaking them for real bees. There is that, and the fact that I, for one, find mechanical facsimiles of insects and other animals far less captivating than the real thing. Indeed, I find them boring, simple, and poor substitutions.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

It's Always Something....

To quote the lovely Ms. Rosanne Roseannadanna, "It just goes to show you, it's always something." It may take months, even years, to learn that something you observed and recorded is noteworthy, or potentially so. Such was a recent case in which an image I posted on Bugguide.net was finally identified, more or less, leaving still more questions than answers.

November 27, 2014, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., I was at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo where my wife works as a primate keeper. The zoo restaurant staff caters a holiday lunch, and employees bring potluck dishes to supplement. Before and after the feast, I was out looking for insects, as the weather was reasonably conducive to finding late autumn macro-fauna.

On a wooden fence railing I spotted what at first I thought might be an aphid. Upon closer inspection, it was an aphid relative known as a "jumping plant louse" or psyllid. This is a tiny insect. Total body length is only 2.6 millimeters, or 4-4.5 mm if you measure from head to wingtip. It varies from light green to greenish gray.

Psyllids were once lumped into a single family, but research has shown that there are several families. A few species are very abundant and conspicuous, like hackberry psyllids. A few others are economically impactful, especially in orchard crops. The remaining majority are poorly known, keeping a very low profile on native plants.

The image I uploaded to Bugguide understandably floundered in obscurity until February 2 of this year when I received notification that someone had left comments and even moved the image into genus-level classification. I was grateful, but also surprised by the comments left by Chris Mallory:

"Bactericera nr. arbolensis
In nearly every regard it is consistent with this Shepherdia-associated species originally described from Arboles, CO. However, the medial cell of the forewing is much smaller than described and illustrated, and in this aspect it does not agree with any known described species.
There could be several reasons for this. First, the size of the medial cell of B. arbolensis may be more variable than the literature suggests. Alternatively, this may be an undescribed but related species. In either situation it is a very interesting find. I'd love to see more of them."

Wow. Chris Mallory is an expert on the superfamily Psylloidea; and is also one of the individuals behind the comprehensive online guide SoCalFauna.net, a photographic gallery of most of the animals one is likely to encounter in southern California.

Thanks to the in-depth profile page at Chris's Psyllids.info website, I learned that the species he thinks it might be is known from Silver Buffaloberry, Shepherdia argentea and Canadian Buffaloberry, Shepherdia canadensis. Neither of those plants is very common, if found at all, along the Front Range of Colorado. It is, however, conceivable that the zoo landscapes with one or both of them, so I will have to check out that possibility. Meanwhile, there are few literature records of the psyllid itself: MONTANA: Roosevelt County; WYOMING: Sweetwater County: Green River; COLORADO: Montrose County: Cimarron; LaPlata County: Durango; Archuleta County: Arboles. All but the Montana record are from west of the Continental Divide. The type specimens, those from which the insect was described and named, were 3 males and 4 females collected by C.F. Baker in Arboles.

There are 24 known species of Bactericera found in North America north of Mexico, and mine is potentially a twenty-fifth. This just goes to show you, you never know what you might turn up if you point your gaze, and camera or phone, at a yittle, teeny-tiny bug.

Sources: Crawford, D.L. 1914. A Monograph of the Jumping Plant-lice or Psyllidae of the New World. 85: 186 pp. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
Tuthill, L.D. 1943. "The Psyllids of America North of Mexico: (Psyllidae: Homoptera)," Iowa State College Journal of Science. 218 pp.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Winter Click Beetle?

I can't make this stuff up. Here I am just walking my neighborhood for exercise yesterday, as I try to do on a daily basis, and limping across the sidewalk comes a little (6-7 mm) click beetle. I put it in a vial, bring it home, and take a couple of pictures. Because I am curious, and I know that "bug folks" on Facebook are starved for stimuli during the winter, I post the images in a beetle group. How should I know that would be genuinely exciting?

My first stop online was the "Friends of Coleoptera [beetles] at the Natural History Museum" group on Facebook. The group is hosted by curators at the Natural History Museum in London, England, but beetle experts from all over the world are members of the group and always willing to help with identifications.

As luck would have it, one of my mentors from back when I was a teenager, and then at Oregon State University, is an expert on click beetles (family Elateridae). I knew this, and I knew he was in the Facebook group, but I had no idea when he would be online next, let alone looking at posts in the group. In a matter of minutes, he had put up a comment on my post that exceeded my wildest expectations:

"Anthracopteryx hiemalis. Super-nice find! This is a native winter-active species in a monobasic genus. It is endemic from Laramie south to Westcliffe in the Front Ranges. Never collected it myself."

Translation: This beetle is the only species in that genus, and it has a very restricted geographical range. You could have knocked me over with a feather. What I haven't told my friend yet is that this is actually the second specimen I have found, in the same stretch of sidewalk, under pretty much the same exact conditions. I didn't get around to imaging that first specimen until it was just about to expire, unfortunately, but here you go....

I certainly did not expect to get a species identification, but I took that and went over to Bugguide.net, the foremost online repository of images of North American insects, spiders, and other arthropods, to add my two images. Well, there weren't any others. There was not a species page to put them on. There was not even a page for the genus. Fortunately, I have volunteer editorial privileges, and so I was able to erect the appropriate pages and then put the pictures up. That kind of thing does not happen very often any more. Bugguide is damn comprehensive.

The lesson I learned, and should have learned long ago, actually, is that when it comes to entomology, you can never assume anything. You can never figure that what you observe and record has no significance. Sure, most of the time it won't be earth-shaking in any way. Then, one day when you don't bother making something public, you will be depriving the scientific community of something truly remarkable.

If anyone ever chastises you for sharing an observation of some "common" critter that you personally were unfamiliar with, then the shame is on them. We can all recall learning about a given organism for the first time, and how exciting that was. Scientists have no right to insult anyone for making an effort to learn, contribute, and otherwise share. Thankfully, there are few scholars that arrogant and disrespectful.

So, get out there on warm winter days and start looking for stuff! There are, no doubt, whole communities of winter-active organisms that we are overlooking.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Carrion Beetle That Isn't?

At first glance, the Garden Carrion Beetle, Heterosilpha ramosa, could be mistaken for a darkling beetle or ground beetle. Indeed, only the clubbed antennae, and the five tarsal segments comprising each "foot," betray them as something else (darkling beetles have only four segments in the tarsus of the hind leg). Carrion beetles make up the family Silphidae, but surprisingly, this particular species seems to have a diet of anything but corpses.

I periodically encounter the 11-17 millimeter long, dull black adult beetles crossing the sidewalk in my Colorado Springs neighborhood. The natural habitat here is shortgrass prairie, but I knew this beetle when I lived in the coniferous forests of Portland and Corvallis, Oregon, too. It occurs mostly west of the Rockies and south to Mexico, but ranges east and north as far as Iowa, Minnesota, and Ontario, Canada.

Consulting various references paints and interesting and evolving picture of H. ramosa. Older references used the genus name Silpha, but it is the portrayal of the species as at least an occasional pest that is puzzling. Essig declares that the Garden Carrion Beetle feeds mostly on decaying vegetable matter, but "also attacks garden and field crops, grasses, and weeds. If often occurs on lawns." Presumably it consumes these foods as both an adult and a larva.

The larva is jet black, highly mobile, and resembles an overgrown carpet or hide beetle larva (family Dermestidae, especially genus Dermestes). The tapered body allows the larva to slither effortlessly into cracks and crevices, or easily slip out of a predator's grasp. The speed at which it can travel is rather surprising considering the relatively short legs at the front of the body.

A more contemporary book by Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue asserts that the "Garden Silphid" adults and larvae "are general feeders, consuming living or dead, soft-bodied insects such as maggots, which feed on decaying organic matter in the soil; Silpha sometimes feed on leaves of plants at night."

Arthur V. Evans and James Hogue illuminate the natural history of this species a bit more in the most recent reference I could find in my library. According to their Field Guide to Beetles of California, "The adult is active March through October....overwinters and becomes active the following spring. Eggs ar laid in the soil around a carcass or rotting vegetable matter and take approximately five days to hatch.....The larval stage lasts approximately two to three weeks. The pupal stage lasts 8-9 days." The authors go on to recite the previous conclusion that both the adult beetles and the larvae are "general feeders."

The evolution of our understanding of the impact of H. ramosa comes full circle, from minor crop pest to beneficial organism in the rest of Hogue and Evans' life history sketch: "The adult has been found feeding on dead Devastating Grasshoppers (Melanoplus devastator) and Brown Garden Snails (Helix asper)." Ok, so it is scavenging, but considering the predatory nature of other carrion beetles, it would be no surprise to find it killing injured or otherwise incapacitated pest invertebrates, too.

What else do we not know about this species, or any other insect for that matter? The answer is "plenty." Insects which are not perceived to be of economic importance, either positively or negatively, tend to be under-researched, to put it mildly. Outright ignored is perhaps an even better way to frame it. Pick a "bug," any bug, to study, and chances are you can be something of a hero.

Sources: Essig, E.O. 1958. Insects and Mites of Western North America. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1050 pp.
Evans, Arthur V. and James N. Hogue. 2006. Field Guide to Beetles of California. Berkeley: University of California Press. 355 pp.
Powell, Jerry A. and Charles L. Hogue. 1979. California Insects. Berkeley: University of California Press. 388 pp.
White, Richard E. 1983. A Field Guide to the Beetles of North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 368 pp.