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

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

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 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, 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 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.