Thursday, November 29, 2018

Thankful For Small Wonders

On Thanksgiving day I usually make a pilgrimage to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, where my wife works as a keeper of orangutans, gorillas, Golden Lion Tamarins, and related primates. Thursdays are part of her regular work schedule, but at least the zoo's grill caters lunch for the staff and their families on the holiday. The rest of the day I do an informal mini-bioblitz looking for uncaged wildlife, mostly insects and spiders, of course. You would be surprised by what you can find in late November.

Convergent Lady Beetle

With all the press about a very legitimate "insect apocalypse," it does me good to get out and realize there still is a respectable degree of arthropod diversity, at least for now, and despite heavy human impacts. Last Thursday I managed to find over thirty (30) species of insects and spiders in casual searching, mostly on fences where it is easier to spot small organisms that are otherwise well-camouflaged or esconced in nooks and crannies and cracks and crevices.

Gall midge, a type of fly

Right now there is a good deal of major construction happening on zoo grounds, so there is upheaval of normally static habitats. The zoo is located on a mountainside, the landscape remaining largely natural with mixed coniferous trees, an understory of Gambel's Oak, chokecherry, and various wildflowers and herbs and grasses, most of them native. Yes, there are fruit trees and various exotic flora planted for visual pleasure, and a butterfly garden designed to attract the more colorful insects found in the region, but mostly the place has a very natural look.

Jumping plant louse, Cacopsylla pararibesiae

Zoos do not like to publicize the native fauna found on their grounds because in some instances non-captive animals can transmit diseases to the vulnerable captive animals. This is cause for both veterinary concern as well as potential disciplinary action by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the organization responsible for issuing accreditation to zoos for adherence to basic professional standards. This is certainly understandable, but most native animals seen at zoos are birds, sometimes squirrels, and, overwhelmingly, insects. Zoos that fail to acknowledge and embrace those local creatures are doing a disservice to visitors.

Ichneumon wasp

It bears repeating to say that "biodiversity begins at home," and demonstrating how visitors can promote biodiversity on their own property should be a priority at zoos and botanical gardens. That can take the form of a butterfly garden, brush pile, a drilled block of wood that functions as a "bee condo" for solitary bees, or a small water feature to service birds and aquatic insects. You should probably take this only as far as hummingbird feeders, at least here in Colorado where bears and other dangerous wildlife will take full advantage of any food you offer to other kinds of birds, squirrels, and even your own pets. It is in fact a violation of law to feed wildlife.

Flat bark bug, family Aradidae

Simple signage can do a lot to inform zoo guests about the local ecosystems and the role of various animals in maintaining them. Indeed, there are placards around the zoo that do address pollinating insects, bark beetles, etc. It is a start, and something other zoos should emulate as it applies to their own unique macro-fauna.

Ant-mimic spider, Castianeira sp.

Besides the "bugs" themselves, I am grateful for citizen science and social media outlets where I can share images of what I find, and hopefully encourage others to follow suit on their next visit to the zoo, city park, community garden, or even their own backyard. At this time of year, even a bioblitz in your shed or garage or basement can turn up a surprising variety of life forms. Just don't tell your spouse or your mom if they have hostile inclinations toward uninvited animals.

Seed bug, family Lygaeidae

I post regularly to iNaturalist, and occasionally to Facebook....and I need to get back to Project Noah. Whether you know a cockroach from a carpet beetle or a butterfly from a moth, no matter. Share what you observe. Others will help you learn about the critter in question. You may even find something previously unknown to your neck of the woods, to your state, province, or even new to science altogether. There is no end to the discoveries that await you.

A small dung beetle, Scarabaeidae: Aphodiinae

Saturday, November 17, 2018


You won't believe me if I tell you that this new book came as a surprise to the authors, but it is true. Dr. Greg Paulson and myself just had the second edition of Insects Did it First published by Xlibris, as of Friday, November 16. These days the wheels of digital presses turn much faster than us old school writers are accustomed to.

The theme of the book is the parallel between human innovations and social behaviors and those evolved by insects. The similarities are uncanny, inspirational, and occasionally downright mind-blowing. Perhaps we should call this the twenty-first century edition of the original, as we added some chapters resulting from discoveries made after the first edition's 1992 publication date. Were I not such a procrastinator, we might have turned the book out even earlier, but thanks to Greg's diligence, here it is at last.

The initial concept was the brainchild of the late Dr. Roger D. Akre and E. Paul Catts, and Greg Paulson, who conspired together at Washington State University where Akre and Catts were professors, and Paulson a graduate student. Dr. Akre spearheaded the campaign, gathering many "insect inventions" over several years, recruiting many of his colleagues and contemporaries for suggestions. Dr. Catts contributed not only his own knowledge, but his artistic talent as well, rendering a wealth of cartoons to illustrate the chapters. The resulting book enjoyed a popular but brief run thanks to Ye Galleon Press.

Thanks to the solid foundation of the first edition, this latest version continues the tradition of strong, lively prose complemented by Catts' whimsical humorous illustrations. We updated the introduction to honor the original "cast," and added an epilogue to set the stage for what we imagine will be an even brighter future full of new discoveries and human plagiarism of natural "patents." Mother Nature is full of limitless surprises that inspire daily.

We are eager for you to enjoy this unique publication, but not exclusively for our own financial benefit. In fact, portions of the proceeds from sales will go toward scholarships in the name of Dr. Akre and Dr. Catts at Washington State University. It is the least we can do to pay our respects to these two giants of entomology.

While the book is also available through Amazon, we respectfully ask you to consider purchasing through the publisher, Xlibris. The sooner we reach the break-even point for publishing costs, the quicker we can begin contributing to those scholarships. When we receive instructions on how to secure our author's discounts, we will also be offering the book through those channels, too, and, as always, I am happy to sign and ship copies to my followers here. I will update this post as developments warrant. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book Review: Hidden Kingdom is More Than "Eye Candy"

The latest offering from scientist, author, and photographer extraordinaire Piotr Naskrecki is sure to surprise and delight even the most seasoned tropical naturalist, student of entomology, and globe-trotting eco-traveler. Hidden Kingdom: The Insect Life of Costa Rica (Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, 2017) represents one of the best introductions to arthropods in general, regardless of the geographic limitations noted in the title.

The centerpiece of this book, like his previous works, the critically acclaimed The Smaller Majority and Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine, is Naskrecki's mind-blowing imagery of creatures easily overlooked in the natural landscape. He literally renders his subjects larger than life, but then explains how the impact of these invertebrates far exceeds their diminutive stature. So, the magnified macro-world in pictures is simply a reflection of the unheralded, underestimated import of insects, spiders, other arachnids, and crustaceans to the rest of life on Earth. He further communicates this with clear, assertive prose that elevate any reader's understanding of the natural world.

The organization of the book makes it all the more inviting to those who might be unfamiliar with insects (the first chapter asks "What is This?"), or even downright afraid of them. He addresses the intimidation factor head-on in the chapter "Is it Dangerous?" He deftly explains why appearances like "Horns, Spines, and Claws" can be deceiving, but tiny sand flies and mosquitoes can put you in the hospital because of the tinier-still parasitic microbes that they inject when they bite you.

Remaining chapters discuss how insects survive through camouflage, chemical defenses, advertisement of those chemical defenses, and mimicry of other species with chemical defenses, as well as how insects communicate and how those devices for talking to each other allowed some insects to ascend to the truest societies in the animal kingdom.

Scientific terms are generally explained in context, with their first usage in the text, though the book might still have benefited by a glossary, even in place of the index. Some of the taxonomy (scientific classification) differs from what I have come to know, but there exist differences even in scientific circles and these discrepancies cannot be considered errors. Yes, there are a couple of grammatical errors, but I have yet to read a contemporary book without any.

Naskrecki refrains from preaching about the imperiled ecosystem that is tropical forests, and considering that he no doubt witnesses deforestation and other destructive practices every time he goes afield, this restraint is admirable and refreshing. If anyone ever asks "what's the big deal" if we cut down the Amazon, hand them a copy of Hidden Kingdom and ask them to get back to you. This book is a testament to exactly what is at stake for not just the healthy functioning of our planet, but for the future of advances in medicine and other human endeavors.

I would not hesitate to recommend Hidden Kingdom as a textbook for any college-level introductory entomology course. The initial chapter alone informs all the major orders of insects, independent of Costa Rica; but, those professors who teach classes in tropical natural history would do well to assign this book in advance of field trips to the New World rainforests, and dry forests.

Naskrecki has made advances in tropical biology of a magnitude comparable to Darwin, Wallace, and other heroic naturalists of a bygone era. One can scarcely believe that Piotr has the time to write and illustrate books, share his findings on social media (Facebook in particular), lead film crews into the forest (PBS Nature's six-part "Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise"), or mentor other photographers (BugShot macrophotography workshops), but he accomplishes all of this and more. His is a brilliant mind and generous spirit that are a rare combination. Naskrecki is without question one of the most publicly accessible scientists of our time, even considering that the digital age makes nearly everyone "followable."

Hidden Kingdom is a paperback book of 208 pages. Forgive the awkward dimensions (10 X 10 inches), as it dramatically amplifies the impact of the magnificent photos. Reward and promote excellence in science and art by treating yourself, your family, and friends to a copy of this most outstanding reference.