A while ago I wrote a post on Funny Taxonomy, featuring some of the ridiculous names that taxonomists come up with. I recently found a great follow up to that post, so I’m calling it…Funny Taxonomy, part 2! A rose by any other name…
These examples were all taken from this website: http://home.comcast.net/~johnepler3/names.html
The longest scientific name ever proposed (not in current use): Gammaracanthuskytodermogammarus loricatobaicalensis
Which was for an amphipod.
The shortest scientific name: Ia io
I like this wasp: Pison eu (you have to say it out loud)
And this one: Aha ha, which according to internet folklore was named because the entomologist who discovered it exclaimed Aha! upon opening the box. Indeed, a little research yields the manuscript “Aha, a new genus of Australian Sphecidae, and a revised key to the world genera of the tribe Miscophini (Hymenoptera, Larrinae)”, by Mencke (1977). I was unable to access the manuscript, but I was able to access this paper, which described the second species in the genus, Aha evansi.
And I’ll end with this tribute to one of my favourite artists, Gary Larson: Strigiphilus garylarsoni. It’s an owl louse, so I’m sure he’d be proud.
This Australian sea eagle stole a camera, and it is hilarious, just watch:
But it reminded me of all the great videos of flight, for example this falcon and goshawk flying along the beach and through trees:
Or Ellie flying through small spaces (it’s pretty amazing):
Or this Bird’s Eye View:
Or if you want to hear about non bird flight, here is a fun video about how dragonflies, well, fly:
(PS I have that entomology book.)
And we can’t leave out our beloved bats!!
You can see how differently bats fly by watching the flying foxes in Queensland at dusk. The flying foxes are easier to observe because they are larger and fly more slowly. They seem to grab the air, rather than flap with their whole arm like a bird.
The Theory of Flight
for over an hour we watched
a hummingbird trapped
in the arch of a skylight
so close it was to life
or death or some release
from the awful thrumming
of wings too weak to fall
back into place after each
attempt to reach the sky—
my neighbors and I each battling
what could separate us from
the quirks that too quickly
snuff lives have gathered to free
the bird from the delicate trap
of light and man-made sky—
we seem clumsy too eager
to hold onto the fragile
space we think we inhabit
we dare not question how each
of us knows life is a mere balance
of light and the absence of light—
and how in our cages of skin
we wish we could beat
our way heavenward while
air traps us all on solid
ground while the sky above
ever changes its direction—
we watch as the bird exhausted
falters but never stops and we think
of how our bodies have faltered
skin turning back to wrinkled cells
barely recognizable to those
who tend us—and in those moments
how easy it seems to be no greater
no less than a hummingbird
and fly at eighty beats per second
toward a sky real or not where
nothing flowers nothing soothes the air
- COLLEEN J. MCELROY
Last year I was visiting China with my mother and father. My father was presenting at an international conference (highly televised in China) and while he was working all week, my mother and I set about exploring Beijing. We saw the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and the Olympic Stadium (to name a few).
It was very fun to visit China, but I struggled with the most basic of words. I even had difficulty pronouncing thank you without someone giving me an odd side eye. Mostly, we just got around by pointing to things on maps, gesturing wildly, and giving blank, but friendly, smiles.
One day, we were struggling to find food. We had spent the morning in a sort of underground shopping center, which had only one food court. We tried to order food there, but ended up in the center of a big commotion where complete strangers that understood snippets of English tried to help us by indicating that we needed a special kind of card in order to buy food.
We were unable to communicate that we had no idea where to get such a card and ultimately gave up and wandered out into the street, stomachs rumbling. My mother pointed out a small corner store and we dashed in. Behind the counter, there were big steaming pots of different kinds of soups, with photos next to them and big black Chinese characters (which we couldn’t read).
Everything smelled delicious, so we pointed at random and the man behind the counter (who spoke not a word of English) pointed and we smiled and nodded and handed him some cash. At this point, my mother was so excited to get food that (even though we had no idea what was in it), she exclaimed loudly, “Ohh, yeah!”
The man behind the counter, clearly entertained by our excited antics, mimicked her perfectly, “Ohh, yeah!” he cried back twice. I fell about laughing as my mother gathered the food. We could still hear him repeating it as we left through the door.
This is a delicate topic for me, as I study pollination services in agriculture and the answer to this question can directly impact the funding and interest in my research. It’s also a very complex issue; the answer varies globally and even within countries. This is a very US centric post because that is where I have researched bees and pollination services, but feel free to chime in below with a comment about pollination services in other countries!
I’m going to divide this issue into two chunks because there are two major groups of insects that contribute to crop pollination: domesticated bees (mainly the honeybee), and wild bees that already exist in the environment and provide “free” pollination services to agricultural crops.
Humans have had a long association with the honeybees; there is evidence that they were domesticated over 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt and they have followed humans ever since (Buchmann 2006). The original purpose of their domestication was honey production, but modern agriculture relies more on the pollination services provided by the bees. In the US alone, the pollination services of honeybees are valued at over 15 billion dollars a year (Morse and Calderone 2000) (19.3–40.3 billion US$ when adjusted for inflation in 2012).
Widespread attention was brought to the honeybees after Colony Collapse Disorder was first reported in 2006 (vanEngelsdorp et al. 2006). The case of the “disappearing bees” was alarming because we didn’t know what caused it and because we couldn’t study the dead bees…they simply never returned to the hive.
The result of this original scare was twofold. First, a huge amount of research was funded to find the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder and to combat it (that’s a whole other post). Second, we realized just how fragile depending on a single species for all of our pollination services could be.
Though bee keepers are still experiencing large losses every winter, there is convincing evidence to show that there are more honeybees than ever before (Aizen et al. 2008). How can this be called a pollination crisis? Actually, though the number of honeybees has increased, our dependence on them has outpaced their growth. The number of pollinator dependent crops is increasing at a rapid rate (Aizen and Harder 2009).
Wild and Native Bees
This issue gets more complex. Because of the threats to the honeybee, researchers started looking for alternative pollinators. After all, there are more than 20,000 bee species worldwide! We’ve learned so much about native bees just in the past few years, and the research community is buzzing*, so to speak, about their potential to provide all of the pollination services that crops require.
Are those native and wild bees in decline? We don’t really know (Ghazoul 2005). There is some evidence to suggest that some groups of wild bees are declining (Bartomeus et al. 2013), but we really don’t know enough about their past abundance and distribution to say for sure. We only started really studying them when the honeybees began to suffer! As a result, we don’t have a baseline to judge.
We’re searching for species that can be domesticated (such as the mason bees (esp. Osmia spp.) and bumblebees (especially Bombus impatiens)) and ways to improve nesting habitat for mining bees. Farmers have even begun to invest in floral provisioning strips to boost native bee abundance within their fields.
And we know that native and wild bees can provide all of the pollination services that agricultural crops require…IF they have enough habitat (Garibaldi et al 2013).
So that’s all great, right? It sounds like we have resources we can rely on, spreading out our dependence to many species, and strategies for encouraging them are well on their way.
Threats to Pollination Services
But the elephant in the room is big agriculture. The wild bees can’t survive in monocultures of almonds spanning hundreds of hectares in California (Klein et al. 2007). And in the meantime the bees (and all other insects at the same time) are being pounded by pesticides. And not just the insecticides made to kill insects, but fungicides and herbicides. They are not only toxic themselves to the bees, but the herbicides also have a huge impact on non-crop floral resources on field edges.
Recent work by Chris Mullin shows that there are more than 98 different pesticides in honeybee pollen (Mullin et al. 2010). And a recent paper that came out this year shows that most of the pollen in honeybee hives is from weedy field edges (Pettis et al. 2013). Those edges are strongly impacted by pesticide use.
So what do you think? Is there a pollination crisis? Is it imminent? We can’t say for sure, but there are plenty of reasons to invest in pollination services. After all, we owe the diversity and colour of our diet to the pollination services provided by insects. And that diversity and colour is directly linked to our health and longevity.
As I once heard May Berenbaum say, “If we lost bees, we wouldn’t starve**, but we’d all get scurvy pretty fast!”
** Staples like wheat, rice, and corn do not require insect pollination.
The other day, I went for a run, which is not in itself exceptional. The weather, however, was not cooperating. The air temperature was 17F (-8C), with a wind chill down to 2F (-17C), with winds at a steady 20mph and gusts up to 30mph. There were periodic bouts of blinding snow, blowing horizontally into my face so hard that there was actually snow build up in my eyes. Yet there was little snow on the ground because it was blowing so hard.
I’ve run in much colder weather, but due to all the salt on the road, my feet actually got wet. At mile 2 or so I thought, woops this is dangerous. I’ve gotten frostbite before from wet feet. I considered turning around, then I thought (in the way runners often do), nah, just six miles can’t hurt.
By the time I got back from my run, three of my toes were a delicate shade of black. I’ve gotten frostbite before, but I’ve never seen quite that colour. With a bit of alarm, I immersed them in a hot water bath, gritting my teeth against the pain as the feeling came back to them. (Have you ever done that? Hurts like heck.)
Needless to say, I’m not a huge fan of the winter, or the snow. It is slippery. And cold. Enough said.
Excepted from Snow
Our snow-storms as a rule
Aren¹t looked on as man-killers, and although
I¹d rather be the beast that sleeps the sleep
Under it all, his door sealed up and lost,
Than the man fighting it to keep above it,
Yet think of the small birds at roost and not
In nests. Shall I be counted less than they are?
Their bulk in water would be frozen rock
In no time out to-night. And yet to-morrow
They will come budding boughs from tree to tree
Flirting their wings and saying Chickadee,
As if not knowing what you meant by the word storm.
- Robert Frost
Another bird drawing from the favourite bird series. This one is for my aunt, who recently broke her neck while horseback riding. She is alive and recovering, but it was very scary. She is an expert rider, but apparently a dog rushed out and started barking at her horse, which reared, caught its hoof in the reins, and fell over on top of her. She was riding with a friend, but, unable to get the horse off of my aunt, her friend rode off to get help. While her friend was gone, the horse got up on its own, and my aunt walked the mile back to the stables, holding onto her head with both hands. Amazing, right? She was rushed to the emergency room and spent four days in urgent care, sustaining three broken ribs and massive trauma to her leg in addition to her broken neck.
I would be grateful if you could send good wishes her way!
My aunt was the one who taught me to ride, and also the one who taught me to love birds. The bird that first inspired her was the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Was kind of incredible! These photos are all straight out of the camera, unedited. And they were all taken over about a five to ten minute period yesterday morning. I have seen my fair share of sunrises, but I thought this was pretty exceptional. You can click on any of them to view them larger, and to see the halo around the beam shooting up from the rising sun.
On Friday, the New York Times published an article titled, “The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear.” It’s an OpEd piece, so maybe it can be forgiven, but I feel that it is misleading in several ways.
The fundamental problem that the article addresses does exist…monarch populations are crashing. The the ultimate and proximate causes are much more complex than those laid out in the article.
First, let me explain the life cycle of the monarch, because it is a bit different than most insects. Monarchs are famous for their migration, which takes them from southern Canada to Mexico and back. Though the monarchs travel south in the autumn and north in the spring, no single individual is capable of making the whole trip. It can take 3 or 4 generations of monarchs. No monarch has ever seen both Canada and Mexico and no one knows how the overwintering sites are conserved across several generations.
The population on the western side of the Rocky Mountains overwinters in southern California, but the populations east of the Rockies overwinter in a select few sites in Mexico. These sites are very limited in distribution. In fact, there are only twelve known locations (Slayback and Brower 2007) (you can see the small blue circle on the map above); only the peaks of a few mountains provide the right combination of moisture and cool temperatures. In recent years, these sites have been threatened by logging and human development (Brower et al 2008).
If the temperatures get too high, the metabolism of the Monarchs speeds up and they essentially starve to death (Masters et al 1988). If there is too much or too little precipitation, the Monarchs cannot survive in their overwintering habitat (Oberhauser and Peterson 2003). This is an important point that the article neglects. We have already seen temperature increases in these areas, which are threatened not only by human development, but also by a changing climate.
The NY times article makes a lot of good points. It is true that there has been a dramatic reduction in the abundance of Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) in some areas. Common milkweed has historically been the most important host plant of the monarch (Hartzler 2010), and its decline is due mostly to agriculture and development. (And while I agree that this is also a threat to the bees, I do resent them being called “flying dust mops.”)
But if the overwintering sites disappear in Mexico, there is not a great hope of saving the migration, no matter how much milkweed is planted in northeastern North American gardens. Last summer, I saw great fields full of the common milkweed…and not a single caterpillar. That is an anecdote, but it helps to explain my point. And it is the extinction of the migration we are talking about here, not the butterfly. The butterfly persists in its western range, as well as in Australia and New Zealand (it is known as the wanderer there). Even if the great migration is lost on the east coast, the species will persist, albeit in much lower numbers.
It is interesting to think of this case as one of an extinction (or attempted conservation) of a natural phenomenon rather than a species.
A few weeks ago, I was hiking in the Grand Canyon. Down at Plateau Point, I sat watching the Colorado River and ruminating on life, and a ranger walked up. She nodded to me, and then struck up a conversation. I wouldn’t have asked her otherwise, but since she seemed so friendly, I gestured up to a circling bird.
“That’s just a Turkey Vulture, right?” I asked. I had been seeing them all day, and was secretly hoping that one might be a condor, which I had not yet spotted.
She glanced up at the bird, squinted, and said, “Nah, that’s just a raven.”
I glanced at the bird, back at her, and back at the bird, “I’m pretty sure I saw white on the underside of the wings…”
“Aw, that’s just the sun,” she peered a bit more, “Yep, definitely a vulture. In fact, I’m 90% sure that it’s a…ah…uh…”
She stared at me hard for a moment, “Say…you’re not…one of those birder types, are you?”
“Oh,” she said, “Well, I’m not sure what kind of bird it is. If anyone asks, I had no idea. It could be any kind of bird.” She quickly backpedaled.
“Turkey vultures aren’t very interesting anyway,” I said, without thinking. Then, with a quick salute, I quickly escaped back to the trail.
For my graduate research, I studied bees…now for my postdoctoral work, I am studying the pollen that the bees carry. Not as cute? Perhaps. But there is a whole world contained in the pollen grains carried by bees. I thought I’d share some of my first photos, which are rough, but there you go. They’re grain-y.*
Alone with time, he waits for his parents to wake,
A boy growing old at the dining room table,
Pressing into the pages of one of his father’s big books
The flowers he picked all morning
In his mothers’ garden, magnolia, hibiscus,
Azalea, peony, pear, tulip, iris;
Reading in another book their names he knows,
And then the names from their secret lives;
Lives alchemical, nautical, genital;
Names unpronounceable fascicles of italic script;
Descriptions could never trace:
Accessory to empire, party to delusions of an afterlife,
Kin to the toothed, mouthed, furred,
Horned, brained. Flowers
Seem to a boy, who doesn’t know any better, like the winged,
The walking, the swimming, and crawling things abstracted
From time, and stilled by inward gazing.
Copying their pictures, replete with diagrams, he finds
In the words for their parts,
The accounts of their histories,
And their scattered pollen,
Something to do with his own fate
And the perfection of all dying things.
And when it’s time, he discovers in the kitchen
The note left for him that says
His parents have gone and will return by noon.
And when it’s time, the dove
Calls from its hiding place
And leaves the morning greener
And the one who hears the dove more alone.
- Li-Young Lee
I just heard about the coolest katydid! It is a carnivorous katydid, which surprised me because I am accustomed to katydids being herbivorous (like this one).
(If you don’t believe that katydids can be cool, read this: “Studies conducted in 2010 at the University of Derby by Karim Vahed, Darren Parker and James Gilbert found that the Tuberous Bushcricket (Platycleis affinis) has the largest testes in proportion to body mass of any animal recorded. They account for 14% of the insect’s body mass and are thought to enable a fast re-mating rate.” (Vahed et al. 2010))
The katydid that is the topic of today’s post (Chlorobalius leucoviridis) exhibits what is known as “aggressive mimicry”, which means that it steals a signal from a prey item and uses it to capture said prey item.
The Spotted Predatory Katydid can attract delicious male cicadas by imitating the noise the female makes. The katydid is exceptional in that it can attract male cicadas of more than one species, though the mating calls are species specific. Indeed, a study by Marshall and Hill (2009) showed that: “Remarkably, the katydids respond effectively to a variety of complex, species-specific Cicadettini songs, including songs of many cicada species that the predator has never encountered. We propose that the versatility of aggressive mimicry in C. leucoviridis is accomplished by exploiting general design elements common to the songs of many acoustically signaling insects that use duets in pair-formation.” (that article is open access) Smart katydid!
In other words, this katydid is the mythological siren that Odysseus faced in his odyssey, luring unwary cicadas to their deaths.
Oh, and if you want to know why I would call them “katy-don’ts”, just take a look at this photo.
There was an article out a couple of weeks ago about the decline of the study of botany. But the reason for today’s post is actually this beautiful response from one of my academic crushes, Peter Bernhardt (it went out on the pollinator listserve…sometimes I just have to share these well thought out email replies):
“A colleague sent me the same link the other day. It’s very good to see the research of Dr. Skogen receive public attention. As for the remainder of the article, it was badly researched and written. At worst, it is deceptive.
Peter “still a botanist” Bernhardt
Yesterday, I made an new friend, an older gentlemen with kind blue eyes. Upon hearing the stories of my travels and my itinerant life, he recited a poem from memory for me. It was very moving because he said, “Excuse me, I can’t say this part without crying.” I thought he was going to stop, but he just kept reciting the poem, tears flowing freely. He too, had lived an itinerant life, as an officer in the navy, and he often left those “silken threads trailing.” It was very touching, so here is the poem, by E.B. White.
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.
Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
It’s always dangerous to tell me what your favourite bird is. I ask the question in a very nonchalant way, but unsuspecting persons soon end up with a drawing on their doorstep.
My friend casually mentioned that she loves robins, and look what happened.
(Colorado’s is my favourite: “The cowboy cookie is a chocolate-chip cookie to which someone wisely added rolled oats and shredded coconut, and to which someone else very stupidly added chopped pecans. Neither pecans nor coconuts nor oats come from Colorado. Nor does chocolate. Nor do cowboys, really. You know what does come from Colorado? Confused looks and shrugged shoulders when you ask people what their state’s signature foodstuff is. This is because, at any given time, 102 percent of the people in Colorado are vacationing Californians in bubble-vests and hiking boots. Real Colorado-types (Coloradans? Coloroadies? Colorectal cancers?) eat snow, and don’t exist.”)
50 state stereotypes in 2 minutes:
Urban Dictionary Definitions: “Nebraska: Yes, it’s actually a state, and no, we do not ride cows to school. Nebraska–the state known for its football, cows, and…well, I’ll be honest, that’s about it.”
As labeled by an Australian:
Buzzfeed sexiness ratings: I have no comment here except to say that I have lived in all four quadrants of this graph. Make of that what you will!!
50 state mottos: “Colorado: If You Don’t Ski, Don’t Bother”
And another version of 50 state mottos: My favourite? “Georgia: We Put The “Fun” In Fundamentalist Extremism”
Wikipedia’s list of state nicknames: I like “Connecticut, land of steady habits.”
Revisions to the 50 state birds: My favourite is: “Delaware. Official state bird: blue hen chicken: You know what? I’m not so mad about this. Whatever, it seems to have some connection to you, even though “blue chicken” plugged into a thesaurus means “sad wuss.””
I’ve had this poem for a few weeks now, and I’ve been rereading it periodically. I knew I wanted to share it here the moment I read it. It reminds me of another great quote I once read (can’t remember where, sorry), “Any animal can swim. It is only man who thinks, and panics, and drowns.” (That’s not 100% true, as not all animals can swim, but I like the sentiment.)
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.