Saturday, June 14, 2014

The fungus among us

In the last post I made a bold prediction: that the weather would warm up and the insects would become extra active (especially coming to the porch lights at night).  Well, I'm an Entomologist - not a Meteorologist - so what happened was we had a string of days where the mornings were overcast with showers, then in the afternoon it got hot and humid, but it would stay cool in the evening.  This is not the right recipe for insect activity, BUT it is the recipe for fungus.

Most people are familiar with the conspicuous fruiting body of mushrooms, but aside from this brief period in it's life cycle, a fungus is composed of a network of hair-like filamentous hyphae.  These hyphae grow through soil, dead trees, and other places that aren't typically exposed for us to see.  The fungus hyphae slowly feed on the nutrients of the dead tree and grow.  Now because the fungus hyphae grows best in dark, damp, warm places, this is something that a lot of people can overlook.  However, this isn't something overlooked by invertebrates!



(We are all familiar with the fruiting bodies of mushrooms like the ones above, but have a look at the fungus hyphae in these pics below)



We are all familiar with "Pill-Bugs", but after my childhood fascination faded I never paid much thought to them.  It turns out that they play the important role of decomposing dead wood.  I have too many brush piles to speak of, and these "Pill-Bugs" are feasting on the wood and fungus hyphae growing on the wood.  As the "Pill-Bugs" eat the wood they are mechanically grinding up the wood and digesting it into finer particles.  This breaks down the wood, which will eventually turn into soil.




I use quotations around "Pill-Bug" because it is not a "Bug"; it is a land crustacean!  It is still an invertebrate, but it is an isopod, which is more closely related to crabs, shrimp, and crayfish than it is to any insect.

Well, the short part of this story is that I went out looking for insect activity, I didn't find what I was looking for, but I did find a lot of fungus and isopods hitting the high point of their year from how the local weather has given them just the right conditions to thrive.

Have a good day!
Andy

Monday, June 9, 2014

Nature watch

Here in Norman, we have had the perfect weather bring out all the summer bugs!  If you haven't noticed already, ticks are beyond abundant this year.  Be sure to check yourself and your pets after every time you leave a tall grass or wooded area.  Double check your pets too!  My dog Ginger has been treated to prevent ticks, but she still carries them into the house (and they end up on me!).  I've noticed a lot of rabbits in my back yard, which means that the ticks have plenty to feed on.  I expect the ticks to thrive under these conditions.

All the moisture and humidity we have had the last few days is the perfect weather for insects to get busy with their life cycle.  All we need is a bit of sustained heat, which I expect will come in a few days, and we ought to be seeing quite a lot of activity.  You might have already noticed that insects are starting to be attracted to the lights on your porch, but expect this activity to increase over the next few days as it warms up.  It's simple to prevent these bugs from getting in - just turn off your porch light - OR you can leave it on and watch what comes to visit!  I like to leave mine on and I have been seeing some interesting longhorned beetles, moths, stinkbugs, and planthoppers.  What happens is that these insects normally use the moon as a navigation point while they move about at night.  Once they get close enough to the porch light, it appears brighter than the moon, and this disorients their navigation.  This is generally why you see June Bugs awkwardly flying about a light and banging into just about everything!

I just bought a house with a bit of land, and I'm leaving a few acres to grow into tall grass and wild flowers.  Right now the tallest plant is a thistle - these are common weeds in Ohio and everyone works to eradicate these on sight (think about that plant with stickers that got you when you ran around barefoot as a kid).  This thistle turns out to grow some really spectacular flowers, and these flowers attract a variety of pollinators.  I took a close look at the action on this plant and I was shocked by what I found - I saw something with the body of a beetle, but the mouthparts of a true bug!  I couldn't believe my eyes as I watched this beetle use its specialized mouthparts to drink nectar as if it were using a straw.

Here is a picture of the flower with the beetle on it:

Here is a picture of the beetle's mouthparts:

Here is a picture where I manipulated the mouthparts in order to show you its length:

For the most part, beetles have chewing mouthparts and True bugs have a straw-like stylet to pierce plant or animal tissue and then sip the fluids.  This beetle still has chewing mouthparts but has modified maxillae.  Maxillae normally work like your cheeks do to keep food in your mouth and to move food around within your mouth.  This beetle has two elongate maxillae that come together as a pair, and they reach 9mm in length!  The whole insect is about 15mm, so this mouthpart is over half the length of the entire body!  Imagine if your cheeks stretched out to over half your height!  Mine would be almost 3 feet long!  These long, specialized mouthparts certainly helps this beetle reach the nectar hidden deep within the flowers!  

Well, next time you see a blooming thistle, take a careful look to see if this beetle is nearby.  Also, now is a great time to experience wildlife in general, so be sure to spend some time outside!  Here is a picture of a turtle my dog Ginger found going through my back yard:

Just before we found the turtle, this bunny let me get close enough for a good photo:

 All the best!
-Andy


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What has been going on?

We have been very busy lately and I want to catch you all upon all the things we have been getting into.  First, I have been working hard to build up our volunteer base.  When I started we had one volunteer, and now we have 4 volunteers with two more getting ready to start.  I've trained a great core set of volunteers who are chipping away at our backlog of biodiversity samples.  We started with a shelf that had nearly 500 samples, and today there are only 12 or so left!  They are doing a fantastic job and I can't be more proud of how well they have taken to this project.  I'm working hard to make sure we have plenty to keep them busy once we move on to our next project!
No more jars like this!
Next, Katrina and I have both organized separate symposia for the national meeting of the Entomological Society of America.  Katrina's symposium will cover aspects of True Bug (Hemiptera) biology and my symposium will cover processing samples of biodiversity.  I'm hoping to use our set-up as a model for small departments to efficiently take on big tasks.  We estimated that the 500 samples would take about two years to process, and after 6 months we are half way to completing this!  I put all the credit to the dedication of our volunteers and I want to share our workflow so that other institutions can model after what we do.  

Katrina has been working hard to examine the sensory structures on insect antennae.  Of particular interest are the sensory structures she described in the previous blog post.  She has taken the antennae, embedded it into a resin, and then cut ultra thin sections so that she can examine the cellular structure of these sensory structures.  Hopefully the results will provide evidence for the functional purpose of these specialized antennae structures!

We are constantly working to find funding to improve our facilities and expand our projects.  With some luck, we hope to acquire the funding to upgrade our specimen storage cabinets.  Our existing cabinets are very old and not holding up well.  Also, we are starting to struggle to find space for the specimens that our volunteers are processing.  If we are lucky enough to receive funding for this, then we will be set to really take off on future projects.  We are also looking into a project where we will begin to collect baseline data for an Oklahoma butterfly that is listed as "Vulnerable" to extinction.  I can't wait for what the next 6 months will bring!  

Finally, we need to mention that the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History has won the 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service.  The award was present to the Director, Dr. Mares, by the First Lady, Michelle Obama.  Our talented, in-house, fabrication department did a great mock-up for our celebration event last Sunday (See pic below!).


Well, we have plenty more coming up and I'll be sure to keep updates more regular!
All the best!
Andy

Friday, March 28, 2014

Sense of Smell

      Have you ever wondered how insects talk to each other? If humans want to communicate with one another, we have several different ways to do it: we can visually communicate by wildly waving our hands at someone to get attention, we can yell at the person and use sound (audio) communication, or even physical communication by giving a parent a hug to show we love them. Insects use these methods of communication as well, but in different ways. For visual communication they use color and movements to get attention. Audio communication can be the buzzing of wings in a certain way, or squeaking sounds produced by squeezing air out of their spiracles (breathing holes). Physical communication could be grabbing a rival male by the horns like in Rhinocerus Beetles to let them know they better get out of the way.
Example of the male horns in the Rhinocerus Beetle on the far right. Image from Katrina Menard
    One type of communication that insects (and many other animals) use that we don't use as much anymore is chemical communication (chemosensory). To humans, this is smell, which in the past probably played a big role in communication with humans. Insects, though, use it to communicate constantly. For example, many female moths will leave a smell trail (the smell being pheromones) that the male moths detect with their fluffy antennae. The males then can follow the trail in the air to find them.
Example of a male silk moth found at a light sheet with its fluffy antennae. Image from Katrina Menard
    My main focus of research is plant bugs (Miridae), and those of us that work on them know that they also use chemical communication to find mates, plants to feed on, and other important information in their lives. For most plant bugs, the main "nose" for them to smell things are their antennae at the front of their heads. On these antennae they have lots of tiny hairs that pick up the molecules of different pheromones and smells to send the information to their brains.
Scanning Electron Micrograph of a plant bug (Spanagonicus albofasciatus) female showing all the hairs and shape of the antennae on their heads. Image from Katrina Menard
   When looking at one group of mirids in particular, in the genus Spanagonicus sp., it was pretty well known that the males and the females have differently shaped antennae. The males have a much "bigger" first and second segment of the antennae (if you count starting from the head, each "piece" of the antenna is a segment).
Male Spanagonicus specimen. Note how the first and second antennal segments are bigger than the image of the female above; they look more like footballs. Image from Katrina Menard
     So, I was wondering why the first and second antennal segment in the males is bigger than the females: what is it being used for? Taking a closer look at the underside of the male antennae, I found an opening in one of the common species around here in Oklahoma, Spanagonicus albofasciatus (albofasciatus meaning "white striped"). This opening is documented in any of the books or papers about the insect, so I wanted to take a closer look and see what was going on in there: were they there to "hear" females nearby, or "smell" females?
Underside of the second segment of the male antennae, showing the opening, which is filled with super-small hairs. Compare this to the image of the female antennae above! Image from Katrina Menard
      When we used the Scanning Electron Microscope to look as closely as we could to that opening, and we found that inside of the opening there are super-small hairs lining the inside. The hairs are so small, they can't even fit nerve cells in them! The width of each hair in there is 1/100th the width of a human hair. Because they are so small and can't fit nerves in them, we think they are being used to "smell" females and find them. However, we are still investigating exactly how the hairs actually work and test out if that really is what the males are using for finding females versus other things (food, etc.).
      So this spring as the flowers start coming out and we can literally start smelling the roses, these little bugs will also be about using this neat structure to smell the world around them too! And I'll be outside watching them to investigate how.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Spineless Sushi


     I am the new Collection Manager in the Department of Recent Invertebrates.  I am loving my job; it has been keeping me so busy that I've just now made the time to get my first post in.  After a long day, or week, I like to treat myself to sushi.  Sushi has become quite a happening food phenomenon.  As the interest has grown, more and more varieties of rolls have become available.  When I go to a new sushi restaurant I always like to try the rolls named after invertebrates, or that have invertebrate ingredients.

I am going to start with my personal favorite, the caterpillar roll.  There are some variations in the ingredients, but they always have eel on the inside and avocado on the outer top.  The eel sauce used to garnish the roll is what makes me want this roll every time I go for sushi.  It is sweet, with a mild tang.  There is no salty flavor to it, so it is a strong contrast to the flavor of soy sauce.




I really enjoy when the sushi chefs bring the caterpillar roll to life.  In the picture above, suckers from an octopus tentacle were used to give the appearance of eye, and sauce was used creatively to make antennae and legs.  Now, these are all anatomically incorrect, but I really appreciate the effort.

There are often variations on the caterpillar roll, where the eyes may be a
dash of spicy mayo (left image), there could be sesame seeds on top, or even roe (fish eggs, right image) used to decorate and add flavor.


My next favorite roll is the spider roll.  Here, the entire soft shell crab is battered, fried, and included whole in the roll.  The "soft shell" refers to when the crabs were harvested, not a particular kind of crab.  Crabs, like all arthropods, have a tough exoskeleton.  As crabs grow, they must shed their skin and develop a new one.  This process is called molting.  There is a short period of time after it molts where a crab is very soft, and this is when the crabs are harvested for a spider roll.  You can eat the entire crab, shell and all!  The mix of tempura crab and the soft shell give this roll a satisfying crunch.  My favorite pieces are the ends, because there is always some part of the crab sticking out!

Here you can see (left picture) the pincher poking out of the roll!  Yummy!

This spider roll (right picture, bottom right) was given the appearance of legs and antennae by creative use of the sauce.




I recently tried a grasshopper roll.  This looks a bit like a caterpillar roll with the avocado on the top, but it is quite different on the inside.  It had fried shrimp on the inside and some tangy barbecue sauce on the top that gave it a spicy kick!




The butterfly roll was very interesting because the ingredients changed half-way through "it's life" (ie, me eating it!).  It began with eel on top with a bit of seasoned mayo and a drizzle of eel sauce, and then morphed into salmon on top.  Throughout the inside was scallion.  This roll stood out for all the different flavor combinations at different sections of the roll.  The metamorphosis of flavors give the butterfly roll an apt name.




Last but not least, is my favorite roll, EVER: The double eel white roll.  While eels are vertebrates, I am including this because of the sauce artistry of what I interpret as an invertebrate.  This roll has white eel on the top and dark eel on the inside.  The sauce garnish was done in amazing fashion to kick it up a notch and keep me still thinking about this dish!  Fantastic!

So, what's next?  I have just found an interesting sushi restaurant, here in Norman, that has nigiri rolls (a small mound of rice with the meat laying on top) with sea urchin, mantis shrimp, sea prawn, octopus tentacle, saltwater clam and more!  I can't wait to try these next time!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

New Contributer, New Stories!

Returning from a hiatus this summer and fall while trying to focus on grants and publication, we'll be posting more to the blog in the upcoming month to catch up on what has been going on in the collection and the museum. A few things first!

- Our new Collection Manager Andy Boring will be contributing to our blog in the future. His first upcoming post will be about the interface of sushi and insects. Didn't think they could mix? Neither did I, and I hope you're looking forward to his post as much as we are!

- We had a manuscript be accepted for publication that was based on the research with our Honors Research Assistantship Program student Jacob Mitchell this past fall/spring! The research was based on looking at distributions of velvet ants in Oklahoma, and finding species never found here before. We would not have known the two species below were state records until we were able to compile all the known records of these insects in our state, and it took a lot of work! We also found a county record for Johnston Co. from this year's BioBlitz at Camp Simpson, and are looking forward to getting it identified to see what species it is!
New state records: Dasymutilla foxi and Dasymutilla snoworum
- Andy and I will be at the Entomological Collections Network Annual Meeting and the Entomological Society of America Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas tomorrow through Wednesday, so we'll likely have posts about that as well.
   Have a great day, and get excited for Andy's next post!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Old scorpions, new tricks

    One of our efforts here at the museum is to take better care of our old material and specimens since it is our job to protect them for future generations. One way of preserving biological materials for several years (many or, in our case, decades) is to store them in alcohol. Back in the day, before there was pure distilled alcohol, specimens would be stored in "spirits" (a.k.a. moonshine, vodka, rum, etc.) because that was the highest grade they could get. Early scientists found that the high alcohol content helped prevent bacterial and fungal growth, thereby slowing decay. Now most specimens are stored in either lab-grade mixtures of ethanol (which is the alcohol found in beer/wine) or isopropyl (rubbing alcohol...mostly just fish now). In our collection of Recent Invertebrates, its 75% ethanol to 25% water. This keeps our specimens in relatively good shape but doesn't completely dry them out (most organisms are a large part water, and by osmosis when you put them in high alcohol content, the water goes out of them into the solution, drying them out). Here is a link of a nice exhibition featuring over a million specimens preserved in alcohol in Berlin, Germany, for an example of a large collection in alcohol.
Scorpions from the 1930s on the right being rehoused in new alcohol on the left.
    Water with osmosis is not the only thing that unfortunately leeches out of the specimens over time with alcohol. Many specimens loose their color, and alcohol soluble chemicals come out. That is why the jar on the right in the picture above is reddish/orange. The fats and other chemicals from the scorpion specimens and the wooden corks used to close the containers leached into the alcohol. And, that is at least 80 years of buildup, since some of the scorpions in that jar were collected in 1931! With the alcohol that color and the corks almost completely dissolved, we decided to give the scorpions a face-lift and replace the nasty alcohol with new, fresh alcohol so we could see the specimens and new cotton stoppers that could easily be removed to look at the specimens or change them out. Now we just have to catalog them, and the scorpions are ready to go for a researcher to study them!
      I hope everyone has a good weekend, and we'll update you more on the collection next week!