Friday, August 31, 2012

Edible Invertebrates

    If you ask a person whether they like eating invertebrates, you'll almost always get a resounding "NO!". However, if you ask them if they like eating seafood, ninty-nine percent of the time you'll get the completely opposite response. "Of course!", "I love shrimp...and lobster, and crabs..", "Calamari rocks my world"...etc. But...they are the same question! Almost all seafood that people eat and love are in the invertebrates, but most people don't like to think of them that way.
Looks yummy, huh? Image from
       Most seafood, which includes things like lobsters, oysters, crabs, shrimp, snails and other groups, comes from the sea. But there are freshwater invertebrates (crawfish, mussels) that are also included in the group. Overall, though, what most Americans consider "food" in the invertebrates category comes from the aquatic world where we normally don't really "see" them or interact with them. Oysters come from a "murky bay", or lobster "from the bottom of the ocean". We really don't know what they are doing or why. Just that they are tasty when we fish them out.
       Terrestrial invertebrates, on the other hand, we interact with on a more regular basis. We stomp on them on the sidewalk, we swat them when they land on our wall, we curse them when they eat our plants. We see what they are doing, and we know what they are eating. Our terrestrial ecosystem is the same one shared with them, and therefore we know more about them. And people don't really like to eat things that they know more about, especially when its one of the largest terrestrial arthropod groups, the insects.
      Insects share many of the same characteristics as their larger kin, the Crustacea, which is again one of the favorite types of seafood for people. They have a hard, jointed exoskeleton, and a muscular thorax (or head-thorax in crustacea, called a cephalothorax) and abdomen ("tail" in shrimp). Both groups share the same muscles, or "meat", but the biggest difference in edibility is how much meat there is relative to how much exoskeleton (how much work you have to do to get past the hard shells to get to the meat). Insects have a relatively high amount of shell to meat ratio, but they taste very similar to seafood. Yes, over the years I've eaten lots of different insects, and they can taste great!
       Because insects are so numerous compared to seafood invertebrates (whose populations are declining due to habitat loss, over fishing, etc.), there has been a push to change the way people see insects. Other countries and cultures have been eating insects for centuries, but it hasn't really taken off in America or European countries. Denmark has been on the fore-front of this issue, though, and several other European countries have been pushing for insects to be used instead of meat for protein sources. Even here in the United States, we have started to see some offerings of insect fares in popular culture!
Some wares found at the Pop store in OKC. Yes, I've had the Crick-ettes!
     Will Americans catch the love for terrestrial invertebrates the way we have with seafood? I'm not so sure, but I think we're headed in the right direction. Hopefully when I ask the next person whether they like eating invertebrates, soon it will be a big "YES!!".

Friday, August 24, 2012

Longhorn Beetles

     Here in Oklahoma we have a fair amount of trees, shrubs, and other hardwood plants. And, if you have these plants in your yard or go hiking in the forest, you're likely to see Long-horned beetles, or beetles in the Cerambycidae family. These beetles are named for their very long antennae, which can look like "horns" when you look at them from the top. Male beetles often have longer antennae than females, and in some groups the males actually put one of each antennae around the sides of a female and follow behind her to "guard" her from other potential suitors.
Example of a Long Horn beetle's long antennae. Image from (
       Long-horned beetles are very diverse, and are nearly always associated with trees or logs since their larvae bore into wood. The adult beetles, as seen here, gnaw into wood with their tough mandibles (mouth parts) to make areas in trees or logs for their eggs. Long-horned beetles can be very large, with some of the largest beetles on recorded on earth belonging to this group (some as big as your hand!), to small and fitting the area of a pencil eraser. Almost all, though, have antennae that are at least as long as their wings, have the antennae come out of their heads right next to their eyes (sometimes taking up the area of their eyes, called emarginated eyes), and sometimes with large, fuzzy "feet" (tarsomeres).
Some diversity of Arkansas and Oklahoman long horn beetles
     Some of the most commonly seen and attractive long horn beetles in Oklahoma is the Cottonwood Borer, which as a larvae feeds on the wood of cottonwood trees. They can be up to an inch and a half long, and have an attractive white and black pattern on their wings. Even though they look fearsome with their spines and size, they are perfectly harmless and unlikely to harm you.
Cottonwood Borers (black and white), and other long horn beetles
     There are also Long-horned beetles that are not originally from the United States that were brought over here accidentally that are serious problems to our trees and lumber industry. One of the biggest problems is the Asian Long-horned Beetle, which is originally from China. This beetle is thought to have been brought over here from wood pallets or other wood shipping material, and since being brought over has killed thousands of trees on the East Coast. Most trees in the United States have evolved with our native Long-horned beetles for millions of years, so they have built up defenses against them and are not often killed by the beetles when they are attacked. However, with this foreign beetle, our trees do not have those defenses to protect themselves, and often die. Thankfully we haven't really seen it here in Oklahoma [yet], but it has been a big problem in other states (for more information about the beetle, check out the wikipedia page on it here).
Asian long-horned beetle. Image from (
       So, if you see a beetle out in Oklahoma with really long antennae, its probably a member of the Long-horned beetle group. If its big, white and black, its probably a native Cottonwood borer and part of the natural environment of Oklahoma. However, if you see a big, black, Long-horned beetle like the one above with white spots...please let us know, because it could be a big problem!
         Have a great weekend everyone!

Friday, August 17, 2012

West Nile Virus

You've probably been hearing a lot of stories about West Nile virus lately in the news - it's enough to make you want to don your best snowsuit before venturing outdoors. So, let's get up to speed on it for a few minutes. Just in case you've missed the stories, there have been quite a few cases of West Nile in Texas lately, and several in Oklahoma as well. West Nile virus has the potential to make people quite sick, and there is no cure. However, not all cases of West Nile virus have symptoms, and not all are neuroinvasive (affecting your nervous system) - that's good news.

West Nile virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitos in the Aedes or Culex genus. One way to tell if a mosquito is a member of the Aedes genus is to look at it while it is at rest - Aedes mosquitos have a tendency to stick their rear ends up in the air and are also generally larger. These mosquitos actually act as vectors with this disease. They carry it with them and unfortunately share it, while not being affected by it themselves. Birds host this disease, and when a mosquito bites an infected bird, the mosquito carries the disease and infects other birds or humans.

When a human is infected with West Nile, they can experience symptoms similar to the flu - sweating, headache, and fever, just to name a few. If the virus becomes more severe, the brain and meninges can be dangerously affected, and these are the cases that we tend to hear about in the media.

So, what can you do to protect yourself? For one thing, make sure you have no standing pools of water around your house or on your property. Check out your bird baths and rain barrels, and make sure the water is clean. Stagnant pools of water make fantastic incubators for mosquito eggs and larvae. If you do have some standing water that is not easily changed or removed, mosquito dunks can help to keep larvae from growing. Obviously, mosquito repellent will help too, as well as covering up with clothing.

On that note - come on, fall season! Happy Friday, everyone.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Specimen work- Part 1

   The last entry in our blog was about the trip to California and Colorado to get specimens for research. As part of a grant, I was on the hunt for a specific group of Miridae (plant bugs) that were related to the bugs I did my PhD research on. Thankfully my trip to Colorado got some!
Pinning and paper-point mounting some of the bugs from Colorado that are now part of our collection!
   The first thing I had to do was go through all the bugs that I got on the trip, and pull out one or two of each different species that I wanted to do DNA work with. Those were set aside were put in nearly 100% ethanol to keep them dry, because water is actually really bad for DNA. The rest of the specimens were then pulled out to be prepared for the museum's collection and so I have specimens to look at for additional identification. Small bugs like my bugs (see photo) have to actually be glued with regular Elmer's glue to the tip of little paper points, since if you tried to pin them with metal pins they would get destroyed! You can see "pointed" specimens on the left in the white box (called a unit tray). The little paper note is where and when I got them, so I can remember which paper labels to attach to the specimens in the labeling stage (next step).
Example of what the bugs will look like when they are done, with the proper labels. These are from Texas when I was living there for graduate school and collecting around the state.
    Since I'm going to do the DNA lab work tomorrow morning/afternoon, I will hold off on posting about that for now. I hope you all have a great week!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Field work!

Hi Everyone,
    Sorry for the late post. Last weekend I was in Colorado to collect some bugs and had a lot to catch up on for the rest of week, so this post got pushed back a bit. However, we're going to talk about what the field work was like and why its important for research.
     This past spring I got a grant from the Research Council of the University of Oklahoma to collect some bugs as part of my research. The bugs I did my PhD work on are native to Australia and the Indo-Pacific (Papua New Guinea, etc.), and most of my work concentrated on understanding how they were related, and why several of the species looked like ants. To understand how and why they evolved the way they did, and how ant-mimicry came about, I had to try to find the closest relative of my lineage of bugs (the Leucophoropterini).
One of the ant-mimics of Leucophoropterini
      Oddly enough, when I did the research to find the closest relatives, they weren't other Australian bugs or bugs from the Indo-Pacific, nor ant-mimics either. Instead, they were "regular" looking bugs from California, Japan and parts of Russia. This result, which is preliminary because I didn't have a lot of bugs to work with for the study, could mean several things. One, that ant-mimicry evolved independently for my group (other groups of unrelated bugs have ant-mimicry, too), and that the lineage of my bugs is very, very old. The last time that North America, Asia and Australia were united for them to share a common ancestor was Pangea, so very long ago.
      So, to learn more, I have to collect more of these related bugs from North America and Russia/Asia to see the relationships in more detail. Did the Californian lineage break off from the Russian/Japan/Australia one early on, or did they all split apart at the same time? What caused them to split? I have colleagues in Europe that are hopefully collecting some bugs for me over there, and I have to collect my bugs here to help find the answer.
Pines in California. Photo by Roxie Hites
       The bugs I'm looking for here in North America feed on evergreens, so different pines and spruces. So, earlier in May my colleague Roxie Hites and I went to the Tahoe region of California to try to get my bugs from the high-elevation pines. Unfortunately, though, May still proved to be a bit too cold in the higher elevations and we had to head to lower elevations to sample different bugs instead. The target bugs were not ready to come out yet that early! None the less we got some good stuff, and got to check out the habitats up there in the mountains of the Sierras.
The catch!
         So, this past weekend I tried again, this time in Colorado to reach higher elevations again but also to hopefully catch the bug season in full swing. And, at my first stop near Vail, I had some success! The bugs I am looking for are very small and black, and you can't really see them in this picture but there were one or two in there.
         Happy I got some bugs (finally!), I headed farther West and even higher in elevation to stay with my uncle and aunt in Carbondale, CO. Both my aunt and uncle are avid outdoorsmen, so the next day my uncle decided to take me on a hike up 10,000 feet to see if I could find even more bugs on the pines up there.

Sizing up the tree pointed out by my uncle. Photo by Doug Graybeal
Beating the tree. Photo by Doug Graybeal
      My uncle proved to be my lucky charm, since on the first tree he suggested I hit, I found more bugs. The way I collect bugs is by "beating", which is where I take a big stick and bang a branch over a net. The bugs fall off the branch, into the net, and then I suck them into a container called an aspirator. An aspirator allows you to suck the bugs into a container, but a filter prevents them from going into your mouth. When I started out in college and tried to make my own, lets just say I learned early on why the filter is really useful...
       After a long hike to Williams Lake and back, we called it a day. Even though I do a lot of running and swimming, I'm not nearly in shape enough to handle that kind of hiking after flat Oklahoma. My 60 year old uncle, who is admittedly a very serious athlete, kicked my butt!
      The next few days I continued to sample off of other pine/spruce trees and get more species, finding more neat bugs like Pilophorus, which lives on pine along with ants and is thought to mimic ants to steal their aphids. Ants in many parts of North America actually herd and tend aphid colonies like cows, trading off protection from predators for their honey dew. Its hypothesized that Pilophorus sneaks in by looking like an ant to steal the aphids, getting past their defenses. So, finding some of those bugs was another good find, and I can look into ant-mimicry evolving with them to compare to my Leucophoropterini.
         Next on the list, after coming back from Colorado with my bugs, is to do DNA sequencing to study the relatedness of their DNA to the species from Australia. Unfortunately the older a specimen is and the longer its been sitting around in a collection dead, the less likely it is that there is good DNA to work with. This is why I had to collect fresh specimens, to increase my changes of getting bug DNA and not dust or bacteria. So, next step: onto the lab! I'll keep you posted on how that goes.
Fieldwork Rules!! Photo by Roxie Hites