Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Science in Action, Bioblitz, and other updates!

We have had a busy September!  We had a booth at the museum's annual Science in Action Day.  We spent a Sunday afternoon at the museum where patrons could bring in objects or specimens for identification.  We brought a nice selection of local invertebrates for public education and I think it turned out very well.  We had a great reaction to the live inverts!  Here are some pictures from the event:

The weekend after Science in Action, we went to Black Kettle National Forest for Bioblitz.  If you aren't familiar with a Bioblitz, basically a group of scientists and citizens go to a location and spend 24 hours identifying as many organisms as possible.  663 plants, algae, diatoms, bugs, birds, mammals, herps, ect were identified during this years bioblitz!  317 of those were terrestrial invertebrates, so we were very busy the whole time. 

These bioblitz activities are a lot of fun and help build lists of the species found in Oklahoma.  The site changes each year, so this is a great way to update distribution records and update species maps.  There were a half-dozen or so new county records from this year's bioblitz.  Here is a picture of a Blue-eyed Darner - this specimen is the first documented record of this species in the county!

We also have a new volunteer with us, Simon.  Simon has already become a big help with our cataloging efforts.  We cataloged 1,038 specimens in September!!!! Woo Hoo!

Have a good day,

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Burst of News!!!

We have had such an eventful Summer that I wanted to share all of the recent activity with everyone.  Our department is getting prepped to monitor the population status of the Oklahoma native butterfly, Linda's Roadside Skipper.  The conservation status of this little butterfly has been classified as "Vulnerable [to extinction]" by the Xerxes Society (  We want to find out if the population is stable, what habitats are best suited for this species, and if populations are interbreeding.  We have a variety of additional research questions that all pertain to helping future land management decisions have a positive effect on this butterfly's population.  I'm a recent immigrant to Oklahoma (Ohio native), but I love it here already.  I feel proud to work on a project to preserve the natural heritage of this great state.  We have applied for funding and are anxiously awaiting response to proceed with this project.  Here is a picture of Linda's Roadside Skipper:

Linda's Roadside Skipper. Image used with permission by Nick Grishin

We are waiting hopefully for a response from our second grant proposal this year from NSF.  My fingers are crossed that the third time will be the charm!  We really need our facilities updated, especially the cabinetry as we continue to grow.  As our collection has grown from significant acquisitions, we are in need of the infrastructure to keep up with the current rate of our collection's use.  We face turning away scientifically important accessions due to lack of space. We currently have a strong core of 3 regular volunteers who are tremendous assets to our collection, and being able to expand our space will allow us to reach our full capacity of their productivity.  I would like to have 10-15 volunteers in our department, and this would have a strong impact on the Biology Program at Oklahoma University and the City of Norman.  We are on a positive roll right now!

We started collaborating with Mr. Perry Buenevente of the Philippine National Museum and our Herpetology Department to study biodiversity in the Philippine archipelagos.  Mr. Buenevente organized a month long trip where they collected tissues from hundreds of reptiles & amphibians and just as many insects.  We have made some amazing finds just from the pilot tests, and we have already made plans to go with Dr. Siler to collect more specimens within the next year!  Here are some of the best finds we have made so far:

I noticed this fly (left photo) had something peculiar about it.  After closer examination it appears to have a parasite from the order Strepsipter (Twisted-Winged Parasites).  I took these photos to show to an expert on these parasites and he was very excited by this find because this would be just the second record of Strepsiptera parasitizing a fly.  This is very likely a new species, which we plan to collaborate and describe!  We are beginning talks about generating a 3D model of this for our museum's upcoming exhibit "What's Eating You?" - an exhibit that highlights interesting parasites!

This fly is called a "Stalk-Eyed Fly" because ... well ... the eyes are seemingly stretched out on stalks!  Females prefer to mate with males that have wider eyes, and this preference has strongly influenced their morphology.

Next I would like to show you what appears to be a mimicry complex.  All of the wasps below are different species, and many are not closely related.  However they have similar markings with subtle variations.  See if you can pick out some of the similarities and differences between these:

Now take a second look and pay attention to the color and patterns on the thorax and abdomen, the dark marks on the wings, the colors of the legs.  Also, they all have a white patch across their antennae.  Pretty cool huh?

These Weevils (above) from the Philippines are so beautiful I wanted to share photos!

This specimen was a great find!  A rarely collected specimen of the Enicocephalomorpha (Unique-Headed Bugs).  Their heads are uniquely shaped and they have forelegs that are similar in structure to a louse.  We just discovered this specimen and are excited to examine it in more detail at a later date.

This brightly colored beetle belongs in the family Chrysomellidae, the leaf-eating beetles.  Aside from it's safety orange color, notice it has white tipped antennae - just like the wasps in the mimicry complex above!

This pygmy grasshopper is in the family Tetrigidae.  I thought it looked cool and wanted to share a photo.  Enjoy!

With these great finds and more to come, we are very excited about joining Dr. Siler for the next expedition!

Katrina and I are both organizing separate symposium for the upcoming annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America.  Katrina is a world expert on the identification and classification of true bugs (Heteroptera), and her symposium will cover an assortment of topics related to this subject.  I have been working hard to put together a team of volunteers in our department, and we have a great crew!  I'm very proud of all the work that we have accomplished in the last year.  When I first took on the task of processing countless samples of 20 year-old by-catch material, there was an entire cabinet stacked with samples on top of samples.  There must have been 500+ samples when I started.  Katrina estimated this job to require 3 years to finish (maybe 5), but right now - just a year into it - we are nearly finished processing the samples and over half of these have been cataloged already!!!!  I want to give a big congrats to our volunteers for all their hard work!!!!  Last month we processed & cataloged over 430 specimens to our collection.  Getting back to the topic of symposiums, my symposium will cover the important topic of sorting, processing, cataloging, and publishing from samples of biodiversity.  My talk will be an essay on how to generate a volunteer base, create a work routine, and efficiently use your time to process samples.  I want to share this with other institutions because what we've done at the Sam Noble Museum can be a model for other institutions to follow. 

Katrina has been extra busy this last month.  She has been taking groups out to Black Mesa for the museum's Explorology program, where kids get to spend time with a scientist and collect insects.  She has also been competing at the national level in triathlons (and doing very very well!).  She is competing internationally toward the end of the month, so wish her luck!

Throw another iron in the fire because we are looking for an honors student to study the spiders of Muskogee and Cherokee County.  We have pulled all the spiders from the 500+ samples mentioned above.  We will work to identify these spiders and then assemble a checklist for the spiders of Muskogee and Cherokee County.  You will have the opportunity to expand the distribution range for many spiders in Oklahoma.  Along the way you will learn skills in spider identification to strengthen your future in Zoology and Ecology.  You will also learn best practices for museum based research questions.  If you are an honors student at OU, and this seems like a good fit for your interests, then please consider our project. 

Well, with all the big news, I'm sure I've forgotten a few noteworthy items.  However, it's time to get back to work!

Have a great day!

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!

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!

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!

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.