Ento-musings from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

Monday, December 24, 2012

Jurassic Song

Fossils are a window to the past: but rarely are such windows clear. And looking at a thing through "a glass distorted", of course, distorts our view of that thing. Restoring the appearances of prehistory's creatures is difficult; reconstructing their behavior is often impossible. But once in a long while paleontologists find—preserved perfectly by petrifaction—easily legible evidence of a long-dead organism's daily habits.

Such was the case earlier this year with Archaboilus musicus, a 165-million-year-old katydid/bush-cricket (Tettigoniidae) found in that fount of glorious fossils, China. Its modern kin, naturally, are well-known for their males' stridulatory songs, used to attract mates: and it turns out at least some of them did the same as early as the Jurassic Period. By examining the hind angles of the forewings belonging to A. musicus' (presumably male) holotype, and comparing these stridulatory organs to those of extant katydids, researchers have deduced the precise sound of the ancient katydid's song—which was indeed musical, like the melodies of its modern kin (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gC6vVmkU8i0). 

Interestingly, with a frequency of 6.5 kHz, A. musicus had a rather lower bandwidth than most of its said extant cousins. It's speculated that this reflects the different constituency of Jurassic forests: dominated not by tall, shady deciduous trees, but by thick fern bracken underneath conifers—deep acoustics would be required to penetrate this more claustrophobic sylvan environ. 

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night...


Gu, J. J.; Montealegre, Z.; Robert, D.; Engel, M. S.; Qiao, G. X.; and Ren, D. (2012). Wing stridulation in a Jurassic katydid (Insecta, Orthoptera) produced low-pitched musical calls to attract females. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (10): 3868.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mormotomyiidae: They're Terrible, They're Hairy, & They're Flies

I now present the promised post on Mormotomyia hirsuta, the "terrible hairy fly" from a lone Kenyan cave that may be the rarest fly in the world (http://gentlecentipede.blogspot.com/). The collection of live specimens in 2010 for the first time in 62 years resulted in more than one dipterist wetting their pants with joy. (I, ahem, was not one of them.)

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Top Twenty Coolest Flies

I just discovered this countdown of the top twenty coolest flies, compiled by Jonathan Wojcik (http://bogleech.com/bio-flies.html). It truly gives one an excellent idea of the Diptera's incredible diversity; it even brought to my attention flies of which I was previously unaware, such as Thaumatoxena wasmanni (Phoridae), the females of which are wingless, legless, mite-like indestructible lozenges that inhabit termite fungus gardens; and Wandolleckia achatinae (also Phoridae), the females of which reside as commensals on the bodies of snails, swimming in the snail-snot itself. (I've always wanted to use that phrase.) 

The article also has the only photographs of the New Zealand bat fly (Mystacinobiidae)the only social fly known to manthat I've ever seen; and there's a fantastic image of an ant-decapitating fly (Pseudacteon) bursting from its host's head. My only complaint is that the terrible hairy fly (Mormotomyiidae; subject of a forthcoming post on my personal blog) is absent from the list.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

" ...The Claws of a Velociraptor ... " (Yes, This Is About Insects)

"[An] unusual insect, it has arms cocked like those of a [mantidfly], the ... stance of an Ichneumonid, the ... gait of a [long-legged fly], the claws of a Velociraptor, and the watchfulness of a [mantis]."
...Thus spake Stephen Luk, student at the University of Guelph, whom I respectfully quote here due to his capturing the aesthetic essence of...well, whatever he was describing. You can determine that creature's identity for yourself by reading my post (http://gentlecentipede.blogspot.com/2012/12/little-bags-of-horror-three-obscure.html) at my new blog, Life, et al.

Hope this is worth your time...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Black-Legged Ticks

We guest-wrote another brief article for the Kentucky Native Plant and Wildlife blog, a site maintained by U.K. Wildlife Extension Specialist Dr. Tom Barnes. The topic: black-legged ticks. These are the ticks that spread Lyme disease in the northeastern United States. Well, the tick has been found in Kentucky now, too. Are we at risk for Lyme disease? Take a look at the article and find out.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Monarch Tagging at the Children's Garden

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomology

Come to the UK-LGUCG Arboretum in Lexington Kentucky during the month of September to help with monarch butterfly tagging!

Monarch butterflies are one of the few butterfly species that migrate long distances. The monarchs that hatch in Kentucky during the summer actually migrate all the way to Mexico at the end of the year. Then, they return to Kentucky next year to lay more eggs! Scientists are interested in studying their migration patterns and survival rates, and the best way to do this is by capturing live monarch butterflies and tagging them with  harmless stickers. Then, when the butterflies have completed their southern migration, those stickers are cataloged by scientists in Mexico.

Kids (and their parents) can help by going to the Children's Garden at the Lexington Arboretum. There, you can take command of a butterfly net and try to catch a monarch. It's tougher than it sounds: I chased one around for 15 minutes the other day and I still couldn't catch it. They're aerodynamic! But most kids are faster than I am, so take a trip to the Children's Garden on a sunny, warm day in September and ask to help with butterfly tagging!

You can read more about the monarch tagging project at MonarchWatch.org.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

2012 Kentucky State Fair: 4-H Entomology Winners

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist 

The Kentucky State Fair is happening right now in Louisville, Kentucky. Last week, I had a chance to judge this year's entries in the 4-H Entomology insect collection contest! Overall, we had 28 collections and I think that they looked better than ever. Here are the winners for each category... 

1st Year (Class 687): Emmett King, Oldham Co 
2nd Year (Class 688): Cody Hart, Metcalfe Co 
3rd Year (Class 689): T.J. Svoboda, Clark Co 
5th Year (Class 691): Sandra Brock, Harrison Co 

 And the overall champs: 
Grand Champion: T.J. Svoboda - Clark Co (Class 689) 
Reserve Champion: Cindesta Belcher - Estill Co (Class 689) 

 It was nice to see that several of last year's winners were able to win this year as well (you can see last year's winners here). Congratulations to everyone, and keep it up for next year! You can learn more about making a 4-H Entomology insect collection here.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Moth 5: National Moth Week

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomology

Here's my last moth for National Moth Week:

Yep, it's really a moth. This one is trying to look like a paper wasp, but the "fluffy," scaly body and thick, feathery antennae reveal its true nature. A real paper wasp has shiny integument and thin antennae.

I don't have much to say about the identification of this one. That's because I haven't been able to figure out what it is! You would think that a moth this distinctive would be easy to identify, but there is actually a whole "tribe" (a tribe sits somewhere between Family and Genus) of wasps that look similar to this, all of which belong to the Family Sesidae, a group filled with wasp-like moths.

On Bugguide, I was able to find at least three moths in our area that could be a match: Paranthrene asilipennisParanthrene dollii, and Vitacea polistiformis. To me, all of these look very similar, and I think it takes a real expert in this group to tell the difference. I'll probably never learn what it is, unless one of those experts takes a look at this blog.

So my week with moths comes to an end. I am still not a moth expert. If anything, I have learned that the world of moth diversity is even more complex than I thought. But you can't learn about every moth at once. This week, I learned a little bit about five of them. Only about 125,000 to go!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Moth 4: National Moth Week

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomology

Today's moth looks a lot like a butterfly:

In fact, I thought it was a butterfly the first time I saw it. It's got colorful wings like a butterfly. It was flitting around during the day like a butterfly. What makes it a moth instead of a butterfly? The key is the antennae: most butterflies have knobbed antennae, while most moths have straight, threadlike antennae (or plumed, feathery antennae). There are some exceptions to this rule, but not among moths and butterflies that you are likely to find in Kentucky.

This creature has threadlike antennae, so it's a moth. Where do we go from there?

This one was pretty easy to identify. Google Image: "black moth red white." I find something that looks like my moth in the second image. A click takes me straight to bugguide's entry for Psychomorpha epimenis, a.k.a. the "Grapevine Epimenis." A quick check through the info suggest that this moth is occurs in my area and that there aren't any moths that are commonly mistaken this one, so I'm pretty confident on this one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Moth 3: National Moth Week

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomology

Here's a moth that I've seen many times, but I've never known what it was. I finally got a nice picture of it a couple of nights ago on my porch:

It's very delicate and pretty, with translucent wings and blue spots. One of my favorites. So what's its name?

Since I went into great detail on the identification process for the last two moths, I'll give the abbreviated version for the rest of the week.

Google Image: "tan moth translucent wings." Nothing. Looks a little like a moth in family Geometridae, so Google Image: "Geometridae translucent blue spots." Nothing. Maybe it's a tiger moth, family Arctiidae... many tiger moths are white or beige, with spots. Google Image: "tiger moth translucent wings blue." Nothing. I'm still convinced that it looks like Geometridae, even though it doesn't have wavy lines in its wings. Those creamy translucent wings just look like geometer wings. Google Image: "Geometridae translucent wings." Hey, there's something, about 55 images in. A Flickr images  identified as "The Beggar, Eubaphe mendica." Is that my moth?

Bugguide: "beggar." http://bugguide.net/node/view/3876. So it is a geometrid, and it even says "this is not a typical geometer in appearance, at least." I'm pretty sure that's my moth! Very nice. I don't think I'll forget this pretty lady.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Moth 2: National Moth Week

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomology

Today's moth is a tough one. Why? Take a look:

I found it in my garage a couple of weeks ago and I took a picture of it specifically for this"moth week" blog project. Now, I regret it. I should have found an easier moth to identify!

To me, this one is hard to identify because it is a medium-sized gray and/or brown moth. In the U.S., there are literally hundreds of species of medium-sized, gray and/or brown moths. Many of them are very closely related to each other, and they all have very similar body shapes and structure, so the only differences between many of them are in the colors found on their wings. I'm not colorblind, but, honestly, all of the gray and brown patterns look the same to me (heck, the patterns on butterfly wings look the same to me too, so I guess it doesn't have anything to do with gray and brown).

So, at first glance anyway, this one is a very typical gray and brown moth. Some clues: it was a little bigger than what I would call medium-sized. The pegs in that pegboard are 1" apart (center-to-center), so the moth was about 1" long. That's actually pretty large for a moth. Also, this moth showed up at night, so it is probably a night-flier. That's not much of a clue--most moths are night fliers. But this fact may help me to eliminate a few possibilities down the road.

When looking at a brown or gray moth, my first thought is always "noctuid." Noctuid is a name used for moths in the family Noctuidae. The word is also used (informally, and sometimes incorrectly) for a few other kinds of moths, some of which were once a part of Noctuidae family, and some of which are closely related to Noctuidae. There are many species  of these so-called noctuids. The family noctuidae alone includes about 3,000 species in North America. MANY of these are gray or brown, and around 1" long. From a picture, there is no single, reliable way to tell whether a moth belongs to the family Noctuidae or not. As far as I know, the best way to identify this creature is to hunt for pictures on the net. So let's go!

Instead of going for an entomology textbook or Bugguide, the first thing I do is a Google Image search for "gray moth rusty." I used those terms because the moth is mostly gray (that's the way it looks in the photo, anyway) and it has some waves and blotches that look, to me, like a rust color. The first few results didn't look anything like my moth, but about 100 images in, I found something that looked similar but not identical. Here it is, at a blog maintained by Dave H. Small: http://goo.gl/YkBIR

Like I said, the moth isn't exactly right. The rusty blotches aren't in the right places. But it looks like it might be related to my moth. It's name, according to Dave H. Small, is the "Ultronia Underwing," Catocala ultronia. Dave's I.D. might not be exactly right, but I'll bet that he's close. This seems like a good lead, so it's time to check Bugguide. Is my moth closely related to Catcala ultronia?

Well, here's how to identify Catcala ultronia, according to Bugguide: "forewing pattern predominantly longitudinal (running from base to outer margin), rather than transverse (running from costa to inner margin) as in many other Catocala species; typically has dark brown to black strip along inner margin, and similar-colored subapical patch extending from outer margin to PM line or reniform spot; central longitudinal area light gray or brown, but the extent and intensity of shading varies considerably among individuals; pale brown patch usually present along costa at apex; hinding dark orangish-red, rarely pinkish or yellow, with complete black median band and wider black terminal band; small white patch at apex; antennae filiform; sexes similar"

Ah, come on, man. I've been an entomologist for 16 years now, and that sounds like gibberish to me. Entomologist are supposed to talk tarsomeres and sternites, not "black strips" and "white patches." Damn it Jim, I'm an entomologist, not an interior decorator. And how can a pattern be "predominantly longitudinal"? A color pattern is a two-dimensional field and it doesn't have direction!(!!!)

So that description is not really useful to me. Not yet, anyway.

From Bugguide's entry for Catocala ultronia, I back up one step to the Catocala genus page here: http://bugguide.net/node/view/368/bgimageCatocala is indeed in the family Noctuidae, and it represents the so-called "underwing" moths. Underwings are distinguished by their brightly-colored hind wings. These colors are hidden when the moth is at rest, like the moth in my photo. I have seen many underwings before, so I am somewhat familiar with these moths, but I did not realize that they all belonged to the same genus. Nice! The next step is to check is the number of species. 110 in North America. Gulp. And something else from this page: these moths are known for the "challenge of identifying specimens (many are difficult to distinguish from one or more similar species)." That sounds like pep talkin' to me!

I'm still not convinced that my moth is an underwing, or even a noctuid, but this is as good a place as any to start. It's time to look at a bunch of pictures. So at the top of the Catocala page I click "images", which leads me to Bugguide's collection of images for moths in this genus.

For those of you who are not familiar with Bugguide, here's the deal. It's probably the most important resource on the internet for the identification of insects (photographed insects, anyway) in North America. Bugguide is organized by its users: people send in photos and ask for them to be identified. Other users look at the photos and move them into the correct place on the site. Bugguide is used by professional entomologists, amateur hobbyists (who often know insect I.D. better than the pros!), and anyone else with an interest in insect identification. Bugguide isn't perfect. It's not useful for insects that are difficult or impossible to photograph (such as insects that live inside leaves or wood). And there are some insects that are truly impossible to identify from photographs. And sometimes the bugs are "filed" in the wrong places on the site(these errors are usually corrected quickly, though, by other members). But I use Bugguide almost every day in my job. It's not an exaggeration to say that Bugguide has changed entomology (and for the better, I think!).

Here's another minor problem with Bugguide: every picture that gets sent in, stays in. So there are often hundreds of images of single species, including ones that are easy to identify. And sometimes you have to look through all these to get to the one you want. For the genus Catocala, Bugguide has 63 pages of images! A typical Bugguide page has about 20 pictures. That's a lot of gray and brown moths. And not nearly enough bullets.

Click. Click. Click. That's me clicking through the first 12 pages of Catocala. All of the images on the first 12 pages are not identified any further than "Catocala". These images are not very useful to me, except to show me that, yes, there are a few moths here that look a little like mine, so perhaps I'm in the right place. These unidentified images also give you an idea of how difficult these moths are to identify. It may also mean that there are a few species that haven't been officially cataloged by scientists! I hope that my moth isn't one of those.

Click Click Click Click Click Click. More pages, no matches. Soon, though I get to Catocala ultronia again. Hmmm... it still looks the most like my moth. Gotta keep clicking, though.

Clickity-click. Lots of interesting names here. Peninent Underwing... Little Underwing... Serene Underwing... Woody Underwing...

Wait a second. Woody UnderwingCatocala grynea, you say? Light gray wings... rusty stripes and blotches. This looks a lot like my moth! Best match so far and by far. Close enough, at least, to suggest that I am in the correct family and genus. But let's keep looking through Catocala for even better matches.

I see a few other candidates. Charming Underwing comes closest, but it's no contest. Wood Underwing is my best bet. And its info-page checks out: this moth is found in my area, its about the right size, and it flies in June. Unless I'm way off, and my moth is from some other genus or species, I'm fairly sure that the creature in my photo is Catocala grynea.

Am I 100% sure? No way. Identifying insects from photos is a fun game and it can be instructive, but it isn't science. The moth pictured above is Catocala grynea right up until someone tells me that I'm wrong!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Moth 1: National Moth Week

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomology

This week is National Moth Week. To help celebrate, I am posting an image of a moth each day this week and discussing its identification and other details. Since I want to learn something along the way, I will be featuring moths that I did not know very much about prior to this week. This will force me to learn all about them!

Today's image was emailed to me a few days ago by Bob Sanders in Anderson County, KY, who kindly gave us permission to use the photo. Because I'm not a moth expert, I was not immediately sure which kind it was. There are a couple of clues regarding its identity, though. For one thing, it was photographed during the day, flying from one flower to another. This is important because most moths fly at night. Another clue: the ink-black wings. Many moths are gray and/or brown, but only a handful of U.S. species are black.

When I see a black moth, the first thing I usually think of are the "ctenuchids." Ctenuchid is a name sometimes used for a group of moths in the Ctenuchina group of the Tiger Moth family. But when I looked up the ctenuchids, they didn't look right. For one thing, none of them that I could find pictures of had any prominent spots. They are also a little sleeker than the moth pictured above. (You can see some pictures of typical ctenuchid moths here.)

So the next thing I investigated were the "foresters." There are several forester moths in the U.S., and they are known for their black wings and white spots. I have seen them a few times before, and the picture above reminded me of them. After looking at a couple of pictures on Google images (using the search phrase "forester moth") it seemed like a good match. Bingo! 

But upon reading about the foresters, one of the web pages that I was reading mentioned the Grape Leaf-roller Moth, which is also a black moth with white spots, and which is often confused for forester moths. Upon looking at it, I remembered why I'm not a moth guy. To me--at first glance--it looks almost exactly like a forester.

After doing some comparisons, though, I quickly ruled out the leaf-roller. The leaf-roller has very slender wings and doesn't have the white "shoulder pads" seen on the image above. So I went back to the foresters.

And then I found a picture of something called the White-spotted Sable, which is a moth that I'd never heard of before. This thing really looks like my picture! Its got the shoulder pads, the spots look right, and it flies during the day. But it's missing one important thing. See the orange tufts on the legs of the image above? The sable doesn't have those. But foresters do!

Finally, after looking at several foresters, I came to the conclusion that Bob Sander's moth is probably Alypia octomaculata, the Eight-Spotted Forester. This moth fits. It's got eight spots, its common in Kentucky, it flies during the day, and it is active in early summer. Other candidates included the Six-Spotted Forester and Wittfeld's Forester Moth, but neither was quite right.  

So... am I sure of my identification? No. As I have said before, I am not a moth expert. More importantly, I am working from a picture instead of a specimen. Accurate identification--of any insect--is not truly possible from an image alone. But I'm pretty sure! The moth looks right and all the evidence matches. On top of that, I learned a bunch of stuff, and not just about the eight-spotted forester, but about the grape leaf-roller, the white-spotted sable, and several other moths as well.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

National Moth Week 2012

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

 Hey! This week (July 23-29) is National Moth Week. Happy Moth Week! I just learned about this the other day, actually, but I am going to do my best to participate. The goal of National Moth Week is to raise awareness about the incredible diversity of moths. With over 10,000 species of moths in North America, and about 125,000 on earth, there are a LOT of moths to celebrate this week. And many people don't realize that some of our moths are just as interesting to look at (if not more so) than butterflies. You can read more about National Moth Week at their website.

I am going to join the Moth Week festivities by taking a picture of a different moth every day this week and then trying to figure out what it is. This will be a good challenge for me because I am not really a moth guy (moth man?). Compared with other types of insects, I find moths very hard to identify. The problem, I think, is that most moths (and butterflies) are identified based on color patterns.* With most other insect groups, I.D. is based on body structures. For whatever reason, I am better at seeing the differences between body structures than color patterns. But I want to become more familiar with moths, so I am looking forward to this week. Luckily, I am in a good location for moth observation. My house is located next to a greenway, and we see lots of different kinds of moths at our porch light every night. For the blog, I will post a picture of one moth each day and detail the process that I use to figure out what kind of moth it is. Since I will just be using pictures (the only way to truly, properly I.D. a moth is by capturing it and examining it under the scope), I will probably get some or all of the identifications wrong. But I'm sure that I will learn something along the way!

So get your insect nets, ultraviolet lights, and party hats, and join us for National Moth Week 2012!

 (*This isn't quite true. Real, hardcore moth and butterfly I.D. is based mostly on wing-vein patterns. The problem is that you can't see a moth's wing veins without stripping its wings of their colorful scales--a process know as "clearing the wings". This process is not only complicated, but it also requires that you catch and kill the moth! So when you can't clear its wings, the best way to I.D. most moths is by the color pattern on their wings.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Flagellate Tarsi and Stick Insects

The wonderful thing about paleontology is that the extinct things one encounters through it are not always directly analogous to modern life forms. Dinosaurs, trilobites and ammonites–the Holy Trinity of paleontology–are all certainly not alien, but they aren't just humdrum prehistoric blueprints of their current ecological counterparts, being rather something distinctive and apart. 

Fossilized insects, unfortunately, do not often diverge dramatically from modern ones: it seems that once a body-plan evolves among them it is never lost, and if its exponents die out utterly it will likely be recapitulated later on by an unrelated lineage. The notorious griffinflies (order Meganisoptera) that patrolled Earth's skies for 67 million years, including the 28-in.wingspan Meganeuropsis, were essentially hawk-sized dragonflies (a taxonomic oversimplification but an ecological truth); the various members of the superorder Dictyoptera (cockroaches, mantids and termites), both living and dead, are more or less Variations on the Theme of "I Am a Roach"–e.g., We Are Roaches With Sclerotized Forewings (Umenocoleidae), We Are Carnivorous Mantis-Like Roaches (Raphidiomimidae), I Am a Roach With Earwig-esque Cerci With Which I Probably Clasped My Mate (Fuzia), and I Am a Roach With Leaping Hind Legs and a Name Like That of a Romulan (Skok). 

Thankfully, there are exceptions. The Kalligrammatidae were fluttering, colorful pollinators often termed "the butterflies of the Mesozoic"...but they were close kin of antlions (which they hardly resembled), and are only distant cousins of their extant namesakes. And, of course, there were the Chresmodidae (Handlirsch, 1906), which are what I am posting about, although it may be hard to tell that from what I have written so far. 
Chresmodids were spindly insects with slender, elongated legs. Females were winged; males, wingless . Their wing morphology (and venation), cerci, and ovipositor unanimously point to an affinity with the Polyneoptera, a varied assemblage of such organisms as grasshoppers, earwigs, and praying mantises (although chresmodids were classified elsewhere as recently as 1980). The fact that chresmodid nymphs are known (indicating that, like polyneopterans, they exhibited incomplete metamorphosis) seals the matter. But beyond that their relationships are debatable–this being but one of their interesting aspects.

Glancing at a specimen of a chresmodid (particularly if it is a nymph) one is impressed with a general similarity in habitus to a water strider (Gerridae), a living bug with which all are familiar. This resemblance is not coincidental. Chresmodids, too, possessed velvety tarsi (feet)–an adaptation in water striders to prevent breaching the surface tension of the water on which they skate (which is far from the most peculiar of chresmodid tarsal features, as we shall see): paleontologists have thus deduced that the subjects of this post also hunted and scavenged on the surface of water, propelled by warping the ductile meniscus with pressure exerted through their feet (as can be seen in the photograph below). Interestingly, in Recent times only some members of the order Hemiptera (true bugs)–to which the Chresmodidae certainly do not belong–have such a lifestyle among the insects.

If the analogy holds true, though, one can't help but notice that Chresmoda sp. grew to sizes far greater than any water strider: an adult female C. neotropica's wingspan was 55.6 mm (with far lengthier legs), and it wasn't even the largest species: by contrast, Gigantometra gigas, the largest water strider, has limbs that span 36 mm. Given that Gerridae already push the limits of physics by walking on water, one wonders how the heck their vaster polyneopteran counterparts did so. Of course, the idea that they were aided by vegetative flotsam cannot be discounted; but if so, why have water striders (and other surface-inhabiting hemipterans) not also taken advantage of this and thus grown to comparatively behemoth sizes? A good number of chresmodids (including the largest species) lived on brackish waters (i.e. lagoons), meaning that they had the advantage of increased density (since more salt=denser water)–but members of Gerromorpha (the infraorder to which water striders & co. belong) are tolerant of salinity as well. 

No, it appears that Chresmoda sp. owe their gigantism to a unique aspect of their tarsi: namely, the fact that said tarsi were unreservedly flagellate, the 2 foremost tarsomeres (the segments which comprise an insect's foot) being subdivided into an excess of 40 tiny articles in what was apparently a means of spreading weight. Why does this warrant italicization? Well, the foundational morphology from which all insects descend has no more than 5 podites: numerous lineages among the Insecta have less than that, but never more, with the strange exception of Chresmoda

In search of an explanation for the sinuous feet of the Chresmodidae we venture into the wily realm of developmental genetics. Possibly, a gene regulating segment multiplication in the antennae shifted to the legs, which, these limbs being serially homologous, is not implausible; or perhaps the gene responsible for tarsomere arrangement simply went overboard with the apical podites ("over-expression"). However, additional mutations in unrelated parts of the genome–specifically, those parts dealing with tarsal musculature–would be necessary in order for the newly super-multiarticulate feet to function. This could explain why this route for dealing with supporting one's weight on fluid occurred only once in the insects; but however it appeared, the chresmodids were certainly successful in their own time, living for at least 80 mya (Aalenian-Cenomanian Epochs) at both ends of Eurasia and in South America. 

Oddly enough, though, arachnids are no strangers to whip-like tarsi, the feature appearing independently in the orders Amblypygi, Uropygi, Schizomida, Palpigradi, and Opiliones. Of these, only Opiliones (harvestmen) have suchlike tarsi on all legs (as do Chresmodidae): the other four restrict antenniform feet to the foremost pair (which rises above the body in the adjacent photograph of D. diadema). But as the epithet "antenniform" might suggest, these arachnids' augmented tarsi are entirely sensorial in function, in contrast to the chresmodids' ambulatory ones; furthermore, the members of the cited orders are exclusively terrestrial. 

In the 173 years chresmodids have been known their taxonomy has been a source of prolonged debate and confusion. Ernst Friedrich Germar, author of the name Chresmoda, initiated the mess when he attributed that moniker to a colleague despite the work in the descriptive monograph being clearly his own; numerous species–Pygolampis gigantea (Germar, 1839), Propygolampis bronni (Weyenbergh, 1874), Saurophthirodes mongolicus (Ponomarenko, 1986), Sternarthron zitteli (Haase, 1890), Gryllidium oweni (Westwood, 1854)–and the genus Halometra (Oppenheim, 1888) were synonymized with the type (C. obscura) over the years, often being initially classified in a separate order from their senior synonym: indeed, the poorly preserved S. zitteli was frequently classified as an arachnid, and even compared to the bizarre sea spiders (class Pycnogonida) in what was probably an instance of systematist's desperation (akin to writer's block). 

The Chresmodidae played taxonomic musical chairs for many years, being placed in the orders Mantodea, Hemiptera, Orthoptera, Phasmatodea, Paraplecoptera (="Grylloblattaria") or floating somewhere in the clade Archaeorthoptera/Gryllones/Orthopterida. Oppenheim (1888) regarded them as water measurers (Hydrometridae), a living family of twig-like gerromorphans; Frank M. Carpenter, then-curator of fossil insects at Harvard, alleged in 1992 that the holotype of Chresmoda was actually a plain ol' locust that had been accidentally confused with the typical chresmodid Propygolampis. Whodathunkit? However, Carpenter ungraciously kicked the bucket before he could elaborate on his theory, and searches of his workplace for drafts of a forthcoming manuscript substantiating his hypothesis turned up nothing.

By far the most frequent ordinal attribution (if any) for Chresmodidae, however, is the Phasmatodea, or stick and leaf insects. Aleksandr G. Sharov even went so far as to include the living Phyllidae (leaf insects) in the superfamily Chresmodoidea. Unfortunately, the phylogeny of the Phasmatodea is, for lack of a better word, unclear; one predominant school of thought regards them as the sister-group of the Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, etc.): the other, as close kin of the Embioptera, an obscure order of subsocial insects known in the vernacular as webspinners: the former view is supported by morphology; the latter, genetics. Orthopterans and embiopterans are so dissimilar that there appears to be little opportunity for compromise. Another view holds that extant Phasmatodea are not even monophyletic, with the oddball Timematidae being more closely related to Notoptera (icecrawlers and rockcrawlers) than to the remainder of the living species (Euphasmida).

Additionally, the identity of the prehistoric taxa to which the Chresmodidae are obviously related (yes! There are some!) has been debated over the years. These mostly Mesozoic fossils–of which the Cretaceous-Paleogene Susumaniidae (Gorochov, 1988), the Jurassic Necrophasma (Martynov, 1925), and the Triassic Aeroplanidae (Tillyard, 1918) are some examples–have been often classified as Phasmatodea, but for the most part they consist only of wings, meaning that their identity as stick insects is based entirely upon venation. Well and good, except that their putative living kin's wings are reduced and heavily sclerotized, if not absent outright, making modern stick insect wing venation difficult and/or impossible to study. Furthermore, since the body is usually lacking in these fossils, in them one cannot confirm the presence of a vomer (a portion of male stick insects' naughty bits): a telltale apomorphy of modern phasmatodeans. (Significantly, chresmodid males lacked a vomer.) Hence, these purported basal stick insects' identification has been doubted. However, the twin discoveries of Gallophasma–a clichéd "missing link" between the alleged pre-Neogene Phasmatodea and their present-day ilk–and a susumaniid with a vomer would seem to confirm that chresmodids are, indeed, stick insects. 

If so, then I must say that they are weird stick insects. Well, I'm off.

[Sadly, inclusion of pictures in this post is more trouble than it's worth. You can find excellent photographs of chresmodid fossils in Delclòs et al., 2008.]

Andersen, N. M. (1982). The Semiaquatic Bugs (Hemiptera: Gerromorpha): Phylogeny, Adaptations, Biogeography and Classification. Klampenborg: Scandinavian Science Press.

Delclòs, X., Nel, A.; Azar, D.; Bechly, G.; Dunlop, J. A.; Engel, M. S. & Heads, S. W. (2008). The enigmatic Mesozoic insect taxon Chresmodidae (Polyneoptera): new paleobiologicalN. Jb. Palaeont. Abh., 247(3), 353-381. 

Nel, A.; Marchal-Papier, F.; Béthoux, O. & Gall, J. C. (2004). A new "stick-insect like" from the Triassic of the Vosges (France) ("pre-Tertiary Phasmatodea") [electronic version]. Annals of the Entomological Society of France, 40(1), 31-36.

Nel, A. & Delfosse, E. (2011). A new Chinese Mesozoic stick insect [electronic version]. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 56(2), 429-432.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Farmers Are Entomologists

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

Farmers have to really know and understand insects in order to grow their crops. It's very simple: you can't control an insect pest if you don't understand its life-cycle, or if you can't identify it. This goes double for organic farmers. Whenever I've visited an organic farm, entomology is always happening. Instead of relying on chemical pesticides, organic farmers have to hand-pick many of the insect pests that infest their crops. And by doing so, they also get a close look at many of the beneficial insects and other non-pests that inhabit their crops. These folks are often experts in insect identification, and they are also familiar with all of the different life stages that are encountered throughout the season.

I was reminded of all of this a couple of days ago when I read this post from the Elmwood Stock Farm in Georgetown, KY. Take a look and see how important insects are to Kentucky farmers!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Tick Article

Recently, Dr. Tom Barnes, UK's Extension Specialist for Wildlife, invited us to write a guest article for his blog (Kentucky Native Plant and Wildlife Blog) about Kentucky ticks and the diseases that they carry. Read the entry here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Giant Lobster

I can always count on CNN for reports of giant crustaceans. The latest one concerns a 27 pound lobster that was caught by a shrimp trawler. You can see the video here, where the giant is compared with a more typical lobster:

The shrimpers turned it over to some biologists, and they plan to release it back to the wild. The seafood lover in you might think that this is a shame. But there are several good reasons not to eat it:

1. By releasing it back into the wild, it can reproduce--if it's this big, that means that it has has lived a long time. We want it and its genes back in the ocean, so that it can pass on its hardy, delicious traits to new generations of steamers.

2. Bigger lobsters are more difficult to cook properly than smaller lobsters, and they usually don't taste as good because of this (this is also true for shrimp!).

3. Instead of a lobster fork, you'd have to use a rake. I said a rake, people.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Giant Amphipods

Scientists in New Zealand have discovered some very large species of marine amphipods. You can see pictures in this article, which describes the nearly foot-long creatures as "shrimplike":

I think that this is interesting, because we have freshwater amphiopods in Kentucky, and they look very similar to the ones discovered in New Zealand except that they are much smaller. Our freshwater versions are often called "scuds" or "sideswimmers," and they do indeed look a lot like tiny shrimp, and are even sometimes called "freshwater shrimp" even though they are not really very closely related to the "freshwater prawns" (a.k.a. shrimp) that you might eat at dinner. (Shrimp and amphipods are actually in totally different scientific orders. These means that they are considered to be about as closely related to one another as a dog is to a horse.)

You can read about the non-giant, freshwater versions of amphipods here (and look for them in your local creek or stream--they are probably there!):

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wildcats vs. Fear

Blake Newton, Extension Entomologist

I just learned on today's John Calipari show (yes, for those of you who don't live in Kentucky, our college basketball coach has his own television show!) that sophomore guard (and fan-favorite) Jarrod Polson is afraid of spiders. As an entomologist, I sometimes forget that lots of people are really terrified of insects and spiders. But I really shouldn't forget. After all, I was terribly afraid of insects and spiders when I was a kid (I wrote about it on this blog last year). When I became an entomologist, though, I quickly lost my fear of these creatures, and I think it was because I learned all about them. Fear is based on uncertainly, and learning SLAYS uncertainty. Not to mention, fear can fuel learning: the fear of insects made the creatures more interesting to me when I was studying them.

So here is my challenge to Jarrod Polson and all of the other Wildcats and non-wildcats who might be reading this. Identify something that you are afraid of and learn more about it. You may just find a new hobby, or even a career! And at the very least, you might diffuse some of your fears.

So I guess I should participate, too. I'm not sure which fear to pick, though. I used to be afraid of having kids (how do you take care of them? what if they get hurt? what if they become a criminal?), but now that "one's on the way" for me (a little girl!), I find that I'm not afraid anymore, just excited. I'm afraid of skydiving, but overcoming that fear isn't very practical. There aren't any animals or foods that I'm afraid of. So what is a fear that I can work on? I guess I need to think about this and report back!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Amazing Photos of Beetle Larvae

I just found a wonderful photo archive on Flickr: amazing, hi-res diagnostic images of a wide variety of beetle larvae! These could be very useful for identification. The notations indicate that these are mostly Russian species, but most of them probably have similar cousins in North America. The gallery is maintained by "A. Zaitsev."

Take a look:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Spider Silk

Here at UK Entomology, we get lots of questions about spider silk. Frankly, I don't know very much about the subject. Luckily, Dr. Cheryl Hayashi from UC Riverside does! In this CNN article, she explains some spider-silk basics: