Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ohio Collecting 2: Buzzard's Roost Preserve

After collecting in Marietta, I headed towards Chillicothe, Ohio, where Buzzard's Roost Nature Preserve is located. I had never been to Buzzard's Roost before, but was invited by Joe Letsche, a ranger with the Ross County Park District, to give a public program about millipedes. It was an offer I couldn't refuse--collecting millipedes AND teaching other people about them? Yes please.

So, I drove through a few storms and met Joe for a pre-millipede hunting dinner. On the way, I stopped to take some photos after the rain. Ross County has the rolling foothills of the Appalachians, which makes for a great backdrop. The following photos were taken in Londonderry, Ohio.



While the rain was great weather for millipedes, it wasn't so great for humans, and dropped our turnout a little. But we still had a half dozen people show up, and they were ready to learn. After a quick introduction to the basics of millipedes and how to look for them, we set off on the trail. The preserve was full of leaf litter and dead logs--prime millipede habitat.


Before we found any millipedes though, I spied a weird silken tube next to a log. I had a hunch about what it was, but the only way to be sure was to dig it up to see what was inside. After a minute of digging, I had unearthed a 5 inch tube of leaves and dirt held together by a lot of silk. I cut the tube open and found...


A trapdoor spider! It's in the genus Ummidia, in the family Ctenizidae, the cork-lid trapdoor spiders. The body was about an inch long, making it a formidable predator to anything that might walk by its trap. After snapping some photos, I released the spider, apologizing for messing up its home.

Hunting for millipedes in a group is almost always better than looking for them on my own, and this trip was no exception. More eyes and hands searching around means that you'll find more millipedes, and the group ended up being better at finding them than I was!



The above millipede species was an exciting find. We saw at least a dozen of them, including a few males that allowed me to identify the species with certainty. It's Pleuroloma flavipes, a widely distributed millipede throughout the eastern United States. This millipede alone made the trip worth it, and we had only been searching for ten minutes! I had never seen a living individual of this species before, and they were everywhere along the trail. 

Night started to fall as we walked along, but it didn't deter the millipedes, which are more active at night anyway. As we walked along, shining our flashlights on nearby trees, we noticed some millipedes climbing up the bark:


Another ubiquitous eastern millipede, Narceus americanus. These millipede can grow up to 4 or 5 inches long, and is among the largest in the United States. The individual in the above photo is still a juvenile though, measuring in at a little over 2 inches long. It's still got some growing to do, perhaps that's why it's chowing down on that moss.

We saw more than just millipedes on the trip: we found lots of harvestmen, ground beetles, a few frogs, and even a black widow spider in a tree hollow. Coolest of all, we came across a fairy ring of coral fungus! It was quite large, and grew alongside a moist stream bed.


Apparently the moss was delicious that night, as we came across a cherry millipede (Apheloria virginiensis corrugata) eating some on a tree trunk. This species can release hydrogen cyanide to defend itself, hence its common name--it smells quite similar to cherries. It doesn't produce enough to harm humans, though it's recommended to wash your hands after handling these millipedes. Also, don't eat it.


Another unexpected find was this millipede in the genus Cambala that Joe found. It's a thin millipede, but it sure has a lot of segments! It also has knobby crests on each segment and appears quite pink under the correct lighting. This is a millipede I don't come across very often, so I was ecstatic to finally see a living one!

Other millipedes we found included a few Julida, Scytonotus granulatus, Pseudopolydesmus, Euryurus leachii, and the introduced Oxidus gracilis, a species from Asia that can be found almost everywhere.

I'd like to thank Joe for inviting me out, and all those who joined us on the hike! Buzzard's Roost is a fantastic place, and I hope to go back and visit soon.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ohio Collecting Day 1: Marietta

My first collecting day in Ohio took place near Marietta, on a trail system I've walked many times. It's where I learned to identify many spring wildflowers and hunted for morel mushrooms, so I already knew where to find areas with good millipede habitat. In particular, I was searching for an unknown millipede that was found there last fall.

I arrived a little after 2 PM on June 18th, and the weather was in the high 70s/low 80s. A nice perk of hunting for millipedes is that I'm in forests most of the time, so I was shaded from the heat and enjoyed quite nice temperatures. The forest composition was mostly maple and beech, with some oak, sweet gum, and other deciduous trees thrown in.



The first area I walked through was a bit dry, so I checked a moist crevice at the bottom of a maple tree and found my first species: Oxidus gracilis, the greenhouse millipede (above photo). Unfortunately, this is an introduced species from Asia, found throughout the United States. The individual in the lower right is an immature specimen, as evidenced by its lighter color.

I continued on, stomping through overgrown grasses and shrubs, searching for the unmaintained path I remembered being there last Spring. Visiting it in Summer was a very different experience.


Though my quarry was millipedes, I took some time to notice what else was around. This is one of my favorite flowers, blooming from Blue-eyed grass, Sisyrinchium angustifolium. If you squint, you can even see one of my most hated plants in the background, Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), a terrible invasive.


Also hanging around was Geina periscelidactylus, known as the Grape Plume Moth. The plume moths are an interesting family, and one which I don't know much about.


After some rooting through the leaf litter, I uncovered what I was looking for! The above photo is of Apheloria virginiensis corrugata, also known as the cherry millipede. The scale bar shows inches. If you look closely, you can see some condensation on the millipede, a side effect of living in its moist microhabitat. Most millipedes can't close their spiracles (the holes on the sides of their body they breathe through), so dehydration is a constant danger. It's why you don't find many millipedes in dry areas. You can also see some mites walking on its back, which like to hitch a ride.


Nearby, I found this millipede. It's the same species, but it has recently molted. They don't get their deep black color until they mature a bit.



The above two photos show another Xystodesmid millipede found in the leaf litter, and the unknown species I was looking for! It seems to be in the genus Nannaria, and both photos show a female, which are tan with peach highlights on the paranota and collum.

At this point, all the other millipedes I found were icing on the cake. Luckily, I love icing and found many more millipedes. But first I had to pass this:


I only fell through it twice. It was only my right foot, but still. I then found out the metal parts of the bridge were sturdier to walk on.

Once past the bridge, I found a number of millipedes in the genus Abacion. They're known as the crested millipedes, due to the series of longitudinal crests on their back. Ohio has three species, but they're not separable from photos. Abacion is probably the fastest millipede in Ohio, and is also quick to release its chemical defenses. They tend to make your hands smelly for a number of hours.



I stopped at a dead log and pulled it open, and another millipede greeted me.


The American millipede, Narceus americanus, Ohio's largest millipede. It can grow to about 5 inches long and has a long lifespan, up to 2 years. This one wasn't cooperating for photos and decided it would rather dig deeper into its log, where it munches on the dead wood and fungi within.

All in all, I collected seven species, which wasn't a bad haul. There are certainly more that I missed, but it was a good start to my collecting trip, and I had a nice hike. In my next post, I'll have photos from my second collecting day, which took place near Chillicothe.



Thursday, July 10, 2014

The great Ohio collecting trip of '14

I've just returned to Arkansas after 3 weeks of sampling in Ohio for millipedes, in what was a very fruitful collecting trip. The trip was funded with a grant from the Ohio Biological Survey, and I was able to find many of the species I was after.

A series of posts about some of the places I went will follow in the coming weeks, as will an account of my adventures. Currently I'm still recovering from the trip (not to mention the 10 hour drive yesterday), so writing will come into full swing as my energy returns. I'll also be recounting my experience at Mothapalooza, which was a lot of fun.

Traveling, grad school life, and some other personal stuff has kept me from blogging as much as I'd like, so I'll try to use my Ohio trip as a springboard for more posts soon. That will help me remember more of my trip, and act as a nice compendium of my exploits from the past few weeks.

I was able to outrun storms, survive nearly being run off the highway by an inattentive driver, grit my teeth through the stinging nettle, and deal with the tediousness of bad collecting days to end up with a few boxes of millipedes. All in all, it was a good collecting trip, and I was able to visit some of Ohio's most beautiful places. Now to sift through the samples, catalog their records and the photographs I took, and clean up the mess I brought back to my apartment!

As a teaser, here are three species of Xystodesmids from Cantwell Cliffs in the Hocking Hills of Ohio.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Emporia Expedition: Kansas Entomological Society 2014 Meeting

Saturday was the 2014 meeting of the Kansas Entomological Society in Emporia, Kansas, and I joined the University of Arkansas delegation on the 4 hour trip to attend. The week leading up to the meeting was stressful, with preparing my talk and not feeling well towards the end of the week, but everything worked out fine.

I will say that I need to start preparing my talks sooner. I'm apt to procrastinate, which gives me a tendency to put off writing my talks until a few days before I give it. This is not optimal. It results in feeling unprepared (because I am) and makes for an awkward talk. I've started to budget more time into my schedule dedicated to working on my talks, and it's helpful to block out a half hour to an hour dedicated solely to working on presentations in the weeks leading up to them. That's not to say I still don't fail to take advantage of that time, and in those cases, I've gotten past feeling sorry for myself and being paralyzed by the fear of a blank page.

A benefit of being part of the Entomology department is that the department head schedules times for the grad students to give their practice talks to a small group of peers for feedback. It's not a good idea to disappoint the chair, so we always have our talks ready to go a few days before leaving for any conference. They're definitely not perfect, and the suggestions we receive help a lot during the pre-conference editing process.

Thanks to the suggestions I received, I was able to make my talk much better than what I started with, and it was relatively fun to edit. My talk covered my previous work with Ohio's millipedes and what my plans are for the summer with my grant from the Ohio Biological Survey. I made a chart showing my current millipede species count for Ohio, which I was particularly proud of. You can see it below.


This chart will surely change as I get better data on how many species are in Ohio, but this is what I have so far. The top three orders: Polydesmida, Chordeumatida, and Julida make up 82% of the state's millipede diversity. It's not terribly surprising, but I had never done the math on it before, and it's useful to lay out the data so that I know what I'm dealing with.

On the day of the conference, I was more nervous than I usually am for public speaking, which I wasn't taking as a good sign. Thankfully, when I got up to give my presentation, I was feeling back to normal. I started my talk by taking a photo of the audience and mentioning a publication on millipedes available near the registration desk. It loosened up the atmosphere a bit.

My talk went very well, and I had a wave of relief overtake me once I sat down. It's always nice to get a talk out of the way early on during a conference and then be able to just enjoy it. I was very impressed by the other student talks I heard during the day, and I was able to meet Crystal Maier, a fellow Twitter user! Her talk was immediately following mine and it was great, aside from her negative opinions on Ohio fieldwork. Though when she has the option of going to the tropics to collect beetles or stay in US....I guess I can see her point.

Crystal ended up winning first place in the competition for her talk, so congratulations to her! It was well-deserved. The judges couldn't make up their minds, so 1st place was shared by Oliver Keller, who presented an excellent talk about his work with California's bear scarab beetles. I was happy to take 3rd place, showing that my talk had definitely progressed since my (disastrous) practice talk a few days prior.

The posters at the meeting were likewise of high quality. I read a particularly nice poster by Emmy Dudek, from Wichita State University, about a pilot survey of grasshoppers in the state she had completed. It had beautiful photos and I'm hoping to see it eventually adapted into a field guide!

State entomology conferences are always great to present at and have a cordial feel to them. They're not nearly as hectic as national or regional conferences, and it's nice to be able to have conversations with fellow scientists instead of constantly running around. It's also a low pressure environment, another positive. The Kansas meeting was probably the most fun I've had at a conference recently, and I'll definitely be attending next year.

Additionally, the next meeting will be at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville next April, which makes for a short commute time for me. Convenient!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

On feeling like a good scientist

I've had a pretty great week.

It started off with the Southeastern Branch meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Greenville, South Carolina. I was there from March 2-5 and heard some great talks and met some very nice people. The University of Arkansas entered a team into The Linnaean Games (it's like Bug Quiz Bowl), and I was the alternate for the team. I cheered them on from the audience, and we made it to the semi-finals before losing in a close round to North Carolina State University. There were no hard feelings though: it was a well-fought contest, and we all went out to dinner afterward. You can see some photos from the meeting on the Entomology Society's Facebook page, and hopefully that album will have some of the candid photos uploaded soon.

I received exciting news while I was in Greenville: my symposium for the national meeting in Portland, Oregon this November was accepted! The symposium is entitled "Reaching Beyond Our Horizon: Social Media & Connecting with the World" and will have speakers from entomology and other disciplines talking about how social media has enhanced their research and their outreach. I had enormous help brainstorming for the symposium from Morgan Jackson, a fellow grad student, and his help was instrumental in getting the symposium accepted. We'll both be moderating the session in November, and we hope to see you there! It will be the best program symposium at the conference!

Yesterday afternoon I received my other piece of good news for the week: I have been awarded a grant from the Ohio Biological Survey's Small Grants Program! This grant will support my millipede field work in Ohio this summer, which I intend to document on this blog and on Twitter, along with other avenues. I'm very excited to have this opportunity and will make OBS proud.

Suffice it to say that this week has been very helpful for my ego. Science communication and millipede research are two of the things I'm most passionate about, and both those interests have been vindicated by professional organizations. I'm going to make sure the symposium and the grant are magnificent investments for both those organizations and sink a lot of hard work into each of them.

I'm excited and honored by both these opportunities, and my passion for science is definitely at an all-time high right now.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Winter Mycology - Earthstars

I expected winter in Arkansas to be more mild than I'm used to, but this year's winter seems to have been a bit unusual. By unusual, I mean cold. Not as cold as Ohio, but cold enough to have snow on the ground and stay there. But today it got into the 50s, melting away the snow and revealing what was underneath it.

As I was walking past a tree in Fayetteville, I noticed some white objects about the size of small acorns. I stopped and knelt down to examine them, and it turned out that they were mushrooms!


Earthstars in the genus Geastrum were huddled around the base of the tree. The white sphere you see is the storage structure for the mushroom's spores. When force is applied to it (such as from a gust of wind or a finger), the spores puff out in a cloud from a hole at the tip. The spores are then dispersed by the wind. The brown stuff you see under the sphere is the "skin" of the mushroom (outer peridium): it peels back from the sack of spores and lies on the ground.

Mushrooms like these are relatively common once you know what to look for. Often, the earthstars and related groups look like small piles of decaying leaves or poop unless you take a closer look. If you see something gross on the ground, stop and take a closer look, it might be a mushroom.

EDIT: February 22 - Adding some photos of three collected specimens.




Thursday, January 9, 2014

A New Year, a new update

2013 has come to a close, and my first semester of graduate school has as well. I emerged victorious, and the break before second semester has been good to me.

I unfortunately didn't blog about my time at the 2013 Entomological Society of America conference in Austin in November, but I did write a few posts for EntomologyToday. The first was about how Twitter is useful for entomologists, and the second was about using Storify to organize tweets. Suffice it to say that the conference left me exhausted and still wanting more. I had a spectacular time meeting other entomologists, grad students, and friends (old and new), and I heard some scintillating talks.

I'm now looking ahead to the future. My next semester has been thrown out of whack already, due to my plant taxonomy class being cancelled (much to my disdain), so now I'm searching for a new class to take. I'm bitter about losing plant taxonomy.

I'm also hoping to TA my first class--any tips are welcome.

My main focus during the next semester will be working on my thesis question and research. Related to that goal, I want to publish at least one paper (or at least have it submitted), take a shot at making science/nature videos, and of course, spread the news about how great millipedes are.

Not to mention set aside more time for blogging. I've noticed that I tend to tweet more thoughts and experiences that I used to make into blog posts, so I'm going to be more wary of that in the future.

I'm looking forward to a productive, fun, and scary but exciting 2014, and I wish the same to everyone else.