Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dissections and a Crop

I'm taking an insect morphology class this semester, so I've been doing a lot of dissections. I know my way around an insect so much better than I did before, and I'm getting to the point of being quite comfortable with all the tools used for dissections. Now I can be fancy when I'm cutting and tugging at the insect's body.

In today's lab, I dissected a honey bee to observe its heart, which is located dorsally on the body. To get there, I cut away the ventral abdominal plates, exposing the guts. I was met with this scene:

You can see a few things in this photo. There are silvery air sacs along the edges of the abdomen, the exposed stinger at the distal end (i.e. the butt), and you can see the gut taking up most of the room in the abdomen. In particular, you can see the crop: the bulbous, slightly golden part of the foregut, where honey is stored. It's also called the "honey stomach."

Obviously, I didn't want to waste the honey by throwing it away after my dissection.

That drop of honey was the freshest honey I had ever tasted. It was delicious!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tweeting or just twittering?

The newest edition of the Bulletin of the Entomological Society of Canada (Volume 45, issue 3, September 2013) begins with a column (pp. 101-103) about digital media, its usefulness, and its pitfalls, by the president of the ESC, Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate. She writes about how online tools can be useful, but also notes that scientists should be judicious in their use of these tools: a fair point. In something of a counterpoint, the last column in the Bulletin (pp. 151-152) takes a different view of online tools, notably social media. Editor Cedric Gillott holds a less rosy view of social media's role for scientists, proclaiming:
However, I have never found a need to open Twitter or Facebook accounts or to blog. And even in retirement I find myself so busy that I doubt I would find time to tweet, or post  items on other social media sites.
It's worth your time to read the entire column, but his main complaints about social media and blogging amount to (1) not having enough time for it and (2) not seeing the usefulness. Gillott does mention that blogs can quickly answer scientific questions, but he ascribes no such benefit to Twitter. As someone who often blogs and tweets (I've been doing both for about three years now), I feel that I can answer his concerns.

As for the time commitment, sure, maybe social media (I'll include blogging under this umbrella for simplicity from now on) would take up too much time for some people. But everything eats up time: television, reading, socializing...particular activities aren't the issue. What matters is budgeting time correctly. I use Twitter during my daily bus commute, while waiting for people, during lunch, and later in the evening when I'm relaxing at home. It doesn't have to be a constant time suck, nor does it take much time to read through some tweets.

As with any other activity, if it's important to you, you'll make time.

Now to tackle the usefulness of social media. I often meet scientists who have the perception that Twitter is useless and it's just people talking about what they had for lunch. Sure, some people tweet about their food choices and post selfies all day, but as Tom Houslay elegantly puts it: "the wonderful thing about Twitter is that your feed is entirely as interesting as you make it." If you see something you don't care about on Twitter, you can unfollow people and follow others who are more interesting. If you find your feed uninteresting, that's your fault.

I want to point out that the "Twitter is useless" attitude comes mainly from scientists who haven't used it. Gillott admits that he himself doesn't use social media. Twitter isn't perfect, but I would encourage scientists to give it a shot before concluding that it's not useful. After all, that would be making a conclusion without any evidence, and that's a science faux pas.

So where's my evidence that Twitter is useful?

For one thing, I found my current job through Twitter. I'm earning my Master's degree because I saw the position advertised in a tweet, and I wouldn't have known about it otherwise. That pretty much sealed the usefulness argument for me. It's an example of Twitter's biggest strength: networking.

I follow almost 1,000 accounts on Twitter, which mostly consists of scientists, including many other graduate students. I can ask a question about a concept or something I come across in the field and get an answer quickly. (I just did this today, in fact, and received an answer two minutes later.) I hear about struggles other students have, learn about what research is going on, and meet others in the field. It's a natural way to network: I meet someone based on shared interests and make a friend instead of just a colleague.

I've received specimens from people I meet on Twitter, and I've sent some as well, aiding in research. I'm interested in millipedes, so I monitor the millipede hashtag on Twitter, identifying species for people when possible. Most of the tweets I find are from people who aren't scientists, and sometimes they send me photos of other bugs they've found and want to learn more about. Twitter is a great tool for reaching the general public (that Holy Grail of "outreach" that scientists love to give lip service to), and enables me to help people make connections with the natural world. That's not useless. It's what social media should be about.

As for this blog, I haven't gotten any scholarly publications from it (yet), but it has helped me hone my writing skills, organize my thoughts, and connect with the general public. I get emails from people who were able to identify an insect or millipede after they read one of my posts, and that information might not be easily accessible to a non-scientist (especially the millipede information).

As scientists, we should embrace new media to disseminate our knowledge. We pride science on being ever-changing, incorporating new ideas and data, so why don't we apply that mindset to our scientists?

If I think back on all the time wasted by scientists not knowing their way around Powerpoint* or fiddling with a projector to put up a new transparency, I realize that I could have written a bunch of tweets or blog posts to better use that time. As scientists, we shouldn't be resistant to new technologies because they're viewed as immature/time wasters/too complicated. We should give them a chance and try to find their usefulness, instead of automatically writing them off as bad.

If you're a scientist who wants to try Twitter, but are unsure of where to start, check out these links:
What is Twitter and Why Scientists Need To Use It
Scientists On Twitter: 30 Biologists And Chemists To Follow
Tweeting for Science (with links to other resources)
Twitter for Scientists (and why you should try it) (#ScienceShare)
Why should scientists use Twitter?
Guest post: creating scientists in 140 characters
Don’t throw away the Twitter manual yet!
More resources, including a Twitter guide, from the Bennett Lab at McGill University
Why I spend so much time on the internet (#ScienceShare)
Social media for academics
Scientists & Social Media; A Popular Subject

You can follow me on Twitter: @derekhennen. While I don't tweet about what I had for lunch, I do tweet photos of cats sometimes/often. Fair warning.

*Protip: If you want to enter presentation mode on Powerpoint, just hit F5. It takes half a second and people will be impressed that you know your way around the program.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Scientific Method: Leaf litter samples

Much of my research involves collecting leaf litter samples from the field. There's a surprising amount of diversity in leaf litter, including insects, arachnids, and myriapods, all hanging out together under the detritus on the forest floor.

To collect leaf litter, all you need to do is grab a few handfuls of fallen leaves (usually including various amounts of soil, dead wood, moss, etc.) and stick it all in a plastic bag. It helps to use some kind of sifter first, to concentrate the litter and avoid filling up the bag with large sticks and leaves, but it's not critical.

After collecting the litter, transfer it to a funnel. You usually want to do this ASAP so that the critters in the litter don't get squished or eaten by the predators you've collected with the prey, but that's not always possible. Keeping the bags in a container with some ice helps to slow the invertebrates' movements and keeps the bags from overheating.

I had a few bags of leaf litter yesterday after a collecting trip, and I decided to showcase how I process the samples by tweeting a series of photos, embedded below. I have access to a room full of dedicated Berlese funnels, but they're easy to set up if you're interested in just testing out the method once.

In a few days, I can go back to check my samples and figure out what I caught. It's sort of like Christmas morning every time I sort one of the samples: I never know what to expect and it's exciting!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Craziest Field Day: Story Time and Reflection

Mechanical failure. Coloring books. Late night adventures. Kind strangers. My most recent collecting trip had all of these things. Settle in, because this is going to be a crazy blog post.

As part of my research on the endemic arthropods of Arkansas, I've been collecting with Malaise traps and leaf litter extraction from four sites in Arkansas's Ouachita Mountains. It's a beautiful area with neat biogeographical implications, and as part of the Interior Highlands of the US, it's pretty much as high as you'll get between the Rockies and the Appalachians. Usually, getting to all of my traps in one day is pretty rushed and doesn't allow me to do any intensive collecting before I need to head to my next site. On this most recent trip, I decided to split it into two days so I could check out some new areas and collect more leaf litter with the extra time I had.

One of the sites I wanted to check out was Roaring Branch Research Natural Area in Polk County. It's an area with a relict, virgin stand of mesophytic forest that looks more at home in the Appalachian Mountains, and my lab has collected some interesting insects there before. So, map in hand, I set out to find it.

I collected my first two sites without any problems. I found a stick insect just after it molted, a hummingbird nest only as large as my fist, and moist leaf litter, which bodes well for getting interesting stuff out of it.

I'm hoping for some good samples from this area.

After collecting a velvet ant near my second site, it was time to head down to Roaring Branch, about an hour south of Mena, Arkansas. The roads taking me there gradually became worse, transitioning from pavement to gravel to potholes. A sign warned: "Crooked and uneven road ahead." I reached an overlook point and stopped to take some photos. A few minutes later, another car stopped there, the only car I had seen in the past 30 minutes. A guy my age and his girlfriend got out and we chatted for a bit, as he welcomed me to Arkansas and told me "You're definitely in the wilderness now."

He was right.

About twenty minutes later, I reached the parking area for Roaring Branch and walked the trail until I cut off the beaten path to follow a spring-fed stream through a ravine into the natural area. The mountains there are shaped like an accordion, as my legs found out during the hike. The comparison to an Appalachian forest proved to be true, and I felt quite at home in the forest.

I stayed for a few hours, but didn't cover as much ground as I had hoped, which is pretty much par for the course whenever I go out collecting. It's easy to get slowed down turning over every rock and log, after all. Not limited to animals, Roaring Branch has interesting plants as well. Chief among them was a Magnolia tree I didn't recognize. I wasn't even sure it was a Magnolia until I finally saw the fruit. The leaves look like a pawpaw-banana hybrid.

Look at how big the leaves are!

I made a note to myself to return when I had more time, and then headed back to my car. I was getting hungry and pretty thirsty, and was looking forward to a relaxing evening of recording the data from the day's collections. I made it back to the car and noticed something: one of my tires looked flat.

This was not a good thing.

The closest town was 30 miles away, but there was a gas station a little closer than that. Perhaps I could make it. In reality, I didn't have any other options, so there wasn't much else I could do. The tire wasn't dangerously flat, nor had it shown any signs of damage at my previous stops for the day, so I set off--driving even more carefully than usual. Now keep in mind here that this was a university vehicle. I didn't know the history of the car, how old the tires were, anything.

I made it about five minutes, then the tire blew out. Oh balls.

I surveyed the damage: lots of holes. Very not good. "But hey, it's not the end of the world, I'll just put on the spare." I removed all my collecting gear from the trunk and opened up the compartment housing the spare tire. I looked down, and saw a distinctly tire-shaped area, but no tire. No jack either. Just jack squat.

At this point, I had many words and emotions running through my head, but very quickly I came to the conclusion that this was no time to be annoyed/frustrated/whatever: I needed to find some help. This car was not going anywhere. I grabbed my bag with the water I had left (somewhere along the  line, I lost my second water bottle that day), a few snacks, my knife, and my adventuring hat. If I had ever needed that hat, it was now. I set off down the road, hoping I wasn't too far from a campground I had passed earlier in the day. The time was 6:56 PM.

Luckily, I was only a half mile from the campground. I was also fortunate that it was a Thursday, and there were a few people at the campground. I found a couple who were nice enough to take me to Mena to find a tow truck. We first stopped at an area with cell phone service that was 20 minutes away by vehicle, where I called my advisor and let him know what had happened. We continued on to Mena and stopped at a gas station to borrow a phone book. I called four or five numbers before reaching a guy that was available to tow the car out, while my advisor phoned everyone he could think of to try to help me. He wasn't able to reach anyone, but he paid for the tow truck since I would be incurring other expenses before the trip was over. Mad props to him for being awesome in a time of duress, I owe him.

At this point, it was 10:00 PM and I was hungry, not having eaten much since noon. The couple that drove me to the gas station were nice enough to get me some food from a nearby Wendy's, but wouldn't take my money when I tried to repay them. I then tried to give them gas money for their trouble, but again they wouldn't take it. These were some seriously helpful people, I really lucked out. The husband had recently lost his job, but still he refused my money. Instead, he told me to help out another person in need when the situation arises, and I plan to. 

I still felt bad about intruding on their weekend, so I gave them my card and told them to email me if they ever need a bug identified. Never miss a good chance for outreach! 

Around 10:30 PM the tow truck arrived at the gas station, so I thanked the couple for the last time and hopped into the truck as we all set off. The tow truck driver's name was Horace, and since we had an hour of driving ahead of us, we started chatting. I explained the circumstances that led to me sitting beside him, and then we talked about bugs for a while. We had a pretty good chat, and he was an interesting guy: definitely a great driving partner after a long and stressful day.

We reached my car, lonely and sad after sitting there for hours. It didn't take very long to load the car onto Horace's truck, and then we set off for the slow drive back to Mena.

I'll get you fixed up soon, buddy.

Another hour and we were back in Mena. Horace said he would take the car to Walmart in the morning and I could get the tire replaced, which worked out well: my hotel was right next to Walmart. He dropped me off at my hotel, and I gave him my card in case he needed to call me (and to send me any bugs he wants identified, which he assured me he would).

At last, at 1 AM, I was in my hotel room and could finally relax after a very taxing day. But the adventure was not over.

I woke up the next morning and headed to Walmart. I went to the tire center and explained my ordeal to the sales associate: she was expecting me. I picked out a tire, but then it started to rain. The car couldn't be driven, so they'd have to work on it outside, but didn't want to risk the jack slipping on the wet pavement. They were going to wait until the rain subsided, which was fine with me. At this point, I was just glad to have things working out: no need to sweat the small stuff.

Unfortunately, not everyone shared my mindset. About twenty minutes later, a guy and his family walks in. He wants some tires replaced, and is super rude about it. He's cursing at the sales associate and complaining about poor service, despite the fact that he was not giving them all the information they needed about tire size and other things. This is very much asshole behavior. Think of the worst customer you can imagine: that was this guy. It takes them about 40 minutes to finish his work, complete with him complaining and cursing, and generally being an awful person. His kids seemed okay with the wait though, they were coloring in the waiting area the whole time. After they're done, he leaves and enriches everyone's lives through his absence.

I'm still waiting (and reading some remarkably good writing from the car magazines in the waiting area) when an elderly woman walks in, needing some work done on her car. She sits down in the waiting area, looks at the table with the kids' coloring books, and looks at me. She then proceeds to ask me "Oh, have you been coloring?"

I already like this woman.

I smirk and tell her "Well, I dabble" and we both chuckle. The sales associate walks in a few moments later, exasperated, and asks me "Would you like to get out of here?" and I fervently say yes. I get up to leave, but the old woman stops me to ask "Aren't you going to take your coloring books?" I almost wish I could have stayed longer to talk with her, because she was awesome.

I get my receipt and go out to my car: the new tire looks great. But I still needed the keys. The employee who was supposed to have them was not outside, so I walk back in to ask the other one where he was. Puzzled, she checks around and finds him a few minutes later and asks about the keys. The guy stares at her blankly.

Oh no.

Thankfully, he just left them in the car another employee was working on. He walks over to fetch them, but not without some harassment from his coworker, who calls him a "key-stealing turd."

And then, I could drive the car again. I didn't encounter any other car troubles for the rest of the trip,  a great relief. Before I left Mena, however, I needed some breakfast. I gathered up my things from the hotel room and ordered breakfast in the hotel restaurant. (It was delicious. If you're ever in Mena, eat at the Lime Tree Inn restaurant.) I dig in, and then notice a group of guys enter the restaurant. I look up, and who do I see, but Horace.

I give him an emphatic hello, and he laughs as he turns to his friends. "This is the dude I was telling you guys about." "Oh, the bug man?" "Yeah!"

You can't make this stuff up.


So, everything worked out fine. I found some helpful people and was able to fix my problem and finish the rest of my trip without incident. I definitely would have had a much harder time without those people, however. I truly couldn't thank them enough, and I owe them a lot. I was close to being out of water and would have had a long hike ahead of me without them, and I'll take the lessons I learned with me on my future collecting trips.

I'm not sure how or where I lost my extra water bottle, but I'm going to make sure I have an extra one the next time I go out into the field. I was almost out of water when my tire blew out, and that could have turned into a dangerous situation.

I'm also going to make sure I have everything I need in the vehicle before using a borrowed one. Sometimes, maintenance issues can fall through the cracks. I assume that's what happened with the spare tire: it was used at some point, and no one remembered to replace it. It's a risk to not ensure supplies like that are in a borrowed vehicle, since you don't necessarily know the history of that vehicle and what may or may not be missing.

My thoughts and emotions during the trip probably mattered the most. When my tire blew out, I was angry that a university vehicle didn't have a spare tire in it, since it's used by many people, but holding onto that anger wasn't useful. Things like that happen, and focusing on who's to blame isn't helpful, so I let it go and thought about my options at that moment. There was nothing I myself could do, so I accepted that and went to find help. My attitude influenced my mood and it influenced how much other people were willing to help me. Despite my stress levels, I was polite and did my best to remain upbeat. Laughing about the situation helped, and being positive helped me seem less like a random psycho in the woods trying to lure helpful people into a trap.

It was certainly a serious situation (moreso if I hadn't been able to find anyone to help me), but accepting what you can't change is paramount, and it helped me a lot that day. It also helped me the following day when I was getting my new tire. It was raining and that delayed when they could work on the car. So what? It wouldn't help anything to yell at the employees, and my poor attitude wouldn't have been an excuse to be a jerk to the employees trying to help me with my problem.

If you're ever in a similar situation, try to keep those things in mind. Your attitude influences how well you'll get through it, so don't dwell on the things you can't change. Focus on what you can do, and most importantly: always make sure you have a spare tire.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Apheloria west of the Mississippi River

If you haven't yet noticed, I'm fond of writing about millipedes. Since I moved to Arkansas, I've seen a few species that don't live in Ohio, which is exciting--it's nice to see more millipede diversity.

A wide-ranging genus in the eastern United States is Apheloria (Family Xystodesmidae). It contains species that utilize cyanide as a chemical defense and exhibit aposematism to warn predators to leave them alone (this is common in the family).

Apheloria virginiensis is the most widespread species in the genus, and has five subspecies. Two of them occur west of the Mississippi River: Apheloria v. iowa and Apheloria v. reducta. A. v. reducta is a bit more widespread, being found in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri. I recently came across this millipede in a leaf litter sample in Arkansas.

Apheloria virginiensis reducta

Instead of the bold black usually seen in A. virginiensis, this one sports a chestnut brown color. I wasn't quite sure of the exact species (Pleuroloma flavipes looks similar) until I looked at its gonopods, which confirmed its identity.

Gonopods of A. v. reducta

They're marvelous, aren't they? The gonopods are modified legs, these being the 7th pair. The blue-ish hue is a byproduct of the killing process--it would appear yellow-white normally, but it makes for a great photo. The gonopods transfer sperm to the female during sex.

For sexual structures, they're quite pretty.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Choosing my favorite millipede

I was asked recently what my favorite millipede is. That's not an easy question, but I was forced to pick one, so I thought about it for a bit and then figured, why not share it with everyone? I find myself doing more tweeting than blogging lately, but Twitter is terrible for long form responses.

There are about 12,000 described species of millipedes, and I've seen maybe 70 of them in life or in photos, so I'm drawing from a limited pool of millipede diversity. Even so, I know of many amazing species. Is my favorite something like the shocking pink dragon millipede, Desmotyxes purpurosea?

Desmotyxes purpurosea from Enghoff et al 2007. Read the paper, it's really neat!

Or maybe my favorite is another tropical millipede. After all, Psammodesmus bryophorus, a millipede I've blogged about before, has mosses that grow on its back!

Photo from Martínez-Torres SD et al 2011.

You won't be disappointed if you browse photos of millipedes from the tropics. There are many forms that are beautiful and seem almost alien, but I'm still biased towards the temperate forms I'm used to. Even among these North American millipedes, I'm not left with boring species. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

California has some of the world's most amazing millipedes. There's this millipede genus, Motyxia, that occurs in only a few counties there. Apparently all the species in the genus weren't content with the fireflies in the western US, which usually don't bioluminesce as adults like they do in the eastern US (there are different species out west). So, they took it upon themselves to pick up the slack, with marvelous results.

The eight species of Motyxia all bioluminesce.

Motyxia sequoiae (a) under normal light (b) bioluminescing, from Marek et al 2011. Read more about this genus here.

Out of all 12,000 known species of millipede, only these ones bioluminesce. Isn't that amazing? Certainly bioluminescence makes for a strong contender for "favorite millipede." But still, it's not quite my favorite. To be fair, my own bias is sneaking in now. I've never had any interactions with Motyxia, so they're still esoteric to me. To find my favorite millipede, I need to go closer to home.

It just so happens that home for me is Ohio, in the foothills of Appalachia. The Appalachian Mountains host an amazing array of diverse millipedes, including many in the family Xystodesmidae. This family features some of the continent's most colorful millipedes, which have a habitat of exhibiting aposematism: their bright and bold colors act as a warning to predators that they have chemical defenses.

Brachoria dentata, a Xystodesmid millipede that displays aposematism. Photo taken by Paul Marek.

Xystodesmid millipedes have mastered Müllerian mimicry. Their color patterns successfully deter predators and confuse taxonomists. Browse around Paul Marek's Tree of Life page on the genus Brachoria and BugGuide's photos of the family and you'll quickly see why: there's a lot of variation in color forms within genera and even within species. They all build on the theme of  black with bright, bold spots of color, resulting in some of our prettiest millipedes. I'm partial to the black and blue species, personally.

After writing around which species is my favorite, I should finally nail it down. As I said, it's not easy. There are so many neat species, and my favorite comes down to one that I found soon after I began studying millipedes. Influenced by my personal history, here is my favorite millipede:

Semionellus placidus, a millipede without a common name. Yeah, that's poop on its back.

Semionellus placidus is a millipede in the family Xystodesmidae. It's classified in the tribe Chonaphini, which has most of its species in the Pacific Northwest of North America, but this one makes it out east. It's sporadic in its occurrence, and I've only found it at one site near my hometown in Ohio, though it's been reported from a few other Ohio counties.

Curled up in defensive position

What's so special about this millipede? It's not nearly as bright and colorful as other Xystodesmids; instead it sports a comparably drab brown and peach-banded color scheme. But it's the memories I have surrounding this millipede that makes it so special.

The first time I came upon this species was during a night hike. I wanted to see what bugs I could find at night, and I had a couple of good friends volunteer to come along with me as I searched. We found some neat insects--including moths and a dragonfly hanging from a tree--but the best find of the night came when I turned on the UV flashlight I had brought along. I shined the light over the leaf litter, and to my surprise, I found many small millipedes moving amongst the leaves like tiny trains, shining an ethereal blue-green under the UV light.

Semionellus placidus under UV light

I had heard about millipedes that fluoresce under UV light before, but this was the first time I had seen one for myself. (Note that UV fluorescence is different from bioluminescence. Fluorescent millipedes don't produce their own light, they just fluoresce under the UV light source, but stop when that source is taken away. The bioluminescent Motyxia millipedes, on the other hand, produce their own light.)

Semionellus placidus (left) under natural light (right) under UV light. Photo by Dave McShaffrey and featured in UV fluorescing millipedes from southeastern Ohio

It was exciting to witness, almost like I was watching something secret. The millipedes don't stand out in the dark at all; I didn't see them until I turned on the UV light. I was intrigued, so of course I collected some to take back to the lab. That was the first time I was really exposed to identifying millipedes on my own. This was during fall of 2011, and a few months before I had attended a millipede identification workshop taught by Bill Shear, where I learned the basics of millipede identification and obtained some print references I needed to identify millipedes. 

I did the best I could and narrowed it down to the order Polydesmida and family Xystodesmidae, a big accomplishment for me at the time. I didn't have a key to Xystodesmid genera, so I turned to BugGuide, where I uploaded a few photos. Rowland Shelley pointed me to Semionellus placidus, and I was able to confirm the ID by looking at a male's gonopods and comparing it to old literature records that had pictures of the gonopods. 

It was beyond fulfilling to identify this millipede at last. I learned a lot about millipede identification from the experience: the importance of collecting a few individuals (and hoping to catch a male), which features are useful for identification, the necessity of going to the experts, and the legwork it takes to track down scientific literature on millipedes, much of which is old and the only source to find information on some species. It took many hours, but was well worth it. Being able to identify your local species, whether they're flowers, birds, insects, or millipedes, is a powerful feeling.

I realized pretty quickly that there isn't much information on millipedes that is accessible to the general public. Millipedes are difficult to identify, they're not immediately showy and beautiful like butterflies, and there aren't many scientists researching them, which puts up more barriers for someone with an interest in millipedes. Essentially, unless you're someone who already studies Entomology, you're not going to have an easy time learning about millipedes, and that's a shame.

Due to this, I've taken it upon myself to do what I can to make millipedes more accessible to the general public and altogether more compelling for people to pay attention to. Most of my millipede projects have grown out of finding Semionellus placidus and working with the species.

"What's your favorite millipede?" As I thought about the question, it became clear that bioluminescence and bright colors are cool, but there's no way they can surpass the learning experiences I gained from finding an inch-long millipede in the woods.

Enghoff, H., Sutcharit, C. & Panha, S. 2007. The shocking pink dragon millipede, Desmoxytes purpurosea, a colourful new species from Thailand (Diplopoda: Polydesmida: Paradoxosomatidae). Zootaxa 1563: 31-36.
Marek P.E., Papaj D.R., Yeager J., Molina S. & Moore W. 2011. Bioluminescent aposematism in millipedes. Current Biology 21: R680–R681.
Martínez-Torres SD, Flórez Daza ÁE, Linares-Castillo EL. 2011. Meeting between kingdoms: discovery of a close association between Diplopoda and Bryophyta in a transitional Andean-Pacifc forest in Colombia. In: Mesibov R, Short M (Eds) Proceedings of the 15th International Congress of Myriapodology, 18–22 July 2011, Brisbane, Australia. International Journal of Myriapodology 6: 29–36. doi: 10.3897/ijm.6.2187

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Standing on the shoulders of giants

When doing a lot of research with older literature, you start to gain a strange sense of respect and familiarity with authors that are by now long gone. I've written about this before, with regards to Samuel Hildreth, but lately, I've had a different connection with another scientist who has passed.

Usually, when I visualize these old scientists, I imagine senior scientists writing with a large degree of certainty, brought on by their age. Of course, this isn't an accurate visualization, but it's been my go-to imagery. It's sort of a pleasant surprise when I find out an author is younger, especially when they're in their early 20s, since that's where I am right now. It's easier to connect with another 23 year old than a 35 year old. It also impresses me and motivates me to match that level of commitment.

Those were the thoughts swirling around my head when I came upon the papers of Charles Harvey Bollman, born in 1868 in Monongahela City, Pennsylvania. He went on to attend the University of Indiana at Bloomington, and apparently took quite an interest in the myriapoda of the United States: the millipedes and centipedes, along with their lesser-known relatives, the symphylans and pauropods. Bollman had a pretty open field, so he chose well. C.S. Rafinesque published the first recognized work on myriapoda in 1820. He was followed by Thomas Say in 1821, which helped in cracking open the door for others to tackle the creatures. Notable scientists working on the American myriapod fauna throughout the 1800s included Johann Friedrich Brandt, George Newport, Carl Ludwig Koch, Oscar Harger, Jerome McNeill, Horatio Wood, Edward Drinker Cope, and Lucien Marcus Underwood, among others. Despite the work of these scientists, the knowledge at the time was characterized as "fragmentary."

Since standardized methods and descriptions were still being worked out during this time, the literature can be confusing to go back to due to changes in nomenclature and many species being synonymized (after a species has been described more than once, unknown to other taxonomists). This primary literature is still important, however, as some of the species accounts have information that's difficult to find anywhere else. It's also a historical curiosity to read the descriptions--they look positively barren compared to how myriapods are described today, with many characters being discussed that can go on for paragraphs and pages.

It was into this atmosphere that Bollman entered. There was no BugGuide to post photos of specimens to be identified by experts, nor was there much of an alternative to sending a letter to an expert with a question and hoping to hear back. After being spoiled by the internet and its treasure trove of resources, I consider that kind of terrifying. The way I've learned about millipedes and centipedes has been to use the internet to pull journal articles from decades, even centuries ago, and read them. A healthy dose of searching for photos to compare with (followed by crying over the paucity of verifiable photos online) has made learning about myriapods pretty easy as of late. Yet Bollman jumped at the challenge, and intended to synthesize the contemporary knowledge of North America's myriapods while simultaneously adding to it.

He really did relish the challenge: he published his first paper, Preliminary descriptions of ten new North American Myriapods, in 1887. He was 19 at the time.

 Charles Harvey Bollman, courtesy of Dr. Rowland Shelley from his site, NADiploChilo.

Remember how I mentioned my image of senior scientists writing papers? That fact definitely turned my mental picture on its head. Bollman was described as an "exceptionally bright student," and his published papers reflect that. The president of the university at the time, David S. Jordan, thought of him as "one of the most brilliant and promising" students he had known--quite a compliment. This sentiment was shared by many, it seems. Bollman graduated with the class of 1889, when he was just 20, and then took a job with the United States Fish Commission in Georgia. By this time, Bollman had published 15 papers on Myriapods in just a few years, quite an accomplishment. He described 31 new species and 3 new genera. You could say he was pretty active.

He was getting off to a great start after university, but on July 13, 1889, he died at Waycross, Georgia.

That's 124 years ago today.

I can't find any reference to how he died, but that's not really important. Bollman wasn't yet 21 when he died, but it didn't stop him from publishing prolifically. After his death, Bollman's papers were purchased by the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1893, his published and unpublished papers were collected and published as The Myriapoda of North America, edited by  Lucien Marcus Underwood. This was done as a memorial to Bollman and his work. In addition to his 15 published papers, it included 11 unpublished papers that he had been working on.

I encourage you to take a look at it: it's free on GoogleBooks, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and elsewhere online. It truly is a fitting memorial for Charles Harvey Bollman, and it struck a particular note with me. I'm older than Bollman was when he died,  but not by much. When I found out he was so young when he died, it shocked me in a profound way. It's not often that I'm faced with the unyielding fact that indeed, I am mortal, and I will die someday.

I've been thinking lately about my "legacy," if you'll excuse how pompous that sounds. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I've deposited over 300 specimens into the Marietta College arthropod collection, and I strove to prepare the specimens correctly, so that they could still be useful long after I'm gone. When I did that, I was thinking about Samuel Hildreth, and how some of his collection is still with us, and remaining useful. After learning about Bollman, my perception has changed a little, though I can't quite explain why. Perhaps it's because Bollman worked on myriapods, a group that not many scientists pay much attention to. I feel more of a connection to old works focused on myriapods, since it's a smaller community that can be inaccessible at first, and that connection extends to the old authors of various works.

I mentioned to a friend recently that I enjoy visiting insect collections and libraries, due to the connection I feel to the past as I look at specimens and old works. They wouldn't exist without the hard work of people who are long gone...dead for years, decades, centuries. I have a deep respect for those people: painstakingly collecting, writing, and labeling for whatever goal they considered bigger than themselves. Some (such as Hildreth) led long lives, while others (like Bollman) made the most out of the short time they had. The thread connecting them to the present day, to those of us currently using their research for our own purposes, isn't even broken by time. We have a powerful responsibility to do what we can to preserve that knowledge and hard work so that it can keep connecting onwards to the future, and I've come to understand this:

There's nothing as humbling as reading about the past lives, hard work, and trials of the scientists who have preceded you.

I'm going to keep thinking about the story of Charles Harvey Bollman, and do what I can to preserve his legacy through my small contributions. It's easy to forget that science is linked together by personal stories. There's a face behind every discovery (in the vast majority, it's many faces), and we'd do well to not forget those faces.

Bollman, Charles Harvey. Ed. Underwood, L.M. 1893. The Myriapoda of North America. Bulletin of United States National Museum 46. 210 pp.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Millipede Mystery

My millipede research always seems to throw me into new adventures. Neat information just sort of hangs out in the old literature, sometimes in the form of a new species that no one is quite sure about.

The species in question is Chaetaspis albus. Sort of. First, we'll go over the information we have about this species.

Chaetaspis albus (no common name, sorry) was described by Charles Harvey Bollman in 1887 (Entomologica Americana, II, 1887, pp.45-46). It's a millipede in the order Polydesmida and family Macrosternodesmidae. His description was also included in an 1893 publication of his works, which is great, because that means I can post the whole thing here without having to worry about copyright. If it's tough to read, you can click the photo to enlarge it.

From Bollman 1893

So there's our information on the original specimen. It's white, less than a centimeter long, less than a millimeter wide, and was found in Indiana under a log. That's a millipede that's easily missed, but it was later found in Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia as well.

Now we come to the real mystery. In 1928, Stephen Williams and Robert Hefner published The Millipedes and Centipedes of Ohio in the Ohio Biological Survey Bulletin. In it, they noted a few specimens of C. albus from Washington and Athens Counties which were much larger than those in Bollman's description. Williams and Hefner noted the species from the two counties was 15mm long and about 1mm wide, quite a difference from 6-7.5mm long and 0.3-0.5mm wide. Reluctant to declare a new species based on size alone, they left it alone with an acknowledgement that it was strange.

 Williams and Hefner, 1928.

Fig. 12, with gonopod of Chaetaspis albus? outlined in black. Williams and Hefner, 1928

It was an oddity that was left alone until 1950, when Dr. Nell Causey revisited it, noting the illustration of the gonopod differed from Bollman's description. She deemed it distinctive enough to be its own species, which she named Chaetaspis ohionis. It's unclear whether or not she was able to examine the type specimen, which was listed by Chamberlin & Hoffman (1958) as being in the Miami University arthropod collection. Somewhere along the line, however, the type specimen was lost (Lewis & Slay 2013). That means now no one can look at the specimen Williams and Hefner were looking at to see what it actually was: all we have is figure 12 and their description.

So...that leaves us at a brick wall. Hoffman (1999) wrote that the millipede isn't even a species of Chaetaspis, and is probably part of a different family, in his opinion. But if it's not a Chaetaspis sp., then what is it? Williams and Hefner were convinced that it matched Bollman's description of Chaetaspis albus, except for its larger size.

This might seem like a waste of time, since we have no type specimen. But it's an intriguing mystery to me, since I'm from Washington County. It would be super neat to mount an expedition and find the millipede that Williams and Hefner did (albeit a difficult one, since they didn't specify the locality), and it could corroborate (or not) Chaetaspis ohionis being a new species.

Think of it as CSI: Millipedes.

Bollman, Charles H. 1893. The Myriapoda of North America (A posthumous edition of Bollman's works by L. M. Underwood). Bulletin 46, U.S. National Museum. 210 pp.
Causey NB. 1950. On Four New Polydesmoid Millipeds. Ent. News, vol. 61, No. 7, p. 197
Chamberlin RV and Hoffman RL. 1958. Checklist of the Millipeds of North America. United States National Museum Bulletin 212. 236pp.
Hoffman, R.L. 1999. Checklist of the millipedes of North and Middle America.Virginia Museum of Natural History Special Publication. v. 8 p. 1–584 Lewis JJ and Slay ME. 2013. Chaetaspis attenuatus, a new species of cavernicolous milliped from Arkansas (Diplopoda: Polydesmida: Macrosternodesmidae). Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, v. 75(1): p. 60-63.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Malaise Traps and Mites

I'm now officially a graduate student at the University of Arkansas--kind of my way of starting July off with a bang. My first two days have been jam-packed with information that I'm still trying to digest, and what better way to do that than to share it?

I started off my first day by assisting another student in the lab in setting up a few malaise traps. Our goal for the day: set up four of them. Spoiler alert: we only set up two of them due to a broken trap and not nearly enough cord. But hey, two is better than one. Or none.

We set out for Lake Wedington, west of Fayetteville, and found a nice spot on a slope in a patch of secondary succession forest. It looked like a good flyway for insects, so we set up the trap. A malaise trap catches flying insects and funnels them into a container (usually filled with ethanol), from which they're collected after a few days. We felt good about the location we chose, since we were already seeing some flies, wasps, and other insects flying around us as we set up.

Lycomorpha pholus - Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth

The blurry picture above shows the Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth (Lycomorpha pholus), which kept landing on me as we set up. I noticed a few of these moths flying around brazenly, seemingly protected by their mimicry of the Lycid beetles. Its common name is something of a misnomer: it's actually orange with bluish-black wings. It looks similar to a moth I've often seen in Ohio, the Orange-patched Smoky Moth (Pyromorpha dimidiata).

To ensure that our prey didn't simply fly under our trap, we stacked up a few rocks and logs at the bottom of the trap. The first log I picked up had a pretty garter snake under it, which promptly disappeared under the leaf litter. Another had a caterpillar.

I thought it was dead at first.

I'm not sure what species it is, but it blends in well with the wood.

Next we trudged up the slope to an oak opening that was filled with grasses and the song of a nearby cicada. We searched for a nice flyway, and decided on a spot near where we found a ladybug, parasitic wasp, and metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae). On our walk to the site, I glanced down and noticed something hidden in the grasses.

Small flowers, or huge fingers?

I knew it was an orchid, but didn't know anything more. I remembered seeing a photo of this species before, however, thanks to Andrew Gibson, so I sent it to him. He promptly returned a species ID: Grass-leaved Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes vernalis). The orchid is about a foot tall, and the small white flowers wind up and around the stalk. 

After we finished setting up the second malaise trap and had thoroughly complained about the broken trap and lack of cord to set up anymore, I heard a buzzing sound and looked at a nearby oak branch. At first, I thought it was a leaf-footed bug (Coreidae), but realized it was something more interesting.

Of course it's an assassin bug.

A stout assassin bug, one of the Bee Assassins (genus Apiomerus), had flown nearby. This one is Apiomerus crassipes, an assassin that ranges from the central to eastern US. I don't often encounter these guys, so it was an exciting find for me. Other species in the genus can be brightly colored in red and yellow, but this species apparently opts for a sophisticated black with red accents.

After my foray in the field, it was time to sort some leaf litter samples. I found some interesting beetles, a few centipedes and millipedes, and other miscellanea. However, I'm working in a mite lab, so it was time to learn some mites. Mites 101 consumed my second day.

To summarize, there's more to mites than just velvet mites, which are the ones I'm vaguely familiar with. Much of the diversity in mites is in the suborder Prostigmata (which does include the velvet mites), and I took a few photos of various groups within the Prostigmata for my notes. I'll include a few here, if for no other reason than to show some mites you may not know about. All these mites are pretty tiny, so these photos were taken through a microscope.

Labidostommatina mites. Large chelicerae (can't really see in the photo), predatory.

Whirligig mite, family Anystidae. Legs appear to originate from central point.

Snout mites (Family Bdellidae, genus Bdella). Look kind of cute.

Smarididae. Mites with mouthparts inside their body, which they can vomit up. Have setae on their bodies that make them look oddly fuzzy.

I'm still processing a bunch of mite information, so I'll stop here, rather than write something potentially wrong. It's neat to learn about this group and see the diversity, and hopefully I'll get it organized in my head soon.

Now to get some sleep before heading back to the lab tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Going West

For the past few weeks, I've been trying my best to tie up some loose ends. Last week, I deposited 141 specimens of arthropods I collected in Ohio (mostly Washington County) in the Marietta College Arthropod Collection.
All in all, I've contributed about 350 specimens to the MC Collection, and I'm proud of that. They have proper labels and hopefully will be useful to a student/enthusiast/scientist somewhere down the road. There are some really neat species, including 15 assassin bugs collected from the county, a nice set of millipedes and centipedes with identifications, and a lot of records for the Barbara A. Beiser Field Station.

So why did I deposit so many specimens last week (including my personal collection)? I'm moving.

This fall, I will be a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, pursuing my Masters degree in Entomology. I'm starting my research in July, then classes begin in August, so I'm heading down there a little early.

Obviously, this will change the content of this blog and probably the frequency with which it's updated too. I have no intention to stop blogging, and you can still expect more posts about Ohio bugs. I have a lot of stories and bugs I haven't written about, and I still have projects I want to pursue with ties to Ohio. In addition to Ohio, I'll expand to what I'm finding in Arkansas. My project is crazy exciting, and I'll take some time to write a post about it soon.

This is a big change for me, and it feels right to be able to devote myself full-time to the study of insects and other many-legged critters.

I want to make sure to thank each of you who are reading this and have been following my blog. It's been a joy to meet some of you, whether on Twitter/Facebook or in person, and I hope you continue to follow my adventures in Arkansas.

I also want to thank a few more people:

Dr. Dave McShaffrey, one of many great Biology professors at Marietta College, who got me interested in insects in the first place.

Jim McCormac, who many of you are familiar with from his blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity. Jim inspired me to start blogging, and meeting him was like meeting a rock star. Since then, he's invited me to hunt for beetles and helped me connect to Ohio's natural history scene. Jim's a stellar guy and is always willing to share his knowledge.

 Rachel Shoop, my very supportive girlfriend. She knows why I'm thankful for her.

There are many more people to thank by name, but in the interest of not droning on in this post (and allowing me to get to bed soon--it's 3 AM, so I'm sure they'll forgive me), I'll just name them rather than giving background (this is not an exhaustive list, I'm certain I've left out people). Andrew Gibson, Dennis Profant, Katy Lustofin, Marilyn Ortt, Eric Eaton, MaLisa Spring, Tim Catalano, Morgan Jackson, Kathy McDonald...the list really does go on and on. I couldn't have done even a quarter of what I have without you all, and I thank you.

I still need to talk about Mothapalooza, so expect that post soon.

For now, it's time to start a new chapter.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Primer on Ohio Millipedes

Millipede - Abacion sp.

I've been doing some research lately on a few millipede genera and have found myself lamenting the lack of well-written and accessible resources for millipedes. I have a good enough knowledge base to navigate through the published literature, but it's too inaccessible for general audiences. BugGuide's millipede page is probably the best online resource, but it still lacks good introductory resources for people wanting to learn more about the many-legged critters. You're able to submit a picture, and if you're lucky, someone will help you get it down to genus and maybe tell you how they identified it.

Concise keys for the millipedes don't really exist like they do for other arthropods, due to the characteristics used to identify millipedes. It's not like identifying a moth or a beetle, where coloration, pattern, and overall look can go a long way. You can get to Order from a photograph relatively easily with millipedes, but any deeper can be a problem without (1) very detailed photos or (2) the specimen in hand. If you're interested in taking a millipede down to species, you're most likely going to need a microscope, because at that point they're identified by the male gonopods (sexual structures). If you have a female, you'll probably have to settle for genus.

But to get to that identification, you'll need the help of a millipede expert (starting off, at least). There aren't all that many out there, and not many amateurs focus on millipedes. Instead, most beginners opt for flashier species like dragonflies or butterflies, groups which have wonderful field guides already published.

To break down a few of the hurdles that stop people from learning about millipedes, I've been gathering together some nice photos and information about my local millipede species to share, one of my goals for this blog. So far in this post, you've seen a millipede in the genus Abacion (Order Callipodida: Family Abacionidae) crawling around on the ground. I found this specimen last week in some wood frass at the base of a dead tree. I haven't keyed it out, but I'm 85% sure about my identification (Long millipede, dorsal crests, etc.). I found a similar millipede last summer, so now I know these guys can be found in the eastern and western parts of the county. I'm not sure if I'll get it down to species anytime soon since even I'm lacking resources for this genus, but it's fine for now.

I originally meant for this post to simply cover the new Abacion specimen I caught, but I can't just complain about the lack of millipede identification resources without trying to fix I might as well post my other local species too! Maybe this will help other would-be millipede enthusiasts get started. You can find some more info in my previous posts about millipedes, such as Mushroom & Millipede Hunting and A Calm Millipede's UV Fluorescence. These images were all taken in southeast Ohio, but these millipedes occur in many other states in the eastern US.

We'll start off with the easiest millipede to identify: Narceus americanus (Order Spirobolida: Family Spirobolidae).

Curled up in defensive position.

This species is actually a species complex referred to as the Narceus americanus-annularis-complex, since the two species aren't taxonomically differentiated yet, but that's a technicality that I'm going to ignore for now because it's not helpful for beginners. This millipede can grow up to 4 inches long, making it the largest millipede you're likely to see in the eastern US. It can live up to two years, as I found out when I kept one as a pet. Like most millipedes, it feeds on dead leaves and other detritus on the forest floor, and it can be found under the bark of logs and by turning over the leaf litter from spring through fall.

I've often posted about the above species: Semionellus placidus (Order Polydesmida: Family Xystodesmidae). It exhibits fluorescence under UV light and can also be found in leaf litter. It's about 1.25 inches long and is mostly brown with pinkish-orange stripes on the sides and back of its paranota (the extensions on its back). This species has a wide range in the eastern US, but occurs sporadically. The easiest way to find it is to go out at night with a UV flashlight and shine it over fallen leaves in a forest. If you refer to my second blog post I linked to above, you can see photos of what it looks like under UV light and photos of the male's gonopods.

 Another common species I see is Pseudopolydesmus serratus (Order Polydesmida: Family Polydesmidae), a pretty pink millipede about the size of Semionellus placidus. It can be found under rocks, under the bark of dead logs, and in leaf litter, so it's cosmopolitan in its habitat as far as millipedes go.

Its legs look very needle-like as they taper down to the millipede's feet. Its paranota taper back more on the segments closer to the millipede's posterior.

One of our prettiest millipedes is Euryurus leachii (Order Polydesmida: Family Euryuridae), which may also be the one millipede you can set out to find when you go into the woods. I've always found it in decaying logs, but it can also be found in leaf litter sometimes. (Still though, if you for sure want to find this species, just peel back the bark on a dead log.) Its main body color is purplish-black, with orange spots down its back and on its paranota. It's another that fluoresces under UV light. This species and the previous two are all in the order Polydesmida, which includes many UV fluorescent species--always keep your black light in your insect bag! Don't be too hasty with identifying this species from photos, however: the similar-looking Auturus evides is tough to separate unless you know your stuff.

Here's another entry for the Polydesmida: the Xystodesmid millipede Apheloria virginiensis corrugata. This is a rather large millipede, with a length of about 1.5 inches, and its body is quite broad. It's another UV fluorescent species, though the fluorescence is mostly limited to the underside of its body. The yellow and black coloration is a warning to predators: like many other millipedes, this one has chemical defenses. This species can emit cyanide in response to an attack, so it's not recommended to pick it up. That's not to say it's very dangerous if you do--just wash your hands afterwards. Interestingly enough, I recently found three individuals of this species: two were dead from drowning in puddles after a rain, while the other was waltzing around in some leaf litter. They were all near the same location, and I was surprised to find three in the span of about 16 hours. Usually I have to go hunting for a while to find them. Note that this species has many look-alikes, especially in the Appalachian mountains. There's a good amount of variation even within the species, so remember that this is just one subspecies of Apheloria virginiensis.

And now it's time to introduce a few less photogenic millipedes. The above species is in the genus Cleidogona (Order Chordeumatida: Family Cleidogonidae) and is small compared to the previous species in this post. The first photo doesn't show its exact features terribly well, but it shows both its size in reference to dead leaves and its colors during life. Its body is brown with white spots poking through, and it has short setae along its back. The close-up in the second photo is a dead specimen after being preserved in ethanol.

Next up are a few non-native species.

The first is Ophyiulus pilosus (Order Julida: Family Julidae), an imported species from Europe. It's usually found in yards rather than forested areas, but the specimen I've found was collected from leaf litter in a forest in late fall. It's a slender dark brown/black millipede, and its epiproct is useful for identification: that's the part at the end of the body that looks like a pointed tail (blurry in the first photo).

Another non-native species is the ubiquitous Greenhouse Millipede, Oxidus gracilis (Order Polydesmida: Family Paradoxosomatidae), imported from Asia. It's common throughout the US, and can be recognized by the transverse grooves on its back. It's a thin millipede about an inch long, and can usually be found mating. You've probably come across this species if you've done some gardening or turned over a rock or two in your yard. I personally am sick of seeing this millipede all over the place.

I've included some diagnostic characters for identifying these millipedes, but keep in mind that for most millipedes, you'll need to use a microscope to positively identify them. Some are distinctive enough to identify just from a photo, but even then you can get look-alikes (such as Euryurus and Auturus). However, once you become accustomed to working with millipedes and spend some time identifying your local species, it gets easier. For now, these are photos that you can trust are identified correctly--that's better than what Google will give you.

For more resources on millipedes, check out BugGuide's Millipede Hub, which is the most accessible online resource for millipedes. Rowland Shelley, who frequently helps to identify millipedes on BugGuide, has a nice collection of millipede photos on his site here. That is a resource you can DEFINITELY trust, Shelley is a world expert on millipedes. For published literature sources, you can find older articles about millipedes by searching through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a wonderful site that has provided me with a ton of primary literature on millipedes--which is often where you need to go for keys, illustrations, and general biological information. Milli-PEET is another site with useful information, including a good key to order for millipedes. Milli-PEET is a project that was funded by the National Science Foundation, with the goal of making millipede research more accessible and succeeded in reaching that goal.

EDIT (6 November 2013): The Myriapoda Flickr group is also a great resource, with many gorgeous photos of millipedes and other Myriapods.

I hope that this post is helpful to those of you interested in learning more about millipedes, and that it inspires you to start taking photos of the millipedes in your area, wherever that may be. The millipedes are in the taxonomic class Diplopoda (that's a taxonomic position on the same level as the Insecta, which we definitely devote a lot of research to), and that includes about 10,000 species, with many more to be discovered. Millipedes are important organisms for nutrient cycling in terrestrial ecosystems, yet they're criminally under-studied. The best way to change that is by making it easy to break into millipede research, so why not start at the most basic level? People need to have the resources to identify these organisms, and photos are some of the best sources for identification (even with their limitations for millipede taxonomy). If nothing else, they can help people get a better feel for the overall "look" of different millipede taxa. So get out there and start trying to identify your local millipedes. Take some photos, put them online, and let's give some names to our many-legged friends!

Of course I had to include a photo of millipede UV fluorescence! Not all millipedes exhibit it, but the ones that do look spectacular.