Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What's out there? Compiling a biotic index.

Do you know the insect species that inhabit your backyard? What about a local park or nature preserve? How about your county? These are important questions to think about. If no one knows the animal diversity in their area, then why would they stop to think about protecting that diversity?  Some of the most interesting animals are very specialized and need certain habitats to thrive; without those habitats, they'll disappear. I think we can all agree that nature is important, and having a knowledge of your local species (of insects, mammals, birds, plants, fungi...) is empowering. You can see ecological connections and gain a new-found respect for your fellow organisms, just from being able to identify species and know what's around you.

 A Luna Moth (Actias luna) soon after emerging from the ground. Its wings aren't yet ready to fly--you can see how small they are.

With this topic in mind, I've been working for the past few months on gathering together pictures and information about arthropod species that occur at the Barbara A. Beiser Field Station (BBFS) near Marietta, Ohio. As I've written about before (here and here and in an article for the Marietta Natural History Society newsletter here [PDF]), I conducted a lot of my undergraduate research at the BBFS and found many species. I never quite had the time to identify and write down all the species I found while I was an undergraduate, so I put it off for a while.

Until now.

An Ichneumon wasp, Megarhyssa macrurus, drilling into a dead tree to parasitize a wasp larva.

After months of identification, I've completed the project! (I'm looking for a good way to put this list online.) This is the first biotic index (list) of species from the BBFS, and focuses only on arthropods (it will be expanded to plants and other groups in the future). All in all, I identified 181 species including insects, arachnids, and millipedes/centipedes. This is nowhere near a complete list, but it's a start. I only included arthropods whose identifications I was sure about, so I left out a few species I was unsure of, falling just short of my 200 species goal. But that's okay--the list isn't useful unless it's accurate, after all!

A pair of Euryurus leachii millipedes under UV light. Usually found in decaying logs, these millipedes fluoresce a pretty bluish-green color.

I gained a lot of experience with local insects while working on this project and feel pretty confident about being able to identify many of the insects in Washington County. I now have a much greater knowledge base about insect taxonomy and what a "species" really means. When it comes down to it, a species is someone's hypothesis, and sometimes the hypothesis isn't accepted by everyone. It can be based on tiny characteristics that are a real pain to hash out, especially when you're trying to identify an insect in a group that's not well-studied!

What did I learn after putting together this list? Most importantly, I learned that I still enjoy taxonomy after hours and hours of (sometimes frustrating) work. I also learned that we have some astounding arthropods at the BBFS, and in the county. Throughout this post I've included pictures of arthropods I found there that I never knew about before, with life histories that are seriously interesting and unfortunately too long to include in this post. There's a diversity of life in southeast Ohio I never would have known about before undertaking the research I've done and I'm lucky to have had that opportunity. It's taught me that you don't have to go to the rainforest to find beautiful and interesting animals; sometimes the forests of southeast Ohio can beat out the rainforest!

A male Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus. This spider has many color forms, of which the black and yellow form is especially striking.

I hope to use my experience to encourage others to take a second look at the critters in the area and to truly take pride in them. Why not say "These things are astounding!" and put these animals on a pedestal? Arthropods like the Luna Moth, the Ichneumon Wasp, our UV-fluorescent millipedes, the Locust Borers, the Wheel Bugs: these "bugs" are crazy awesome and should be celebrated!

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio troilus. This unique caterpillar changes throughout its life stages--young caterpillars look like bird poop, while older ones (like this one) mimic snakes!

In order to accomplish this goal, I'm working on completing another biotic index--this time for Washington County, with some input from surrounding counties. I want to adapt this larger biotic index into a field guide to arthropods in the area, with pictures and information about each species. It will introduce people to these bugs and save them some time in trying to identify them. Essentially, I want everyone to have the same pride in our many-legged fauna as I do.

Narceus americanus, the gentle giant. This is the largest millipede in our area and eats dead leaves. Interestingly, it sometimes scales trees.

It doesn't help anyone appreciate our arthropods if I keep my knowledge locked up in my head, so I need to spread it! I have no idea about how long this project will take, nor when it will be done, but it hopefully won't take more than a few years max. If you can help out in any way, please contact me!


  1. Brilliant, Derek! I love your passion and it allows me to learn about a group of critters I'm not well versed in. I look forward to your other pursuits and projects!

  2. What a great idea! I agree that we should have a good understanding of the biological diversity in the places where we live. I wish there was a similar field guide for arthropods in the Boston area.

  3. This sounds like a very cool and worthwhile project! "Empowering" is definitely the right word for learning to identify the plants and animals in your area!

  4. yes great post. I too try to make people realise that it is small and local that is really important.

  5. Always good to know and understand more of the local biome. Good suggestion. I would add that along with gaining the personal knowledge, there are opportunities to share the information for biodiversity, ecological and conservation modeling. A good place to start is the National Phenology Network at http://www.usanpn.org/about/phenology . Could always use more "eyes" .