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