Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Collecting Millipedes

I put out a call on Twitter for volunteers to go out looking for winter millipedes for me, and people responded! Totally cool! So this post will serve as a quick guide on what to look for.

First of all, the reason why I want people to look for millipedes right now is because there are a good number of species that are mature (i.e. adults that can be identified) and active during the winter, especially in the order Chordeumatida. These aren't collected very often because they're active when it's cold outside, and winter fieldwork isn't nearly as fun as summer fieldwork. A few years ago though, I collected some millipedes the day after Christmas, and it turned out to be a species that hadn't been collected since the species was described--98 years earlier.

There are three main ways to collect millipedes:

  • Hand collecting is the easiest method: simply walk around and look underneath tree bark/dead logs and in leaf litter, looking for millipedes.

  • You can also collect leaf litter and then transfer it to a Berlese funnel, examples of which can be found here and here. I recommend putting a jar of 70%-85% ethanol underneath the funnel to catch the critters that fall from the funnel. If ethanol isn't available, other alcohols (such as isopropyl) can be substituted in a pinch.

  • Pitfall traps also work well at catching millipedes (and many other small arthropods). Examples of pitfall traps can be found here and here.
If you're volunteering to collect millipedes for me, hand collecting is fine. Flip over logs, rocks, and leaf piles and you'll probably find some. Using a stick or small garden hand tool is helpful when looking under leaves, and I use something that looks like this:

As far as where to look for millipedes, they're prone to drying out, so their preferred habitats are moist areas (but in winter, maybe not so much). Usual habitats for millipedes include leaf litter and decaying wood of fallen trees and logs. If you don't want to take leaf litter samples, you can root around through the leaves looking for them instead. Some species will be in the leaf layer itself, while others can be found at the leaf-soil interface. You should look for good, moist leaf litter to search for millipedes in. Fallen trees and old logs are also good areas to check. You can find them by peeling away the bark or cracking the logs open, rolling them over, etc. They're usually found in deciduous forests more than coniferous forests, but there are always exceptions. Looking under rocks can also be a good way to find millipedes. If you're around wet boulders and rock faces with moss around, that's also a good area. You may even find some under the moss itself.

When you find millipedes, take photos, and if you'd like to collect them for me, you should put them in vials with 70% ethanol (or higher). Ethanol isn't always easily available in stores, so isopropyl alcohol will also work. You also need to put a label (written on card stock paper with pencil) in the vial with the millipede, including the following information: date collected, habitat, locality (state, city, etc.), color (leeches out over time, so it's good to have a record of what it looks like).

That should cover the basics. So get out there and see what millipedes you can find!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Leaf Litter Staphylinids 2: Electric Boogaloo

I finished sorting through the rest of my Staphylinid samples today, over 50 samples in all. They're making more sense to me now, and soon I'll identify the morphospecies to their actual species. I feel confident about identifying a few more subfamilies now, including Osoriinae, Omaliinae, and Paederinae, of which the Osoriinae are the coolest.

Next I'll move onto either the ants, spiders, or centipedes. Probably the centipedes. For now, here are some more Staphylinid photos from my phone.

Scydmaeninae and Pselaphinae in the center, with Staphylininae (I think) surrounding them.

Three Pselaphinae boxed in by three Paederinae.

Tachypodinae, the crab-like rove beetles, surrounding Aleocharinae (?)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Leaf Litter Staphylinids

Back in June, I was collecting a lot of leaf litter for a small sampling project. I was trying to determine if collecting litter at different times over 24 hours would result in different groups of arthropods being collected at different abundances, and I've been sorting through the samples since then.

I'm about halfway done, and I'm now working on the Staphylinidae in my samples. Staphylinids are rove beetles, and they're the most numerous insect family, which makes them a bit intimidating. For now I'm sorting them down to subfamily, and they've proven to be pretty interesting. I'm excited to delve deeper into the family so I can identify the common species I'm collecting, and in pursuit of that goal, I took some photos today.

Most of the species I've seen so far have been in the subfamilies Tachyporinae, Staphylininae, Pselaphinae, and Scydmaeninae. They're common in my samples, but I've also seen a few others like Osoriinae and Steninae, which are a bit barrel-shaped or have huge eyes.

Since I don't too much info on all these groups yet, I'll leave you with the rest of the photos I snapped today so you get an idea for the various shapes Staphylinids take. I'm excited to see what else I find as I finish sorting these samples!


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Museum work and another post

I've just returned to Fayetteville after a week spent in Raleigh, North Carolina at the Museum of Natural Sciences Research Lab. I was there working with Rowland Shelley, one of the world experts on millipedes. I made a similar trip last fall--a whirlwind of looking at as many millipede specimens as I could to get acquainted with the North American diversity. This trip was more focused, but still as intense as last fall.

Despite sitting in front of a microscope for what was easily over 30 hours, I enjoyed it. There's something to be said for being immersed in your passion for long periods of time, even if it gets exhausting. I'm still trying to figure out how I felt so tired for as little as I moved for the past week. Even so, I was still marveling at all the different forms millipedes can take, especially their gonopods (modified legs used for sperm transfer):

A gonopod from a male Ethojulus millipede

Gonopods of a Nannaria millipede

I looked at some spectacular gonopods last week and kept marveling at how intricate some of them were. The Ethojulus gonopod (above) reminds me of blown glass.

On a final note, I still have a few more posts to write from my Ohio summer collecting. The business of research and traveling has kept me from editing the photos I took and writing up an account, which I should have expected. However, I was asked a few weeks ago to write a guest blog for The Conversation! I wrote about the importance of my Ohio collecting and what I hope to accomplish with it, and you can read that at this link.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Marilyn Ortt: A Mentor and a Friend

This is a different type of post than I normally write, and one that is vastly more personal. I've been trying to write it for months, but it's been difficult. Please forgive me if I ramble a bit; I feel like I need to write it all.

There's a lot of talk out there about the importance of having a mentor, for any facet of life really. I most often hear about mentoring in the context of academics, especially in grad school, which is certainly important. During the past few months, however, I've spent a lot of time thinking about having a mentor in the more general sense, and who my mentors are. For now, I'll focus on one: Marilyn Ortt.

You may know that between my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, I spent a year working as an Americorps VISTA with the Friends of the Lower Muskingum River, a watershed conservation organization in my hometown of Marietta, Ohio. It wasn't an entomology job, but I had a blast and enjoyed my year. It was a good time to reflect on what it meant to give back to my community and work with a group that made the health of the river and the community around it its main focus. I met and worked with many wonderful people during this time, and worked closely with Marilyn, who was the president of FLMR.

I knew Marilyn before I started my job, having first met her during my freshman year at Marietta College. When I was a senior, she invited me to give a talk about the wheel bug (the focus of my capstone project) for the Marietta Natural History Society. By this time, I knew her better and knew that she was involved in many of the conservation projects in Marietta. She used to be a state botanist and had a strong interest in the natural world, and I had a shy admiration for her. While working with her as a VISTA, I quickly learned that this admiration was justified.

After I finished my VISTA term, I started my graduate work at the University of Arkansas, but kept in contact with Marilyn via email, updating her on what I was doing and inquiring about the goings-on in Marietta. We were both busy, so weeks would pass between our correspondences, but it was nice to touch base every so often.

In late May, I was busy preparing for an intensive sampling project on the outskirts of Fayetteville. I was also planning my trip back to Ohio, to take place in mid-June to collect millipedes. I was hoping to see friends while I was there, including former professors and Marilyn as well, since I hadn't seen her since December.

As I was returning home after spending a few hours in the field, however, I received a phone call from a friend. Marilyn had died earlier that evening.

Marilyn had been undergoing chemotherapy for a while, which I knew about, but she preferred to keep details of her health private. She didn't want others to worry about her, which was just part of her personality. She was extremely motivated and passionate, and didn't want concerns about her to distract from whatever work was going on.

Despite knowing that she hadn't been in the best health, the news was still a shock to me. I drove home, still digesting the news, but only made it half a mile before my eyes welled up with tears. Her death affected me more than I would have thought, and I found myself crying a few more times in the following days.

My friendship with Marilyn wasn't rooted in personal knowledge of each other's lives. I'm not sure she even knew the names of my parents, for example, but we never discussed things like that. Whenever we would talk, our conversations were about nature or the surrounding community. I think our friendship was based on our shared passion for the natural world, and Marilyn was an astounding encouragement to me in that respect. She was a botanist by training, which complemented my interests as an entomologist. She didn't know insects as well as she did plants, so she would always happily listen to me talk about whatever particular group I was interested in at the time. She had an insatiable curiosity for natural history, and she used her curiosity, passion, and motivation to accomplish great things during her life.

Her obituary lists some of these accomplishments, and illustrates how much of an asset she was to her community. I spent many hours at the natural areas she helped establish, especially the Beiser Field Station east of Marietta and the Kroger Wetlands. It was in these places that I cut my teeth on natural history, finding millipedes, identifying plants, and standing in awe of hundreds of flashing fireflies. Marilyn was too modest to take much credit for establishing these areas, and would surely try to downplay her role in developing my interest in natural history. But the truth is that much of her work trickled down into my development as a scientist, in ways I wouldn't recognize until after she was gone.

I think the mark of a good mentor is that they push you to want to be a better person. Marilyn had a subtle way of doing that for me. After working closely with her for a year, I found myself with a new sense of pride in my community. As a VISTA, I led trail and river clean ups, taught children and adults about the benefits of a clean river and environment, and learned much more about local history. I hadn't previously appreciated where I came from, but getting involved in my community with FLMR changed that. It gave me a new, strong motivation to apply my knowledge and skills in entomology to highlight the neat diversity of arthropods in southeast Ohio, which still informs my work today, in both Ohio and Arkansas.

My writing can't do justice to the impact Marilyn had on me, but it's important that I try. We often focus on the well-known celebrities of various disciplines and laud their work, which is certainly well-deserved. Often, however, it's the unsung heroes of our communities who have put in their time and hard work to do what they could to improve their communities that impact us more. The people living in southeast Ohio live in a better place because of Marilyn's hard work. Her name might not be known by many outside of Ohio, but that doesn't diminish her accomplishments.

I like to think of Marilyn when I run into difficult times. I never heard her complain, and she was always pursuing goals and juggling tasks, which usually led to her being late for our lunch meetings. Her passion was unlike anyone else's, and she tapped into it to accomplish great things.

One of my favorite memories with Marilyn was planting a chinquapin oak outside FLMR's office. She had bought a young one to plant near an older tree outside the office, in the hopes of getting it to develop acorns a few years down the line. She was delighted to have it planted, thinking of how large it might grow in the future. I'm not sure if she ever heard this phrase, but I'm sure she would agree: "The best time to plant a tree is yesterday. The second best time to plant a tree is today."

I'll end this post with the following paragraph I wrote on Facebook after I heard the news of Marilyn's death. It was hard to write, but turned into a nice post of people sharing their memories of Marilyn and how she affected their lives, all for the better. Marilyn was an exceptional mentor and an even better person, and the world would be a better place if there were more people like her:

Marilyn was a wonderful person, and undoubtedly one of the most driven that I've known. I had the privilege of working with her for a year during my VISTA service, and even before then, she was always happy to listen to what I was doing with my bug stuff. Despite her battle with cancer, she never stopped doing what she cared deeply about, which was making her community a better place to live. Whether it was finding funding for the recycling program, planting trees, or making opportunities to educate the public about the environment, she poured her entire being into her work. She was an inspiration, and will be dearly missed. Marietta won't be the same without her, and it's to everyone's detriment that she's gone. She did so much good work, and it's up to the rest of us to pick up her mantle. Her obituary sums it up best: "She strongly believed that you should leave this world in a better place for future generations and she did so." Rest in peace, Marilyn.

 Marilyn surveying some land in the watershed with FLMR's former watershed coordinator, Jesse Daubert

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ohio Collecting 2: Buzzard's Roost Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ohio Collecting Day 1: Marietta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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