Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mission Complete: Skunk Cabbage

A year ago, while I was in Costa Rica studying abroad, I heard about the mythical skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus. This magical plant was said to flower during late winter and early spring, and to even have the powers to melt snow around it and attract some of the first insect pollinators of the year.

After seeing some marvelous pictures of this legendary arum, I resolved to find this plant myself. Unfortunately, I was in Costa Rica. (Yes, I'm aware that this is probably the first time that sentence has ever been said.) By the time I returned to the United States, the flowers were gone.

But now, after an entire year, we're in the correct season and all the elements have come together to form perfect skunk cabbage weather. Today, my class schedule even worked out, resulting in my Lower Plants lab taking a trip to search for the prize.

Ladies and gentlemen: we have skunk cabbage!

As we entered an area with a natural seep to look for the cabbage, we were teased with the...."distinct" smell of skunk cabbage. It was either that, or sewage. At any rate, I was mad with a feverish yearning to find this most desirable of cabbages. Descending a hill, we entered a wet area and knew we were close. My eyes scanned past a growth of cattails to discover standing water.

My mind was racing.

I searched for any characteristic feature: mottled red on green, bright green leaves...anything not familiar to me. And th--HOLY CRAP, THERE IT IS!

Like a beautiful green sentry, there the skunk cabbage leaf stood: curled up, surveying its territory from CENTIMETERS above the water. Truly, this is royalty. I jumped up and down and shouted for joy, much to the chagrin of my lab companions. However, manners were secondary to my cause at this point. After about five minutes of bolting from plant to plant, I finally settled down enough to examine the Hope Diamond of plants.

Being in the arum family, skunk cabbage has a spathe and spadix. The spathe is actually the fleshy, modified leaves surrounding that weird-looking ball in the middle of the plant. That pimply ball is the spadix, which has small, white flowers that are pollinated by insects such as flies, bugs, and beetles. Since the flowers are so inconspicuous, they aren't in charge of attracting the pollinators. Rather, that delectable stench is the attractant. It worked pretty well on me, so it must be good enough for all those pollinators, eh?

I was positively giddy once we found the skunk cabbage--probably to the point of freaking everyone else out. My long year of waiting was well worth it: I was not disappointed at all with what I found. This is truly a remarkable plant...from the smell to the colors to the message. If you find skunk cabbage, it means Spring surely isn't far away.

Get out and look for skunk cabbage while you can still see the flowers: you won't be disappointed. Snow won't even kill it at this point, thanks to its thermogenic qualities (it's somewhat of a dragon really), so you have no excuses not to get skunked.

Seriously, go. It's so amazing!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Insect Explosion: Parasitoid or Bird?

When I first started to become interested in insects two summers ago, I had a lot of inspiration thanks to the Catalpa trees in my backyard. I've always loved Catalpas: their flowers bloom starting in June and are spectacularly beautiful. They also smell really great.

One of the insects that can be found on Catalpa is the Catalpa Hornworm (Ceratomia catalpae). This caterpillar in the family Sphingidae can grow quite large (~3 inches) and goes through boom and bust cycles. During the summer of 2010, it was definitely a boom year for this caterpillar, which provided me with ample specimens.

There are also ample caterpillars for parasitoids to have a field day. Braconid wasps are especially prevalent, resulting in many of the caterpillars dying as they become vessels for broods of wasps.

Here you can see a Braconid wasp crawling on the cocoons.

This was a common sight, so I got used to seeing it after a few days. But once I found one that looked dramatically different (even from the cocooned ones), I took notice.

Yeah, I'd say that is dramatically different.

So....what happened? Good question! This guy lost the lottery in a spectacular way. He just exploded and that was that. Obviously, this is not like the parasitoidism of the Braconid wasps. If I were to venture a guess, I would blame a parasitoid fly maggot bursting out of the body: you can see a trail of liquid that comes out of the caterpillar's body and curves down by its head that looks like it could have been made by a maggot dragging itself along the leaf.

I haven't researched fly parasitoidism enough to put too much confidence behind that hypothesis, however. It also could have been a bird or other predator that decided to have a little snack, but wanted to leave a warning for the other caterpillars.

I would love to have the answer to the question, so I'll have to check for more caterpillars this summer. Maybe if I'm lucky, I'll find a maggot this time around, or see something else that explains it.

An Unfortunate Cicada

I've been reading about cicadas and entomogenous* fungi lately, which reminded me of a picture I had from back in September when I was at the field station working on my capstone project.

*This is an awesome new word I learned today-- it means growing on or in the bodies of insects.

I found this annual cicada, still in its larval stage, before it emerged as an adult, with fungus growing from it. I was thinking that the fungus itself might have killed it, but that's tough to say for sure. The cicada could have died before the fungus came along, of course.

Still, it would be interesting if it was the fungus that killed the cicada. So many fungi associate with the roots of trees, upon which cicadas feed while they're underground. Maybe some species attack the cicadas to protect the tree. Someone should investigate that.

...but not me, currently. I'm focused on capstone for now.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Firefly Mimics - A Crafty Click Beetle

I learned two things during my Investigative Studies Project last summer concerning mimicry:
  1.  Fireflies get mimicked a whole lot
  2. It's super tricky to separate some of the mimics from actual fireflies, especially when you get into the soldier beetles (family Cantharidae).
A group I wasn't aware mimicked fireflies is the click beetle family, Elateridae. During my research I spotted a pretty example of one of the representatives from this family:

Unless you were to get on this click beetle's level, you would think it's a firefly. I'm quite pleased with this picture, though it could use a little more touching up later. Denticollis denticornis is this beetle's name, and it was making its way across a moss and lichen-covered log, providing a great background.

This is the only species in its genus in North America, and its mimicry of fireflies is a predator defense. I haven't found any information about whether or not the beetle itself is toxic, or if it's just getting a free ride thanks to the fireflies. A predator would see it and be all "I'm staying away from that beetle, it must be toxic!" and D. denticollis would chuckle to itself and walk away.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Winter's Zebra Assassins

If you live in Ohio, you would probably agree that this winter has been a strange one. In the southeast, we haven't gotten much snow (much to my own chagrin). While this stops me from sledding down the available hills on campus, the mild weather at least means that you're more likely to encounter insects than you would be under two feet of snow.

A few weeks ago, on January 27th, a friend brought me a nice little surprise:

This little dude clad in zebra stripes is the assassin bug known as Pselliopus barberi. This species, like other assassins, is predaceous (just check out that beak!) and this one overwinters as an adult, explaining why it was found in January. It's not too large, just about 14 millimeters, but it's quite striking.

There are two species in this genus that you're likely to encounter often in Ohio: P. barberi and P. cinctus. P. cinctus is slightly smaller, and is a duller orange color. Before getting this one, I hadn't bothered too much with identifying them to species because it can be subtle differences that distinguish them, but the easy way to go about it is this: P. barberi is larger, brighter, and doesn't usually have a dark spot on its anterior pronotal lobe. Another character: the back margin of the pronotum on P. barberi is straight, while P. cinctus has a bisinuate margin. Let's use some pictures to explain those terms.

Pselliopus barberi

The back of the pronotal margin is straight, that's pretty easy to see.

Pselliopus cinctus

Now you can see the difference and understand what bisinuate actually means (I wasn't sure at first myself): the back margin of P. cinctus looks slightly flared out. You can also see the dark spot.

I've seen both species and one of their nymphs: their orange color really makes them stand out. My yard seems to be a pretty good place for them, as I've found the nymph on Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) and an adult P. cinctus prowling around on Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) near some leatherwing beetles.

Keep an eye out during the warmer days of winter and you might spot a few. I've been keeping mine alive on fruit flies and will set it free during Spring if it can stay alive until then--I have high hopes!

Monday, February 13, 2012

2012 Ohio Natural History Conference

Columbus, Ohio was THE place to be this past Saturday, for one reason: the Ohio Natural History Conference. Yes, this meetup for natural history enthusiasts was indeed a blast and well worth the wait. This year's theme was citizen science, and all the presentations centered around that theme. There's never been a better time to be a naturalist, considering how easy the Internet is making it (especially if you're interested in Entomology).

This year was the 9th year for the conference, and it marked the 100th year of the Ohio Biological Survey, which sponsors the conference along with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. OBS publishes some great literature on the natural history of Ohio, especially the insects. It will be exciting to see the direction OBS goes in the next 100 years, and you can expect more great research coming from it.

Brian Armitage, former direction of the OBS, speaks about its history.

I was enthralled by every talk, it's extremely exciting to see the barriers between hard science and the general public breaking down. The keynote presentation was given by David Bonter, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He's the assistant director of citizen science there, and gave a fascinating account of the projects the Lab is doing. 

The biggest takeaway from his presentation was that citizen scientists are gathering solid scientific data on a scale that would be impossible otherwise. On top of that, the participants are volunteers, so that data is free. 

I was livetweeting the conference, which forced me to furiously switch between taking notes and grabbing my Droid to send updates to Twitter. That stream is a better summary of the conference than I could offer here, so head to the Storify link I made for the tweets to read about the presentations that were given.

My favorite part of the conference was presenting my own research in the form of a poster. I've mentioned my summer research on assassin bugs before, but haven't blogged at length about it before. During the process of making the poster, I finally wrote everything down concisely, so I'll make a post about that soon. My poster was entitled "A Biological Survey of the Assassin Bugs (Hemiptera:Reduviidae) at the Barbara A. Beiser Field Station" and I highlighted the seven species of assassin bugs I encountered. I also assisted in the preparation of a poster about millipede fluoresce under UV, "UV Fluorescing Millipedes from Southeastern Ohio."

I had a great experience talking to other interested people about my research, and I'm looking forward to doing it again. I feel like I had a strong poster with interesting research (I mean, how can you beat assassin bugs and millipedes?), and hopefully I'll be talking about it more in the future.

If you couldn't make it out to the conference this year, start planning for next year! There's not a date set yet, but it's usually held during early or mid-February. Maybe I'll present research again next year, what more could you want?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Science Video Friday: Fungi Edition

Fungi are pretty important. In fact, without fungi, forests as we know them probably wouldn't exist. Why? Because fungi form mutualistic relationships with plant roots that help the plant grow. There are a couple different ways that fungi can do this, but it has the same result: aiding plant growth and stabilizing the health of the plant.

Unfortunately, many people don't know about fungal-plant relationships and how important they are to the ecosystem, and fungi are shunned. Some mushrooms are considered pretty, but for the most part, fungi don't receive the recognition they deserve. Paul Stamets is working to correct this, and judging from this clip, he's doing an amazing job.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Caterpillar Life Choices

I'm currently in a scientific imaging class so that I can learn how to take better insect pictures and use Photoshop. Some of the assignments are a bit bland, so I've been trying to spice them up a bit. Yesterday's assignment was to create a flow chart of....anything. With that free reign, I decided to tackle parasitoids and the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta). After 20 minutes of a Twitter back and forth with Morgan Jackson and Crystal Ernst, I had a name for my subject: Randy. He had two paths to go down during his life--the choice was up to him.