Thursday, December 20, 2012

December's Centipede

Ohio's had a warm December so far, and I have only seen a few snowflakes here in southeast Ohio. This week has been moderately warm, with temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s (Fahrenheit, that is). We've had a few cold snaps, so I've pretty much stopped looking for any arthropods, except for lady beetles and marmorated stink bugs in my home.

Then I went outside to retrieve the mail today. I spotted something moving on the porch and took a closer look: it was a centipede! I ran inside to retrieve a vial, almost falling in the hallway due to my wet shoes (it rained today) and frightening the cat, which ran into the living room. I apologized and ran back outside, just in time to catch the critter before it left the porch and disappeared into the yard.

I took it back inside and examined it: it was one of the largest centipedes we have in Ohio, Scolopocryptops sexspinosus. It's in the family Scolopocryptopidae and only has 23 legs--not 100 (no centipede has 100 legs, despite the common name for the group). Normally this centipede is found under logs or rocks, so I was surprised to see it crawling around. Perhaps the soggy ground sent it searching for a drier place?

This centipede is a whopping 2.5 inches long, which is intimidating the first time you see it. It does have venomous fangs (which are actually modified legs!), so be wary of picking it up. Its bite isn't life threatening, but it probably won't feel very nice either. There is a similar species, S. nigridius, that occurs in the eastern US, but it's less common than S. sexspinosus. S. nigridius is reported to be darker with a bluish hue, though I've yet to find a specimen myself.

This individual is currently settling into its new home--one of my insect cages. I'll nab a few more photos and then decide what to do with it afterward. One of the things I've noticed while keeping it is its response to light. It has ocelli (small eyes that detect light and dark) on the sides of its head, and whenever it senses light, it scampers away and tries to burrow under anything nearby. This reveals another of its traits: speed. This species (like most centipedes) is fast. It's like a cheetah with a lot of legs.

So how do you know when you have this species? If you're in the eastern US, your centipede has 23 legs (putting it in the family Scolopocryptopidae), is bright orange and usually 2 or 3 inches in length, then you've got yourself a Scolopocryptops sexspinosus.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Entomology Art - ESA 2012

I'm a member of the Entomological Society of America and they had their annual meeting last month. In anticipation of the meeting, they sent out reminder postcards to everyone, urging people to register. I had other things going on and couldn't attend, but the postcard was too cool not to share.

That's just a scanned copy, so the colors don't pop like they do on the actual postcard. But it turns out that the ESA has a poster version of this card! They printed 200 and you can order one here while they're available. I may just end up hanging my postcard on the wall instead of ordering the poster, but it's nice to see insect art. It's a good reminder that the arts and sciences aren't diametrically opposed.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Old Entomological texts are the best

Seriously. I'm not sure if it's just because I'm reading papers published a hundred years and the context of the written text is different from what I'm used to today or what, but there are so many great paragraphs hidden away in yellowing papers that are now digitized. A great resource for these papers is the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a cooperative effort by libraries to digitize biodiversity records and make them available online--for free.

It has great search features and has provided me with a lot of great information that I wasn't able to find anywhere else. It's also a nice resource for finding beautiful old pictures of plants and animals, which led me to search it today for a picture of the wheel bug. Instead, I happened upon a page from a circular released by the United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Entomology in 1904.

Instead of finding info about the wheel bug, I found a paragraph written by someone who did not like ambush bugs:
"A small, evil-smelling plant-bug, Phymata wolffii Tal. (fig. 6), secretes itself in flowers, such as thistle and goldenrod, and destroys numbers of the butterflies, capturing them and sucking out their vital fluids."
You just don't get that kind of bluntness nowadays; it's refreshing. The butterflies the circular is referring to are individuals of the imported Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae), if you were wondering.

For your viewing pleasure, figure 6 is below. Keep in mind that this little ambush bug is only about half an inch long.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Golden Wheel Bug

Every so often, animals can be a different color than what they normally are. The most recognizable case is animals that have albinism or leucism. At other times, you may even see a pink katydid.

Recently, my girlfriend came across a dead wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) on a sidewalk and noticed it wasn't quite the dusty gray that most wheel bugs are. It was much more vivid: its wings had a golden shimmer to them.

While the lighting isn't optimal, you can see the golden color pretty well. Compared to the normal color of a wheel bug, it's a noticeable difference.

I'll try to get a picture of two pinned wheel bugs side by side for a better comparison and will update this post soon. Isn't it neat? You never know what nature will throw at you.

Monday, December 10, 2012

"Why do you collect insects?"

That's a good question, and whenever I'm asked that I usually get a shocked look as I explain how I collect insects and the process of killing them. To entomologists, it's not such a big deal, especially if you've been collecting insects for a while, but the general public might see it as a hypocritical approach: if entomologists love these bugs they're collecting, why are they killing them rather than letting them live?

I always strive to explain that I collect for a purpose and do my best not to let my collected specimens go to waste by giving them a label and properly processing them, but it can be tough to get the point across.

Thankfully, Greg Pohl, the president of the Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild, has written a letter that stands as the best defense of insect collection I've read. It's a thorough and very informative piece, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

Personally, using insect collections as teaching tools has been the most successful use for collections that I've found. It's how I became interested in insects, and it's how I've gotten others interested in insects--from middle schoolers to adults.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Grad School Preparations

I am now preparing to apply to grad schools. I've been working on nailing down exactly what I want to do over the past few months, and what schools would allow me to reach my goals, and I'm finally at the point where I can seriously start the application process.

Canada, Ohio, Arkansas, Arizona, and Illinois are looking to be strong contenders.

I would like to incorporate millipede research into my graduate work, but that isn't a make or break thing. I would like to stay within the field of systematics or ecology, though that's not set in stone either if I find a really neat project.

My final goal is still to work in a natural history museum so that I can merge research with science outreach, and we'll see how I get there--or if I find something else along the way.

A huge thanks goes out to people like Crystal Ernst, Morgan Jackson, and Chris Buddle for giving me support thus far in my journey, and for sharing their experiences and knowledge.

And of course, the Biology Department at Marietta College has a great set of faculty that have been supporting me and my adventures in biology for the past five years now. I definitely wouldn't have made it this far without them.