Saturday, July 13, 2013

Standing on the shoulders of giants

When doing a lot of research with older literature, you start to gain a strange sense of respect and familiarity with authors that are by now long gone. I've written about this before, with regards to Samuel Hildreth, but lately, I've had a different connection with another scientist who has passed.

Usually, when I visualize these old scientists, I imagine senior scientists writing with a large degree of certainty, brought on by their age. Of course, this isn't an accurate visualization, but it's been my go-to imagery. It's sort of a pleasant surprise when I find out an author is younger, especially when they're in their early 20s, since that's where I am right now. It's easier to connect with another 23 year old than a 35 year old. It also impresses me and motivates me to match that level of commitment.

Those were the thoughts swirling around my head when I came upon the papers of Charles Harvey Bollman, born in 1868 in Monongahela City, Pennsylvania. He went on to attend the University of Indiana at Bloomington, and apparently took quite an interest in the myriapoda of the United States: the millipedes and centipedes, along with their lesser-known relatives, the symphylans and pauropods. Bollman had a pretty open field, so he chose well. C.S. Rafinesque published the first recognized work on myriapoda in 1820. He was followed by Thomas Say in 1821, which helped in cracking open the door for others to tackle the creatures. Notable scientists working on the American myriapod fauna throughout the 1800s included Johann Friedrich Brandt, George Newport, Carl Ludwig Koch, Oscar Harger, Jerome McNeill, Horatio Wood, Edward Drinker Cope, and Lucien Marcus Underwood, among others. Despite the work of these scientists, the knowledge at the time was characterized as "fragmentary."

Since standardized methods and descriptions were still being worked out during this time, the literature can be confusing to go back to due to changes in nomenclature and many species being synonymized (after a species has been described more than once, unknown to other taxonomists). This primary literature is still important, however, as some of the species accounts have information that's difficult to find anywhere else. It's also a historical curiosity to read the descriptions--they look positively barren compared to how myriapods are described today, with many characters being discussed that can go on for paragraphs and pages.

It was into this atmosphere that Bollman entered. There was no BugGuide to post photos of specimens to be identified by experts, nor was there much of an alternative to sending a letter to an expert with a question and hoping to hear back. After being spoiled by the internet and its treasure trove of resources, I consider that kind of terrifying. The way I've learned about millipedes and centipedes has been to use the internet to pull journal articles from decades, even centuries ago, and read them. A healthy dose of searching for photos to compare with (followed by crying over the paucity of verifiable photos online) has made learning about myriapods pretty easy as of late. Yet Bollman jumped at the challenge, and intended to synthesize the contemporary knowledge of North America's myriapods while simultaneously adding to it.

He really did relish the challenge: he published his first paper, Preliminary descriptions of ten new North American Myriapods, in 1887. He was 19 at the time.

 Charles Harvey Bollman, courtesy of Dr. Rowland Shelley from his site, NADiploChilo.

Remember how I mentioned my image of senior scientists writing papers? That fact definitely turned my mental picture on its head. Bollman was described as an "exceptionally bright student," and his published papers reflect that. The president of the university at the time, David S. Jordan, thought of him as "one of the most brilliant and promising" students he had known--quite a compliment. This sentiment was shared by many, it seems. Bollman graduated with the class of 1889, when he was just 20, and then took a job with the United States Fish Commission in Georgia. By this time, Bollman had published 15 papers on Myriapods in just a few years, quite an accomplishment. He described 31 new species and 3 new genera. You could say he was pretty active.

He was getting off to a great start after university, but on July 13, 1889, he died at Waycross, Georgia.

That's 124 years ago today.

I can't find any reference to how he died, but that's not really important. Bollman wasn't yet 21 when he died, but it didn't stop him from publishing prolifically. After his death, Bollman's papers were purchased by the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1893, his published and unpublished papers were collected and published as The Myriapoda of North America, edited by  Lucien Marcus Underwood. This was done as a memorial to Bollman and his work. In addition to his 15 published papers, it included 11 unpublished papers that he had been working on.

I encourage you to take a look at it: it's free on GoogleBooks, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and elsewhere online. It truly is a fitting memorial for Charles Harvey Bollman, and it struck a particular note with me. I'm older than Bollman was when he died,  but not by much. When I found out he was so young when he died, it shocked me in a profound way. It's not often that I'm faced with the unyielding fact that indeed, I am mortal, and I will die someday.

I've been thinking lately about my "legacy," if you'll excuse how pompous that sounds. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I've deposited over 300 specimens into the Marietta College arthropod collection, and I strove to prepare the specimens correctly, so that they could still be useful long after I'm gone. When I did that, I was thinking about Samuel Hildreth, and how some of his collection is still with us, and remaining useful. After learning about Bollman, my perception has changed a little, though I can't quite explain why. Perhaps it's because Bollman worked on myriapods, a group that not many scientists pay much attention to. I feel more of a connection to old works focused on myriapods, since it's a smaller community that can be inaccessible at first, and that connection extends to the old authors of various works.

I mentioned to a friend recently that I enjoy visiting insect collections and libraries, due to the connection I feel to the past as I look at specimens and old works. They wouldn't exist without the hard work of people who are long gone...dead for years, decades, centuries. I have a deep respect for those people: painstakingly collecting, writing, and labeling for whatever goal they considered bigger than themselves. Some (such as Hildreth) led long lives, while others (like Bollman) made the most out of the short time they had. The thread connecting them to the present day, to those of us currently using their research for our own purposes, isn't even broken by time. We have a powerful responsibility to do what we can to preserve that knowledge and hard work so that it can keep connecting onwards to the future, and I've come to understand this:

There's nothing as humbling as reading about the past lives, hard work, and trials of the scientists who have preceded you.

I'm going to keep thinking about the story of Charles Harvey Bollman, and do what I can to preserve his legacy through my small contributions. It's easy to forget that science is linked together by personal stories. There's a face behind every discovery (in the vast majority, it's many faces), and we'd do well to not forget those faces.

Bollman, Charles Harvey. Ed. Underwood, L.M. 1893. The Myriapoda of North America. Bulletin of United States National Museum 46. 210 pp.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Millipede Mystery

My millipede research always seems to throw me into new adventures. Neat information just sort of hangs out in the old literature, sometimes in the form of a new species that no one is quite sure about.

The species in question is Chaetaspis albus. Sort of. First, we'll go over the information we have about this species.

Chaetaspis albus (no common name, sorry) was described by Charles Harvey Bollman in 1887 (Entomologica Americana, II, 1887, pp.45-46). It's a millipede in the order Polydesmida and family Macrosternodesmidae. His description was also included in an 1893 publication of his works, which is great, because that means I can post the whole thing here without having to worry about copyright. If it's tough to read, you can click the photo to enlarge it.

From Bollman 1893

So there's our information on the original specimen. It's white, less than a centimeter long, less than a millimeter wide, and was found in Indiana under a log. That's a millipede that's easily missed, but it was later found in Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia as well.

Now we come to the real mystery. In 1928, Stephen Williams and Robert Hefner published The Millipedes and Centipedes of Ohio in the Ohio Biological Survey Bulletin. In it, they noted a few specimens of C. albus from Washington and Athens Counties which were much larger than those in Bollman's description. Williams and Hefner noted the species from the two counties was 15mm long and about 1mm wide, quite a difference from 6-7.5mm long and 0.3-0.5mm wide. Reluctant to declare a new species based on size alone, they left it alone with an acknowledgement that it was strange.

 Williams and Hefner, 1928.

Fig. 12, with gonopod of Chaetaspis albus? outlined in black. Williams and Hefner, 1928

It was an oddity that was left alone until 1950, when Dr. Nell Causey revisited it, noting the illustration of the gonopod differed from Bollman's description. She deemed it distinctive enough to be its own species, which she named Chaetaspis ohionis. It's unclear whether or not she was able to examine the type specimen, which was listed by Chamberlin & Hoffman (1958) as being in the Miami University arthropod collection. Somewhere along the line, however, the type specimen was lost (Lewis & Slay 2013). That means now no one can look at the specimen Williams and Hefner were looking at to see what it actually was: all we have is figure 12 and their description.

So...that leaves us at a brick wall. Hoffman (1999) wrote that the millipede isn't even a species of Chaetaspis, and is probably part of a different family, in his opinion. But if it's not a Chaetaspis sp., then what is it? Williams and Hefner were convinced that it matched Bollman's description of Chaetaspis albus, except for its larger size.

This might seem like a waste of time, since we have no type specimen. But it's an intriguing mystery to me, since I'm from Washington County. It would be super neat to mount an expedition and find the millipede that Williams and Hefner did (albeit a difficult one, since they didn't specify the locality), and it could corroborate (or not) Chaetaspis ohionis being a new species.

Think of it as CSI: Millipedes.

Bollman, Charles H. 1893. The Myriapoda of North America (A posthumous edition of Bollman's works by L. M. Underwood). Bulletin 46, U.S. National Museum. 210 pp.
Causey NB. 1950. On Four New Polydesmoid Millipeds. Ent. News, vol. 61, No. 7, p. 197
Chamberlin RV and Hoffman RL. 1958. Checklist of the Millipeds of North America. United States National Museum Bulletin 212. 236pp.
Hoffman, R.L. 1999. Checklist of the millipedes of North and Middle America.Virginia Museum of Natural History Special Publication. v. 8 p. 1–584 Lewis JJ and Slay ME. 2013. Chaetaspis attenuatus, a new species of cavernicolous milliped from Arkansas (Diplopoda: Polydesmida: Macrosternodesmidae). Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, v. 75(1): p. 60-63.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Malaise Traps and Mites

I'm now officially a graduate student at the University of Arkansas--kind of my way of starting July off with a bang. My first two days have been jam-packed with information that I'm still trying to digest, and what better way to do that than to share it?

I started off my first day by assisting another student in the lab in setting up a few malaise traps. Our goal for the day: set up four of them. Spoiler alert: we only set up two of them due to a broken trap and not nearly enough cord. But hey, two is better than one. Or none.

We set out for Lake Wedington, west of Fayetteville, and found a nice spot on a slope in a patch of secondary succession forest. It looked like a good flyway for insects, so we set up the trap. A malaise trap catches flying insects and funnels them into a container (usually filled with ethanol), from which they're collected after a few days. We felt good about the location we chose, since we were already seeing some flies, wasps, and other insects flying around us as we set up.

Lycomorpha pholus - Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth

The blurry picture above shows the Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth (Lycomorpha pholus), which kept landing on me as we set up. I noticed a few of these moths flying around brazenly, seemingly protected by their mimicry of the Lycid beetles. Its common name is something of a misnomer: it's actually orange with bluish-black wings. It looks similar to a moth I've often seen in Ohio, the Orange-patched Smoky Moth (Pyromorpha dimidiata).

To ensure that our prey didn't simply fly under our trap, we stacked up a few rocks and logs at the bottom of the trap. The first log I picked up had a pretty garter snake under it, which promptly disappeared under the leaf litter. Another had a caterpillar.

I thought it was dead at first.

I'm not sure what species it is, but it blends in well with the wood.

Next we trudged up the slope to an oak opening that was filled with grasses and the song of a nearby cicada. We searched for a nice flyway, and decided on a spot near where we found a ladybug, parasitic wasp, and metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae). On our walk to the site, I glanced down and noticed something hidden in the grasses.

Small flowers, or huge fingers?

I knew it was an orchid, but didn't know anything more. I remembered seeing a photo of this species before, however, thanks to Andrew Gibson, so I sent it to him. He promptly returned a species ID: Grass-leaved Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes vernalis). The orchid is about a foot tall, and the small white flowers wind up and around the stalk. 

After we finished setting up the second malaise trap and had thoroughly complained about the broken trap and lack of cord to set up anymore, I heard a buzzing sound and looked at a nearby oak branch. At first, I thought it was a leaf-footed bug (Coreidae), but realized it was something more interesting.

Of course it's an assassin bug.

A stout assassin bug, one of the Bee Assassins (genus Apiomerus), had flown nearby. This one is Apiomerus crassipes, an assassin that ranges from the central to eastern US. I don't often encounter these guys, so it was an exciting find for me. Other species in the genus can be brightly colored in red and yellow, but this species apparently opts for a sophisticated black with red accents.

After my foray in the field, it was time to sort some leaf litter samples. I found some interesting beetles, a few centipedes and millipedes, and other miscellanea. However, I'm working in a mite lab, so it was time to learn some mites. Mites 101 consumed my second day.

To summarize, there's more to mites than just velvet mites, which are the ones I'm vaguely familiar with. Much of the diversity in mites is in the suborder Prostigmata (which does include the velvet mites), and I took a few photos of various groups within the Prostigmata for my notes. I'll include a few here, if for no other reason than to show some mites you may not know about. All these mites are pretty tiny, so these photos were taken through a microscope.

Labidostommatina mites. Large chelicerae (can't really see in the photo), predatory.

Whirligig mite, family Anystidae. Legs appear to originate from central point.

Snout mites (Family Bdellidae, genus Bdella). Look kind of cute.

Smarididae. Mites with mouthparts inside their body, which they can vomit up. Have setae on their bodies that make them look oddly fuzzy.

I'm still processing a bunch of mite information, so I'll stop here, rather than write something potentially wrong. It's neat to learn about this group and see the diversity, and hopefully I'll get it organized in my head soon.

Now to get some sleep before heading back to the lab tomorrow.