Monday, April 29, 2013

Love Insects, Love Life

Hey ya'll

today's post will be more of a rant and a personal call for action more than anything else. I realized if I don't speak up for the insects, no one will. Are you an insect lover yourself? If the answer is yes, then maybe it is time for us to raise our voices a little higher. These small, often overlooked, creatures form the basic building blocks of our existence! Despite all the talk of conservation and animal rights going on, not many people stop to consider the plight faced by many insects as a result of climate change, habitat loss, and general environmental degradation. It is time to understand that these living things are not "just bugs". I really hate to put it in such words, but if a species of monkey goes extinct, life would probably still manage to go on as it is... but if an entire species of bee, or wasp goes extinct, you can be sure that life would not longer be the same as we know it! The majority of our world's pollination activities are attributed to insects! In fact, many higher order of plants are pollinated by insects! Many of these plants are also species specific pollinators which means they are pollinated only by specific types of insects. It's a very simple equation, really: No pollination = no propagation of plant species = no more fruits and flowers! It is time to understand that these animals are not "just bugs". A world without insects is a world without plants and a world without life!

But I didn't just write here to rant. We can prevent this! The change begins with you! How? Observe these simple steps. 
  1. Do some research! Be observant of the world around you! What kinds of insects come and go in your neighborhood. What sorts of plants do they feed on? What can you learn about them? 
  2. Satellite Gardens. Cordon of small parts of your garden as an allocated space for insects! Plant the host plants of insect larvae (if you can identify them), and grow all sorts of flowering plants that wasps, butterflies, and bees can feed on! This way you will ensure that the insects always have a place to return to and a source upon which they can rely for food! In our rapidly developing world, where vast plains of vegetation are constantly being cleared in the name of progress, these small sanctuaries may be all that's left for the insects at the end of the day. 
  3. SPREAD the word! The more satellite gardens we provide, the more we can ensure the insect's survival! If you are a student, speak to your school administrator about this. Speak to your friends, your neighbors, anyone who will listen. Together, we can make a difference. 

Love all animals, love insects, love life. 

Autumn leaf butterfly (doleschallia bisaltide) eclosing


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top 5 Insect Super Powers

Hey ya'll

In the first part of "Super Powered Insects", I talked about comic books characters that were inspired by the wonders of the entomological world! In the real world, however, many insects are similarly known to possess unique and amazing super-power like abilities! The following are a list of the top 5 insect super powers that I could come up with. 

1. Super Strength! 

A staple in any superhero comic universe: what would DC comics be without Superman, Marvel without The Incredible Hulk, and the natural world without... the industrious ant? Ants are one of the strongest creatures in the animal kingdom, capable of lifting several times their own body weight!!! The actual degree of super-strength varies between ant species, but on average an individual ant can lift anywhere between 10 - 50 times its total body weight. They can even do this upside down, while clinging on seemingly smooth glass-like surfaces! That's pretty amazing. Now it may seem surprising that such a small animal is capable of such feats of strength but the reason behind it all boils down to good old fashion physics and the concept of scaling. Because of their relatively small sizes, ants do not have much body mass. In comparison with this body mass, however, a large proportion of the ant's body is made up of small insect-muscles. Proportionately speaking this gives them the ability to lift and manipulate objects that are much larger and many times heavier than their own body weight. And its not just ants, but insects in general! Honey bees, for instance, have been observed to be able to lift up to 80 percent of their body weight in FLIGHT! More, when they're on the ground. It is not an absolute rule but a general one that the bigger the animals get (and the larger their body mass is) their ability to lift objects of equal to, or heavier than their own weight greatly decreases. Take elephants for example. Elephants can lift up to many tons but did you know they are quite incapable of lifting their own body weight? I guess this is one of those instances where small size, works to their advantage. 

2. Flight

Another fairly common staple power in comic books, flight is an ability most adult insects possess. These guys were virtually the first living things in the world to evolve the ability and subsequently, may be said to be one of the most accomplished as well. Of all the fliers of the insect world, however, it is arguable that none are perhaps as accomplished as the dragonfly! Dragonflies have been around for millions of years, and aside from a drastic decrease in size, have not seemed to have changed very much from their prehistoric ancestors. Consequently, they've also had ample time to perfect their flying skills making them quite literally, the masters of the air. Most dragonflies flap their wings at only 30 beats per second (this is very slow, in comparison to most insects like bees who flap their wings at about 300 times a second) but are still able to complete aerial feats of stunning magnitude! They are accomplished fliers, reaching speeds of up to 58 kilometers per hour (that's about 36 miles) and are more than capable of making sharp turns, sudden dives, and even flying backwards! The reason dragonflies can do this is because of their unique anatomy that enable them to use all four of their wings independently. When used in conjunction with their excellent vision, the dragonfly's mastery of flight makes it an excellent and accurate predator, capable of snatching insects up in mid-flight. 

3. Webbing

Okay, so this is not exactly your typical super power! But what would this post be without a reference to spider man! Spider silk is one of the strongest organic substances known to man! The drag like silk of many spider webs (designed to stop flying insects in mid-flight) has often been equated to having the tensile strength of a high grade allow steel filament of the same diameter (purportedly a proportionately spun silken web would even have the strength to arrest a commercial airplane in mid-flight). And while spiders are arachnids and so, not insects (no need to get into a twist, I did not forget that fact!) they are not the only animals capable of producing webbing! The larvae of many insects, perhaps most notably those of butterflies and moths, are quite capable of excreting a similarly fibrous substance that is also known as silk. The silk produced by silkworms (bombyx mori) for instance are one of the strongest natural fibers known to man! In fact, silk garments dating back to 1782 was discovered in relatively durable condition in a wreck expedition in 1840! Silk. is also naturally resistant to most mineral acids. 

4. Radioresistance

Man destroys man. Insects inherit the earth.
I am sure that most of us are no stranger to the urban legend that cockroaches are the only animals capable of surviving a nuclear blast. Now, while it might more accurately be said that cockroaches are capable of surviving the aftermath of the blast (the actual blast would probably kill any roach caught in its vicinity by sheer explosive force a lone), I've got even better news for you: same goes to all insects! Now, I am no expert on radiation, but from what I have read up on the subject, this has something to do with the differing nature of vertebrate and invertebrate cells. Radiation is DEADLY to vertebrate animals and this is because our cells are constantly multiplying. Old cells die every second and are replaced by new cells through the process of mitosis (or something). Radiation affects these growing cells by causing them to act and multiply in ways that are different to their original function which would then eventually lead to mutation (the kind that gives people cancer. Not superpowers). Invertebrate cells, however, only multiply rapidly at specific times of the year. Typically, when they are about to undergo the process of molting. This means that of all the insects who survive the initial nuclear blast, those that are not close to the process of molting would be able to withstand the effects of radiation. In fact, some of these insects may be exposed so long, that their bodies begin to adapt to be genetically radioresistant. This positive trait is then passed on to future generations of insects born in the environment creating a strain of radioresistant insects! And this is no longer the stuff of science fiction or urban legend! Naturally radioresistan insects, worms, and plants have already been discovered in places like Minas Gerais, Brazil, that possess naturally high levels of radiation. 

5. Mind Control 

Take me to your leader! 
I saved the best for last. Mind control is often associated with super villains in the comic book genre. Even when heroes actually possess the capacity for it, they use it only sparingly. There is something entirely sinister about invading the thought processes of another creature and bending it against its will. It is therefore with no surprise that this category goes to the super villains of the insect world: the parasitic wasps. Parasitic wasps are quite literally the nightmares of the insect world. Imagine the worst fear you've ever experienced in your life and now multiple it by a hundred. If insects were capable of complex emotional thought, that would be the kind of year you would feel if you were a helpless larvae facing down the nightmarish gaze of a parasitic wasp. Like elegant but deadly assassins, the wasps employ a wide range of methods to subdue, and coerce their prey. The female of the jewel wasp (Ampulex compressa) for instance, preys on the common cockroach. She delivers two stings, both targeted at the roach's ganglion (that's the insect equivalent of a central nervous system). First, she does this to paralyze the front legs of her prey thus reducing mobility and inhibiting resistance. Next, she delivers a second sting at the direct spot of the roach's brain. This causes an immediate behavioral change in the roach. It becomes docile, it becomes compliant, and it will now follow the wasp willingly (as if being led on a leash) to her nest ,where she will proceed to deposit a single egg upon the roach's abdomen. When the egg hatches the larvae will feed on it, eventually living inside of it as an endoparasite. The larvae feeds only on the non-essential organs of the roach thus keeping the host alive until it is matured and ready to emerge as a fully grown wasp. Throughout the entire process, the roach is motionless. It is alive, but does not attempt to escape, seemingly content to rest in the burrow allowing the larvae to eat it alive. For all intents and purposes, the wasp's sting has turned it into a zombie. In another species of wasp, the larvae becomes a parasite of large spiders and upon maturity, will alter the spider's behavior to use its dying strength to spin a silken cocoon to protect the larva during its final stage of development. Talk about creepy. 

So that's it for my list of the top 5 insect super powers! Know any others I might have missed out, or wish to request something be added to the list? Send me a shout on any of my social networking pages (twitter, facebook, email) or leave a note in the comments below! 


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

True Facts

Hey ya'll 

I've actually been a fan of this series for quite a bit now and figured that now is as good a time as any to share it out. If you're already a fan of "Wild Sex" by Dr. Carin Bondar (if you don't know what that is and wish to know more, click here ps. you won't be disappointed!) you will probably also love "True Facts", by ZeFrank. Here, I'll even give you a link to start of you off featuring one of my favorite animals: The Praying Mantis. 

Best watched when stoned, or on high.

Note: This blog does not endorse the throwing of stones at a person until death ensues. Or the use of drugs. 

pps. I am not a fourteen year old boy who happens to be a sexual deviant with a violent streak.

Bug Biters

Hey ya'll

Just a random post in the middle of the week! Comic Fans, Anime Geeks, Otakus and Poke'mon Nerds will probably appreciate this!

These guys were all on my team!!! 

Have a great middle-of-the-week everyone!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Memoirs of a Light-Trapper: expeditions and experiments in light-trapping pt. 1

Hey ya'll

Chasing after butterflies and other flying insects with a net can be great fun during the day, but catching nocturnal insects is a totally different ball game altogether. It is, after all, not very practical for one to go traipsing about in the forests in pitch darkness while waving a net blindly around in hopes of accidentally catching something that flies by! As such many entomologists and lepidopterists have developed, over the years, a variety of techniques and methods that are quite reliable at attracting insects for the purposes of study or collection. The most efficient of all these, is probably light trapping. Light trapping is basically a method of attracting insects that involves the use of a light source (usually a mercury vapor bulb, or some other source that emits UV light). The light is often dispersed through the use of a white cloth (that can greatly increase the light's surface area) and functions as a veritable beacon that attracts moths, beetles, and any large number of flying insects to its surface. Think of a bug zapper, but on a larger scale. And minus the deadly electricity. Insects attached to the white cloth may then be studied in closer detail, photographed, or collected depending on its purpose.

Recently, I've had the opportunity of conducting one such expedition which took place in the form of a mini experiment. Two light traps were set with different bulbs, one emitting a specturm of UVA (orange/warm light), the other of UVB (white light). Through the course of the night we discovered that different insects were attracted to different spectrum of light. While the UVA bulb seemed to attract more insects on the initial stage, many of them eventually shifted their focus over to the UVB bulb where they proceeded to swarm and seethe in a writhing mass of antennae, legs, and wings. The diversity of insects which arrived was also, to say the least, quite astounding and we had (in addition to moths of just about every shape, size, and color) some very attractive looking beetles and cicadas. Below are some of the amazing insects that were attracted to our light traps that night.

These are some of the moths that were attracted to our light traps. Among all the insects that eventually came to the traps and stayed, I'd have to say that the moths were the most numerous. Most of them were small and brilliantly patterned, although we would eventually come across several sphingiids and saturniids as well. Geometriids were the most common and most of these came in various shades of yellow or green, many similarly patterned with geometrical map-like markings on both wings. 

We eventually nicknamed this moth "Hellboy" until a more concise definition
can be offered.

Aside from moths, the traps also attracted more than their fair share of cicadas! The large insects are clumsy fliers and, after slamming unceremoniously into the light bulbs and walls repeatedly, they would often crash onto the ground where they remained, seemingly in a state of stupor. They were so stunned by this I could even pick them up and place them side by side on my outstretched palm with little or no effect. 

Cicadas came in all shapes and sizes that night! We counted no less than 6 different species that were attracted to the traps. 

There were also an astounding diversity of beetles at our traps. Of all the insects, these were perhaps the worst! Beetles are clumsy fliers at best and when in a state of fright, have sharp claws that they can use to devastating effect. I had many bad experiences with beetles that fell down my color and proceeded to dig their claws into any portion of my skin they happened to come into contact with that the time! I shall take note to wear tighter fitting clothes when I try this again in the future! Most of the beetles weren't particularly remarkable, but we did find several of the long horn (Cerambycidae) and rhinoceros (Dynastidae) variety. Some of these, I ended up keeping, for virtue of their unique appearances! Second note to self: long horn beetles have fearsome jaws and can deliver quite a bite!!! 

The largest cerambycidae that was attracted to our traps that night. It measured several inches from head to tip of abdomen and eventually managed to bite hard enough to crack the flimsy plastic lid of the container.
Of all the other insects that were attracted, most were aletes, the winged generation of various ants and termite species whose identification simply goes beyond my capabilities. There was also a stick insect that somehow found its way there, and a rather opportunistic praying mantis. There really are a lot more pictures to go through, and I will upload them in the second part of this blog post when our photographer, Miss Joanne Tong, has sorted them out from her camera. Until then, Happy Monday.



Butterfly display case

Hey ya'll 

Just a quick updates before Monday. Display cases an be so difficult and near impossible to locate in Malaysia and so,  I finally decided to invest some time and money into constructing my very own butterfly and moth display case! It wasn't easy, and it cost me a lot of painful fingers, and quite a bit of money... but I daresay the result is well worth it! Anyway I have more buggy delights coming up in the next few weeks or so, so please stay tuned. Somewhat inspired by the success of this display, I'm thinking of constructing another one detailing the life history of various Malaysian cicadas! Stay tuned. 


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Butterfly Spreading for Dum- Beginners!

Hey ya'll

The collecting of butterflies to be preserved as specimens has always been a very touch subject, even among lepidopterists! There are those who study butterflies who limit their observations only to live insects seen in the wild, and those who practice the added dimension of observing dead specimens in the lab. From a scientific point of view, the advantages that come from having preserved specimens far outweigh any possible moral outrage that might result from such a course of action. Dead butterflies, for one, do not flutter about so (thus damaging themselves!) meaning that they can be observed and categorized with greater depth and precision, and some butterflies are even difficult and near impossible to distinguish unless looked at under a microscope! Many skipper butterflies from the family hesperiidae are like this. Even for the average Joe collector, butterfly collecting can be a very insightful and rewarding experience! It is true that to obtain perfect specimens, butterflies do get killed in the process. But if it is any small consolation to those of you who might be sufficiently morally outraged by now: 

  1. No butterflies have ever been hunted to the brink of extinction! (You can blame deforestation and general environmental degradation for that!) 
  2. Butterflies are primarily instinctual creatures, they do not perceive emotions like pain or fear the way humans do
  3. Most collectors, experienced ones at least ,are very "humane" in their methods and either use killing jars or the refrigerator method to put the insects to "sleep" where they eventually slip away into death. 
For those of you who might be interested in collecting butterflies, however, spreading the insects can be a fairly daunting thought! Butterflies, unlike other flying insects like dragonflies, cicadas, or even grasshoppers, have very thin and fragile wings! Furthermore, the colors of butterfly wings are made out of millions upon millions of overlapping scales which rub off easily causing the butterfly to lose much of its color and grandeur! With all these difficulties in mind, I have thus decided to put together a step-by-step guide for the beginner on how to properly spread and preserve butterflies. 

Step 1:
First things first, you are going to need to pin your butterfly! It is often ideal to use entomological pins for this, but I understand that they are not always so readily accessible. I use tailor marking pins (the kind that is used to make marks on tailoring dummies) and have no problem with them except for some of the smaller specimens for which the pin may be a little too big. Anyway pins often come in various sizes anyway so you can always just adjust the size of the pins that you pick up from the store. Now, you want to put the pin as close to the center of the abdomen as possible and at a vertical angle. This is, obviously for aesthetic purposes, but also because it is arguably the strongest spot in the butterfly's body. The butterfly's body when straightened should form a 90 degree angle with the pin. Don't worry about it if you get this wrong on your first try and  I would advice removing and reinserting the pin too many times. Remember, each time you do that, the pin will leave a hole in the insect's body... too many little holes may eventually lead into some very serious, and irreversible damage to your specimen! 

Step 2:

Prepare a spreading board for the butterfly by placing two smaller boards of styrofoam on top of a larger board that will form the base. There should be a gap or a wedge between both styrofoam boards and this is where the butterfly's body will go. Make sure the boards are securely pinned down as you don't want them to shift about while the butterfly is being spread as this can cause damage to the wings, or cause unwanted changes in alignment. Once you've prepared the board sufficiently, place the butterfly's body inside the wedge, making sure the pin attached to it is securely stuck onto the main base. Make any necessary adjustments to ensure that the wings rest nicely and evenly on the boards on either side. If the butterfly's body is not secure within the groove (i.e it still moves about) you may hold it down by placing two pins on either side of it. Stick the pins on either side of the butterfly where the lower joint of the hindwing meets its body. This is the strongest spot and will prevent it from moving while you work on the wings. 

Step 3: 

The most crucial part of the process: spreading the butterfly's wings! Now as previously mentioned, butterfly wings are VERY fragile so you have to take special care not to damage them in the process. Different lepidopterists will have different methods of doing this, each involving different tools but I'm just going to tell you of the one I like the best. Using the flat end of the pin (that's the end OPPOSITE of the sharp bit), gently coax the wings into the desired position. Do this by slowly slipping the pin head underneath the upper edge of the forewing and gently tugging on the primary wing vein close to the insect's body which is the strongest structure of the wing and the least likely to tear. You may have to use your fingers, or a pair of forceps (depending on how confident you are about your control) to edge the wing into position but the same rule applies. Always work with the primary wing veins. When you have got the forewing in the desired position, gently lay down a piece of tracing paper (I use it as it is the most gentle) and pin it down around the edges of the wing. Depending on the species and the strength of the wings, you may have to use more than one or two pins. For the hindwing, slip the pin head on the lower edge of the wing, close to where the wing joint meets the body and gently push until the upper border of the hindwing rests somewhat covered by the fore wing. The goal is to ensure that the border of hindwing-forewing is set at a 90 degree angle from the butterfly's body. 

Step 4: 

Simple enough, repeat the above process for the other side. When you are done, you can place a ruler from one tip of the wing to another to see if you've got a butterfly that is "straightly" and "evenly" spread. Don't worry too much if you do not achieve this at your first try. I've got tons of botched up specimens this way and I can only say that practice makes perfect! Now is the time for the final touch ups. Using the pin heads, gently coax the antenna into desired position. You can place several more pins to keep it there, or use a separate strip of tracing paper. If the butterfly's body had contorted or moved slightly out of position during the spreading process, you may now use a pin to gently push it into position and leave the pin there until the specimen re-dries where it will stay in said position. To preserve specimens and prevent fungal growth or attack by ants/pests, I spray all butterflies with water-based insect poison. Don't be alarmed if you notice discoloration as the wings will return to normal once they have dried up.

Anyway I hope this guide has been sufficiently helpful with your butterfly collecting endeavors! I understand that other's may have different methods from mine and I daresay it's pretty much a case of whatever works best for the individual. I learnt most of what I know from more experienced friends and now really just wish t to pass this knowledge down. Just remember, practice makes perfect so do start with common, more readily accessible specimens as opposed to jumping straight into the swing of things with, say, a birdwing! 


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Keep Calm, they're only 17 year Cicadas!

Hey ya'll!!! 

I woke up this morning with the following item on my news feed "Largest Brood of 17 Year Cicadas to be expected in Spring!" it was shared by a friend and I instantly thought to myself WOW! What a magnificent sight they must be to behold! Evidently, though, the same opinion was not shared by said Facebook friend who included (along with her post) a status update lamenting that "it must be the end of the world!!!" My response to her was typically the same one I came across on this amazing website :

Cicada nymph! Aren't they cute???
The 17 year cicada is not a locust (as they are sometimes confused for) but an insect belonging to the order of hemiptera, or "true bugs". They are of the genus "magicicada" which was named not because the insects are necessarily "magical" in any way, but because they seemed to miraculously appear out of thin air "just like magic" only once every 13- 17 years. In reality though, the sudden "disappearance" of cicadas for such a long period of time after the 4-6 weeks they are active may be attributed to the insect's prolonged developmental phase. Cicada nymphs (which essentially look like smaller versions of adult cicadas but without wings) live their entire lives under ground where they feed on the sap generated by the roots of large trees. 

transformation of the cicada
from mature nymph to
The nymphs must go through a process of incomplete metamorphosis whereby they undergo 5 molts (or instars) before they graduate as adult cicadas and the process can take anywhere between 13-17 years which accounts for the "sudden" disappearance of the insects for such a long period of time.  When they do emerge, however, they often do so simultaneously and in very large numbers! This is thought of to be some form of survival strategy known as predator satiation. Cicadas emerge in the thousands, sometimes even in the millions, which makes it impossible for any predator to completely kill them off! This means that there will be plenty of cicadas leftover to mate and lay eggs, thus ensuring the survival of the species. This phenomenon is unlike that of the locust swarm because while the locust swarm is literally a band of insects that move, breed, and feed as a large group, the cicada swarm is really just  a means to an end: ensuring enough adults survive long enough to pass on their genes to the next batch of insects. Indeed, such is the life cycle of most cicada species though the 17 year cicada is the only one to do so in such record numbers.

Other interesting facts about the 17 year cicada 
  • The 17 year Cicada is also known as the periodical cicada. This is because of their survival strategy of emerging in large swarms over the span of a certain period, as opposed to every year. 
  • There are a grand total of 7 species that make up the genus magicicada and 4 of these emerge on a 13 year basis. 
  • The 17 year cicada is perhaps most known for its ability to generate a loud, sometimes deafening sound (as is the case with all cicadas). Male cicadas do this to attract mates and do so by popping a set of muscles on their abdomen known as "tymbals", in and out rapidly.
  • Unlike locusts, cicadas do not defoliate entire plants. Adult cicadas possess piercing mouth parts that they use to suck the sweet sap from trees. Slender trees may be damaged by this process, but large stronger trees do fine. 
  • Last, but not least (this one is my favorite!) 17 year cicadas are affected by the massosporan fungus. An infection that is the equivalent of Cicada STD as it is spread through mating and causes the abdomen of adult cicadas to fall off! (Yikes!!!!)
You can read of such facts, and more at

In conclusion, though the sights and sounds of an insect swarm of such gargantuan proportions can seem like a daunting, even intimidating prospect, when all is said and done... they only come once every 13-17 years! And aside from the loud sounds and the occasional clumsy cicada smack to the face: these insects are really quite harmless which totally begs the question: why can't we all just get along? 


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Bug-on-Bug Violence: Wing Diversity and the evolutionary Arm's race

Hey ya'll!

Weaver ants brutalizing a caterpillar
It's a bug eat bug world, and in the insect kingdom, everything is almost certainly food for something else, as I was explicitly reminded on my way home from dinner! Pictured here are an army of red weaver ants (Oecophylla sp.) brutalizing an unidentified caterpillar. Now caterpillars are essentially the sitting ducks of the insect world. They're soft, and vulnerable, and they can't even move very quickly! Consequently, many of them have developed a variety of strategies and means through which they can defend themselves from predators (to read more about the amazing ways they do this, click here). 

Ants targeting the weak spots of a spined caterpillar
Nature, however, always finds a way and many predators have eventually learnt how to bypass the natural defenses of these animals. Take this case, for example: The caterpillar in mention is what I believe to be the larvae of the Tawny coster (acraea terpsicore/violae), a brightly colored butterfly with leathery wings and a lazy flight. Under normal circumstances, the caterpillars of these butterflies are rather bold insects. They possess a unique chemical defense system, sequestered from the mildly poisonous leaves of the passiflora vines on which they feed on, that make them severely distasteful to birds and most vertebrate predators. Invertebrate predators, on the other hand, aren't so choosy about taste and so to protect themselves from such animals, the caterpillars have evolved a series of sharp and rigid spines that adorn the length of their entire bodies. These spines are not poisonous and do not break easily and it is speculated that what they do, is create (quite literally!) and arm's length of space between any potential predator and the caterpillar's vulnerable body.

When attacking armored prey, like beetles, many ants have
learnt to target the joints, the weak spots in the larger
insect's armor. Here they can inject their poison to
eventually overcome their prey.
These ants in question, however, seemed to have figured out a way to bypass all of that. By literally clipping off the spines bit by bit, the same way a gardener might trim the hedge, the ants whittle away at the caterpillar's defenses until they are able to expose the soft, succulent flesh beneath. And this is not something new. Similar behavior have been observed in the infamous Army ants (Eciton sp.) of Southern America. In fact, many of ants have even taken things one step further and are similarly known to exploit the weak points in the armor of armored invertebrates such as beetles and scorpions. Though the process can take up quite a significant bit of time and energy, the ants will often persevere until the defenses of the prey are completely whittled away. Protein can be very rare and is subsequently a very valuable natural resource in the insect world. Any amount of it (however small) is clearly worth every bit of effort!

The brightly colored, and patterned wings of many
butterflies are thought to function as biological
billboards that provide various signals to other butterflies
as well as animals of other species.
And so it has always been, the evolutionary arms race that began when the first invertebrate crawled out of the ocean, and so it continues to this very day. The need to feed and breed, coupled with the drive to escaped predation has resulted in the diversity and magnificence of insects we have come to know of today. Every insect's uniqueness, every part of it that stands out (aside from the basic anatomy) evolved, often for specific purposes that would aid its survival as an individual and as a species. Take the structure of insect wings for example. The wings of insects are probably one of the most diverse flight structures in the natural world as we know it and are believed to have their origin in gill-like structures possessed by some primitive invertebrates. When mosses and plants began to creep out of the ocean to colonize the shores, invertebrates were soon to follow. Not all of them, however, lost these gill like structures and many continued to retain these flap-like projections as a form of vestigial growth.

The frontal pair of a beetle's wings have evolved into
a virtually impenetrable,waterproof armor known as an
elytra and protects the more fragile set of flight wings
as well as the beetle's body from attack.
But as more invertebrates continued to move to land and evolved into insects, their predators were also quick to follow. It eventually became imperative once again, that insects evolved new strategies to ensure their survival and that of their species. Climbing, the unique ability of insects to scale most vertical surfaces, was believed to have evolved as such a strategy. But the most amazing of all, is perhaps the evolution of the insect wing. The flap-like projections that some insects retained as vestigial growths now developed a new purpose: it gave them the ability to glide! Gliding became an invaluable means of escape as, aside from the insects who retained this ability, there were NO flying predators at the time. This, more than anything else, led to the streamlining of the gliding process and the correspondent anatomical part to give rise to the very first insect wing making the insect quite literally, the first animal capable of sustained flight! The continued benefit of flight propelled the continued evolution of the wing resulting in the sophistication and diversity of wing design witnessed in insects today.
Some pictures of other insect wings, to give you a better idea.
Dragonfly wings have evolved to be strong and resilient structures. They are
waterproof and can function with great dexterity and independence of each other
allowing the dragonfly to be one of the most accomplished of aerial predators.
Cicada wings
Grasshopper wings
Leafhopper wings
But of course, the evolutionary arms race in insects is not limited to its wings. In fact, every part of an insect's anatomy was originally geared towards helping the species survive each other. The barbed stings of bees for instance, was thought to have evolved as a defense mechanism against invertebrate predators. Interestingly enough, bees do not die when they sting invertebrate such as hornets and moths, which frequently invade their hives. The eventual introduction of vertebrate predators into the mix only branched this evolution out further. The following illustrated chart might give you an idea as to how this might have taken place.  

This, combined with the fact that insects have been around far longer than any other living creature on the planet, and because of their fast reproduction rates, has lead insects to diversify to the point that they are quite literally one of the most successful animals on the planet! Try to remember that the next time you witness an ant carving up a caterpillar, or stop to appreciate the remarkable patterns on the wings of a butterfly. You might very well be witnessing the result and progress of the evolutionary arms race!


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Caterpillar Couture: Fashion and Survival in the Insect World

Hey ya'll 

Of all the wonderful butterflies and moths that I have seen in my short (but somewhat eventful) life, the only other insect that can perhaps compare with these winged beauties in terms of sheer wonder and elaboration in evolutionary design, are perhaps their very own offspring: the caterpillars. Now it is quite understandable that most people would find this statement perplexing as it is true that the general rule is for caterpillars to remain as unnoticeable as possible! A caterpillar, generally speaking, is literally nothing more than a skin filled with hydro-static hemolymph and developing organs! Consequently, it is really quite fragile and vulnerable to attack! Staying hidden, or properly camouflaged with one's surroundings, is therefore a pretty necessary strategy that most caterpillars have to learn, or die trying! Some caterpillars, however, have absolutely no need to hide! And while a caterpillar is most certainly not the most aggressive of animals, many of them have developed chemicals means through which they may defend themselves from predators and they often do this in very fashionably beautiful and amusing ways! 

The caterpillar of the puss moth (Cerura vinula) is a fairly unremarkable caterpillar for most of the time. That is, until you piss it off! It really is about as aggressive as a caterpillar can be. When threatened, the caterpillar will rear up on its hind legs to display a striking looking "face" that might startle predators into backing off. To enhance the illusion, the caterpillar also possesses a pair of tentacles or tendrils at the back of its body that it can wave about furiously and menacingly to ward off potential predators. If all else fails, though, the caterpillar will employ its final method of defense: a concentrated spray of formic acid to the face! Formic acid is a type of poison that is typically produced by ants, wasps, and bees, and the caterpillar of the puss moth is quite unique in its ability to do so. 

Not all caterpillars have to be aggressive to ward off predators though, and in fact, aside from the larvae of the Puss moth, few actually are! Most caterpillars employ a more passive aggressive means of defense typically meaning they will remain passive even when a predator is being aggressive. But who needs to be aggressive really, when your entire body is covered in a cornucopia of envenomed spikes that will make even Lady Gaga turn green with envy! Slug moth caterpillars (Limacodidae) are perhaps one of the most interesting caterpillars in the lepidopteran world! The variation in coloring and form is only as diverse as the various means through which they defend themselves. Many though, are covered in some form of urticaria. This means that brushing against one of these caterpillars can be potentially discomforting or even painful! Caterpillars of the tussock moth also advertise themselves brazenly with tufts of fur and setea that look more at place in a Mardi Gras parade than on an insect. The caterpillar, however (surprisingly enough) is not poisonous per-say. Rather these setea break off very easily and may cause a rash if embedded in the mucousa membranes of animals. This sort of defense is believed to target the mouths and eyes of predators as the thickness of the fur, and the extreme ease through which they break off is often enough to protect the insect from the predator's initial strike.  

As "prevention is always better than aggression" seems to be the prevailing policy when it concerns most insects, many of these caterpillars are also brightly colored so that they will not easily be missed such as the caterpillar of the lacewing butterflies  (Cethosia sp.) While one might think that this would attract predators, the bright colourations are typical of aposematic warnings in the animal Kingdom. Basically they advertise: "Attack me, and you might just regret it!" Many animals learn to avoid caterpillars with such coloring and are therefore less likely to attack them even by accident as the bright colors force the predators to take special attention to their presence.

Because the methods of aposematic coloration are so good at warding off predators, this has led to the emergence of several "copy cats" in the animal kingdom. After all, why waste time and energy synthesizing poisons from the plants that you eat when you can just "look" poisonous and be done with it. The hickory horned devil (Citheronia regalis) is a perfect example of this. These caterpillars look extremely BADASS! In fact in terms of appearances, these caterpillars are like the siege tanks of the insect kingdom. The caterpillar is one of the largest in North America and can grow to over 5 inches in length and are crowned with brightly colored, cruel looking spines along their heads and down their backs. The caterpillars themselves, however, are quite harmless and it would seem that evolution is finally catching up to them! Despite their fearsome appearances, more and more of these caterpillars are consumed by birds every year and the numbers are increasing! In fact in some areas they have even been recorded to have become "local bird favorites". Better keep up with the evolution, guys! 

However when all is said and done, perhaps the best defense IS still a best defense and why expend any energy at all synthesizing poisons, drawing attention to oneself, or pretending to be something one is not when one can simply just blend into one's surroundings? Some caterpillars, however, take "blending in" to new extremes. The caterpillars of the jewel moths (Acraga sp.) are named not for their adult form (which resemble furry dog-moth hybrids) but rather, their larval stages which literally resemble translucent/transparent mounds of gelatinous flesh! These caterpillars theoretically remain entirely invisible by refracting and reflecting the colors and lights from their surroundings making them, quite literally, mother nature's cloaking device! Perhaps the "prettiest" way of remaining unseen. 


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Newly Discovered Butterfly Species lives up to its Name.

Hey ya'll

Today is supposed to be my day off! The university actually closed for the Easter Break starting Monday but I have been going back into the office like clockwork to get some work done. Try as I might, though, this hasn't been a very productive week  and I'll be lucky if I finish 7 readings by next Monday (which would make a minimum of one text a day). Meanwhile, I was trolling the virtual insecto-sphere when I came across an interesting little picture of a very beautiful butterfly.

This butterfly is called the Resplendant forester (bebearia sp.) and was apparently discovered quite recently during 2012 in Africa. Isn't it a vision? In my opinion it is almost beautiful enough to rival the Madagascan sunset moth (Chrysiridia ripheus). The bebearia are a group of butterflies that fall under the genus of brush-footed butterflies (Nymphalidae) which generally possess brightly colored patterns on the dorsal surfaces of their wings, with a subdued more cryptic coloration on its ventral surfaces for purposes of camouflage when the butterfly is not in motion or at rest. As per the name of its genus, the butterflies have severely reduce forelegs that resemble miniature paint brushes giving them the appearance of possessing no more than four legs. Other notable bebearia sp. are the Shiny green forester (Bebearia barce), and Hewitson's forester (Bebearia tentyris). I wonder when it will be my turn to discover a previously undescribed/unheard of species. Hmmm. I guess until then all I can do is focus on the project at hand.

Happy Thursday everyone!

Buggy updates from Instagram

Hey ya'll

so I'm not sure if you guys know this, but I'm on instagram too! I upload a lot of the creepy crawly pictures I take there on a regular basis and Instagram may be one of the reasons why I have not been updating here as frequently as I should have! I mean, it's so much easier to just snap the photo and put it up for the online community to view without having to write an entire paragraph to go with it. Doesn't mean I will stop blogging though but, you know, if you have instagram do follow me at Cyrenization. I update my pictures there fairly regularly so, yeah! Also if you've got an instagram album with things you feel I might be interested in, do drop me a shout so I can send a "follow" back in your direction.

Speaking of Instagram, I uploaded pictures of my moth collection there yesterday, after I was done with the corresponding blog post, and when I checked back this morning I noticed that a fellow instagrammer had sketched what I suspect are my two specimens.  Check it out: 

Isn't that amazing?! Anyway his user name on Instagram is jordynebird_art and he's got some pretty amazing sketches as well so if you're into that kind of thing do drop by his account to "like" some pics, or send him a "follow". 


Artist, Lepidopterist, Woman: Celebrating the Life and Work Maria Sibylla Merian

Hey ya'll

When celebrating the contributions of some of the great women in history, it is often easy to overlook (among all the humanitarians among great women) the women who were involved in the documentation of natural history such as Maria Sibylla Merian. Maria, a naturalist and scientific illustrator, was not only one of the first woman to be actively involved in the field of natural history (then considered a primarily/if not exclusively male domain) but also the first to carefully observe and document the life cycle of insects thus making her one of the most significant contributors to the field of entomology. It is therefore of much appreciation that Google chose to feature, and celebrate her life yesterday by changing their header in commemoration of her 366th birthday. 

Early Life

Maria Sibylla Merian circa 1700
For much of her early life, Maria Sibylla Merian exhibited a fascination for insects! Having been encouraged to take up drawing and painting by her stepfather, Merian eventually began to utilize her talent to document and illustrate the various creepy crawlies that she encountered. Of particular interest to her, not surprisingly, was the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies and moths. 

I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silk worms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realized that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silkworms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed. 

In Holland, with much astonishment what beautiful animals came from the East and West Indies. I was blessed with having been able to look at both the expensive collection of Doctor Nicolaas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and director of the East Indies Society, and that of Mr. Jonas Witsen, secretary of Amsterdam. Moreover I also saw the collections of Mr Fredericus Ruysch, doctor of medicine and professor of anatomy and botany, Mr. Livinnus Vincent, and many other people. In these collections I had found innumerable other insects, but finally if here their origin and reproduction is unknown, it begs the question as to how they transform, starting from caterpillars and chrysalises and so on. 

(Foreword from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium)

Contributions to Science 

a plate from Metamorphosis insectorum
As evinced from her foreword, it would therefore seem that though an interest and study in natural history was quite dispersed at the time, not many people displayed an explicit interest in the origin and life cycles of many of their insect specimens. This in turn might be retrospectively attributed to the common belief in those times that insects were "Beasts of the Devil" and thus, spontaneously generated from the ground. As an amateur lepidopterist, Merian's work with butterflies and moths, and a grand total of 186 insect species might therefore be said to be pioneering in that it was one of, if not THE first work to document insect lifestyle and evolution with such attention to detail.

Plate from Metamorphosis Insectorum
Conversely though it can be argued that there were some local scholars of the time who had already been aware of the life cycles of butterflies or moths, it could also similarly be opined that not many of them truly understood this process. It was Merian's work, for example, that first illustrated the fact that caterpillars were often dependent on specific host plants and that eggs were often laid close to, or on these plants for ease of the developing larvae.  In addition to her work with insects, Merian successfully discovered and described a whole range of animals and plants in the interior of Surinam. Her classification for butterflies and moths and her use of Native American names to refer to the various species of plants she encountered is still relevant in the field of science today. In fact, the infamous "bird eating" spiders of South American probably owe their reputation and name to a drawing made by Merian depicting such a spider devouring a small bird.

A Curious Woman in a Man's World
a plate taken from Metamorphosis insectorum

Although much of Merian's work, such as Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, and The Caterpillar's Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food were very popular in high society as a result of its publication in the vernacular, much of Merian's work was continuously largely ignored by many within the scientific community at a time when the official language of science was considered to be latin. Similarly, many male scientists, who had never set foot in Suriname themselves, claimed her to be a fraud. Naturalists like the Reverand Lansdown Guilding dismissed her description of army ants and bird eating spiders stating that "Madame Merian has told a willfull falsehood." Such criticisms and accusations would eventually take a toll on her reputation as a careful observer of nature.

Furthermore, while scientific surveys of natural wildlife were not exactly uncommon at the time, they were usually carried out by men who were already being sent to colonies to live, or work, there. Consequently, Merian's decision to self fund her own expedition in pursuit of her interest raised many eyebrows especially over the fact that she was a woman. Despite the doubt of others, Merian's perseverence and tenacity paid off and in 1699, the city of Amsterdam sponsored her petition to travel to Suriname in South America. During stay, Merian traveled between the various colonies, documenting any plant or insect life she came upon there. "In the era of investigation dominate by the collection and classification of organisms, Merian's organic apporach to the study of natural history was unusual and was not always understood by her fellow scholars," (Etheridge, 2010: 19). Incidentally, her observations on the metamorphosis of frogs was the first to ever be recorded with such accuracy. She also took note of the natives and black slaves that were then employed by Dutch planters and is often quoted to be quite critical of the treatment of the Dutch masters over these people.

Late Life

Plate from Metamorphosis Insectorum
Barely 2 years into her expedition, however, Maria contracted a case of malaria and was forced to return prematurely to the Netherlands. There she spent her life selling the specimens she had collected and publishing engravings of the plant and animal life she had encountered in Surinam. In 1705, she published the world famous Metamorphosis Insectorum Surninamensium. In 1715 at age 67, Merian suffered from a stroke which greatly affected her ability to work. Not much is known about her later life from this point on except that she is listed in a registry as being a pauper. Merian died, two years later in Amsterdam. Her work was only rediscovered, recognized and reprinted in the last quarter of the 20th century. 

Merian and her work is continued to be recognized in this day and age, and her likeness has graced both the likes of stamps and currency but it is arguable that not many people have actually come to recognize and appreciate her contributions to the field of science with specificity to the field of entomology. As a feminist, and an amateur lepidopterist myself, I suppose you could say that I have come to deeply admire Merian and have a strong sense of appreciation for her work (I even have a few of her prints that I intend to frame and display alongside my butterfly and moth collection someday). Perhaps, when I begin conducting my own field studies in the Northern part of Malaysia, I can undertake a similar personal project of my own! It is therefore with much praise and approval that I publish this post in conjunction with Google's tribute and celebration of her Meria Sibylla Merian's: artist, amateur lepidopterist, woman.