Beetle byte (18 November 2013 edition)

Some Beetle Bytes, a touch late but hopefully better for it. My excuse is that I was in Saskatoon for a good chunk of last week. While there I had the chance to tour the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, which is a very impressive. Seeing as it was a whirlwind meeting, I didn’t see anything else of the city other than the view from my hotel room window. I’ll have to spend more time looking around when I’m at ESC next year (coincidentally to be held at the same hotel conference center that I was cloistered in last week).


The study, conducted by Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, closely examined variations of the word — defined as “a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant, if any, and questioning intonation” — in 10 languages, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha.


A helmetless bike helmet

Design students Anna and Terese took on a giant challenge as an exam project. Something no one had done before. If they could swing it, it would for sure be revolutionary. The bicycle is a tool to change the world. If we use bikes AND travel safe: Life will be better for all.


We’re working for robots (infographic)

According to research compiled by HireRight, 144 people apply for each entry level position, on average. To handle the tidal wave of resumes, companies are increasingly turning to applicant tracking systems that analyze keywords, dates, titles and other important information to quickly evaluate a candidate’s eligibility. Because this filtering technology screens out approximately 75 percent of applicants, in order to get your foot in the door you’re probably going to have to impress the robot doorman.


Monarchs (excellent – and poetic – analysis by @GeekInQuestion)

It was sad and beautiful: starkly, vividly orange on top of the dirt and scattered brown leaves. It was also dead. I gathered it up carefully in my gloves and walked it home.


Global forests: some actual (moderately) good news

The study confirms that well-documented efforts by Brazil – which has long been responsible for a majority of the world’s tropical deforestation – to reduce its rainforest clearing have had a significant effect. Brazil showed the largest decline in annual forest loss of any country, cutting annual forest loss in half, from a high of approximately 40,000 square kilometers (15,444 square miles) in 2003-2004 to 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles) in 2010-2011. Indonesia had the largest increase in forest loss, more than doubling its annual loss during the study period to nearly 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles) in 2011-2012.


Old, older, oldest

This week, a clam was found to be 500 years old, making it the longest-living animal known. The clam, an Ocean Quahog, was 100 years older than previously thought. Researchers at Bangor University dated the mollusk to a ripe old 507. If you’ve ever had clam chowder, you’ve likely eaten flesh from this species — and that tasty bite may have been several hundred years old.

Beetle byte (8 November 2013 edition)

A couple of Wallace links to start off with, as this week marked the 100th anniversary of his death… then the rest of the regular half-dozen to help you start the weekend.

Something that I need to listen to

Selected items featuring the work of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), British biologist, anthropologist, geographer, environmentalist, and human rights advocate. The man who, independently of Darwin, arrived to the same conclusion on natural selection. In 1858 he corresponded with Darwin about his theory, prompting Darwin to finally publish the famous work, On the Origin of Species, in 1859.


A strange chapter in Wallace’s life

When Hampden advertised his infamous Flat Earth Wager in 1870, the terms were simple enough:  he would pay 500 British pounds to anyone who could provide absolute proof of a round Earth.  Given the size of the reward (which was a hefty sum in those days), Wallace was tempted enough to discuss the wager with Charles Lyell.  After Lyell suggested that “It may stop these foolish people to have it plainly shown them”,  Wallace accepted the challenge. As an experienced land surveyor, designing an appropriate proof seemed simple enough (but he should have realized the offer was too good to be true).  Hampden appointed fellow flat-earther William Carpenter as his referee while Wallace appointed science journalist J.J. Walsh.  Both Hampden and Walsh put up 500 pounds in a London bank for safekeeping and Wallace signed an agreement that he would repay Walsh if he lost the bet.


Ant patterns on fly wings? (via Morgan Jackson)

Putting everything together, it leads me to believe we may be choosing to see ants where they don’t actually exist. Much like how we see sharks in the clouds or Jesus in our toast (a psychological phenomenon called Pareidolia), I think we’ve become so conditioned to expect ornate patterns on wings to be mimicking something else that we’re forcing objects to appear everywhere, even if there’s no evolutionary or behavioural explanation for it. It’s important that we don’t let our human-centric points of view, emotions and opinions bias our interpretation of what’s really going on.


Your growing pile of unread books

And all I have to do is turn away from this computer, reach over, and take one of their books from a shelf of my private library.


Procrastination Part I (and Part II)

No, “avoid procrastination” is only good advice for fake procrastinators—those people that are like, “I totally go on Facebook a few times every day at work—I’m such a procrastinator!” The same people that will say to a real procrastinator something like, “Just don’t procrastinate and you’ll be fine.”



…we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.

Kids, go outside… or maybe not?

My family is lucky enough to live in a city that is surrounded by vast tracts of wilderness. We’re also lucky to live in a city that has seen fit to preserve at least some of that wilderness within the urban boundaries. While Prince George has a long way to go in terms of truly being a green city (ahem… let’s at least start with a municipal recycling program instead of just talking about it), people here tend to love the nature that surrounds them. In fact, I would guess that many of the residents here – both longtime citizens and more recent arrivals – a big drawing point to life in central BC was the beauty of nature that surrounds us here. The city is surrounded by lakes. We’re at the junction of two rivers. Jasper National Park is just down the road. There is an awesome inland rainforest just to the east of us. And that’s just skimming the surface of what’s available to residents here.

Did I mention that we’re lucky?

I assume that many of you who read this blog (all six of you, not including my mom), enjoy spending time in nature too, wherever you may live. So think back to your own childhood for a moment. Did that love of nature emerge because you sat in the basement all day playing Atari? Or did you spend a lot of time out-of-doors, both with and without your parents or other relatives? I suspect that it’s safe to bet on the latter in most cases. Basement dwelling does not generally create lifelong naturalists.

However, today I get the impression that our municipal leaders would prefer that kids not get outside; or rather, if they do get outside, it’s only under strictly controlled conditions.

Why do I say this? It turns out that someone in town, whose kids obviously enjoy playing outside in the yard, decided that a prudent and completely unobtrusive thing to do would be to post a small sign obtained from the British Columbia Automobile Association on their own front lawn to remind passing motorists that there were kids in the area. Sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to me, both as a father of two boys and as a driver.

The city of Prince George, however, thought otherwise, and the family was sent a bylaw warning to remove their sign or face a fine. That, in itself, is well off the mark. But the part that really irked me was a comment from the city manager of transportation operations in response to a media inquiry:

“Parents should encourage their children to play in playgrounds as playing near the street is not the safest place to play.”

The thing that bugs me about this comment is its deeper implication that spontaneous play in a child’s own yard is not safe and that the only places that kids should be are in a playground (highly supervised, of course) or, presumably, in their house. This comment leaves the impression that, in the mind of our city officials, a yard is inherently unsafe.

This is not surprising, of course, since the notion of the “unsafe outdoors” is likely one of the main reasons that parents don’t let their kids play outside as much as they used to. But is keeping kids indoors most of the time and then shuttling them back and forth to tightly-monitored playground- or soccer-type situations really any safer in the long run? Is it really safer for them to learn to be sedentary as kids and head off into a sedentary adulthood, as modeled by their parents? Are the indoors really safer anyhow, in terms of overall household accidents? Does attempting to remove all dangers from kids teach them how to monitor, assess, and avoid real dangers when they inevitably encounter them? Is it safe for the local and global environment to be raising a generation of kids who don’t know anything about their local natural spaces because they never get out into them – and who thus have a mainly academic (if that) knowledge of nature?

So, to the good leaders of our fine city I say this:

Please take a serious look at our city’s bylaws and their enforcement and think about what they mean for parents who want their kids to spend time outdoors. You have done a great job in creating and maintaining natural spaces throughout our city, and for that I truly applaud you. But if we want the next generation to appreciate and work to protect those spaces – and to care about our environment in general – we need to find ways to encourage parents and kids to walk and play in the local environment. Messages that such play is somehow unsafe, combined with overzealous enforcement of bylaws that have the effect of stifling such childhood activity, need to be carefully reconsidered.

(On a side note: A great book on this very topic is Richard Louv‘s “Last Child in the Woods.” I highly recommend it to anyone who cares for children and who cares about their welfare and the welfare of our planet in general.)

(Another note – added 5-VII-13: I just noticed that the Nature Conservancy of Canada has a great little article in the Globe and Mail about a children spending time in nature. You can get it here.)

Would I? You bet!

If you’re at all interested in the natural world and how we record it and learn about it, be sure to read a recent great post from Chris Buddle entitled “Labels tell stories: natural history and ecology from dead spiders in vials.”

Chris’ big question, about helping to digitize the spider collection at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes is this:

(W)ould YOU help database if you could go on-line and see these kinds of images? Does it grab your attention? Even if 20-30 people agreed to database 75 or so specimens, each, the Salticidae would be done! (and, of course, someone would have to take images, and edit them beforehand).

My answer is a resounding “yes!”

In his post, Chris mentions Notes from Nature, where you can transcribe information from insect, plant and (soon) bird specimens. I’ve been having fun with that work for awhile now, and I have had some fun with labels as well.

So, to back up Chris’ contention that there are interesting stories to be found on labels, how about this label that I transcribed a few weeks ago as a start…

 What’s the story here that I thought was interesting? Well, you can see on the bottom label that the determination was done in 1975 (26 years after initial collection) by John T. Huber. John is a noted entomologist with the Canadian Forest service, some of whose work was recently in the news with the discovery of a tiny, tiny, tiny insect. John identified this little cuckoo wasp in 1975 and I did the much easier task of transcribing the label in 2013. So two currently active Canadian entomologist Hubers have pored over this Elampus marginatus specimen separated in time by 38 years.

So, again, yes, I would be very interested in working on Canadian specimens as well, because I like stories.

Ancient hitch hikers

Any red-blooded Canadian of my approximate vintage will fondly remember reading Owl magazine (still being published!) as a kid. One of the monthly features in Owl was the “Mighty Mites.” The Mites were a group of three siblings who had the ability to shrink down to any size. They used those powers to investigate the natural world around them. I don’t remember too many of the episodes anymore, but I do recall a time when they took a wild ride on a collembolan, also known as a springtail. Since then I’ve always been interested in springtails, which are small, six-legged arthropods that are likely closely allied with insects. The Tree of Life website notes that springtails “…are probably the most abundant hexapods on Earth, with up to 250,000,000 individuals per square (sic) acre.” So, if you haven’t encountered one in your travels, it’s only because you aren’t looking.

As springtail riders, the Mighty Mites were doing what many other small creatures (including real mites) do to get around – specifically, they were being phoretic. Phoresy is when one organism hitches a ride on another organism without affecting the fitness of the organism providing the transportation.

Another group of arthropods that I’ve always been interested in are the Ephemeroptera, more commonly known as mayflies. Mayflies live most of their life cycle as aquatic nymphs in lakes and streams. Most people who spend time outdoors are familiar with large “hatches” of mayflies in the warm months of the year when myriad adult insects emerge from the water in coordinated mating dances. Among the fascinating traits common to mayflies is the fact that the adults don’t feed. In fact, their reduced mouthparts have no apparent function. Mayflies make for good trout food, and fly fishers have always worked to imitate various mayfly life stages to catch fish. The fly fishing angle – no pun intended – also partly explains my personal interest in mayflies.

Because of their life cycle traits – nymphs being restricted to the body of water in which they were hatched, and adults living only for a very short time, mainly to mate – the general view has been that mayflies really do not disperse much beyond nearby bodies of water, or perhaps along a stream course. Mayfly diversity and distribution have been explained as mainly an artifact of past continental drift. However, that view is changing, as there is evidence of at least some mayfly diversification being due to the insects somehow crossing large bodies of water.

So, mayfly dispersal and diversification is still at least partially an interesting riddle to be completely solved. And, it turns out, so is springtail dispersal. Springtails are often among the first organisms to colonize newly formed islands. How they get there has been a topic of discussion and research. And now that discussion has picked up steam because it turns out that the lives of mayflies and springtails came together in the past and may still do so today.

In a paper (Open Access) published in PLoS ONE David Penney and colleagues describe an intriguing amber fossil in which a springtail was entrapped hitched onto a mayfly via clasped antennae. The authors make a strong case for the fact that the paired fossils are not simply a chance occurrence. Among the arguments are the location of the springtail on the mayfly body; the fact that the clasped antennae are similar to those seen in an other case of fossilized collembolans hitching a ride on another arthropod (Opiliones, also known as daddy-longlegs or harvestmen, see reference in the Penney et al. 2012 PLoS ONE paper); and the lack of other springtails appearing in the sample.

This one find brings up a whole host of questions, many of which the authors suggest in their paper. For instance:

  • if we see this behavior manifested in ancient fossils, is it also happening today and why haven’t we noticed it?
  • why would springtails be adapted to hitch rides on such short-lived species that seemingly rarely travel any substantial distance?

and to that, I’d also add:

  • if we don’t see this behavior today, was there something about ancient mayfly life history or behaviors that made this association more likely? Or perhaps do those ancient mayfly traits also exist today, but we still haven’t noticed them?

Fossil evidence often makes scientists stop to consider the present day, and this is no exception to that rule. In fact, it is a great example of one field of science (entomological paleontology) passing questions on to other fields (e.g. taxonomy, animal behavior, and biogeography).

So, next summer when you see a perched mayfly minding its own business, maybe you should sneak up on it to see if it has any guests along for the ride.

Penney, D., McNeil, A., Green, D., Bradley, R., Jepson, J., Withers, P., & Preziosi, R. (2012). Ancient Ephemeroptera–Collembola Symbiosis Fossilized in Amber Predicts Contemporary Phoretic Associations PLoS ONE, 7 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047651