Evolution Never Fails To Surprise

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Kauai, Hawaii. Suzanne Cummings / Getty Images

We never think of evolution as particularly predictable. Surprising, yes. Awesome, yes. Predictable? Well, we love science for that reason, but still do not associate evolution with predictability. Thanks to Ed Yong, who enjoys making provocative statements that draw his reader in, for making evolution surprising in a new way:

Hawaii: Where Evolution Can Be Surprisingly Predictable

On each Hawaiian island, stick spiders have evolved into the same basic forms—gold, white, and dark. It’s a stunning example of how predictable evolution can be.


Examples of white, dark, and gold species of stick spiders on various Hawaiian island. The top-left species is the most ancestral of them all. (Rosemary Gillespie et al.)

Most people go to Hawaii for the golden beaches, the turquoise seas, or the stunning weather. Rosemary Gillespie went for the spiders.

Situated around 2,400 miles from the nearest continent, the Hawaiian Islands are about as remote as it’s possible for islands to be. In the last 5 million years, they’ve been repeatedly colonized by far-traveling animals, which then diversified into dozens of new species. Honeycreeper birds, fruit flies, carnivorous caterpillars … all of these creatures reached Hawaii, and evolved into wondrous arrays of unique forms. Continue reading

Lepidopterist’s Treasure


Heterosphecia tawonoides puddling on a dry leaf washed out by the river. Photograph: Courtesy of Marta A. Skowron Volponi

Thanks to the Guardian for sharing this bit of good news:

Lost species of bee-mimicking moth rediscovered after 130 years

The rare oriental blue clearwing, that disguises itself as a bee, was spotted in the Malaysian rainforest

A moth that disguises itself as a bee and was previously only identified by a single damaged specimen collected in 1887 has been rediscovered in the Malaysian rainforest by a lepidopterist from Poland.

The oriental blue clearwing (Heterosphecia tawonoides) was seen “mud-puddling” – collecting salts and minerals from damp areas with its tongue-like proboscis – on the banks of a river in Malaysia’s lowland rainforest, one of the most wildlife-rich – and threatened – regions on Earth. Continue reading

Entomological Society Krefeld, Citizen Scientists Making A Difference


Thomas Hörren, a member of the Entomological Society Krefeld, collecting beetles from a soil sample. CreditGordon Welters for The New York Times

Thanks to Sally McGrane for this important article:

KREFELD, Germany — In a nature preserve in western Germany, an elderly gentleman approached a tent-like structure that was in fact a large trap for flying insects. Peering through thick eyeglasses, the 75-year-old retired chemist checked the plastic bottle attached at the top, filled with alcohol and bugs.

Then, with a glance at the clear, late-autumn sky, the man, Heinz Schwan, recalled comparing a 2013 haul from a trap like this one to samples taken in the same place some 20 years earlier. The drop was huge: “75 percent,” Mr. Schwan, a caterpillar lover, said.

Alarmed, the group of local insect enthusiasts Mr. Schwan is co-chairman of ran similar tests in different locations the next year. And the next year. And the next. Continue reading

Ant-Hunting Dogs


Kyren Zimmerman and Tobias — a Labrador retriever who specializes in sniffing out the invasive Argentine ant — on Santa Cruz Island, in the Channel Islands National Park. Credit Gary Andrew/The Nature Conservancy

Ants are the masters of the planet we live on. There is no escaping that. But if these dogs can protect us from some of the more sinister ants, we have these trainers to thank:

A Very Good Dog Hunts Very Bad Ants

Tobias is a Labrador retriever with one job: sniffing out invasive Argentine ants wherever they hide. He’s really good at it, and with his help, a fragile island ecosystem may be spared a repeat inundation with the pests.

Santa Cruz Island is 25 miles off the coast of Southern California, part of Channel Islands National Park. The island’s rich, rugged environment — which includes more than 1,000 kinds of plants and animals, including the bald eagle and the island fox — is threatened by Argentine ants, one of the world’s most successful and wily invasive species. Continue reading

Thanks, Trees

A female tree lobster specimen. Scientists have learned that the Ball’s Pyramid stick insect and the Lord Howe stick insect are variations of the same species. CreditRohan Cleave/Melbourne Zoo, Australia

Thanks to Joanna Klein and the Science section of the New York Times:

A Stick Insect. A Tree Lobster. Whatever You Call It, It’s Not Extinct

A genetic analysis showed that a stick insect found on another island was the same species as one that had been wiped out by rats on Australia’s Lord Howe Island.

The tree lobster, one of the rarest insects on Earth, has lived a rather twisted life story.

Scientifically known as Dryococelus australis, this six-inch-long stick bug with a lobster-esque exoskeleton once occupied Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand. Continue reading

Know The Glow Of Worms & Caves

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A cave of glowworms

It has been quite some time since we linked out to an Ed Yong story, and title notwithstanding this is as good as they come:

The Most Beautiful Death Trap

The ethereal allure of a cave full of glowworms masks a sinister purpose and a weird origin story.

At first, they look like stars. I see them as I gaze upward at the ceiling of a flooded, pitch-black cave—hundreds of blue pinpricks. As my eyes habituate to the darkness, more and more of them resolve, and I see that they are brighter and more densely packed than any starry field. And unlike the night sky, these lights don’t appear as a flat canvas, but as a textured one. Some are clearly closer to us than others and they move relative to each other, so the whole tableau seems to undulate gently as our boat sails beneath it. These lights are not astrological, but entomological. They are produced by insects called glowworms. Continue reading

Respect For The Praying Mantis


A praying mantis outfitted with 3-D glasses during an experiment to determine whether the insects see in three dimensions. The conclusion: absolutely. Credit Newcastle University

Catching the Entomology Bug

Sophia Spencer and Morgan Jackson co-wrote a scientific paper on Twitter, entomology and women in science, after a tweet about Sophia’s love for bugs went viral

It’s good to find an inspiring story highlighting a child’s interest in scientific exploration and the support of parents and the entomological community to foster that passion. Thanks to NPR for bringing it to our attention.

Once Teased For Her Love Of Bugs, 8-Year-Old Co-Authors Scientific Paper

Sophia Spencer, 8, loves bugs — especially grasshoppers. She’s an expert on insects, and likes to give her littlest friends an occasional ride on her shoulder.

That used to earn her mockery from her peers. But now it’s earned her a massive outpouring of support — and a byline in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

Everything changed after Sophia’s mom, Nicole Spencer, reached out to scientists for support last year.

She wrote to the Entomological Society of Canada and explained the dilemma. Her daughter wanted to know if she could learn more about bugs as a job, but her mom wasn’t sure how to encourage her. And she wanted to reassure her that her entomological enthusiasm wasn’t weird.

Mission accomplished. Continue reading

Scotland, Land Of Butterfly Resurgence


For a second day in a row, a butterfly story catches our attention. Small stories of unexpected good fortune are always welcome:

Rare butterfly spotted in Scotland for the first time since 1884

Elusive and endangered white-letter hairstreak discovered in a field in the Scottish borders could become the 34th species to live and breed in the country Continue reading

A Highway For Monarchs


Interstate 35, which stretches from Minnesota to Mexico, lies in the heart of the monarchs’ migration route.

Thanks to Janet Marinelli and the team at YaleEnvironment360:

Can the Monarch Highway Help Save a Butterfly Under Siege?

The population of North American monarch butterflies has plummeted from 1 billion to 33 million in just two decades. Now, a project is underway to revive the monarch by making an interstate highway the backbone of efforts to restore its dwindling habitat. Continue reading

Entomological Wonders Will Never Cease


Galápagos finches, which helped inspire the theory of evolution, are under urgent threat. Will a controversial scientific technique be their deliverance? Photograph by Mint Images Limited / Alamy

Thanks to Brent Crane writing in the Elements section of the New Yorker’s website:

A Tiny Parasite Could Save Darwin’s Finches from Extinction

Five years ago, George Heimpel, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, travelled to Trinidad in search of insect larvae. He was after several kinds in particular—Philornis downsi, a fly whose parasitic young feed on the hatchlings of tropical birds, and various minuscule wasp species whose own offspring feed on those of the fly. Continue reading

Lowly Creature May Represent Saving Grace


Wayne Boo/USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this new appreciation for an otherwise underappreciated creature:

A Worm May Hold The Key To Biodegrading Plastic


People around the world use more than a trillion plastic bags every year. They’re made of a notoriously resilient kind of plastic called polyethylene that can take decades to break down.

But a humble worm may hold the key to biodegrading them. Continue reading

Scientist, Illustrator, Forgotten Metamorphosist



Any story with Metamorphosis in it is bound to get our attention, but a long-forgotten scientist getting her due is the intrigue that makes this story by JoAnna Klein–A Pioneering Woman of Science Re‑Emerges After 300 Years–coinciding with the republication of this book below, worthy of the read:metamorph

Maria Sibylla Merian, like many European women of the 17th century, stayed busy managing a household and rearing children. But on top of that, Merian, a German-born woman who lived in the Netherlands, also managed a successful career as an artist, botanist, naturalist and entomologist.:

“She was a scientist on the level with a lot of people we spend a lot of time talking about,” said Kay Etheridge, a biologist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania who has been studying the scientific history of Merian’s work. “She didn’t do as much to change biology as Darwin, but she was significant.” Continue reading

Where Were You, Natalie Angier?


By using gene knockout techniques, the researchers made some raider ants display asocial behavior. Credit Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times

We had a long run of links since 2011 to her wondrous science reporting, and then we had not seen her since this past September; suddenly she has come back on our radar, unexpectedly but predictably awesome:

Whether personally or professionally, Daniel Kronauer of Rockefeller University is the sort of biologist who leaves no stone unturned. Passionate about ants and other insects since kindergarten, Dr. Kronauer says he still loves flipping over rocks “just to see what’s crawling around underneath.”. Continue reading

Bioluminescence Better Understood

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Thanks to Cool Green Science for shedding more light on a topic we have commented on from time to time since starting this platform:

Living Light

What makes some living things glow?


For two weeks each year at the beginning of summer, fireflies light up a portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They glow in unison or in waves as males communicate with females in an elaborate mating dance that no one fully understands. There are at least 19 firefly species in the park, but Photinus carolinus is one of the only fireflies in America known to light in unison. Tourists arrive by the thousands to watch. Continue reading

Agricultural Origin Story


Various species of ants engage in some kind of agriculture. Here, a leaf-cutter ant gathers food for its fungus farm. Mark Bowler/Science Source

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA):

Who Invented Agriculture First? It Sure Wasn’t Humans

Ants in Fiji farm plants and fertilize them with their poop. And they’ve been doing this for 3 million years, much longer than humans, who began experimenting with farming about 12,000 years ago. Continue reading

Some Ants Fight Fungus with Fungus

Leaf-cutter ants carrying leafy loot back to their underground colony in Carara National Park, Costa Rica

I’ve covered some ants in the past, discussing their fungal friends that provide them food, as well as their foes that turn them into zombies. A recent article by a team of researchers that included members of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has found that most species of leaf-cutter ants have a practice that helps defend their young against parasitic fungi: wrapping them in the same fungi that they use to digest the leaves they bring underground!

Sarah Puschmann reports:

In the dark recesses of an underground fungus garden, a Panamanian leaf-cutting ant plucks a tuft of mycelia, the wispy part of the basidiomycete fungus these ants grow and eat, and carries it to a nearby ant pupa. The ant licks the pupa’s body before patting the fungus into place, continuing until it appears, when viewed under a powerful microscope, as though the pupa is webbed in short strands of spaghetti.

Continue reading

Camouflage by Debris

Specimens preserved in amber. © Wang et al. in Science Advances, 2016.

We’ve featured posts here concerning camouflage plenty of times, whether in birds and their eggs, in beach-dwelling crabs, plant-mimicking insects, or strange caterpillars. That last example is the closest to the subject matter of Ed Yong’s latest post on Nat Geo’s Phenomenon blog, where he writes about insects that cover themselves in debris to hide from predators or prey alike:

Every year, in northern Myanmar, thousands of farmers pull tonnes of Cretaceous amber out of the ground, and send the glistening nuggets to local markets. For six years, Bo Wang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues have visited the markets and sifted through 300,000 of the glistening nuggets. It was a lot of work. Then again, it takes a lot of work to find animals that spent their whole lives trying not to be found.

Continue reading