Just wanted to remind everyone that September 9, 2012 is International Rock Flipping Day! This is the 6th annual IRFD.
Go outside, and spend some time with your inner kid (or an actual kid). There are beautiful and amazing things in the world, despite the best efforts of humans. Rediscover them. Rejoice in the joy of secret complexity hidden under a rock.
- On September 9th, find a rock or rocks and flip it/them over.
- Record what you find. “Any and all forms of documentation are welcome: still photos, video, sketches, prose, or poetry.”
- Replace the rock as you found it; it’s someone’s home!
- Post your photos online; it can be on your blog, or load your photos to the Flickr group. (You don’t need a blog to join!) Send Wandering Weta a link to blog posts. If you’re on Twitter, Tweet it, too; the hashtag is #rockflip.)
- There is a handy IRFD badge available here.
Important Safety Precautions: A reminder from Dave:
One thing I forgot to do in the initial post is to caution people about flipping rocks in poisonous snake or scorpion habitat. In that case, I’d suggest wearing gloves and/or using a pry bar — or simply finding somewhere else to do your flipping. Please do not disturb any known rattlesnake shelters if you don’t plan on replacing the rocks exactly as you found them. Timber rattlesnakes, like many other adult herps, are very site-loyal, and can die if their homes are destroyed. Also, don’t play with spiders. If you disturb an adjacent hornet nest (hey, it’s possible), run like hell. But be sure to have someone standing by to get it all on film!
About Respect and Consideration: (from Wandering Weta)
The animals we find under rocks are at home; they rest there, sleep there, raise their families there. Then we come along and take off the roof, so please remember to replace it carefully. Try not to squish the residents; move them aside if they’re big enough; they’ll run back as soon as their rock is back in place.
I want to highlight this research report for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a summary of a lot of research on birds and bats–and it is alarming. Major findings include:
- Current environmental mercury loads have the ability to significantly reduce reproductive success in several songbird species of conservation concern in the northeastern U.S. including the saltmarsh sparrow and rusty blackbird.
- Bats also build up significant body burdens of mercury; individuals from multiple species from all 10 areas sampled exceeded the subclinical threshold for changes to neurochemistry.
- Mercury loading in songbirds is not only restricted during the breeding season; some species, such as the northern waterthrush, build up high levels of mercury during migration and in tropical wintering areas
From an interview with an author:
“It is a game-changing paradigm shift,’’ Evers said. “For years, we’ve understood the notion that birds like an eagle can obtain toxins by eating a bass, which has eaten a perch, and the perch has eaten a fly. Now we understand the same kind of analogy can be applied to a water thrush, which eats a spider, which has eaten a smaller spider, which has eaten a fly.’’
The other reason I want to point you at this is because it’s a great example of how to produce a report on complex research and make it really accessible. They don’t just have data; they have information on how to interpret the graphs.
The PDF report itself is beautiful to look at, and focuses on specific actions/conclusions that can be drawn from the data. It’s a report that I could hand to any of my non-scientist coworkers and be confident they could read it and understand it. The PDF is presented within the context of a page with lots of supplemental info, including jpgs of some of the figures. This makes it easy for journalists to build a story.
A thermometer is used to indicate risk to certain species–which cleverly uses something commonly associated with Mercury, but also something a lay-person knows how to interpret without a lot of special background knowledge.
Lastly, they cited their research through the report in ways that let you look up the original research, but that doesn’t detract from your reading. It makes a powerful case that we need to really start paying attention to the mercury in our environment–because it’s not just the birds that are exposed.
Most humans–and I include quite a few entomologists in that category–love to hate roaches. This is a sad thing, because the vast majority of roaches never set foot (feet?) in a kitchen. The few species that tap-dance around in your sugar bowl are just a tiny piece of a huge spectrum of amazing roachy biodiversity in the world.
Over 99% of all roach species are innocent soil and forest dwellers, and are important for ecosystem functioning. Some of them can leap like grasshoppers. Some of them can run 4 times faster than a cheetah (well, in terms of body lengths traveled per second, anyway.) The group of insects with the highest frequency of parental care? Roaches. One estimate puts roaches at 24% of all arthropod biomass in tree canopies, and 43% of arthropod biomass in alluvial forests. There are a LOT of roaches in the world, and you’ve never seen or heard of most of them. H. E. Evans may have said it best:
“The study of roaches may lack the aesthetic values of bird-watching and the glamour of space flight, but nonetheless it would seem to be one of the more worthwhile of human activities.” [Life on a Little Known Planet]
This week a new paper came out that highlights the importance of roaches to an animal we have kinder feelings about:
Unusual macrocyclic lactone sex pheromone of Parcoblatta lata, a primary food source of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Eliyahu et. al PNAS Dec. 19 2011
The red-cockaded woodpecker is an adorable little bird that lives in old pine forests. Historically their range covered much of the eastern US, but these days they are down to remnant populations in the southern US, and they’ve been listed as an endangered species since 1970.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers need large stands of old growth long-leaf pine to survive–they are unique because they nest in living trees, not dead trees. And here is where roaches come into the story–69.4% of the food given to nestlings is wood roaches.
Logging has reduced the number of old pines, resulting in a major loss of habitat for the birds. Artificial nesting cavities have been drilled in trees in hopes of getting more birds to breed. Deciding where to drill a nesting cavity means assessing just how many roaches are in an area, and if there are enough roaches around to support a brood of hungry baby birds.
The majority of wood roaches are secretive and nocturnal, so finding them and counting them is not an easy thing. They live underground, under bark, and generally hide in places you can’t see. It’s not only humans that have trouble finding the roaches–this also makes it tough for the roaches to find each other for mating.
Like many other insects, they’ve solved this problem with chemical signals called pheromones. Pheromones are “chemicals emitted by living organisms to send messages to individuals of the same species.” By making a species-specific blend of chemicals and releasing it into the air, insects can communicate over great distances.
With sex pheromones, the message is usually from the female, and has the content “I’m here and ready to get it on, big boy!” Male antennae are exquisitely sensitive to even single molecules of a female sex pheromone. Because of that sensitivity, you can use male antennae as a type of pheromone detector. (Watch an animation of what happens neurologically in an antenna when pheromone hits a receptor, via UC Davis.)
You can hook up a male antenna to electrodes and actually measure just how much the neurons depolarize in response to a specific compound. This is electroantennography, or EAG. In really fancy EAGs, you can run an unknown compound through a gas chromatograph (GC) and an EAG simultaneously. With the help of these expensive machines, you can extract the pheromone gland from a female, get information about the structure of the chemicals from the GC, and figure out just which chemicals are the ones that attract the males with the EAG. The graph at the right is what that looks like.
It’s fairly clear when you find the right molecule–the male antenna produces a big spike like the one you see for compound #1.
(Side note: I actually did a fair amount of EAGs in my earlier research, and I have to say I’ve never felt more like Dr. Frankenstein in my entire life. You basically decapitate an insect and then stick all sorts of electrodes on their brain and antennae, and hook it up to a lot of really, really fancy instrumentation. I kept having to stifle the “Bwa ha ha ha ha ha” that wanted to bubble up, and found myself rubbing my hands together in glee a lot.)
There are many insects for which humans have figured out how to synthesize artificial pheromones and use them as a type of buggy birth control. In this case, knowing what the pheromone is for this wood roach gives humans a simple way to assess how many roaches are in an area under consideration for woodpecker habitat restoration.
You put the pheromone out near a sticky trap; male roaches come a running for some roachy lovin’, and then you count up how many of the unlucky suitors end up dead on a glue trap.
And now a surprise ending much more pleasurable than that experienced by the roaches on this trap: a holiday entomological carol written about this very research!
This carol actually includes some details I left out, like the species name of the roach (Parcoblatta latta); the researcher whose lab this work was done in (Coby Schal); and the use of nuclear-magnetic resonance (NMR) to determine the specific chemical structures. Enjoy!
(to the tune of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”)
Roaches stink, are you smellin’?
Pheromones, they’re a-tellin’.
So succulent-sweet, what woodpeckers eat.
Parcoblatta lata wonderland.
Dr. Schal took a reading.
Found the compounds for breeding
By using some gas as roaches chased ass.
Parcoblatta lata wonderland.
Nuclear magnetic resonating
Let him know what turned a suitor on.
Then he synthesized a mix for baiting
And watched the males all falling for the con.
Now his sexy solution
Tells about evolution:
Viagra for some, for others it’s dumb.
Parcoblatta lata wonderland.
People say the lata’s a home-wrecker,
But the bugs are happy in the wood,
‘Til they’re chomped by red-cockaded pecker
Who wants a lata latté in the ‘hood.
Synthesized, it’s a winner.
“Go get laid, then be dinner!”
That pheromone blend helps avian friend.
Parcoblatta lata wonderland.
Parcoblatta lata wonderland.
Suggested additional reading:
- Cockroaches: Ecology, behavior, and natural history. 2007. William J. Bell, Louis Marcus Roth, Christine A. Nalepa. Johns Hopkins Press.
- More about the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (USFW)
Eliyahu, D., Nojima, S., Santangelo, R., Carpenter, S., Webster, F., Kiemle, D., Gemeno, C., Leal, W., & Schal, C. (2011). PNAS Plus: Unusual macrocyclic lactone sex pheromone of Parcoblatta lata, a primary food source of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1111748109
(this post appeared as a guest post at Scicurious)
Thripz (Author: Robert Farley)
Dust (Author: Charles Pellegrino)
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a book, and it seemed like these two go together. They are both stories of tiny animals gone horribly wrong, but they are also quite different.
I’ll start with Thripz, which reads very much like a SyFy Movie of the Week Script:
“Scientists deduce the creatures are thrips, a kind of common yard and garden pest. But these have been altered at the genetic level. Now they are able to metabolize pesticides and to reproduce at incredible rates, effectively being born pregnant. Within twenty-four hours, more than a dozen deaths have been attributed to the abnormal pests.”
Yep, Genetically modified thrips that attack people and have a toxic bite. Created by a mad scientist in the pay of North Korea, hiding out on Hawaii. Fortunately, a semi-psychic newspaper reporter has a (literally) tingling nose for news, and investigates. Also, there are dueling agribusiness interests, a hot Denny’s waitress with GMO thrips “larvae” implanted in her abdomen, and shoot outs. Oh, also pheromones, a 300lb Ukelele player, a corrupt graduate student, and incendiary ladybugs.
Yeah, it’s a bit over the top.
Which is a shame, because had it not had the entire kitchen sink of literary devices tossed into it, it could have developed into a good story. If only tension had been developed by actual elements of the story, rather than a convenient psychic sense telling the reporter that something bad was going to happen.
Dust, on the other hand, also has a lot going on plot-wise, but holds together better. It’s name comes from a plague of carnivorous dust mites that (again, literally) eat Long Island. It has what may be one of my favorite dust cover blurbs:
“They’re dead, I tell you! All the fungus gnats are dead!” screams a famous entomologist just before his protective suit is ripped apart and he’s devoured by millions of vicious mites.”
How could I NOT read this book? It’s built around a central theme–what would happen if all the insects on earth suddenly and mysteriously disappeared? A whole bunch of scientific and economic concepts are woven together to make flesh-eating-mite mayhem. There are some very recognizable characters as well–”Edwin Wilson” the “Ant Man” is clearly modeled on E.O. Wilson (and is the famous entomologist that is eaten alive in that blurb above.)
Unfortunately, this book too suffers from an excess of ideas, and the text often gets bogged down in explaining some of the details. There are a lot of details. It’s not often that evolutionary biologists and ecologists get to be the stars of a disaster epic, though, so it was worth a read just for plain entertainment value.
I mean, vampire bats become vectors of mad cow disease, which somehow….eventually…. leads to a military captain breaking down in classic Dr. Strangelove style and shelling Hoboken with Thor nuclear missiles. Because he hates Sinatra. (Best line? “You mutinous dog! You Sinatra-loving sack of shit!“)
Things devolve quickly into a post-apocalyptic world, with desperate attempts to clone pre-historic insects to bring the things back into ecological balance. This book is alternately horrifying, silly, suspenseful, and turgid. But if you enjoy trying to guess which of your real world colleagues are the ones being eaten alive by various tiny creatures run amok, you might have a good time with it.
I was so excited to discover that there is actually a documentary about Membracids! I don’t have television, so somehow missed this when it originally aired on the Science Channel in 2010. And best of all, some of the folks in it are people I went to grad school with.
I’ve always loved Membracids, and once you watch this you’ll be hooked too!
Part 2: Climb into the canopy of the rainforest with some entomologists!
One of the things I’m very surprised about is how people outside Michigan don’t seem to know anything about the MILLION GALLON oil spill that happened in July:
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that more than one million gallons have escaped. That would make it one of the largest ever in the history of the Midwest. But company officials are sticking with their earlier estimation of 819,000 gallons.”
The oil flowed directly into the Kalamazoo River. In fact, the oil spill happened when the Kalamazoo River was at a historically high level. So, when the water went back to its regular banks, it left a large swath of oily plants and sediments behind. Lots of plant material and soil is being collected and bagged up; as toxic waste, it will eventually be landfilled.
Here’s what you don’t know if you aren’t here in Michigan. There is a HUGE network of pipelines carrying raw crude and natural gas all through the midwest. And the pipes are old. They’re metal and they run through swamps and wetlands. They break a lot, in fact. The Lakehead pipeline carries oil and tar sands, a thick crude that has more heavy metals than conventional oil. (Large amounts of water are used in the extraction of this oil, and the mining is very environmentally destructive.) This crude carries lots of carcinogens–toluene, benzene, and other nasties.
As of today (Sept. 30th), there are quite different reports being issued about the status of the clean up. Michigan Radio says that there’s still a lot of missing oil yet to be accounted for. Enbridge says the cleanup is almost completed. I have been involved in some of the wildlife rehab efforts, mainly centered around turtles, and they are still recovering 70+ turtles coated in heavy crude every day. It takes roughly 2 hours to clean one medium-sized turtle.
And, fall migration is starting. What will happen to waterfowl heading south if they land in the Kalamazoo river?
It could have been worse, I guess. Fortunately the spill was stopped before it reached the part of the Kalamazoo river that is a PCB Superfund site. All those oils would have worked as a solvent, and released lots of pollutants from the sediments they’re now contained in.
The pipe that ruptured is now pumping crude again. Here’s the really depressing part–7 months ago, the EPA sent Enbridge a warning letter about possible problems with the pipeline that ruptured. And another Enbridge pipeline–a different trunk of the same oil pathway–ruptured in Chicago 6 weeks after the Michigan spill.
If you do a search for images of the Michigan Oil Spill, what you see are a whole lot of unsafe work practices. And, also, depressing stuff like this–an oil boom deployed in a city riverside park, using picnic tables to support an oil skimmer.
Discovered this interesting historic document today. I had read before that it was common to hunt raptors of all kinds in the past because they were considered “pests”. But…
this makes it a whole lot more quantifiable and horrible.
The irony, of course, is that this was a bird sanctuary doing this. These “pests” were shot…to preserve the tasty game birds. So people could shoot them. Sigh.
I was looking for some online resources that discussed the common practice of hunting raptors in the 1880s- 1900s, but didn’t find much.
Is your GoogleFu stronger than mine? Can you make some suggestions/contribute linkies?
We are in the process of upgrading some materials around where I work, and as a consequence we’ve been looking for materials about birds, conservation, and the historic use of birds and bird parts in the US. I happened to stumble over this really nifty Smithsonian online exhibit:
Really interesting information!
Do you have any other resources you’d like to recommend on this topic? Sources of photos? I’d love to hear from you.
Also, a discussion point: is using a photo like this–now shocking and reaction provoking–acceptable in materials designed to discuss conservation of larger bird species that were hunted?
I recently got a letter from the Michigan Nature Association that announced they have nesting ospreys at the Helmer Brook Plant Preserve. Osprey Watch reports there are 17 active nests in lower Michigan this year.
The DNR has been releasing ospreys in the lower peninsula since 1998:
Ospreys are listed as a threatened species in the state. Along with bald eagles and peregrine falcons, they were hard hit by the liberal use of pesticides shortly after World War II. Unlike peregrines, Michigan never lost its entire osprey population; the species managed to persist in small numbers in the state. Since the ban of DDT and other similar persistent pesticides, they have rebounded in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula.
Ospreys got a double whammy; in addition to the effects of organochlorines, they are also migratory, and lost habitat along their entire trip–North America, Central America, and South America.
I’ve mentioned before the important role of an MSU biologist in the collection of evidence of DDT Bioaccumulation. (You can actually read an original article by Wallace in Audubon Magazine from 1963 here.) Michigan is still home to the Pine River Superfund site–a toxic waste dump of DDT manufacturing leftovers, as well as other industrial waste.
So, I’m pretty geeked that there are some signs of recovery, however small. You can help by reporting sightings in lower Michigan with this form.
[Thank you to C. A. Mullhaupt, who took this lovely photo of a nest in Michigan in 2008.]
Oh, and since every time I mention DDT a whole host of right-wing people show up to flog their political agenda: save us all some time, and read these posts first, ‘kay?
- DDT: the cliffs notes version
- Malaria, mortality, and blame: Why the claim that DDT could/would save millions is bogus
- DDT and Insecticide resistance: why DDT isn’t a cure-all
- Ed has undertaken the daunting project of examining all the claims point by point made at JunkScience.
- Here’s the second of Ed’s posts in the series, and the third.
- Everything DDT at the Bug Blog