Archive for the 'Arthropods' Category



Disney murders a crab

Disney Nature has a new IMAX documentary out titled, ‘Oceans‘. A quick survey of the reviews of the film indicates that a mantis shrimp, Odontodactylus scyllarus, is a part of the most memorable sequence of the film. Here is a clip of the mantis shrimp’s scene, (available in 1080p on Youtube). Near the beginning there is a really nice shot of the pseudopupil (the facets of the eye looking directly at the observer).

I, however, have a couple criticisms of this sequence. First off, this was almost definitely shot in an aquarium. Secondly, what is it with IMAX movie makers and repeatedly pushing animals towards stomatopod burrows until they lash out? Similarly to the sequence from ‘Deep Sea 3D’ where an octopus is forced to approach the burrow of a Hemisquilla californiensis, the mantis shrimp in this video shows no interest in predating the crab. He just seems to be trying to get the crab away from his hole. Normally, the crab would surely oblige if it wasn’t for the Disney filmmakers repeatedly pushing it back.

I can’t help but be reminded of Disney’s ‘White Wilderness‘ documentary where the filmmakers pushed lemmings off a cliff into the ocean in order to convince people, incorrectly, that lemmings engaged in suicidal behavior. They are quite a viscous bunch over in the Magic Kingdom.

All aboard the lobster train

Spiny lobsters, Panulirus argus, have an unusual and poorly understood migratory behavior. Every autumn, many of the shallow living lobsters around the Bahamas begin forming traveling queues that aggregate into long chains of marching lobsters. These chains can swell to thousands of individuals as the animals migrate to deeper waters.

Our main man, David Attenborough, breaks it down and somehow manages to make a skittering train of lobsters feel epic:

As mentioned in the video, the migration possibly occurs in order for the lobsters to escape turbulence and turbidity in the shallows resulting from autumn storms that sweep into the Bahamas. The migration has long been observed in tight correlation with these storms. Following the first storm of the year, the spiny lobsters begin amassing at buildup areas and prior to embarking on the mass migration. The cue to begin queueing (hah) is likely the sharp water temperature drop following the first storm. Indeed, in laboratory observations, decreases in water temperature increased queueing among captive spiny lobsters.

The purpose of the lobster queue formation during migration is likely twofold. For one, traveling in a line reduces water drag for the lobsters traveling behind others. To borrow a term from racing, the lobsters are drafting on the wakes of their line-mates. In this manner, the lobsters conserver energy and momentum on their trek. The other reason for forming the migration queues is likely predator defense. Beyond projecting increased size via aggregation, the lobster queues can rearrange into a defensive circle to cover their vulnerable back-sides. You can see an example of the onset of defensive formations in the photo below.

Panulirus argus migratory train. The lobsters at the front of this train were perturbed by the divers, causing them loop back into the train, creating a lobster vortex. Adapted from Kanciruk and Herrnking, 1978.

References:

  • Kanciruk, P and Herrnkind, W. 1978. Mass migration of spiny lobster, Panulirus argus (Crustacea: Palinuridae): Behavior and environmental correlates. Bulletin of Marine Science, 28(4): 601-623,

It Came from the Reef Tank #1: Ostracod

I am going to start a running catalogue of the diverse arthropod microfauna of my reef tank. Here is my first attempt to capture one of these tiny animals. This is a sediment-dwelling ostracod, about 250 microns in carapace length.

Ostracod, the white stuff around him is detritus.

I know, ugly photo, but this was a first attempt. Can anyone ID it further? The rubble in the tank was aquacultured on the gulf coast of Florida, but this little guy could have hopped on at the fish store.

More about Ostracods in my next post.

Is ‘the Drosophila‘ actually Drosophila?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgCelebrities commonly change their names on the path to stardom. Elton John began life as Reginald Kenneth Dwight, John Denver as Henry Deutschendorf, Jr, and Bela Lugosi as Be’la Ferenc Dezso Blasko. A name change can make someone more marketable in the fickle entertainment industry. However, once someone makes it big, their name usually stays the same (excepting P-Diddy and Prince, whose constant name changes became marketing strategies in themselves). A celebrity’s name becomes the branding that represents and sells their fame.

What about name changes for scientific celebrities? I’m not talking about people, but rather the components of nature that we observe around ourselves and adorn with nomenclature. There was (unnecessary) public uproar when Pluto was re-designated as a Kuiper Belt planetoid. Neil deGrasse Tyson even got hate mail from children when the American Museum of Natural History updated its displays accordingly. The change was the result of a non-unanimous scientific consensus attempting to better define the bodies of the solar system, but many people had become attached to the idea of PLANET Pluto and reacted negatively to the news.

Now a new conundrum is brewing within scientific circles as biologists try to decide what to do when the nomenclature describing a celebrity organism no longer jives with scientific observation. Nature News asks, ‘What’s in a name?’. Well, when the name is Drosophila melanogaster, there’s 100 years of glorious scientific discoveries in a name.

Photo by mr.checker

D. melanogaster, the common fruit fly, was a major workhorse behind the early 20th century genetic revolution. Researchers like Thomas Hunt Morgan harnessed the fly’s fast reproductive cycle and simple care requirements to elucidate the fundamentals of heredity. Since then, the powerful D. melanogaster model has exploded to become a principle contributer to research in genetics, neurology, development, biomechanics, and evolution. Found in almost any biology department around the world, this animal is of tremendous historical and contemporary importance to science; a true celebrity.

However, there is one slight problem; Drosophila melanogaster is probably not Drosophila melanogaster.

The issue here is the status of the genus, Drosophila. This genus, as it is currently recognized, contains 1,450 species of fruit flies. A genus, or any level of taxonomic organization, is supposed to be monophyletic, that is; composed only of species that are evolutionarily closer to one another than they are to the members of any other genus. However, with Drosophila, this has been shown through extensive molecular and morphological analysis not to be the case.

Fruit Fly supertree. Adapted from Van der Linde and Houle, 2008

Look at the phylogenetic tree to the left (for an overview of phylogenetics, read this post). Each node on the tree represents a group of species of the same genus. Notice, however, that the 1,450 species of the Drosophila genus are split up into six different clades, interspersed with other genera. This is called paraphyly, and it points out an error in the taxonomic nomenclature. All the species of a given genus should be grouped together, in a monophyletic relationship. Ultimately, this means that there is going to have to be some reorganization of the genus. Some members of Drosophila are going to be ousted and given new names.

The obvious solution to preserve the celebrated D. melanogaster species name would seem to be leaving its clade (marked with a red arrow) as genus Drosophila and renaming the others. However, there are two problems with this. First of all, restructuring the genus in the manner would push out, and require the renaming, of 1,100 species of fruit flies. Furthermore, the type species Drosophila funebris (marked with an orange arrow), the animal from which the Drosophila genus was originally described in 1787, lies in a different clade than D. melanogaster. A recent petition to re-designate the genus type species as D. melanogaster was voted down by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.

As it looks at the moment, D. melanogaster is probably on its way to becoming Sophophora melanogaster. This has generated shock and disbelief from biologists; citing possible research impediments should the name change go through. In addition, they surely have a sentimental attachment to the name of their favorite laboratory arthropod. When biologists say ‘Drosophila‘, they mean Drosophila melanogaster. This celebrated animal has a strong claim to being the most important and powerful research tool biologists have in their arsenal. However, even D. melanogaster, like Pluto, may need to bend in name to the powers of parsimonious taxonomic nomenclature.
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Read more about the Drosophila name fight here and here at Nature News, or here at Catalogue of Organisms

Check out some of my other posts about phylogenetics:

References:

    Kim Van der Linde, & David Houle (2008). A supertree analysis and literature review of the genus Drosophila and closely related genera (Diptera, Drosophilidae)Insect Syst. Evol., 39, 241-267

Giant Japanese hornet anatomy rundown

Vespa mandarinia. Photo by netman (Flickr)

The Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia, is one of the largest Hymenopterans; behind only tarantula hawks (Pepsinae) I believe. They are ravenous predators of other insects (watch a honey bee hive massacre here) and can even be extremely agressive to humans, especially if a nest is disturbed. These hornets are fairly intimidating beasties to be sure, and I wouldn’t want to handle a live one. Check out this great video where someone describes the interesting features of a dead giant hornet that he found while walking in Japan.

Yikes, that stinger looks like it can do some serious damage. I wonder if there is any truth to the claims that their venom can melt flesh and kill a non-allergenic person?

Treasure trove of arthropods found in Cretaceous African amber

Researchers have recently unearthed a bounty of fossil-bearing amber in Ethiopia. These 95 million year old amber pieces contain a variety of life forms including plants, fungai, bacteria, nematodes and many species of arthropods. The arthropods found in the amber include springtails, fairy wasps, thrips, Zorapterans (a species-poor Insect order that I had never heard of), and arachnids. Here are some shots of the arthropod amber inclusions.

Arthropod amber inclusions for Cretaceous Ethiopia. From left to right: A false fairy wasp (Mymarommatidae), a thrips (Merothripidae), and a Zorapteran. Adapted from Schmidt et al., 2010.

These sort of amber fossils are especially useful in piecing together the complex interplay of life in ancient ecosystems. They provide a snapshot of a wide variety of contemporary and interdependent life that other fossil types do not preserve. This find helps fill in some especially troublesome gaps in Cretaceous African biodiversity.

Read more at Wired or get the paper at PNAS; but don’t tell this guy about it:

Interesting trivia: John Hammond in 'Jurassic Park' was played by Richard Attenborough, elder brother of naturalist David Attenborough.

Neogonodactylus bredini

I haven’t had much time to write this week on account of wanting to graduate someday. Here is one of the animals that I’m working on at the moment.

Neogonodactylus bredini

N. bredini is the easiest mantis shrimp to find on the east coast since they commonly hitch-hike on reef rubble, cultured in Florida for the aquarium trade. The photo above shows the ‘smasher’ raptorial appendage nicely, as well as the black pseudo-pupil (the facets of the eye that are directly facing the camera). These guys come in a bunch of different color morphs including the rusty color above, green, and grey mottled.

I’m trying to improve my photography skills, but the old Olympus C-5050 I’m using isn’t cutting it any more. It’s no fun trying to manually focus on a moving critter using a 1.8″ 110,000-pixel screen.
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Edit: Correction, this animal is actually N. wennerae. This species is physically indistinguishable from N. bredini. The only reliable determinant other than genetics is habitat depth.

Mantis Shrimp glow in the dark

Mantis shrimp use a variety of visual signals in order to communicate with one another. One set of commonly used signaling structures are the antennal scales; flattened, paddle-like structures derived from the second antennae and set on either side of the mantis shrimp’s head. They have a wide range of motion and can be directed at other mantis shrimp as part of intraspecific threat and mating displays. The antennal scales are often adorned with attention grabbing color and polarization patterns that stand out to other visually adept mantis shrimp.

Attenuation of light in water. Adapted from Levine and MacNichol, 1982

However, the deep ocean is not kind to color contrast. As you move deeper, the absorptive and refractive properties of water attenuate the spectrum of available light. Longer and shorter wavelengths are filtered out until eventually the only available light is blue-green, around 480 nanometers in wavelength (left). Despite this limitation, some deep water mantis shrimp have found a way to preserve their color signals in an essentially monochromatic environment.

Lysiosquillina glabriuscula has bright yellow spots on its antennal scales and the underside of its carapace. This species is found in the shallows as well as at greater depths. It turns out that the yellow spots contain fluorescent materials that are stimulated by blue light and emit yellow light, similar to the yellow reflected light that the spots produce in white lighting. Therefore, these mantis shrimp are able to preserve their yellow spot signals at depths where there is only blue light available.

L. glabriuscula in white light (left) and blue light (right). Blue light is filtered out in the second picture in order to better show the green and yellow fluorescence on the animal. Adapted from Mazel et al., 2004

References:

  • Mazel CH, Cronin TW, Caldwell RL, & Marshall NJ (2004). Fluorescent enhancement of signaling in a mantis shrimp. Science (New York, N.Y.), 303 (5654) PMID: 14615546

Dew covered insects

Miroslaw Swietek takes amazing photos of dew covered insects in the early-morning woods. The insects remain mostly immobile during the night and collect water droplets all over their bodies. Take a look at his beautiful photos here and here.

Water droplet covered dragon fly. Photo: Miroslaw Swietek

Via i09.

Negative feedback signal in a superorganism

It has long been understood that worker honey bees, Apis mellifera, coordinate foraging for nectar using a system for dances. The best understood of these dances is the ‘waggle dance’. The waggle dance is preformed by a worker who has recently returned to the hive from a lucrative nectar source. The bee gives off an olfactory cue that tells her hive-mates to pay attention. The worker then begins to move in a rough figure-eight, vibrating her abdomen at high frequencies between the loops. The angle and duration of the vibration convey the direction and distance to a promising nectar source.

Check out this video about the waggle dance:

Honey bees also preform a tremble dance that lets workers know that a nectar-laden forager needs to be offloaded, and another dance, originally though of as a ‘begging dance’. This dance is preformed by workers that approach waggle dancers and either butt heads or climb on top of the waggler before delivering a brief 380 Hz abdominal vibration. It was originally thought that this dance was a way of begging for nectar from a laden dancer. However, research has shown that this dance does not precipitate nectar exchange.

New research has shown that the begging dance is in reality a ‘stop dance’, that tells a waggler to stop sending others to a perilous location. The research, published in Current Biology, showed that the stop dance is caused by predator and conspecific attacks on foragers. Workers returning from this dangerous location seek out waggle dancers that are sending others into danger. The stop dance decreases waggle dancing and recruitment to that location.

This stop dance is especially interesting when considered within the superorganism concept of eusocial insects. In this view, the entire colony functions as a single organism; with different colony classes acting as different cell types, and individuals analogous to single cellular units. Previously, only positive recruitment signals had been modeled at the superorganism level. Now, the stop dance adds the first example of a negative feedback signal in a superorganism. The collective interplay of waggle and stop dancing by many members of a hive therefore results in a self-organizing labor allocation system similar to those that exist at the cellular level.

References:

    Nieh, J. (2010). A Negative Feedback Signal That Is Triggered by Peril Curbs Honey Bee Recruitment Current Biology, 20 (4), 310-315 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.12.060


I have moved.
Arthropoda can now be found here.

Michael Bok is a graduate student studying the visual system of mantis shrimp.

Flickr Photos

Fire in the Eye

View from atop South Island

Turtle and remora

Lizard Island lagoon panorama

Coral

Wind surfer over the reef, taken from atop South Island

Another Lizard Island Sunset

Odontodactylus latirostris

Mandarin

Lowest tide I have seen at Lizard Island  (-0.11 m)

More Photos

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