Fleas!!!

I just did a quick glance at the my Site Stats and it seems fleas are a popular topic.  One person searched for “bad fleas in northern California”.  I don’t live in California but I wouldn’t be surprised.  It takes some cold temperatures to knock down the fleas for a winter and even in the north it might not get that cold.

I have previous posts here and here regarding my dealings with fleas but here is a little more basic information for you in case you’re interested.  But first a pop quiz:

1) What type of fleas do you typically see on cats?
a) cat fleas
b) dog fleas
c) rodent fleas

2) What type of fleas do you typically see on dogs?
a) cat fleas
b) dog fleas
c) rodent fleas

Logically you would think cat fleas on cats and dog fleas on dogs, right?  Well, that might be logical but it’s not how it works.  There are dog and rodent fleas but we typically do not see them on cats or dogs.  They thrive in different host habitats and that isn’t going to be your household pet.  It can happen, but it’s the exception (though there may be some variation depending upon your geographic location…as I love to say, animals don’t read books).  Fleas, whether they’re on your dog or your cat, are almost always going to be cat fleas.  But, that doesn’t mean you can use the same product on your cat that you can on your dog.  The mode of action (i.e. how it kills the flea) is the same but your pets biology is not.  Some products such as those containing permethrin should NEVER be used on cats!  I mentioned this in a previous post but it bears repeating.  Permethrin is toxic to cats but is fine for dogs.  Please, please, PLEASE be sure to only use products labeled for dogs on dogs, and those for cats on cats.

Best of luck to you!

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A bird! A plane! A…moth that’s a spider? Whaaaaa?????

If you check out THIS link, you’ll see a pretty interesting example of mimicry…or is it?  This moth is a member of the family Crambidae, a very large group of insects which includes a quite a lot of diversity in both form and function.  Siamusotima

Lygodium Fern Food source for caterpillar stage.

aranea has been dubbed the “Lygodium Spider Moth”.  It’s not the Lygodium that’s the interesting part of this little guys name…nope, it eats the Lygodium fern.  That makes sense.  It’s not the moth part so it must be the “Spider” part!  Yes, there are some that look at this moth and see a spider.  What do you think?

At first glance it can be quite convincing.  The patterning on the wings while in resting pose gives it that creepy spider vibe, right?  But is it really a mimic?  Mimicry has been called “…the greatest post-Darwinian application of natural selection.” (Fisher, 1930)  And it truly is!  Organism ‘A’ looks like something that you don’t want to eat…you don’t eat it…it survives and procreates, making more things that look like something you don’t want to eat!  Crazy, I know.  But that’s what natural selection is.  Organisms which have traits that lead to it and its offspring being more likely to survive to make more offspring is natural selection.  Do that enough times and you have evolution of a new species.

So we all agree, mimicry is cool, right?  But when is a mimic really a mimic?  The Viceroy Butterfly is generally agreed to be a mimic of the Monarch Butterfly.  Everyone loves the Monarch so they must love the Viceroy too…I wonder how many amateur butterfly nuts have Viceroy’s in their collections mislabeled as Monarchs…but I digress…again.  Looking at the image below, we can easily see how these two butterflies are similar.  In order for mimicry to be an actual “thing” observed in the organism there has to be evolutionary pressure that leads to its occurrence.  The Viceroy and Monarchs survive because they feed on plants that have chemicals that pool up inside the insects which makes them unpalatable to their predators.  Look alike, eat nasty food, taste nasty, predators get the message to not eat them.  Environmental events/pressure cause traits in better adapted individuals to be more likely to survive, so they do..

Monarch Butterfly | Viceroy Butterfly The Viceroy was once believed to be an example of Batesian Mimicry (non-toxic to the Monarch’s toxic) but it has recently been observed that the Viceroy is also unpalatable. This qualifies the relationship as Mullerian mimicry.

How can that sort of idea be translated into a moth coming to look like a spider?  There’s really not enough information yet to make a determination.  Some ideas I have rolling around in my head include:  Spiders are predators so perhaps it discourages other small arthropod predators from wanting to eat the moth…but that probably would do nothing to prevent larger invertebrates or vertebrates (lizards, birds, etc) from wanting to eat them.  As I am not familiar with habitat in which this insect evolved I simply cannot say what pressures there have been which could lead to this.

For the moment, I remain skeptical if this is really mimicry or not.  It could just be another instance of humans getting a little excited about cute fuzzy creatures.

Lygodium Spider Moth (Siamusotima aranea, Musotiminae, Crambidae)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/itchydogimages/8537550359/

For more information on mimicry and natural selection, check out these two sources:

Insect Mimicry

Mathematizing Darwin

Beware Men Bearing Nuts

Random Factoid For The Day,

Brazil Nuts, though not technically nuts (they’re seeds) are the second highest cause of nut-related allergic reactions in the UK.  Unlike other, actual nuts, the compounds present in Brazil nuts can be transmitted via bodily fluid, specifically seminal fluid.  Yup…Brazil nuts are a sexually transmitted disease.  😉

Well, not really an STD, but if you’re allergic to nuts and you want to have sex with your boyfriend after he consumed a large quantity of Brazil nuts…use a condom…which most of you should be using anyway.

Safety First People!!!

For Science!!!

I’mma Bee, I’mma Bee, I’mma Bomb Sniffing Bee

Yes the bees!!!  Bees are amazing little creatures.  They do so much for the ecology of the planet.  When I first typed that I wrote “…our planet” but then thought better of it.  The majority of life on this planet is invertebrate.  Ten percent of the terrestrial biomass is termites & ants. There are over 400,000 species of beetles identified to date and more on the way I’m sure.  But when someone mentions they study insects bees are one of the first that will come to mind.  Often people will think of butterflies first but I’ve found that many people seem to store the knowledge that butterflies are insects in a separate part of their brain.  Sort of as if they think something that pretty couldn’t possibly be an insect.  To which I say, “There are THOUSANDS of ‘pretty’ insects that are not butterflies!”

But back to the bees.  In my studies (i.e. watching tv while avoiding actual work) I heard a nifty tidbit of information about Honey Bees.  Yes, we all know about their decline and all of that (and “all of that” is a big can of worms I’ll avoid for now) but there are people who are actually using bees to sniff out bombs and other contraband at airports!  How cool is that!?!  The principles are essentially the same as those we all remember from Dr. Pavlov and his dogs.  The classic Pavlovian response of the dogs when, after a period of training, the dogs were conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell because it had become associated with food (ring bell, dog gets food).

Bees operate quite similarly to the dogs and us for that matter.  By placing the bee in a small container, adding the odor you want it to detect in the box along with some sugar, repeat a few times and soon the bee has the same reaction to that odor as Pavlov’s dogs had to that bell.  They seek out the smell because they associate it with sugar!  A British company (Inscentinel) has conditioned bees to signal not only for explosive residues in suitcases and other luggage, but also in minefields.  According to them they are ‘cheaper to keep and quicker to train then dogs.’

This idea was inspired by the work of Dr. Bitterman in Hawaii back in the 1980’s.  Their research showed at the honey bee would extend their proboscis when their highly sensitive antennae were touched with sugar water.  Some flies have a similar reaction to certain “flavors” coming into contact with their feet (yup, they taste with their feet!)  Dr Bitterman and Co. took this a step further, much like Pavlov and wanted to see if you could associate the an item, in their case peppermint, with the sugar to elicit the same response.  By pairing the peppermint scent with sugar, followed eventually by just the peppermint scent, the bees learned that peppermint was a source of sugar.  And yes, I used the word learned.  These same researchers have recently shown that honey bees are capable of actual learning and have demonstrated as such in a variety of experiments.

So there you have it.  A few more ways how insects are totally amazing.  And now a little about Pavlov’s less well known experiments on cats courtesy of the incomparable Eddie Izzard.

I’m Singin’ in the Rain! Oh no, now I’m dead. The perils of Auditory Communication in Insects

As I mentioned yesterday, we are going to spend a few days looking at the different ways insects communicate.  Today we will venture into the world of auditory communication.

Crickets probably represent the most often thought of insect when it comes to insect sound production.  If you have ever been out in a field on a warm summer evening you can’t hear a darn thing besides those little buggers going at it.  And that’s the point of their sounds, is to “go at it.”  The calling sound we hear is a mating call.  Contrary to what many thing, the sound is not produced by the male cricket rubbing its two legs together, but rather by rubbing its wings together. While there are some insect species which rub the leg against the adjacent forewing (most forward originating wing) this is not true of crickets and katydids.  Being science-type people, we have to give this activity a fancy name and we have dubbed it “Stridulation”…and it was good.  Stridulation is simply the rubbing together of two specific body parts in order to produce a sound.  These two parts are called the file and the scrapper.  The scrapper has “teeth” on it and the file is smoother, though it may still have some bumps.  The sound is produced similarly to how you might rub a pencil over a comb.

YouTube: Cricket Chirping Video

Cool as this may be (well, cool to us nerds) this does have its drawbacks.  Not only do we hear those crickets singin’ away, but so do their predators.  In some areas of the country there is a species of fly which is able to tune into that specific sound the cricket makes, find it and lay a larvae on it.  The larvae then gets inside the cricket and starts to chomp down on the crickets innards, hanging out in its muscle tissue.  The cricket is still alive while the larvae is in there, though it’s not going to have a good few days.  The larvae depletes the crickets needed nutrients and even though the cricket is still eating, it is losing some of what it needs from that food to the parasite.

Not only does that cricket need to worry about predators and parasitoids finding it, it also needs to worry about how much energy it’s using.  Yes, auditory communication has its perks; signals can be sent out quickly, it goes in a variety of directions and information is passed on with or without a direct line of sight to the intended target.  If this was, for example, visual communication, the intended recipient would need to be right in the line of sight to see whatever display was being made, but not with auditory.  However, there are some drawbacks.  It’s horribly expensive and highly inefficient.  A cricket can use around 1/2 of its energy stores in a given evening all with a measly 1% efficiency level.  Yikes!  Not only that, but this poor guy also has to contend with wind, rain, plants and other things that might distort or block the sound from getting where it needs to be.  Being a cricket isn’t so easy, is it?

Tachinid fly pupa on cricket host: Formed after the larvae progressed through its life cycle, exited the cricket and formed a pupa, still attached to its hosts belly.

Given these potential problems, most insects have taken to using substrates (surfaces/substances) as a means to transmit the sounds they are producing.  This typically takes the form of tapping on bark, leaves, stems, etc.  This is especially effective when we’re talking about insects which live on the same plant and need to pass info around.

Once the insect makes its mating call, the auditory fun doesn’t stop there!  Some insects need special sounds to be made before and even during mating in order for the sweet, sweet love to be made.  Take this Noctuid moth for example.  At the end of this video we hear an ultrasonic sound that the male makes while it’s attempting and then succeeding in mating with the female.  If he doesn’t make that sound, she will leave.  She’s a picky lady!

The ability to produce sound is believed to be a rather recent evolutionary adaptation that insects have developed.  I say “recent” as in, compared to other methods that arose with the earliest arthropods 400 million years ago.  Insects and their arthropod relatives have been on this planet a very long time and will continue to populate it long after the zombiepocalypse has doomed us all.  And when that day arrives, somewhere there will be a cricket screaming its wings off trying to find a lady for the night.

So how would you fare during the Zombiepocalypse?  I’ve got my boomstick at the ready.

For more info about what I touched on above check out the following links and resources:

Stridulation

Tachinid Parasitoids Effect on Crickets

Noctuid Mating Sound Article

Can You Hear Me Now? How Insects Communicate 101

I’d like to tell you a bit about insect communication but first we need to decide what exactly “communication” is.  This might sound like an easy task but it’s not.  Experts in the field do not even agree on an exact definition of “communication” when it comes to insects.  Or heck, even communication between each other!  First, let’s think about how we communicate; by text right?  That could be a form of visual communication.  You poke away at the phone, some sort of gibberish appears and you send it on the lines to your friend who then sees it and deciphers your pecking to decide what you were writing.  You feel your phone vibrate when that text comes in.  Tactile communication.

I feel unclean…

Now try to think way back to when we actually had to look at each other and use our words.  Tough, I know, but we did do this.  If you’re able to speak, you vocalize something, I hear it and interpret that as some sort of information and there ya go.  Auditory communication.

Those two are simple and easy to define.  But what about information which isn’t so obvious to our minds?  Insects, as well as humans to a degree, emit chemical odors which can be picked up by another individual and interpreted.  Think about that guy at the gym who’s been wearing the same gym clothes all week.  Come Friday, you’re going to be picking up some nasty chemical odors from him and you’ll be able to interpret just what he (hasn’t) been doing…laundry.  I have a friend who thinks coating himself in Axe Body Spray makes up for this.  I disagree.  It doesn’t.  It just makes me think he took a turn for the douche… 

What if indeed…

Much like my friend with the rancid perfume, insects have naturally occurring “scents” that they can produce, though they might not always be scents as we think of them.

That seem pretty simple and self explanatory too, right?  Sight, sound, smell. Clear. Concise and basic, right?  So why all the confusion about what is and is not communication?  But wait, there’s more!

There are a number of other ways communication can occur that isn’t even meant to happen!  Think back to the cell phones.  If you were to look at my 10-year old Nokia, brick-phone, you’d probably pick up information about my personality & character.  Old, cranky, and cheap.  You probably wouldn’t be that far off.  That’s some information that you picked up without either of us trying.  How about one of those tech-savy people who needs to get the latest iPhone X-Gen the day it comes out.  When you look at that brand new, shiny phone you pick up information about that persons personality too.  Once again, information is passed between parties, with or without any intention being placed.  This too, is communication and now we get into the sticky bits where the experts start to disagree.  Intention.

A recent article described the emission of blue fluorescence, visible within the UV spectrum that insects can see (but not humans or some other animals) by insectivorous plants (ex: Venus fly trap, pitcher plant, etc).  Crazy huh!  These plants have a ring of blue that’s only visible within the UV range.  The plants don’t intend for this to happen…they’re plants…they don’t do much thinking.  But the insects see this light and are attracted to it.  Some would consider this communication, others no.  I am on the pro side of this debate…just getting my biases out of the way up front!

Over the next couple of days I’m going to break down how insects communicate and give some examples.  But first, we need to be on the same page as to what we’re talking about.  For our purposes, “communication” is basically:  The transmission of information between two or more entities.  That’s as bare bones as you can get pretty much; but I think it works.

A few terms to keep in mind:

A “Cue” is information sent out but picked up by something/one other than the “intended” receiver.  Perhaps a cricket making a mating call which is heard by a predator that finds it based on the sound and eats it.  Poor cricket…

A “Signal” is information sent out and picked up by the “intended” receiver.  Cricket makes the mating call and a female hears it, comes along and they get down.  Happy cricket!

So there ya go.  A basic introduction to insect communication. Tomorrow, we’ll look a little more in depth at some of those.  Or maybe something else.  We’ll see.