Valentine Gift Ideas for Bug Lovers

In a little shout out to the Bronx Zoo I wanted to draw your attention to some lovely gift ideas for those with hearts more inclined towards unique. No one want flowers anymore. Get your special someone a roach.

Bugs Blood and Bones gift ideas.

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Insects & Critter Fear Survey

Heyloo there everyone.  If you haven’t noticed, I know a bit about bugs.  I also happen to be an arachnophobe.  Yup.  I’m not the only one either; and am looking to get some insight into the minds of my fellow humans.  I’m curious about what it is about critters that makes us afraid or just uncomfortable.  So I created an impromptu survey in hopes of letting you all speak your minds.

The first link below is to the survey itself.  At the end of that are links to the photo surveys if you wish to add your impressions of those. The photo surveys are split in two because Survey Monkey only let’s me use 10 questions per survey.

Thanks for your help everyone!

Actual survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/W8KRHKB

Photo Survey p1: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WKZX72L

Photo Survey p2: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WKT6S5G

The Black Death: Do Fleas Really Deserve All the Blame?

The Black Death was one of the most devastating events in history.   Originating from central Asia, it is believed to have traveled along the Silk Road until it reached the Crimea around the mid-1340’s.  From there it spread to become a pandemic in the truest sense of the word.  The Black Death was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30-60% of the European population, and as many as 100 million deaths worldwide.   You all probably know this much already.  You also probably know that this was vectored via the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) living on black rats that made their way on merchant ships in the Mediterranean initially and then ventured north.  The Oriental rat flea is a nasty bugger, vectoring not just the plague (Yersinia pestis) but also Rickettsia typhi, and tapeworms.  But what if we can scratch one of those off that list?

Oriental Rat Flea

Skeletons unearthed a year ago during a work on a new rail line in London are shedding new light on some of our well established ideas regarding our not-too-distant past.  The bones were believed to be from a cemetery of plague victims.  Molars were removed from the skeletons and DNA then extracted from the teeth.  The plague bacterium was found in several of the teeth, indicating these individuals were exposed to and most likely died from the Black Death.  These results are not unexpected, of course so researchers continued to “dig”.  Archaeologists, geologists, historians, physicists, and microbiologists worked to better understand the circumstances surrounding these individuals lives and deaths.

They were generally poor people showing clear signs of malnutrition, and a history of hard labor.  One may have even been a vegetarian later in their life, possibly indicating a shift to monastic life at some point.  Not completely surprising considering the land was at one time part of a monastery.  These plague victims didn’t come from the same time period either.  With radiocarbon dating indicated the graveyard was used multiple times between the earliest outbreaks (1348-1350) and later ones in 1361 and the early 15th century.  Archaeologists are planning on more digs as they estimate the total number of bodies may number anywhere in the “low thousands”.

Black death researchers extracted plague DNA from 14th century skulls found in east London. Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA

But that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot.  I may be an history buff but I’m also a buggy person right?  So why would I be blogging about this if there were not some new interesting entomological tidbits to be shared?  Because I’m bored, yeah….fascinated with dead things, yeah…but there is buggy stuff to share!  Traditionally the belief has been that the Black Death was spread via the Oriental rat flea, as stated earlier.  But evidence derived from those teeth suggest that this may not be the case; or at least not always the case.

When researchers compared the genome from the molar-derived bacterium with that of more recent plague victims they found the genome largely unchanged.  The recent outbreaks of the plague such as in Madagascar last year saw the majority of deaths from a pneumonic or pulmonary plague.  This new information suggests that the transmission of the plague was likely not just via the rat flea but also likely the pneumonic strain.  This is a more virulent strain of the bubonic plague.  Exposure to the plague from the rat-borne fleas is treated with antibiotics and has a higher survival rate than its cousin.  The pneumonic form, acquired via inhalation and human-human contact, is very highly fatal with death typically resulting within 24 hours of exposure if not treated.  The 60 deaths attributed to the pneumonic plague (84 deaths in total) were believed to be spread in part because of increasing political turmoil in the area resulting in poor hygiene and a decline in living conditions.

This mirrors much of what is believed to have happened during the Black Death.  Political and social instability, significant decreases in living conditions and healthcare availability created a perfect storm of underlying problems.  Perhaps the rat flea gets a bit of a reprieve.  Initial introduction via the rats is likely to have occurred with the more virulent strain of pneumonic plague taking over and doing the most damage.

Research continues and I look forward to hearing about it.

 

Bugeo Day 2: Zombies Are Attacking!!!!

Today I bring you one of my favorite parasitoids, the Jewel Wasp.  This gorgeous little wasp, also known as the Emerald cockroach wasp has a fun little reproductive method which involves using cockroaches as a host for their larvae.  Yesterdays video was of a fly parasitoid that uses caterpillars as a host for its many young; this wasp is a little different.  It will sting into a specific ganglia (nerve bundle) in the thoracic segment (where the legs and wings originate).  This first sting renders the cockroach unable to move under its own power; the second sting turns it into a zombie which is then drug around and manipulated by the wasp.

Bugeo 1: Bug Video Week

Last week I posted a video that was pretty nasty on my twitter feed.  Though not-so-pleasant it was still quite interesting and had some good feedback.  So here we go.  A week of bug vids for you to check out.  I’ll scour the interwebs (i.e. YouTube mostly) and find something buggy for you to take a quick gander out.

Day 1: Check out some fly larvae making their home in – and then out of – a caterpillar.

Bizarre Mimicry in Nature

I was just referred to an interesting post on the absolutely amazing blog Why Evolution is True (seriously, check them out).  The post is a somewhat old one regarding possible mimicry in a moth species found in Malaysia and Borneo.  According to the post, some entomologists look at this and see….well, you look first, think about what you see and then highlight my “…” text below the image.

 

“…The researchers debated back and forth and have determined they believe those are two flies flying towards bird droppings…”

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(Spoilers Below)

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Bird dropping moths are not a new idea (just Google it, you’ll find a number of species) but this idea that it is two flies on the forewings going towards the droppings is a new one on many.  What’s also interesting about this case is that the researchers associate an odor with the moth.  Stinky moth!

It’s a very interesting idea and one that shouldn’t be dismissed right off hand.  It also shouldn’t be accepted right off hand.  A few of us who first looked at the image saw beetles, not flies.  And what evolutionary occurrences would have take place in order for such an adaptation to arise?  We don’t know.  I encourage you all to check out the post and subscribe to their blog too.  It’s a hoot.  See below for my comment on their post.

 

Comments: Bugwitch

There are hundreds of chemical compounds/scents emitted by a decomposing human (or other species) corpse.  Not every odor attracts a fly and not every species is attracted/repelled by such odors.  If we go with the hypothesis that this is an adaptive mechanism that results in fooling potential predators, such predators could:

A) smell it and think it’s rotten,
B) see it is something which is attractive to flies and therefore not of food-value

Eyespots are normally on the outer portions of wings and serve to distract predators from the main dish (their body) and instead result in getting nibbled on the wing tips which can result in higher survival rates for the butterfly.

I personally don’t see flies and I have to *really* look to “see” flies.  I see beetles more immediately, as others have mentioned.  Just going by general size and shape.  And just because you can’t think of a beetle species with a red head just remember…400,000 species of beetles.

All too often we entomologists (and my fellow wannabees) want really-super-duper-hard to find something and then we eventually see it.  I’m not saying that’s what this is; but confirmation bias is something we all need to be wary of.  Does it look like a type of mimicry?  Yeah, sure.  Especially with the odor association.  But as all of my fellow graduate students like to say when we end our presentations: More research is required.