Pets, Pests, and Pestilence Perpetrators

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-qzwbv-90068c

In todays episode of random thoughts of entomo-interest, I was philosophical about the implications of the arthropod pet trade, whether the beetle will win or my cats, and what that might mean for the smaller infestations that crop up along the way.

Stay tuned to the very end for a brief snippet of what is to come in future episodes!

Please check out the Underscore Orkestra, an amazing group deserving of all of our praise.

New Jersey Dept. of Ag Info on H. longicornis

NYT Article Mentioned That Python in the Pet Store May Have Been Snatched From The Wild

Wildlife Laundering Through Breeding Farms

More on the Tick

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A Brief History of Entomophagy

**Originally published several years ago as part of my project Arthropodology**

A recent YouTube video about seemingly arbitrary things mentioned how, though we here in the West consider the voluntary consumption of insects to be bizarre and taboo, we are in fact the minority.  The reality is that over 80% of the surveyed cultures on the planet consume insects on a regular basis.  It’s an odd thing when you really think about it.  Why don’t we consume bugs more often than we do?  Why do we have this seeming “natural” aversion to eating bugs whereas other cultures do it readily?  Indeed, many cultures look at our consumption of cow or pig to be bizarre.  Most North American and European cultures will gladly eat lobster, crab, or shrimp, but will run for the high hills if you pull out a deep fried cricket.  Or, Ceiling Cat forbid, a deep fried tarantula!  Why is that?  When did it start?  In a coming YouTube video I touch on these questions and go a bit further.  **Will link when this damned cold goes away and I can finish it**

Let’s start with the assumption that our species is an insectivorious one.  Why would I think that?  Evidence indicates that our closest non-human primate relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees, regularly consume insects.  This is not incidental consumption, but regular and deliberate.  Gorillas and other primates are known to do this as well.  But that’s not necessarily enough; what about our ancestors?  Cave paintings in Spain dated 30,000 – 9000 BCE depict bee nest harvesting.  This could be indicative of honey or even larval harvesting.  Analysis of coprolites (fossilized poo) found in the Ozark mountains showed the remnants of ants, beetle larvae, ticks, and mites present.     I’ll break that down for you…scientists sorted through fossilized human poop and found leftover bits of insects inside.  Yup.  Cool huh?  😉

Pliny the Elder wrote of the Roman aristocracy’s love of beetle larvae reared on a diet of flour and wine.  Aristotle also got in on the action many years later writing about the best methods for procuring the tastiest cicada “larvae” (modern entomologists would refer to that stage as nymphs).  Silkworm pupae appear to have been consumed in parts of ancient Shanxi, China (~2500 – 2000BCE).

Ancient Romans, Greeks, many Native America tribes, Chinese, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and pretty much every other culture.  Because the West is largely influenced by the Judeo-Christian-Islam sphere of history you might be thinking that somewhere along that history rose a moratorium on the consumption of bugs.  Well, yes, and no.  All three of those religious rely on aspects of the Old Testament.  In those pages are rules stating the acceptability (kosher law) of some foods.  Guess what?  Crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts (winged grasshoppers) are A-Okay by OT terms.  There’s also reference in Exodus of this thing called Manna from Heaven.  Can you guess what that is? That’s actually the honeydew secreted by aphids!  Later on, in the New Testament, the travels of John the Baptist are powered only by the consumption of locusts and honey.  Scrumptious!  But bees, wasps, beetle larvae, and flies are definitely not kosher.

There it is.  Plain as day throughout the history of our species, all across the globe.  So why are we in the West so opposed to it?  To be honest, we’re not sure.  The prevailing hypothesis has more to do with a cultural shift in food acquisition rather than religious taboos.  Approximately 10,000 years ago many cultures made the life altering shift from hunting and gathering to plant and animal based agriculture.  Some cultures became reliant upon the growth and storage of grains while a few became dependent upon cattle and a pastoral lifestyle.  Though this intensive lifestyle allowed for more awareness and control over food production it also have the unfortunate side effect of making our previously mobile societies stuck in one location and thus more susceptible to disease and other previously unknown hardships.  Not only were disease epidemics more likely among human populations, they now would impact our cattle and flocks.  When locusts could once be used as a comfortable source of food, now they were a threat to our crops with the potential to devastate entire fields in days.

From there we see some critters making their way into western diets over the years but mostly they fall by the wayside until now.  There is a push to bring back the bugs.  Some think it’s just a novelty and will never get any full traction among westerners.  But I am hopeful.  With global food, especially protein shortages, projected in our not-so-distant future it is important we explore all avenues of making food readily available.  We need to get over our fear and irrational cultural perception that crickets are the enemy.  They may in fact, be one of the best chances we have at a sustainable and healthy future.

To learn more about the history of entomophagy, current and future prospects check out this FREE book:

Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security

Published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – Rome 2013

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.

 

Macrocilix maia (c) Green Baron http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3294/3130844164_5211690c9d_o.jpg

“…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.

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