Charismatic Minifauna

A recent publication (B. Misof, et al. 2014. Phylogenomics resolves the timing and pattern of insect evolution. Science 346 (6210): 763-767.) takes on the herculean task of finding when insects first evolved. This is a particularly vexing question because 1) insects are squishy and don’t fossilize well, and 2) the vast majority of the species on the planet are insects. This is an insect world, we just live in it.

The paper was summarized BRILLIANTLY on WIRED (here). Including my favorite quote:

“Making sense of the diversity of insects in collections has traditionally been a task for a lone expert, usually specializing in just one subset of a group. They become so identified with their study organisms, they may be introduced as “The Ant Man” or “The Wasp Woman.” (No taxonomists I know wear spandex tights and capes to work, for which I am profoundly grateful.)”

Find out about when insects evolved, when they diversified (surprisingly, it started PRIOR to the radiation of angiosperms) and more.

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Feeling a little ill? Blame the trees (not just their pollen either)

A fungus called Cryptococcus gattii, has long known to be infective to humans… even though it’s found on trees.

This has particularly been a problem in Southern California, where people have been getting sick from C. gattii for yeas, and no one knew which tree was harboring the fungus. Find out who the culprit is and how they figured it out! 

 

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Look there, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a moth! It’s a…. hummingbird moth?

Last week NPR posted an excellent article about what can only be the coolest pollinator. Ever.

“like a flip-flop that doubles as a beer bottle opener; an optical illusion; a labradoodle; a frenemy, the hummingbird moth falls into that cryptic category of transformers in life that are more than one thing” – Linton Weeks ” What Exactly is that Birdlike Thing?”

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This boring-looking grass can occupy an extra 10,000 square miles, thanks to a helpful fungus

Mutualisms, in which two or more species provide each other with services or resources that they can’t produce on their own, are everywhere you find living things. Mutualists offer protection, help transport pollen, and provide key nutrients.

Even when a mutualist’s services aren’t absolutely vital, they can help make stressful environments tolerable. That’s the insight behind a new study that finds the help from one group of mutualists could allow an unremarkable-looking species of grass to colonize more than 25,000 square kilometers (almost 10,000 square miles) of territory where it otherwise wouldn’t survive.

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Scientists at work among the Joshua trees

When he’s not dismantling racist pseudoscience, Chris Smith studies the evolutionary ecology of species interactions. Willamette University sent along a videographer on Chris’s last field trip to study Joshua trees and the moths that pollinate them in central Nevada, and the result is now posted on Vimeo. It’s mainly geared toward showcasing how Willamette undergraduate students participate in the fieldwork, but I’d say it makes the desert look mighty good, too.

Pollination syndromes point to species interactions present and past

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Cardinal Flower

Want hummingbirds? Paint the town red. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region.

In my part of North America, spring is finally underway after a long slog of a winter. The trees lining the streets of my Minneapolis neighborhood are lacy-green with budding leaves, flowerbeds all over the University of Minnesota campus are yellow and red and pink with daffodils and tulips, and violets are popping up in the edges of lawns everywhere I look.

Of course, all of this colorful display isn’t for my benefit. Showy flowers are an adaptation to attract animal pollinators. Some flowers are quite precisely matched to a single species of pollinator, but most flowers have lots of visitors. These less specialized flowers are still adapted for their attractive function, though—and this is the origin of pollination syndromes.

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How many moths must a sloth carry off for the sloth to rely on the moths?

Three Toed Sloth

Is it easier being green? Photo by Bas Boemsaat.

Sloths are weird critters. Cute, in a certain light, but mostly weird. They’re members—with armadillos and anteaters—in a superorder of mammals called the Xenarthra, which are united by a unique form of multi-jointed vertebrae. Their diet consists mostly of leaves, which are poor quality food, and hard to digest. Fortunately, they also have one of the slowest, lowest-energy lifestyles of any mammal, using heavily modified limbs to hang upside down from branches while they browse, their most recent meal fermenting in their guts.

David Attenborough got up close with a sloth—which he calls a “mobile compost heap”—in The Life of Mammals. He also observes one of the sloth’s weirdest behaviors: to answer the call of nature, it climbs all the way down to the ground.

Why do sloths go to all that trouble—and risk—just to poop? Well, according to a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society, they do it to feed poop-eating moths that help cultivate nutritious algae in their fur. No, but really.

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