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.

33-660x205

Tigers and Birds

Many, many world-class ornithologists have called or do call the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science home. This year, LSU grad students Mike Harvey (a NiB! contributor!) and Glenn Seeholzer along with LSU alum Dan Lane and Peruvian ornithologist Fernando Angulo are going to Peru this October to find the most bird species they can in a single 24 hour period and they’re hoping to break the world “Big Day” record. (Which currently stands at a whopping 331 species, set in 1982.) A “Big Day” is a mix of fun and work that takes both passion and planning – this one is no exception. Here’s the Peru Big Day Strategy:

Peru is among the top countries in the world for bird diversity, with roughly 1840 species registered. This makes it a great place to attempt to beat the world big day record. The spectacular Andes Mountain range bisects Peru, and it is so tall that it passes through dramatically different climates between its base and its towering peaks. Each climate band produces it’s own habitat, which in turn has it’s own set of bird species. To the east of the Andes, much of Peru falls within the rainforests of the Amazon Basin, which contain the highest single-site bird diversity in the world. The key to a large list during our big day will be to visit as many habitat bands on the slopes of the Andes as possible, but also to spend enough time in the Amazon lowlands to see some of the many species in that area. In order to do this, we will start at midnight high in the Andes at Abra Patricia, work our way down the eastern slopes of the mountains during the morning, and finish in the afternoon in the Mayo Valley, home to many lowland Amazon bird species.

For more information, there’s a video by local TV station WBRZ, there’s a booklet from the American Birding Association or you can go straight to the horse’s mouth bird’s bill and check out http://www.lsubigday.org. Best of luck, you guys – Geaux Tigers!

bd

(From the LSU Peru Big Day webpage)

 

This spider is doing very well in an urbanized environment, thanks for asking

Spider with lil' spiders

Nephilia plumipes. Photo by Henry Oon.

Urbanization is one of the most dramatic changes humans make to natural habitats. Cities are concentrations of tall buildings, paved landscape, air pollution, and everything else that we do to make life easier for ourselves. But some living things do quite well in these highly altered conditions—think rats and cockroaches, but also red foxes and crows. As the Popular Science blog Eek Squad notes, there’s a new entry on that list: golden orb spiders, Nephila plumipes.

Lowe and colleagues found the city-dwelling arachnids were bigger than their country kin, and the most fertile spiders were found in neighborhoods with the highest socioeconomic status.

Why? The most likely explanation is that cities are warmer, which can lead to bigger invertebrates, and there’s more prey available. The latter is partly because of leaf litter and food for the prey, but it’s also because of a city-related scourge: Artificial light at night. Large spiders were found nearby, or living on, structures like light posts. Insects are drawn to sources of light at night, which could mean more meals for spiders living under bright lights in the big city.

Note that this isn’t necessarily an evolutionary change in response to urban habitats—the spiders probably just find conditions much more favorable in the city, and grow bigger as a result. But that change in resource availability could certainly lead to evolutionary changes over the long term. Go check out the whole Eek Squad post, and have a look at the original scientific article, which is freely available on PLOS ONE.

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.

Continue reading

“One of the great migration stories of the world” – Shrimp in the mighty Mississippi.

4015397493_94ebaac06b_o

Macrobrachium ohione, by Clinton and Charles Robertson, via Flickr.

The Mississippi River that we know today is a creation of the army corps of engineers. Before they got to levying, dredging and damming it into submission, it was a wild and meandering thing that harbored great concentrations of wildlife. One component of that was a massively abundant shrimp with an amazing life cycle:

It turned out that in pre-colonial times the shrimp traveled all the way north into the upper reaches of the Mississippi’s main eastern tributary, the Ohio River, and back again – a 2,000-mile round trip. It was a journey more amazing than similarly epic migrators like salmon. For whereas adult salmon may have an equally long journey to their upstream spawning sites, it is the quarter-inch juvenile shrimp that swim and crawl 1,000 miles upstream against the strong currents of the Mississippi.

What happened to these shrimp? Go read the story to find out.

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.

Continue reading

Ed Yong on mind-controlling parasites

Here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, we’re fascinated by all the weird, baroque ways that living things influence and coevolve with each other—so Ed Yong’s new TED talk about mind-controlling parasites is right up our alley. Just like his writing—currently on display at National Geographic‘s Phenomena, among many other venues—it’s a compendium of nifty natural history punctuated with highly educational gross-outs and the occasional black-belt level pun.