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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England is known for its gardens… that can kill you

The english countryside is know for gardens filled with magnificent roses and elegant floral arrangements.

But when the Duchess of Northumberland moved into her husbands family castle she decided to do something a little different with her garden… she made it deadly.

Read all about it over at Smithsonian!

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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!

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(From the LSU Peru Big Day webpage)

 

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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Pangolins are weird, adorable … and very endangered

Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are delightfully weird. They have many of the adaptations we associate with anteaters—powerful front claws for breaking into anthills, a narrow snout for nosing into broken-open anthills, long tongues and sticky saliva for slurping up ants*—plus a sleek coat of overlapping scales. And, as you’ll see in this clip from the BBC’s The Life of Mammals, they’re (kind of) bipedal!

Pangolins are so different from other mammals, in fact, that all eight species are in a single genus Manis, which is the only genus in the family Manidae. As of this week the IUCN classifies every species in that family of weird adorable mammals as endangered, critically endangered, or vulnerable to extinction—because, apparently, they’re also pretty tasty.

As a review published in this week’s issue of Science describes in detail, we’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction (that we know about) since life began on Earth, this one caused by the changes we’ve made to the planet. Pangolins are hardly going to be the only potential victims of that mass extinction—they’d be about 2% of the 322 terrestrial vertebrates estimated to have gone extinct since 1500.

(Sad hat-tip to Alex Wild.)

* Or termites, or other insects that hang out in burrows or rotting wood.

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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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.