Archive | December 2012

The most interesting find of 2012

Caterpillar of Paraclystis integer, a termite inquiline from Mozambique (lateral and dorsal views) [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

Caterpillar of Paraclystis integer, a termite inquiline from Mozambique (lateral and dorsal views) [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

Well, the first year of my blogging is nearly over, but I think I still have time for one more story. And it is a good one.

Earlier this year I was in the spectacular Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, doing my usual things – chasing katydids with a net and a recorder, taking pictures, and flipping rocks. And under one of these rocks I found something that truly tested the extent of my entomological knowledge. One evening, while looking for ants and crickets on the rim of a deep limestone gorge, I lifted a big, flat boulder and underneath found a colony of termites. But something wasn’t right. Why were some of these termites longer? And wierd looking? It took me a few seconds to realize that the colony was filled with creatures that looked very much like termites, and behaved in a similar fashion, but clearly were something else.

A fragment of the carton structure of the Schedorhinotermes lamanianus colony with termite soldiers and caterpillars of Paraclystis integer [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

A fragment of the carton structure of the Schedorhinotermes lamanianus colony with termite soldiers and caterpillars of Paraclystis integer [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, 3 speedlights Canon 580EXII]

At first I couldn’t even guess what these creatures were. Mutant termites, an undescribed phylum, aliens? There were hundreds of them, easily as many as the real termites. I scooped a bunch into a container to have a closer look. OK, they were not aliens – they had mandibles and six short legs. So they were insects. But what kind? I had no idea.
Later I examined them under a microscope and saw that they had crocheted prolegs on the abdomen – so they must be caterpillars, that is moth or butterfly larvae. But they also had strange processes all along the body that looked strangely similar to candy-corn. The peculiar caterpillars turned out to be Paraclystis integer, members of the cloth-moth family (Tineidae). But what were they doing in the termite colony?

Although these caterpillars and their presence in the colonies of the termites of the genus Schedorhinotermes have been known since early 1900’s nobody really knows what the nature of the relationship between these two groups of insects is. It is tempting to speculate that the caterpillars’ strange candy-corn processes produce something that the termites like, but this is not the cases. They appear to be purely of a sensory nature and are not connected to any glands. Even more strangely, the caterpillars seem to have little tolerance for termites, and often chase them away if approached. At times, however, they allow termites to lick something from the dorsal part of their abdomen. There is one casual observation made in the late 1960’s (Harris 1968. Proc. R. ent. Soc. Lond B. 37: 103-113) suggesting that the larvae accompany the termites on their foraging trips at night, but what exactly they feed on is unknown.

I am hoping that in 2013 the mystery of the candy-corn caterpillars and termites will be one I am able to solve. And if I do, you will be first to learn about it on The Smaller Majority blog. Thanks for reading and a Happy New Year!

The year in review – Part 2

Yesterday I posted a small selection of photos that marked important/interesting events that took place in the first half of 2012, and here is a selection from the last six months.

7_Phymata

July. Processing of the entomological material collected in Gorongosa takes up most of the month. Although I spend most of July looking through the microscope, to keep my camera from rusting I document the biodiversity of life in Estabrook Woods outside of Boston. Ambush bugs make a fascinating subject: they are not only pretty, they also try to talk to people.

***

8_Amblyrhynchus48_MaxiAugust. I have the good fortune to visit, albeit very briefly, the Galapagos Islands as a leader of a trip organized by the Harvard Natural History Museum. All the icons were there: flightless cormorants, Darwin’s finches, Blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises and, most importantly, the marine iguanas. I make a promise to myself to come back and do a proper study of the Galapagos Nesoecia katydids, which, I am convinced, will reveal a pattern of speciation similar to that seen in other groups at the archipelago. Back home very sad news: our sweet, innocent Max has an enormous tumor in his head. He undergoes a successful surgery, and a radiation and chemotherapy treatment.

***

9_Mantis_religiosaSeptember. Praying mantids are invading my garden! One night I step on the deck and a huge Chinese mantis hits me on the head.

***

10_Meloe7October. Maxi has recovered enough from his brain surgery so that we can take him again on long walks in the Estabrook Woods. I giggle like a little girl when on one of our walks I discover a bunch of beautiful oil beetles – I never expected to find them there.

***

11_Operophtera2November. Insect activity is winding down, and the arrival of winter moths marks the beginning of a largely lifeless season. But these interesting insects brighten the otherwise gloomy time of year – males come in the hundreds to the lights of our house around Thanksgiving, while the stubby, flightless females are laying eggs in the bark of our maples.

***

12_RhampholeonDecember. This year I received the best Christmas gift ever: Kristin commissioned from Canadian artist Sharlena Wood a painting based on my photo of a pair of Gorongosa pygmy chameleons. It is a gorgeous and, I am sure, the world’s only piece of art featuring this endemic and enigmatic Mozambican animal. Thanks K!

The year in review – Part 1

I am pretty sure that I am the first photo-blogger ever to come up with the idea to post a series of the most interesting/meaningful photos taken during the passing year (if not the first, then certainly the second, or third, at the most.) It has been a busy and significant year, photographically, scientifically, and emotionally. Since I have a camera grafted to my right hand (well, almost), I was able to capture many of the creatures whom I met during the last twelve months, and here are a few highlights:

1_DiestrammenaJanuary. I begin to work in earnest on my next book, which, among other things, will explore the complex ecosystem of modern caves – our homes. Once I really start paying attention, I am astounded by the number of species that share the living spaces of our house with us, and the diversity of ecological niches they occupy: I find detrivores, herbivores, parasites, grazers, browsers, necrovores, sit-and-wait predators, and social animals. Some are well-established, others were just visiting; many are here all year round, a few are seasonal; and some are native, and others are aliens from other parts of the world.
Camel crickets (Diestrammena asynamora) are cave-dwelling animals that came from Asia via Europe to North America. Rob Dunn’s lab is now conducting a continent-wide census of these insects.

 ***

2_SphodromantisFebruary. With nasty winter outside the window, I find refuge from the deadly season in trying to document the entire life cycle of a pet praying mantis, African Sphodromantis lineola. Here a female is undergoing her final molt.

***

3_TheraphosidMarch. I spend the entire month of March in a tent: I am part of a team of biologists conducting a biodiversity survey of the spectacular lowland rainforest of southern Suriname. Highlights of the survey included finding a number of new to science species of katydids, and almost tripping over the largest spider in the world, Theraphosa blondi.

***

4_RoeselianaApril. Back home, Massachusetts spring is in full bloom and young katydids are everywhere. Alas, the Roeseli’s katydid (Metrioptera roeselii) is an invasive species, which probably contributes to the decline of native katydids.

***

5_LoboscelianaMay. Because of my life-long interest in Africa and a decent publishing record on southern African orthopterans, I am invited to join a team from Harvard University to explore the insect diversity of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Gorongosa turns out to be one of the most amazing, biologically-richest places I have had the privilege to visit. Situated at the southernmost tip of the African Great Rift Valley, it encompasses an astounding variety of terrain, including afromontane rainforest and deep, unexplored limestone gorges. Orthopteran and dictyopteran diversity is through the roof, and I am thrilled to find the giant grasshoppers Lobosceliana cinerascens.

***

6_UniverseJune. Still in Mozambique, documenting insect life. Sitting there, on the edge of a deep limestone gorge in the middle of the night, I feel very insignificant. And happy.

Stay tuned for photos from the second half of the year but, in the meantime, head on to Facebook and click “Like” on the Gorongosa National Park’s page.

Update: See the second half of the photographic review of 2012.