Category Archives: Zoology

Friday Fellow: Reddish Cuckoo Wasp

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Besides the well-known internal and external parasites that feed on resources of the host, nature has other types of parasitism as well. One of those types is the so-called brood parasitism, in which an animal puts its eggs in the nest of another animal so that they will be raised by foster parents, usually from a different species. Cuckoos are certainly the most famous brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds.

But brood parasites exist among other animal groups as well, including, of course, the diverse order Hymenoptera. Wasps of the family Chrysididae are known as cuckoo wasps because they put their eggs in the nests of other wasps. One species of this family is Hedychrum rutilans, which I decided to call the reddish cuckoo wasp.

A reddish cuckoo was in the Netherlands. Photo by iNaturalist user v_s_*.

Adults of this species measure up to 1 cm in length and have a kind of ant-shaped body. Its most striking feature, however, is its metalic color, which is typical of cuckoo wasps. In the reddish cuckoo wasp, the abdomen and the front part of the thorax have a reddish tinge, while the rest of the body is somewhat green.

Living in Europe and the northermost regions of Africa, the reddish cuckoo wasp is a lovely nectar drinker as an adult. However, as a larva, it is a parasitoid. Females put their eggs inside another insect so that the larva feeds on the host from inside. However, as I mentioned, cuckoo wasps are brood parasites, hence the name cuckoo wasp. Thus, they do not hunt other insects to serve as hosts for their larvae. Instead, they invade the nests of another species, the European beewolf, which I presented last week, and lay their eggs on the bees that the European beewolf has hunted for its own offspring.

Reddish cuckoo wasp in France. Photo by iNaturalist user butor*.

When the egg of the reddish cuckoo wasp hatches, the larva starts to feed on the paralyzed bees and can even feed on the growing larvae of the beewolf. But how can the female cuckoo wasp manage to invade the beewolf’s nest without being noticed?

The surface of insects is covered by cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs), which have several functions. They protect the body from water and have many functions for chemical communication, both intra- and interspecifically. Parasitoids, for example, rely on CHC cues to find their hosts, and many species, especially social insects such as bees and ants, use CHCs to recognize individuals of their own colony and to detect any invader, incluing parasitoids and brood parasites. Thus, a beewolf could easily locate a cuckoo wasp sneaking into its nest but natural selection made the necessary changes. The amount of CHCs on the surface of cuckoo wasps is way below the normal levels found in most insects. As a result, their smell is so weak that it cannot be perceived in a nest that reeks of beewolf CHCs.

A specimen in Russia. Photo by Shamal Murza.*

One strategy that beewolfs seem to have developed to reduce the levels of parasitism by the reddish cuckoo wasp is increasing their activity in the evening, when the cuckoo wasp activity is reduced. During this time, it is easier for beewolves to enter their nests without being detected by cuckoo wasps. When a beewolf detects a cuckoo wasp close to its nests, it attacks it ferociously. However, once a cuckoo wasp enters the nest, the beewolf is unable to recognize it even if running right into it due to its inability to chemically detect the invader.

Both parties, of course, will always try to find new ways to succeed. Nature is, afterall, a neverending arms race.

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References:

Kroiss J, Schmitt T, Strohm E (2009) Low level of cuticular hydrocarbons in a parasitoid of a solitary digger wasp and its potential for concealment. Entomological Science 12:9–16. doi: 10.1111/j.1479-8298.2009.00300.x

Kroiss J, Strohm E, Vandenbem C, Vigneron J-P (2009) An epicuticular multilayer reflector generates the iridescent coloration in chrysidid wasps (Hymenoptera, Chrysididae). Naturwissenschaften 983–986. doi: 10.1007/s00114-009-0553-6

Strohm E, Laurien-Kehnen C, Boron S (2001) Escape from parasitism: spatial and temporal strategies of a sphecid wasp against a specialised cuckoo wasp. Oecologia 129:50–57. doi: 10.1007/s004420100702

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Friday Fellow: European Beewolf

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Among the species of the highly diverse insect order Hymenoptera, many are known to be parasites or parasitoids of a variety of animals and plants. Commonly known parasited species include spiders and caterpillars, but some hymenopterans parasitize other hymenopterans.

One of such species is Philanthus triangulum, known as the European beewolf. The name beewolf refers to the fact that this wasp species hunts bees, particularly the common honey bee Apis mellifera. This species occurs throughout Europe and Africa, having several subspecies.

A female European beewolf in Gran Canaria, Spain. Photo by Juan Emilio.**

The European beewolf has about the same length as its prey, the common honey bee, but its body has a more typical wasp look. The abdomen and the legs are predominantly yellow, while the head and the thorax are mainly black and brown. The yellow abdomen has black transversal stripes that are typical in many wasp species but their width can vary. Males are smaller than females and have a characteristic trident-shaped light mark between the eyes that is absent or very small in females.

A male in Andalucia, Spain. See the trident-shaped mark between the eyes. Photo by flickr user gailhampshire.*

In colder regions, where the winter is harsh, adult European beewolves emerge as adults in early summer. Both male and female adults feed on the nectar of several plants. Females create large and sometimes complex burrows in sandy soils in open sunny places. The burrows may have up to a meter in length and have between 3 and 34 short tunnels, the brood cells, at the end, each of which will be used to raise one larva. Once finishing the burrow, the female searches for honeybees to hunt. When attacking the bee, the beewolf stings it behind the front legs and paralyzes it, and then flies back to the nest carrying the paralyzed bee below her between her legs. Up to five honeybees can be provided for each larva and serve as their only food during their development.

A female with a paralyzed bee in England. Photo by Martin Cooper.*

Males tend to live near female burrows and use sex pheromones to attract them. Although they are territorial, they can sometimes tolerate other males nearby because the increased release of feromones increases the chances of them being detected by the females.

After the female has provided each egg with enough food, it closes the burrow and leaves. However, since the larvae will remain several months in that closed and humid environment, they can end up suffering from mold growth that can destroy themselves or their food. Females seem to have developed several strategies to reduce this problem. First, before laying the egg on the bee, the wasp licks most of the bee’s surface, applying a secretion from a postpharyngeal gland. Although this secretion has no antimycotic properties, it seems to delay water condensation on the bee’s surface, which also delays the development of fungi, and at the same time prevents water loss from the bee’s body, ensuring that the larvae will have the necessary amount of water to survive.

Carrying a bee into the burrow in England. Photo by Charlie Jackson.*

Female beewolves also live symbiotically with bacteria of the genus Streptomyces, which they cultivate in specialized glands in their antennae. They “secrete” the bacteria into the brood cells before leaving and later, when the larvae hatch, they collect the bacteria and apply them on the surface of a coccoon that they build to overwinter. These bacteria thus prevent fungi or other bacteria from growing on the coccoon, protecting the larvae from infections.

Nature never stops amusing us with its wonderful strategies so beautifully built by natural selection.

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References:

Herzner G, Schmitt T, Peschke K, Hilpert A, Strohm E (2007) Food Wrapping with the Postpharyngeal Gland Secretion by Females of the European beewolf Philanthus triangulum. Journal of Chemical Ecology 33:849–859. doi: 10.1007/s10886-007-9263-8

Herzner G, Strohm E (2008) Food wrapping by females of the European Beewolf, Philanthus triangulum, retards water loss of larval provisions. Physiological Entomology 33:101–109. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-3032.2007.00603.x

Kaltenpoth M, Goettler W, Dale C, Stubblefield JW, Herzner G, Roeser-Mueller K, Strohm Erhard (2006) ‘Candidatus Streptomyces philanthi’, an endosymbiotic streptomycete in the antennae of Philanthus digger wasps. International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology 56: 1403–1411. doi: 10.1099/ijs.0.64117-0

Wikipedia. European beewolf. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_beewolf >. Access on 20 February 2020.

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Friday Fellow: Asian Clam

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Since humans appeared on Earth and started to migrate, they carried other species with them to new localities. This made humans not the only species to become invasive and, in the past centuries, with human movement throughout the planet becoming more and more intense, invasive species became more and more common.

Among bivalvian mollusks, two very popular invasive species are the golden mussel and the zebra mussel, but they are not the only ones. There is one small bivalvian that is not that often a nuisance in human activities but is certainly a problem for native species, the so-called Asian clam, Corbicula fluminea.

An Asian clam in Hong Kong. Photo by Tommy Hui.*

The Asian clam is native from Eastern Asia where it lives burried in the sediment of rivers, prefering sandy sediments in oxygen-rich waters. Their small bivalvian shell measures up to 5 cm although most adult specimens are about 3 cm long. They have a brown to golden color, sometimes combined, but the colored layers sometimes flake off, causing white blotches.

The food of the Asian clam consists mainly of phytoplankton that it filters from the sediment. Human populations from Eastern Asia, such as the Chinese and Koreans, often use the Asian clam as a food source. During the 20th century, when many East Asian people migrated to other countries, the Asian clam was carried with them to be raised as food. As a result, this mollusk was introduced in North and South American river basins and started to spread quickly

The Asian clam is not as tolerant to environmental changes as other invasive bivalvians but its advantage is its rapid reproduction. Although there are both dioic and hermaphrodite lineages in this species, the invasive populations are all hermaphrodites. Fertilization occurs inside the body of the mother clam and the larvae develop inside, being released already as tiny shelled individuals.

The first records of this species in North America are from areas in the west coast of the United States in the 1920s. One century later the species is found throughout the whole country, having reached the east coast in less than four decades, and going north to Canada and south to Mexico and Central America.

Asian clam in Massachusetts, USA. Photo by iNaturalist user jfflyfisher.*

In South America, the species was introduced simultaneously in the La Plata River between Argentina and Uruguay and in the Jacuí river in southern Brazil in the 1970s. Currently, less than 50 years later, it is found as far north as Colombia as southward into Patagonia. The species was also introuced in Europe, Africa and Australia.

Shells collected in the La Plata River in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Diego Gutierrez Gregoric.*

The main impact caused by the invasion of the Asian clam is that it competes with native bivalvians, frequently leading to local extinctions, which is a major threat especially to many rare species that may disappear in a few decades. Although impacts on human activities are not that common, there are cases of large numbers of individuals clogging pipes and other structures.

A shell in Colombia. Credits to iNaturalist user gerardochs.*

Since there are fossil records of species of the genus Corbicula in North America, a hypothesis was raised suggesting that, instead of an invasion, the spread of the Asian clam in this continent is actually a recolonization following the last glaciation and that these individuals may be the result of small populations that remained hidden somewhere. However, it is very unlikely that the species would have remained hidden in very small populations for thousands of years to suddenly start to spread like hell in a few decades. Humans are to be blamed, as always.

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References:

Araujo R, Moreno D, Ramos MA (1993) The Asiatic clam Corbicula fluminea (Müller, 1774) (Bivalvia: Corbiculidae) in Europe. American Malacological Bulletin 10(1): 39–49.

Planeta Invertebrados. Corbícula. Available at < http://www.planetainvertebrados.com.br/index.asp?pagina=especies_ver&id_categoria=27&id_subcategoria=0&com=1&id=143 >. Access on 13 February 2020.

Sousa R, Antunes C, Guilhermino L (2008) Ecology of the invasive Asian clam Corbicula fluminea (Müller, 1774) in aquatic ecosystems: an overview. Annales de Limnologie 44(2): 85–94. doi: 10.1051/limn:2008017

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Friday Fellow: Aloe Mite

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Some months ago I introduced a tiny wasp that causes galls in eucalyptus trees. Now I am going to present another tiny creature, even smaller than that wasp, that causes a very abnormal type of gall in species of the genus Aloe.

Called Aceria aloinis and commonly known as the aloe mite, this microscopic arachnid can be a nightmare to aloe species and to those that cultive them. They are so tiny that they are barely seen with the naked eye. Their body is elongate and cylindrical, vermiform, like a microscopic sausage, and the adults have only four legs instead of the typical eight of most arachnids. This is the typical appearance of most mites of the family Eriophyidae, known as gall mites.

Two aloe mites. Extracted from Deinhart (2011).

Feeding on the epidermal cells of aloe plants, the aloe mite leads to a huge problem in its host. Its effect leads to an abnormal and ugly growth forming a shapeless gall that is adequately known as aloe cancer. This cancer often has a sponge-like appearance and sometimes, more than only strange growths from the leaves, stems and inflorescences, it can appear as a cluster of malformed leaves.

An ugly gall formed by the aloe mite. Photo by Colin Ralston.*

This malformation most likely has some negative effects on the plant’s fitness but the main concern is because it makes ornamental aloe species aesthetically unappealing. The most simple way to get rid of the aloe mite is to cut off the infected parts and burn them.

But how did they get to the plant in the first place? Well, eriophyid mites in general use the wind to be carried from one place to another and the aloe mite is no exception. So you may be able to cure your plant with an amputation but if there are other infected plants in the region, the mites may soon be back.

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References:

Deinhart N (2011) Tiny Monsters: Aceria alionis. Cactus and Succulent Journal 83(3): 120–122. doi: 10.2985/0007-9367-83.3.120

Villavicencio LE, Bethke JA, Dahlke B, Vander Mey B, Corkidi L (2014) Curative and preventive control of Aceria aloinis (Acari: Eriophyidae) in Southern California. Journal of Economic Entomology 107(6):2088-2094.

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Friday Fellow: Spotless Lady Beetle

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Lady beetles, also known as ladybirds or ladybugs, are popular beetles famous for their round bodies and spotted elytra. Not all species have spots, though, such as Cycloneda sanguinea, adequately known as the spotless lady beetle.

A male spotless lady beetle in Florida, USA. Photo by Judy Gallagher.*

Occurring from the United States to Argentina, the spotless lady beetle is the most widespread lady beetle in South America. Its elytra vary from orange to deep red, while its pronotum and head have the typical black color with white marks that most lady beetles have. There is a little difference between males and females. Males have a white stripe running through the middle of the anterior half of the pronotum and the head has a white square on the “forehead”. Females lack the white stripe on the pronotum and have the white square crossed by a black mark, which turns it into two white stripes.

A female in Uruguay. Photo by Joaquín D.*

After mating, the female lays small clusters of yellow eggs on the vegetation, which hatch into larvae after about 10 days. The larva has the typical look of lady bettle larvae and the body in later instars have dark gray and yellow marks. The time that it takes to go from egg to adult varies a lot depending on the temperature, with higher temperatures accelerating development. Thus, in warm climates, the spotless lady beetle can have more than one generation per year.

A larva in Mexico. Photo by Francisco Sarriols Sarabia.*

The spotless lady beetle feeds mainly on aphids and, as many other lady beetle species, is used as a biological control against these plant pests in many crops, such as cotton, pine, beans and citrus species. It is a voracious aphid predator both as a larva and as an adult and females prefer to lay their eggs on plants that are infested by aphids to assure their offspring will have plenty of food.

A male about to take flight in California, USA. Photo by iNaturalist user kstny.*

Currently, one of the main threats to the spotless lady beetle is the Asian lady beetle, Harmonia axyridis, which was deliberately or accidentally introduced in many areas in the Americas. Larger and more more aggressive, the Asian lady beetle outcompetes the Spotless Lady Beetle especially by eating its eggs and larvae but also by consuming its food, as both species have aphids as their main prey.

This is one more example about how biological control can be a nice alternative to spread poison on pests but only if conducted without introducing a voracious predator into another ecosystem.

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References:

Cardoso JT, Lázzar SMN (2003) Comparative biology of Cycloneda sanguinea (Linnaeus, 1763) and Hippodamia convergens Guérin-Méneville, 1842 (Coleoptera, Coccinellidae) focusing on the control of Cinara spp. (Hemiptera, Aphididae). Revista Brasileira de Entomologia 47(3): 443–446. doi: 10.1590/S0085-56262003000300014 

Işkıber AA (2005) Functional responses of two coccinellid predators, Scymnus levaillanti and Cycloneda sanguinea, to the cotton aphid, Aphis gossypii. Turkish Journal of Agriculture and Forestry 29: 347–355.

Michaud JP (2002) Invasion of the Florida Citrus Ecosystem by Harmonia axyridis (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) and Asymmetric Competition with a Native Species, Cycloneda sanguinea. Environmental Entomology 31(5): 827–835. doi: 10.1603/0046-225X-31.5.827

Sarmento RA, Venzon M, Pallini A, Oliveira EE, Janssen A (2007) Use of odours by Cycloneda sanguinea to assess patch quality. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 124(3): 313–318. doi: 10.1111/j.1570-7458.2007.00587.x

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Friday Fellow: Hawaiian Black Nerite

by Piter Kehoma Boll

The sea is so full of different lifeforms that it is hard to leave it once we are there. Thus, we will continue in the sea this week, but moving to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, more precisely to the Hawaiian islands. There, on the shore, we can find today’s fellow.

An aggregate of Nerita picea in Kauai. Photo by Phil Liff-Grieff.*

Named Nerita picea, it is a small snail found on the rocky shores across most of Hawaii, often in aggregates. It is commonly called the Hawaiian black nerite in English but the native Hawaiians call it pipipi.

Empty shells of the Hawaiian black nerite. Photo by Donna Pomeroy.**

The Hawaiian black nerite measures about 1 cm in length and its shell is externally black with spiral ribs, sometimes with a thin lighter line running between them, and often with a whitish tone on the tip of the spiral. Its ribs are relatively little marked when compared to most nerite species. Internally, the shell is white. The soft parts of the body are also mostly dark in color and so is the operculum, the lid that closes the opening of the shell when the snail retracts. The foot, however, is lighter. When a live animal is picked, it quickly retracts into the shell, covering the opening with the operculum and letting a white margin around it.

A live specimen in Oahu with the soft parts visible. Photo by Isaac Lord.**

Like most intertidal snails, the Hawaiian black nerite is a herbivore and grazes on algae growing on the rocks. It prefers to live at the splash zone and slightly above it, differing from its closest relative, Nerita plicata, which lives in the upper zone, avoiding the splashes.

Due to its tropical distribution, the Hawaiian black nerite reproduces continuously throughout the year. There is no sexual dimorphism between males and females, which is, I guess, “the rule” for snails.

The Hawaiian black nerite was traditionally used as food by the native Hawaiians and its shells can be found in large numbers in archaeological sites of the archipelago dating back more than a thousand years. Empty shells of the Hawaiian black nerite are also commonly used by small hermit crabs of the genus Calcinus.

Calcinus hermit crabs using the shells of dead Hawaiian black nerites. Photo by CA Clark.***

Despite being a common species in Hawaii and having a historical importance as food, little seems to be known about the life history of the Hawaiian black nerite.

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References:

Dye T (1994) Apparent ages of marine shells: implications for archaeological dating in Hawai’i. Radiocarbon 36(1):51–57.

Frey MA (2010) The relative importance of geography and ecology in species diversification: evidence from a tropical marine intertidal snail (Nerita). Journal of Biogeography 37:1515–1528. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2010.02283.x

Pfeiffer CJ (1992) Intestinal Ultrastructure of Nerita picea (Mollusca: Gastropoda), an Intertidal Marine Snail of Hawaii. Acta Zoologic 73(1):39–47. doi: 10.1111/j.1463-6395.1992.tb00947.x 

Reese ES (1969) Behavioral adaptations of intertidal hermit crabs. American Zoologist 9(2):343–355. doi: 10.1093/icb/9.2.343

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Friday Fellow: Painted Spiny Lobster

by Piter Kehoma Boll

No other species in the world eats such a great diversity of food types as humans do. And among all the things we eat, some are much more valuable than others, and one of those precious foods is the meat of Panulirus versicolor, the painted spiny lobster.

Painted spiny lobster in Fiji. Photo by Mark Rosenstein.*

Also known as the painted rock lobster or blue spiny lobster, this crustacean can measure up to 40 cm in length and, like all spiny lobsters, has a pair of very large and spiny antennae and lacks the large chelae (claws) on the first pair of walking legs, which are typical of the true lobsters. Its color pattern is very complex and includes a lot of black and white marks on the legs, the cephalothorax and the posterior border of each abdominal segment. The large antennae have a pinkish color at the thicker base and are whitish after that.

Another one from Fiji. Photo by Mark Rosenstein.*

The painted spiny lobster is found in coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific region, from South Africa to Polynesia. It is a voracious carnivore, feeding on carcasses but also actively hunting other crustaceans and eventually fish. They are nocturnal, remaining during the day hidden in rock shelters called dens and leaving at night to capture other benthos (i.e., species that move across the sea floor). Although they do not have a complex social structure, painted spiny lobsters can share the same den if there is room enough and they apparently prefer to do so, even though the groups do not remain together as most individuals move to a new den every few days. The way they share the dens is not random, though. Female painted spiny lobsters share dens more often than would happen by chance but two males are never found together in the same den. Thus, even large dens which can house seven or more spiny lobsters will have at maximum one male.

This one is from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Albertini maridom.**

Males and females are about the same size and become sexually mature when their carapace measures about 8 to 9 cm in length, which occurs when they are about 4 years old. After mating, a female can produce hundreds of thousands of eggs in a single brood. As they live in tropical waters, they can mate more than once a year.

Throughout its range, the painted spiny lobster is considered a valuable food in many countries, especially Kenya, India, Palau, New Guinea and Australia. It is, indeed, one of the most consumed spiny lobsters in the Indo-Pacific region. However, there are few studies on the impact that harvesting it can have on the ecosystems, although it is expected that most spiny-lobster fishers should know that immature individuals should not be captured in order to ensure the species’ survival.

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References:

Frisch AJ (2007) Growth and reproduction of the painted spiny lobster (Panulirus versicolor) on the Great Barrier Reef (Australia). Fisheries Research 85:61–67. doi: 10.1016/j.fishres.2006.12.001

Frisch AJ (2007) Short- and long-term movements of painted lobster (Panulirus versicolor) on a coral reef at Northwest Island, Australia. Coral Reefs 26:311–317. doi: 10.1007/s00338-006-0194-6

Frisch AJ (2008) Social organisation and den utilisation of painted spiny lobster (Panulirus versicolor) on a coral reef at Northwest Island, Australia. Marine and Freshater Research 59:521–528. doi: 10.1071/MF06110

Vijayakumaran M, Maharajan A, Rajalakshmi S, Jayagopal P, Subramanian MS, Remani MC (2012) Fecundity and viability of eggs in wild breeders of spiny lobsters, Panulirus homarus (Linnaeus, 1758), Panulirus versicolor (Latreille, 1804) and Panulirus ornatus (Fabricius, 1798). Journal of the Marine Biological Association of India 54: 18–22.

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