Category Archives: Zoology

Don’t let the web bugs bite

by Piter Kehoma Boll

If you think spiders are scary creatures, today you will learn that they are scared too. But what could scary a spider? Well, a web bug!

We usually think of spider webs as an astonishing evolutionary achievement of this group of arachnids and a very efficient way to capture prey without having to pursue them. Webs are sticky, resistant, and only spiders themselves can move freely through them. The only problem is that this is not true.

emesaya_feeding

A thread-legged assassin bug (Emesaya sp.) feeding on a spider after invading the spider’s web in the Western Ghats, India. Photo by Vipin Baliga.*

A group of bugs that conquered the spider world are the so-called thread-legged assassin bugs, which comprise the subfamily Emesinae of the assassin bugs (family Reduviidae). As the name implies, the assassin bugs are a group of true bugs (suborder Heteroptera) that are expert killers of other creatures.

During their evolution, the thread-legged assassin bugs seem to have acquired a special taste for spiders and throughout the world they are usually associated with this eight-legged predators. In many cases, such as the one seen in the picture above, the bugs prey on the spiders, having developed the ability to move through the webs. They usually produce vibrations on the web that attract the spiders. Those, thinking that they caught a prey, are lured directly to their death in the legs and proboscis of the terrible bug.

Some thread-legged assassin bugs have, however, found another way to harass spiders: by stealing their food. In the latter scenario, the bugs usually wait close to or on the spider’s web and, when an insect is caught, they steal it from the spider by ripping it off the web. This kind of behavior is called kleptoparasitism, which means “parasitism by stealing”.

But how can spiders avoid this bug nightmare?

Until recently, it was thought that spiders were safe inside caves. Although emesinid bugs do occurr in caves, their association with spiders seemed to be weaker or non-existent there. But new findings are revealing that they pursue our arachnid fellows even to the deepest abysses of Earth.

The earliest cave-dwelling thread-legged assassin bug known to prey on spiders is Bagauda cavernicola, from India. Its spider-eating habits are known since the first decades of the 20th century.

The second species, Phasmatocoris labyrinthicus, was found almost a century later, in 2013, in Arizona, USA. More than only preying on spiders, such as the species Eidmanella pallida that lives in the same cave, P. labyrinthicus seem to have developed the ability to manipulate abandoned spiderwebs and use them to detect and capture prey for their own consumption. Only a single instance of such a behavior has been recorded and the species’s behavior needs further studies.

phasmatocoris_labyrinthicus_eating

Phasmatocoris labyrinthicus feeding on the spider Eidmanella pallida in the Kartchner Caverns, Arizona, USA. Photo extracted from Bape, 2013.

Now, only 3 years later, there are new evidences of more thread-legged assassin bugs molesting spiders in caves. And this time the observations were made in Minas Gerais, Brazil. One individual of the bug species Emesa mourei was seen standing on the web of a recluse spider (Loxosceles similis) while the spider was at the web’s edge. Another specimen of E. mourei was seen feeding on a fly near the web of a pholcid (cellar spider). The fly and the legs of the bug had vestiges of silk, indicating that the bug stole the fly from the spider. Another bug species, Phasmatocoris sp., was observed on a web of the cellar spider Mesabolivar aff. tandilicus. If this species of Phasmatocoris manipulates spider webs the same way that P. labyrinthicus seems to do is something yet to be investigated.

emesa_mourei_eating

Nymph of Emesa mourei feeding on a fly that it apparently stole from a pholcid spider in the cave Lapa Arco da Lapa, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Photo by Leonardo P. A. Resende, extracted from Resende et al., 2016.

With three different and very distant records of thread-legged assassin bugs associated with spiders in caves, it is clear that the poor arachnids cannot get rid of those bugs even if they run down into the bowels of the Earth.

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ResearchBlogging.orgReferences:

PAPE, R. (2013). Description and Ecology of A New Cavernicolous, Arachnophilous Thread-legged Bug (Hemiptera: Reduviidae: Emesini) from Kartchner Caverns, Cochise County, Arizona Zootaxa, 3670 (2) DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.3670.2.2

Resende, L., Zepon, T., Bichuette, M., Pape, R., & Gil-Santana, H. (2016). Associations between Emesinae heteropterans and spiders in limestone caves of Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil Neotropical Biology and Conservation, 11 (3) DOI: 10.4013/nbc.2016.113.01

Wignall, A., & Taylor, P. (2010). Predatory behaviour of an araneophagic assassin bug Journal of Ethology, 28 (3), 437-445 DOI: 10.1007/s10164-009-0202-8

Wygodzinsky, P. W. 1966. A monograph of the Emesinae (Reduviidae, Hemiptera). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 133:1-614.

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Friday Fellow: Ocean Sunfish

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Let’s swim to the world of fishes once more. And today we are meeting the heaviest of the bony ones, the ocean sunfish!

mola_mola

The ocean sunfish looks like a giant piece of mushroom, don’t you think? Photo by Per-Ola Norman.

Scientifically known as Mola mola, the ocean sunfish is found in tropical and temperate oceanic waters throughout the world and has a very strange look. And this is not the only strange thing about it. More than being the heaviest bony fish in the world, weighing up to 1,000 kg, it feeds almost exclusively on jellyfish, eating a huge amount of them to become that big. Also, the female ocean sunfish is known to produce up to 300 million eggs at a time, more than any other vertebrate!

The weird lump on their rear end is not a caudal fin. Actually, sunfish have no tail at all. This structure, called clavus, is formed by projections of the dorsal and anal fins.

Despite their huge size, sunfishes are not a direct threat to humans. People can swim among them without any problem. The most common forms of accidents with these fish are caused when boats collide with them or when a sunfish jumps out of the water and ends up inside a boat. Imagine a 500-kg fish landing on your head!

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References:

McGrouther, Mark (2011).”Ocean Sunfish, Mola mola“. Australian Museum Online. Available at <http://australianmuseum.net.au/ocean-sunfish-mola-mola&gt;. Access on December 8, 2016.

Wikipedia. Ocean sunfish. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_sunfish&gt;. Access on December 8, 2016.

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Obama invades Europe: “Yes, we can!”

ResearchBlogging.orgby Piter Kehoma Boll

This information was known by me and some other people for quite a while, but only recently has caught attention of the general public. Obama is the newest threat in Europe.

No, I’m not talking about the president of the United States. I’m talking about a land flatworm whose name is  Obama nungara.

obama_marmorata_7

This is the magnificent Obama nungara. This specimen is from Brazil and looks particulary yellowish due to the strong light of the camera flash. Photo by Piter Kehoma Boll.*

It has been a while since a new invasive land flatworm started to appear in gardens of Europe, especially in Spain and France and eventually elsewhere, such as in the United Kingdom. It was quickly identified as being a Neotropical land planarian and posteriorly as belonging to the genus Obama, whose name has nothing to do with Barack Obama, but is rather a combination of the Tupi words oba (leaf) and ma (animal) as a reference to the worm’s shape.

obama_nungara

When you find Obama nungara in your garden, it will look much darker, like this one found in the UK. Photo by buglife.org.uk

At first it was thought that the planarian belonged to the species Obama marmorata, a species that is native from southern Brazil, but molecular and morphological analyses revealed it to be a new species. Actually, much of what was called Obama marmorata in Brazil was this new species. Thus, it was named nungara, which means “similar” in Tupi, due to its similarity with Obama marmorata.

obama_marmorata

This is Obama marmorata, the species that O. nungara was originally mistaken for. Photo by Fernando Carbayo.**

Measuring about 5 cm in length, sometimes a little more or a little less, O. nungara is currently known to feed on earthworms, snails, slugs and even other land planarians. Its impact on the European fauna is, however, still unknown, but the British charitable organization Buglife decided to spread an alert and many news websites seem to have loved the flatworm’s name and suddenly a flatworm is becoming famous.

Who said flatworms cannot be under the spotlight? Yes, they can!

See also: The Ladislau’s flatworm, a cousin of Obama nungara.

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References:

Álvarez-Presas, M., Mateos, E., Tudó, À., Jones, H., & Riutort, M. (2014). Diversity of introduced terrestrial flatworms in the Iberian Peninsula: a cautionary tale PeerJ, 2 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.430

Boll, P., & Leal-Zanchet, A. (2016). Preference for different prey allows the coexistence of several land planarians in areas of the Atlantic Forest Zoology, 119 (3), 162-168 DOI: 10.1016/j.zool.2016.04.002

Carbayo, F., Álvarez-Presas, M., Jones, H., & Riutort, M. (2016). The true identity of Obama (Platyhelminthes: Geoplanidae) flatworm spreading across Europe Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 177 (1), 5-28 DOI: 10.1111/zoj.12358

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Friday Fellow: Sun Beetle

ResearchBlogging.orgby Piter Kehoma Boll

Who says beetles cannot be cute? Take a look at those guys:

pachnoda_marginata

They are eating a piece of banana. Photo by Wikimedia user Evanherk.*

These little fellows are beetles of the species Pachnoda marginata, commonly known as sun beetle or taxi cab beetle. Native from Africa, they reach up to 30 mm as adults and 60 mm as larvae and are one of the most common beetles raised as pets.

pachnoda_marginata_peregrina

An adult with the wings exposed, about to fly. Photo by Wikimedia user Drägüs.*

The sun beetle has nine subspecies, each with a particular color pattern. The most well known subspecies is Pachnoda marginata peregrina and is the one shown in the photos above.

Since the sun beetle is easy to keep in the lab, it has been eventually used in scientific studies, especially some related to the neurology of the olphactory receptors.

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References:

Larsson, M. C., Stensmyr, M.. C., Bice, S. B., & Hansson, B. S. (2003). Attractiveness of Fruit and Flower Odorants Detected by Olfactory Receptor Neurons in the Fruit Chafer Pachnoda marginata Journal of Chemical Ecology, 29 (5), 1253-1268 DOI: 10.1023/A:1023893926038

Stensmyr, Marcus C., Larsson, Mattias C., Bice, Shannon, & Hansson, Bill S. (2001). Detection of fruit- and flower-emitted volatiles by olfactory receptor neurons in the polyphagous fruit chafer Pachnoda marginata (Coleoptera: Cetoniinae) Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 187 (7), 509-519

Wikipedia. Pachnoda marginata. Availabe at: < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pachnoda_marginata >. Access on September 8, 2016.

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Friday Fellow: Helicopter Damselfly

ResearchBlogging.orgby Piter Kehoma Boll

Damselflies are usually delicate versions of dragonflies, but some species challenge their place among the odonates. The most extreme example comes from the moist forests of Central and South America and is known as Megaloprepus caerulatus or the “helicopter damselfly”.

With a wingspan up to 19 cm, the helicopter damselfly is the largest of odonates and a voracious predator in both the aquatic naiad and the aerial adult forms.

megaloprepus_caerulatus

An adult female. Photo by Steven G. Johnson*

Female helicopter damselflies lay their eggs in water-filled tree hollows. Males are territorialists and defend the larger holes as territory, mating with females interested in laying eggs there.

The aquatic juvenile stage, known as naiad or nymph, is a top predator in this reduced ecosystem, feeding on mosquito larvae, tadoples and even other odonates. As adults, they feed mainly on web-building spiders that they capture in areas that receive direct sunlight, such as forest glades.

As the population size of the helicopter damselfly depends on the number and size of available tree hollows and considering that they avoid crossing large gaps between forest patches, any environmental disturbance may have profound impacts on this species. Recent molecular studies also suggest that what is known as Megaloprepus caerulatus is actually a complex of species, as there is no genetic flow between the populations. This makes it (or them) a much more vulnerable species.

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References:

Feindt, W., Fincke, O., & Hadrys, H. (2013). Still a one species genus? Strong genetic diversification in the world’s largest living odonate, the Neotropical damselfly Megaloprepus caerulatus Conservation Genetics, 15 (2), 469-481 DOI: 10.1007/s10592-013-0554-z

Wikipedia. Megaloprepus caerulatus. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megaloprepus_caerulatus >. Access on September 7, 2016.

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Friday Fellow: Gold-and-Brown Rove Beetle

ResearchBlogging.orgby Piter Kehoma Boll

It’s time for our next beetle. Today the fellow I chose is Ontholestes cingulatus or gold-and-brown rove beetle. Rove beetles are the second most numerous family of beetles after weevils. Their more remarkable feature is that their elythra are short, not covering the abdomen most of the time. I always say that they look like if they were wearing a little jacket. So if you find an elongate beetle with short jacket-like elythra, it is most likely a rove beetle.

The gold-and-brown rove beetle is found throughout North America and is a predator as most rove beetles. It is usually found near carrion and dung, but it is not a scavenger. What it does there is too prey on fly larvae feeding on the rotten material.

An adult showing the nice golden "tail". Photo by Bruce Marlin.*

An adult showing the nice golden “tail”. Photo by Bruce Marlin.*

The gold-and-brown rove beetle is 13–20 mm long and mostly brown, but the last abdominal segments, as well as the underside of the thorax, have a beautiful and shiny gold color.

The mating behavior of the gold-and-brown rove beetle is interesting. Usually the male stays around the female after copulating with her in order to guard her from other males. This behavior usually ends soon after the female has laid the eggs, since at this point the male can be sure that he is the father of the children. To perform this guarding behavior is costly for the male, as he could be using this time to copulate with another female. But as receptive females are kind of rare, it is more advantageous to assure the paternity of the offspring of at least one female than to risk losing everything.

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References:

Alcock, J. (1991). Adaptive mate-guarding by males of Ontholestes cingulatus (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae) Journal of Insect Behavior, 4 (6), 763-771 DOI: 10.1007/BF01052230

BugGuide. Species Ontholestes cingulatus – Gold-and-Brown Rove Beetle. Available at: < http://bugguide.net/node/view/9548 >. Access on August 1, 2016.

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Friday Fellow: Six-Spot Burnet

ResearchBlogging.orgby Piter Kehoma Boll

Found in Europe, today’s Friday Fellow is a nice day-flying moth with beautiful colors and toxic compounds. Scientifically known as Zygaena filipendulae, its common name is six-spot burnet, burnet being the common name of moths in the genus Zygaena and six-spot referring to the six red spots in each of the front wings. Those spots contrast beautifully with the dark blue or green metalic background of the wings, giving it some sort of mystical look, don’t you think?

The color say "I'm not edible". Photo by Vlad Proklov.*

The colors say “I’m not edible”. Photo by Vlad Proklov.*

As a caterpillar, the six-spot burnet feeds on leguminous plants, especially trefoils, and has a very different appearance, as usually in lepidopterans. It is yellow to greenish-yellow and has two rows of black spots running on the dorsum.

A chubby yellow caterpillar. Photo by Harald Süpfle.**

A chubby yellow caterpillar. Photo by Harald Süpfle.**

The plants used as food by the caterpillar contain cyanogenic glucosides, substances that are stored individually and produce toxic hydrogen cyanide when in contact with each other. This is used as a defense mechanism by the plant, but the caterpillar ingests and stores such compounds to use for its own defense. It has also been shown that the caterpillar is able to produce these cyanogenic glucosides by itself, thus not relying solely on the portion ingested with the food. Most of the compounds, however, are lost during the metamorphosis, so that the adults are much less toxic than the caterpillars.

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References:

Zagrobelny, M., Bak, S., Olsen, C., & Møller, B. (2007). Intimate roles for cyanogenic glucosides in the life cycle of Zygaena filipendulae (Lepidoptera, Zygaenidae) Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 37 (11), 1189-1197 DOI: 10.1016/j.ibmb.2007.07.008

Wikipedia. Six-spot burnet. Available at: < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six-spot_burnet >. Access on August 1, 2016.

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