Myrmecos’ Alex Wild pays a visit to Italy

Hey, apparently a while ago Alex Wild of Myrmecos visited Parma, an Emilia-Romagna city not too distant from where I live! But what was he doing there? He was in collaboration with local researchers to start a project in which the local population (in this case, elementary school kids) would be directly involved into ant research, which is totally awesome. I was really envious when I read on Wild’s blog of similar projects that took place in America, because this kind of things both help researchers collect data on large territories and manages to sparkle more interest and understanding for science and biodiversity in non-scientists; since here in Italy there’s basically no real support for scientific research, I thought we would never start something like that, which would have been a pity because our nation, thanks to the enormous diversity of geographic and climate conditions, has the richest biodiversity in all Europe. Well, apparently (and fortunately) I was wrong, since this new initiative follows the american model: it consist in leaving open vials containing a bait (usually a piece of a cookie) in various places with different conditions (grass, concrete…), wait for local ants to enter them, then capture the insects. At this point, the citizen can attempt an identification, but more importently can record data on when, where, etc… the specimens where captured, then freeze the ants, pack them with the data and send them to experts, helping them to study the distribution and ecology of these amazingly important organisms. So, overall, that’s great news for italian biodiversity research. One minor note to Alex Wild’s otherwise excellent article: I kind of rolled my eyes reading “…the students went back inside to talk about what they had found and then, I assume, it being Parma, eat pasta and/or pizza for lunch…”. It’s a little bit weird. Yes, pizza and the pasta can be found everywhere in Italy, of course, but come on, you make me feel like this guy.

Saturday’s Featured Organism: Psittacula krameri

Psittacula krameri

I can't post this under the "Face to face" imprint because I'm a fuckwit and couldn't take any photo of the parakeets I saw, so here's a "Friday's Featured Organism" article and a stock photo from Google Images. Enjoy.

I’m back home, but this organism is still relevant to my short but sweet roman trip. Wait, what? A parrot like Psittacula krameri in an italian city like Rome? Fuck yes. Ring-necked Parakeets escaped or freed from captivity (they’re popular pets, after all) have been relatively common in many big european cities with warm climate for years now. I had seen them in Barcelona some years ago, so I read about them and discovered that they were in Rome too. However, I had started to think that the roman population was starting to die out, since I frequently visit Rome and I had never seen them. Until the other day, when I discovered a huge colony in a beautiful garden near the Appian way. There were dozens and dozens of beautiful emerald-green parrots flying around, many of them carrying twigs to help building the many enormous colonial nests on the pines nearby. The birds, and the fact that the park was so green and full of palm trees gave the impression of being somewhere in the garden of a powerful and ancient asian king.

While it’s an alien species (and alien species in general are one of the biggest danger to global ecosystems) I don’t think that the Ring-necked Parakeet causes any trouble to local biodiversity, especially since, at least here in Europe, it’s confined to big cities, as far as I know. So I, for one, welcome our new parakeet overlords.

Wild Boars in Circeo

Chillin’ in Rome right now (also, I’m writing this post from my phone, so sorry if it’s not very articulate). Yesterday I visited the Natural Park of Mount Circeo, which is part of the MAB (Man And Biosphere), a programme aimed at biodiversity conservation and management all around the world. I visited the forest portion of the park, and it’s beautiful, with enormous trees and a tipically mediterranean vegetation. Parts of the forest are partially flooded with water, especially during autumm, creating vast natural pools. Also, for the first time ever, I had a face to face with a group of wild boars (Sus scrofa), four huge, fearsome looking individuals. At first I thought they were inside an enclosure like the other animals at the entrance of the park, then I realized there was no real fence between me and them: they just entered the garden of the building of the park rangers to find something to eat. When we stopped the car (we where about to leave the park after a brief excursion by foot) they stared at us for a few seconds and then quickly disappeared in the forest (so I have no photos of the encounter, sadly). Boars are fascinating animals, but in many areas they can be a real problem, ecologically and economically: they are present in vast numbers, and can badly damage endangered vegetation and crops. The forest of Circeo was full of the holes they dig in search of roots and bulbs, for example, and the hills near Bologna, my city, are even worse in some areas.

Friday’s Featured Organism: Vibrio fischeri

Vibrio fischeri

Glooooooowww

I love all living things (in a total non-hippy way), but it’s clear that I’ve my preferences, and prokaryotes don’t get as much coverage as Eukarya around here usually. So here’s a bacterium, and what’s cooler than a normal bacterium? A bacterium that glows in the dark. Yes, Vibrio fischeri is a gram-negative marine bacterium, widely studied for its bioluminescence. Not only it lights up, but it’s also capable of symbiosis with marine animals like fishes and squids, which use its bioluminescence to their own advantage, and have co-evolved with these bacteria so that it’s easier for the microorganisms to colonize specific organs in their bodies. As far as I know, it’s also used in ecotoxicology studies, probably in part because it should be easier to check the growth of a glowing bacterium than the growth of a non-shiny one.

Friday’s Featured Organism: Dryococelus australis

Dryococelus australis

Giant insects, hellish forgotten islands... What is this, Peter Jackson's King Kong?

Everyone seems to be talking about this story, and I can see why. Usually, I’m more for the protection of entire key ecosystems or group of organisms rather than single, extra-endangered species whose ecological niche is today pretty small and irrelevant, but I understand the importance that these species can have as symbols of environmental protection for common people. This story in particular seems to me really touching, although many people would probably consider Dryococelus australis, the “tree lobster” (actually a giant stick insect), an horrible animal that deserves to be extinct (and here lies the limit and the superficiality of many people’s environmentalism: protect it if it’s huge and famous, burn it if it’s not a vertebrate). This beautiful critter was wiped out by introduced rats on its native Lord Howe island, Australia, by 1930, and was thought to be lost forever. In 2001, however, the walking stick rose from the ashes: a dangerously small population of around 30 individuals was discovered living in one of the few bushes that grows on the hellish Ball’s Pyramid, a small volcano renmant in the middle of the Tasman sea, resembling a giant blade emerging from the depths of some lovecraftian underwater city. Those insects were the last of their kind, and they had survived for all that time on that forgotten rock. 4 animals were captured, only a couple survived, but it was enough: now there’s a relatively stable captive population, all descendants of those two insects, Adam and Eve, and currently there are plans to try to reintroduce the tree lobster to its native Lord Howe island, after more than 80 years. If Dryococelus australis went extinct, nobody would have noticed, and I don’t think there would have been any additional repercussions on the environment (maybe there were at the time it was first wiped out from Lord Howe, but I’m talking about new repercussions). It is however remarkable how this seemingly doomed bug, withouth the help of any environmental organization, scientist, or support from the general public, secretly clinged to life for more than 80 years on that forgotten rock, under a single bush, with a population of less than 30 individuals. Don’t you feel that such an incredible animal, such an incredible feat of durability against all the odds, deserves to live to see another day? Don’t you think it could beĀ  a symbol of biodiversity protection just as good, and probably even better, than the usual tigers, pandas and sea turtles?

Friday’s Featured Organism: Amanita phalloides

Amanita phalloides

Shroom... of DOOM!

For the first fungus-based post here at The Cladogram we’ve goth the poisonous Amanita phalloides, the deadliest european mushroom, also known as Death Cap. My ongoing war with Jerry Coyne forces me to point out that the young fruity body (the mushroom) of this species is shaped like a phallus, hence the name “phalloides”.

Fungi are amazing and ecologically important organisms, and they’re weirdly misunderstood by non-biologists: usually, people think of them as plants. Hell, usually even in Biology Faculties they’re included into basic botany courses, even though the professors themselves of course explain that they’re more closely related to animals (the same way ALL of the diverse group of Protozoa are usually introduced in basic zoology courses – I think it’s time to create a separate course for “minor” Eukarya clades that are neither animals or plants). Just like animals, fungi are heterotrophs (many of them are fundamental in the process of decomposition of dead organic matter, and many are parasites of living beings), they have glycogen as an energy storage molecule, their cells contain chitin (in fungi it forms cell walls, while plant cell walls are of course made of cellulose), and they can’t do photosynthesis. Fungi, Animalia and Amoebozoa are all part of the clade Unikonta, while plants and other groups like green algae are part of the clade Plantae. So yeah, support the fungal secession from the plant tiranny!

Friday’s Featured Organism: Adalia bipunctata

Adalia bipunctata

"It's a bird! It's a lady! It's Sup... no wait. It's a ladybird."

Adalia bipunctata, beetle of the family Coccinellidae, and fairly similar to the more commonly known Coccinella septempunctata, except it has only 2 black spots on the elytra (one for each) instead of 7. As many Coccinellidae, it’s a predator that feeds on aphids and other small insects, and thus it’s widely used as a biological control agent against them.

Why this organism? As a part of my degree in Biological Sciences, I have to attend a stage, and now I’ve finally found it, at the local Faculty of Agrarian Sciences! I’ll work with an entomologist interested in agroecology, functional biodiversity and ecotoxicology of useful insects (and how agriculture and wild insects species interact in general), and one of the groups the work is more focused on is Coccinellidae. I’ll start in 1-2 months, first helping around in general and then choosing a specific project to work on. It looks like it will be awesome (I surely hope it will be), so hooray for me and hooray for the ladybirds!