Face to face: Pulmonaria apennina

Pulmonaria apennina

Undergrowth in purple.

I’m BAAAAAACK! There are no excuses for such a long absence, but I have been a little busier than usual with the university – and I’ll be in the immediate future too! Recently, I’ve attended a course called “Ecosystemic Laboratory”, which includes a series of excursions in natural parks, and I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the local flora. Here’s Pulmonaria apennina, a protected species that is not very common everywhere, but in some places can be very abundant. The flowers are pink at first, and then become purple, and the leaves present many white spots (the green parenchyma in those spots is reduced). The function of the spots, if they have any, is unknown (it could be for protection from insects, like some exotic plants in which the leaves look like they’ve already been infested, thus prompting the insect to search some other plant) but in the middle ages people believed that, since the spots vaguely looked like alveoli in a lung, the plant was a miraculous cure for respiratory problems. It isn’t, of course, but the trichomes (“hair”) of the leaves caused expectoration, reinforcing the belief. It’s a plant that grows in shadowy places, like the underwood, and flowers around march-april, and its main pollinators are bumblebees (genus: Bombus)

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.

Face to Face: Xylocopa violacea

Xylocopa violacea

It’s big and scary looking, but it’s mostly harmless.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my photos. This one was taken in the beautiful country of Croatia, and its protagonist is a carpenter bee, Xylocopa violacea (or a similar species), a big and beautiful Hymenoptera of the Apoidea. While the most widely known of the bee species, the honeybee, is eusocial, there are various species, including Xylocopa violacea, that are solitary. The carpenter bees can be easily seen in spring and summer in many european countries, in places where there are many flowers, and they’re often mistaken for the far more aggressive hornets (which are actually completely different, and part of the Vespoidea) by the common people, but, while they can sting, they won’t do it unless you try to do something stupid like catching them with your bare hands. Carpenter bees lay eggs in tunnels in wood; each egg is in a chambers separated by the others by a septum made of plant parts; each chambers also contains a littleball made of nectar and pollen, so the larva has something to eat after it hatches. When their development is complete, the insects will leave their chambers in the wood and start their lives as adults.

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?

Videos about Hymenoptera

Just a couple cool videos I’ve discovered thanks to Science Memebase. In both cases, the protagonists are hymenopterans, the group of insects that includes wasps, bees and ants. Although there are many species of solitary hymenopterans (at least in the case of bees and wasps), these critters are of course mainly known for their complex and sometimes abnormally huge societies. And these videos really seem to highlight the importance of cooperation between the individuals of these colonies.

The first video shows an incredible behaviour of fire ants that create a nearly-impossible-to-sink raft – with their bodies. I knew they could make long bridges, but I had never realized how waterproof the structures they created could be. This incredible level of coordination shows how the use of the term “superorganism” to describe these colonies is not only correct, but also mandatory.

The second video shows a classic battle between two old rivals – with a musical twist. The main characters are the european honeybees Apis mellifera and the deadly Japanese Hornets Vespa mandarinia japonica, an Apoidea and a Vespoidea respectively (both part of the Aculeata). The author o the video added an epic music track for added spectacularity, and the results are awesome. Should epic soundtracks be implemented in nature documentaries? I don’t think it’s such a bad idea: life is epic, give it a proper musical score.

The Japanese Hornets prey the eggs and larvae of the bees, after finding their colonies thanks to scouts sent to explore the territory. One of the coolest facts of this eternal war is the way the bees can counter the presence of a scout: they swarm on it and start vibrating their bodies until the temperature gets so high that the hornet is cooked alive. Fuck yeah.

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!

Friday’s Featured Organism: Hippobosca equina

The little fucker.

by Francesco Lami

This one will be longer than usual.

You know, unlike some people who say to like animals when they only like dogs, horses, cats and pets in general, when I say that I like animals, I mean it. Blue whale or jellyfish, whip scorpion or gastrotrich, they’re all fascinating and beautiful in their own way. Hell, I find fascinating and important even animals that are fucking annoying like mosquitoes or even plain dangerous like parasite nematodes. But if there’s something that I find very hard to like even a little bit, although it DOES have remarkable capabilities, that’s Hippobosca equina.

To Hippobosca equina, I say “Fuck you”.

The common english name for this critter is “forest fly”, and in fact the times I’ve encountered it I was in the woods. I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time: it was certainly a Diptera, and I suspected it was some kind of bloodsucker since it always returned stubbornly to bug me, no matter how hard I tried to drive it away. I discovered the family Hippoboscidae (louse flies) by chance navigating the internet, and it was clear that the mysterious fly was part of it, with its flattened body, long legs and that goddamn bloodsucking stylet. Discovering the exact species was easy because it turned out it was very common here in Italy. I read at Biodiversity in Focus that the reason they are flattened and have many setae on the thorax and the abdomen might be to hold on the feathers (and hair in this case, I guess) of their victims – seems a pretty good explanation to me, and the long, robust legs have probably the same function. I’ve never even been bitten by one of this animals, and they’re much less common than mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers, so why do I hate them so much? Because their ecological speciality is drive you insane. As I’ve already mentioned, they’re extremely stubborn; they take a hold on your skin and even if you force them away with your hand they come back in the exact same spot in less than half a second, like a goddamn living jet-powered boomerang. And that’s not the worst part – they’re indestructible. You simply can’t kill ’em because their exoskeleton is too fucking resilient. I tried with my bare hands, with a book, I even trapped one under a tissue and repeatedly smashed it with an heavy stone, but H. equina wasn’t even stunned, and continued to try to bite me. Mosquitoes and other insects have evolved not to be noticed while they bite you, and so they often succeed leaving you with unpleasant souvenirs; the forest fly just don’t give a fuck: it’s extremely easy to spot it and feel it on your skin, but it counts on the fact that it’s so relentless that you will soon be too tired to continue to resist it (and let’s not forget its near-immortality); and, since its favourite victims are horses and other animals that don’t have hands to continuously defend themselves, it surely works well.