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Canadian Entomologist Editor’s Pick – March 2013

By Chris Buddle, editor of The Canadian Entomologist

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The Canadian Entomologists’ latest issue is devoted to Arctic Entomology, with guest editors Derek Sikes and Toke T. Høye putting together an excellent suite of papers on this topic.  This is a very timely issue – there is an incredible amount of Arctic entomology happening around the world, and the Arctic is an area that is undergoing rapid environmental change.   It’s good that scientists are paying attention, and that entomologists are doing high quality research in the north.

Deciding on an “editor’s pick” for this issue was difficult as there were many excellent papers to choose from.  However, I ended up selecting Gergely Várkonyi and Tomas Roslin’s paper titled “Freezing cold yet diverse: dissecting a high-Arctic parasitoid community associated with Lepidoptera hosts”.   These authors, from Finland, have presented a very nice study about some food-web dynamics occurring in Zackenberg, Greenland  – a truly high Arctic field site, and one that has a remarkable history of long-term ecological monitoring.  Their work is focused on unraveling some of the amazing interactions between Lepidoptera and their parasitoids, and this paper provides a “systematic effort to characterise the high-Arctic Hymenoptera and Diptera parasitoid community associated with Lepidoptera hosts”.   This is a great paper, and hopefully continues to inspire continued efforts to study entomology at high latitudes.

Greenlandic field station

I asked the authors some questions about their work and they kindly provided in-depth answers:

Q1:  What inspired this work?

TOMAS: What got me interested in Arctic predator-prey dynamics was the work of my friend Olivier Gilg. His exploration of the predator-prey dynamics among collared lemmings and their few and selected enemies of Northeast Greenland made me realize that in a species-poor environment, the impact of individual species on each other will be oh-so-much easier to disentangle than among the zillions of interactions typical of tropical and even temperate communities. Here if anywhere you can actually work out both the structure and inner workings of full food webs – which is the very the idea that we have now realized in our study. (And well, from a less scientific point of view, after visiting Northeast Greenland I also realized that this is the most beautiful area of the globe, and that there is nowhere else that I would rather work.)

GERGELY: I have been interested in northern insects, especially hymenopteran parasitoids, since a very long time. I did my PhD in a subarctic environment in Finnish Lapland, with the main focus on host-parasitoid population dynamics between periodic moths and their enemies. I first encountered Greenlandic ichneumonids when my former teacher in ichneumonid taxonomy – and current friend – Reijo Jussila worked on the descriptions of some new species from the Scoresbysund area in Northeast Greenland. More than a decade later, Tomas asked me to identify some samples from Traill Island (NE Greenland), where he had initiated a pilot project on Lepidoptera-Hymenoptera food webs. The next step was when he invited me to join his project about to be launched at Zackenberg. The rest is history…

Q2:  What do you hope will be the lasting impact of this paper?

TOMAS: What I hope that we have achieved are three things: to expose the importance of versatile biotic interactions even in a harsh arctic environment, to reveal the massive effort needed to convincingly dissect even a simple food web, and to establish the baseline structure of a food web facing imminent climate change.

GERGELY: Could not say it any better. I can only add that I hope our thorough overview of the taxonomy and natural history of individual parasitoid species will contribute to getting a better understanding of who is who and what roles each species play in this arctic scene.

flowers in containers

Q3:  Where will your next line of research on this topic take you? 

TOMAS: While we have now figured out the structure of the Lepidoptera-parasitoid web, we should remember that this is but a small module of the overall food web of the region. Our current work aims at expanding/zooming out from this core web towards the full food web of the region, which should actually be more realistically doable here than anywhere else on the globe (see above). In this work, we try to make maximal use of modern molecular tools, offering new resolution to documenting trophic interactions.

GERGELY: Apart from the community ecology goals of this project, we will further continue to update what is known about the parasitic wasp fauna of Greenland. I am focusing on the Ichneumonidae, the single most species-rich family of Hymenoptera in both Greenland and the entire World. By combining morphology and molecular methods, I attempt to clarify species boundaries and detect potential cryptic species. The ultimate goal of this research is to compile a modern taxonomic overview of the Ichneumonidae of Greenland.

Q4: Any amusing anecdotes about this research?

TOMAS: Gergely used to wear a handy hiking suit of light coloration. One day he was almost shot as a polar bear after sneaking up on an unsuspecting colleague in the field.

GERGELY: Well, first of all I was not sneaking, just looking for adult wasps in a safe distance from this colleague of ours. She thought my net was a giant paw of a polar bear (!) and she was really scared for a short moment. But she was definitely not about to shoot me!

Mountain

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Landing an entomological tenure track job: perfecting the practice of academic kung fu

By Chris Buddle (McGill University) & Dezene Huber (University of Northern BC)

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Last autumn there was quite an interesting discussion on twitter among some entomologists in Canada about the ‘job search’ – more specifically focused on the process of seeking tenure-track academic appointments.  Many of us shared our sob stories, and although the time, place and characters varied, the common element was REJECTION.  Those of us who currently are lucky enough to hold faculty appointments remember the rejection to success ratio, and some of us still have stacks of rejection letters.  While most of us really enjoyed the academic freedom that came with working as a postdoc, the job-search process was more often than not discouraging and deflating, and a really difficult time in our lives.

Towards the end of the PhD program, most of us are riding high – our papers are getting published, we are truly ‘experts’ in our fields of study, we are being congratulated, buoyed by our peers and mentors, and we are ready to take on the world.   We found ways to get a post-doc and perhaps traveled to a different country for additional experience, with a sense of hope, optimism, and enthusiasm for the next stage of our careers.

Then, like the world supply of helium, our hopes were quickly diminished.

« I will easily get a job interview at THAT University ».

Nope.  Not even an interview.

« Perfect – that job advertisement was MADE for me – they will hire me.  It’s a perfect fit ».

Nope. A mass e-mail rejection letter instead.

« I’m the GREATEST in my field of study.  Universities will be asking me to apply »

Nope.  That never happens.

I’m sure that I’ll be seriously considered for this position

Nope. The rejection letter came back saying that there were more than 400 applicants for the position.

Even if I don’t get the job, I’ll be able to get feedback from someone on the committee.”

Nope. It’s highly unlikely that, among the 400 applicants, anyone on the committee even remembers you.

There are really two ways to look at this.  It is possible to get discouraged and frustrated, and give up hope OR it’s possible to see that persistence can pay off and eventually the right job will come along, and you will be competitive.  Sure, the opportunities have to be there, but that kind of timing and ‘luck’ isn’t something you can control.

Here are a few pointers that will hopefully help you think about that tenure-track job search, and give you a sense of optimism:

  • It will take a huge dose of patience and persistence, but there ARE tenure-track jobs out there for people with Entomological interests, even in Canada. Recently, Manitoba hired an entomologist, and University of Ottawa just hired an assistant professor on the evolution of plant-pollinator interactions.
  • University professors do eventually retire! (…Although it needs to be noted that the reality in the current economy is that their positions are not always replaced)
  • You don’t have to restrict your options to only University positions.  We know of faculty members who worked in private companies, or in government, and made a lateral transfer, eventually, to academia.  Your holy grail may be a tenure-track job, but other opportunities are equally rewarding and could eventually get you a tenure-track job. Or you may find that life “beyond the ivory tower” is much to your liking anyhow. In fact, you may be interested in the advice column at Chronicle.com by that very name.
  • Be creative with your CV.  There are relatively few jobs for entomologists, sensu stricto, but there are jobs for evolutionary biologists, ecologists, or other more ‘general’ disciplines (Look: Concordia recently held a competition for a community and ecosystem ecologist!)  Re-work your cover letters and CV to reflect your potential in these jobs, and that you use insects as ‘model organisms’. And always tailor your cover letter and CV to any job for which you apply. Don’t just send in the same material to every search committee. Search committees are looking for that elusive thing that we call “fit.”
  • Keep your eye on the ball:  to get that coveted university position, the peer-reviewed publication remains the MOST IMPORTANT item on your CV.  Publish, publish, publish. During this stage of your career, keep the focus on that part of the research process. In particular, enjoy the fact that, as a postdoc, you are relatively free to conduct research and publish without many of the other responsibilities (e.g., teaching, administration) that will come with a tenure-track post.
  • Be realistic. If a job ad states that the committee is looking for an acarologist specializing in the mites of toucans, and you are an acarologist who studies toucan mites, then you have a good chance of landing an interview. If the job ad asks for a “terrestrial ecologist working at any scale from microbial to landscape” and you fit somewhere in there, chances are so do a few hundred other recent graduates.
  • When you see something that looks potentially appropriate for you, apply. Rejection is painful but costs nothing; not applying to something that might have worked out is doubly painful.  People who have agreed to write you letters of recommendation will be patient with you (if they are not, perhaps they are not the right people to give you a letter…?)
  • Have another postdoc or your mentor read through your application material. Chances are your mentor has been on a few search committees and can give you useful tips.
  • Every time you apply for a job, consider it a chance to improve your application material.
  • When you do land an interview, prepare for it like there’s no tomorrow. You are a researcher, do your best to figure out everything that you possibly can about the department to which you are applying and, even more, the personalities that make up that department.  Once you get an interview, this means your CV is strong enough, and the job interview is about the ‘fit’.
  • OK, to be fair, there are other tricks to success in academia.
  • Landing an academic position is not always going to be in the cards for everyone. It is best to have alternate plans so that you don’t get stuck in the so-called postdoctoral holding pattern for years and years. At least one of us (DH) committed to himself to start to explore alternate options at the five year mark after walking the convocation stage. Have a plan B. Your Plan B might actually turn out better than your Plan A in the end.
  • Rejection in terms of tenure-track jobs is really just a warm-up to the continual sense of rejection you will feel if you do end up working as a Professor.  You might as well get used to it.  This is not a statement to bring on doom and gloom: it’s the reality.  You must develop broad shoulders.

Rejection is a fundamental and core part of the academic life: The publication process is becoming so difficult that you can pretty much assume that your paper will get rejected the first few times around (check out this paper about rejection rates…).  Funding agencies are cash-strapped, and it’s getting harder and harder to find ways to fund research projects.  High caliber graduate students will ‘shop around’ for the best graduate program, and will often reject your laboratory. Be a practitioner of academic kung fu – use the weight of rejection against rejection itself by learning from it and applying it to your next attempt.

Depressed yet?

Don’t be.  A tenure track has so many advantages, and these far outweigh the annoying stream of rejections. And the other options available to a bright, young researcher are often as appealing (and usually pay more) than being on the tenure track anyhow.  ..but that’s a topic for another post.

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Editor’s Pick: Resins, exotic woodwasps and how a study species picks a researcher.

by Christopher Buddle, McGill University

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As the Editor-in-Chief of The Canadian Entomologist, I have the pleasure of seeing all papers move through the publication process, from first submission to approval of the final proof.  This places me in a position to fully appreciate the incredible entomological research occurring around the world.  As one way to promote some of the great papers within TCE, I have decided to start a series of blog posts titled « Editor’s Pick » – these are papers that stand out as being high quality research, and research that has broad interest to the entomological community.  I will pick one paper from each issue, and write a short piece to profile the paper.

For the first issue of the current volume (145), I’ve picked the paper by Kathleen Ryan and colleagues, titled « Seasonal occurrence and spatial distribution of resinosis, a symptom of Sirex noctilio (Hymenoptera: Siricidae) injury, on boles of Pinus sylvestris (Pinaceae)« .   Sirex noctilio is a recently introduced species in Canada, and is a woodwasp that we need to pay attention to.   As Kathleen writes, « unlike our native species of woodwasps, it attacks and kills living pines » and because of this, we must strive to find effective ways to monitor the species.  One potential approach is to look for signs of resinosis, or ‘excessive’ outflow of tree sap and resins from conifers.  The goal of this work was to specifically assess « the spatial and temporal distribution of resin symptoms of attack to optimise sampling« .  The work involved Kathleen spending a LOT of time in the field, observing evidence of damage to trees, and assessing timing of resinosis relative to other damage to pine trees as related to woodwasps.  In the end, Kathleen was able to confirm that in most infested trees, the appearance of resin was a meaningful detection method.  This is a very practical paper, and very useful towards finding the best methods to detect this exotic species.

Sirex noctilio female - Photo by K. Ryan

Sirex noctilio female – Photo by K. Ryan

I asked Kathleen a few questions about this paper and the context of the work.

Q: Kathleen, what first got you interested in this area of research?

A: I became interested in studying Sirex’s interaction with other subcortical insects. Sirex was recently detected in North America at the time and we didn’t know much about it here including how, where and when to find it  – all of which were essential in planning research about insect interactions. So this study was my starting point – my “getting to know Sirex” study.

Q:  What do you hope will be the lasting impact of this paper?

A: This paper is the result of the many hours of field observations that helped me to become more familiar with Sirex. Since its really basic research, I hope that this paper might be a useful starting point for other people beginning to work with Sirex.

Q:  Where will your next line of research on this topic take you?  

A: Currently, I’m studying another invasive wood-borer, but I’d like to work with Sirex again – it’s a really interesting and unique insect biologically and ecologically. I’m especially interested in studying Sirex community ecology in its native, European, range to see how it compares to North America.

This is truly an important area of study, and I do look forward to seeing more of Kathleen’s papers in TCE.

Finally, I asked Kathleen about any amusing anecdotes about the research, and she shared this wonderful story with me:

The first day we worked together, my PhD advisor Peter de Groot, dropped me off at a forest site with instructions to only observe and collect absolutely no data. I had been in the forest for only a few moments, when a female Sirex landed right in front of me. So being an entomologist, naturally I caught her. A couple of hours later, still holding her, I met back up with Peter and sheepishly admitted that I had caught some “data”. Thinking it fantastic, from that point forward he told everyone that Sirex had picked me as her project.

Looking for wood wasps - Photo by K. Ryan

Looking for woodwasps – Photo by K. Ryan

I believe that these kinds of stories behind the research make Entomology more accessible and real, and help us appreciate the human element of scientific research.

As a final note, the entomological community was very saddened by Peter de Groot’s death in 2010.  His legacy to Canadian Entomology is still very strong.

A special thanks to Kathleen for answering a few questions, and sharing insights into the first ‘Editor’s pick’ for The Canadian Entomologist

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Reference:  Ryan, K, P. de Groot, S.M. Smith and J. J. Turgeon.  Seasonal occurrence and spatial distribution of resinosis, a symptom of Sirex noctilio (Hymenoptera: Siricidae) injury on boles of Pinus sylvestris (Pinaceae). The Canadian Entomologist 145: 117-122. Link.

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The trouble with common names

By Dr. Staffan Lindgren, University of Northern British Columbia

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When teaching Invertebrate zoology, entomology or forest entomology, I am regularly asked by students if they can use common names. Mostly this request is precipitated by the perceived difficulty of memorizing, let alone pronouncing, Latin names. I am fairly relaxed about these things, particularly with forestry students, who are quite unlikely to become entomologists no matter how you define that term.  It should be clarified that forest entomology is taught within a Disturbance Ecology and Forest Health course at my institution (UNBC), with diagnostics in half of a separate lab course. My stock answer is thus that they may use common names as long as the name clearly defines the species they are referring to.

Foresters are prone to colloquial terms, whether with respect to insects, trees or other organisms. For example, subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) is called balsam by many, if not most foresters in BC, even though it is a distinct species from balsam fir (Abies balsamea) of eastern North America. Similarly, Pissodes strobi, the white pine weevil, is called spruce weevil (a legacy of the days when this weevil was considered three separate species, two of which primarily infest different spruce species in the west) or simply leader weevil.  The reason, supposedly, is that it is the wood quality that matters in terms of trees, and the type of damage with respect to insects. The consequences of being a bit loose with the taxonomy of a particular species may therefore seem fairly inconsequential in forestry.

Incidentally, our forestry students have even more to worry about when it comes to pathology, which they have to learn at the same time, as the same biological organism often has two completely different Latin names (including genera) depending on whether it is the sexual or asexual form (why this remains an accepted practice is beyond me), and they often do not have common names. Add the fact that fungal species seem to change name more often than I change vehicles (I was going to write ‘shirt’, but didn’t want to gross anyone out making you think that I wear the same shirt for years), and it becomes rather a nightmarish proposition for the poor students.

When it comes to entomology in general, however, common names are most commonly used in casual conversation, particularly with members of the public. For entomologists this is usually not a problem, but for non-entomologists it can be very confusing.  For example, colloquial use of ‘bug’ is pretty much anything that is small and crawls or flies around. Taxonomically it is quite specific (Hemiptera: Heteroptera). Ladybugs (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) are perhaps the most recognizable insects to people in general, but they are clearly not bugs. Plant lice (Aphidoidea and Phylloxeroidea), bark lice (Psocoptera) and body lice (Phthiraptera) represent three vastly different taxonomic groups. In addition, if the non-louse groups above were to be correctly written to show that they are not Phthirapterans, there should be no space – however for these common names that principle is never applied as far as I can tell. It is to differentiate dragonflies, damselflies, stoneflies, mayflies, whiteflies etc. from the true flies. For example, a dragon fly, if there were such a thing (and probably there is somewhere – perhaps a decapitating fly (Phoridae) comes close enough to earn that epithet!) would be a dipteran, whereas a dragonfly is not. How is a non-entomologist supposed to know that (assuming that it is important to anyone except us entomophiles)? Then we can go on to more obvious misnomers such as ‘white ants’, which aren’t ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) at all, but termites (Isoptera).

Going back to forest entomology, one can have all kinds of fun with some common names, the origin of some could serve as fodder for endless speculation. For example, when discussing the problems with common names, I ask my students what they think a sequoia pitch moth (Synanthedon sequoiae)(Lepidoptera: Sesiidae) would attack. The correct answer is naturally “mostly lodgepole pine, but not sequoia”. Similarly, the Douglas-fir pitch moth (Synanthedon novaroensis) commonly breeds in lodgepole pine, but as far as I know not in Douglas-fir. I then go on to western spruce budworm, which as the name does not imply primarily attacks Douglas-fir.

Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant

Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant

Clearly one cannot expect members of the public to keep track of Latin names of insects, so common names are here to stay. I was interested to find in a book I recently purchased (Ellison et al. 2012) that the authors had invented common names for every species by essentially translating the Latin species epithet. That creates an interesting situation vis-à-vis the attempt of entomological societies to standardize common names (http://www.esc-sec.ca/ee/index.php/cndb; http://www.entsoc.org/common-names). Nevertheless, some ants simply retained their genus name, e.g., Harpagoxenus canadenis became “The Canadian Harpagoxenus” (not sure why, as they named the genus “The robber guest ants”), Formica hewitti became “Hewitt’s ant”,  Myrmica brevispinosa (the species in the photo accompanying this article) is called “The short-spined ant”, and perhaps my favourite Lasius subglaber was named “The somewhat hairy fuzzy ant”. Common names aren’t generally that innovative, but Latin names certainly can be.

Many years ago May Berenbaum (1993) wrote a column on this topic. If students would all read Dr. Berenbaum’s eminently humorous take on how insects get named, they would without a doubt get a new appreciation for both Latin names and their creators, and perhaps feel less trepidation about memorizing them. Then not only true blue entomologists would be tempted to buy a bumper sticker that read “Sona si Latine loqueris” (Honk if you speak Latin) (Unverified from http://www.latinsayings.info/).

Berenbaum, M. 1993. “Apis, Apis, Bobapis….”, American Entomologist 39: 133-134.

Ellison, A.M., N.J. Gotelli, E.J. Farnsworth, and G.D. Alpert. 2012. A field guide to the ants of New England. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 398 pp.

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Taxonomic adventures in the world of paper wasps (Polistes, Vespidae)

By Matthias Buck, Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton

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For many of us who are working as taxonomists, describing new species has become somewhat of a routine. Sometimes it can even become a burdensome chore: I am thinking about those of us who work on hyperdiverse groups of insects in the tropics where almost every species is undescribed (case in point: one of my former lab mates recently described 170 new species of a single genus of Diptera in one paper!). However, the feeling is very different when new species unexpectedly show up in iconic groups that were thought to be well-known. Suddenly, common and familiar creatures turn into an exciting new research frontier, providing a fresh rush of adrenaline!

Mug shot of a female of Polistes hirsuticornis Buck. Vespidae Wasp

Mug shot of a female of Polistes hirsuticornis Buck. The hairs on the basal articles of the flagellum are longer than in related species (Photo credit D.K.B. Cheung & M. Buck).

This is what happened a few years ago when I started working on the vespids of the northeast. The family Vespidae (which includes mason wasps, paper wasps, yellowjackets and hornets) is most diverse in warmer parts of the World, as is the majority of stinging wasps. Doing a review of the northeastern Nearctic fauna therefore didn’t seem to be a very promising project for taxonomic novelty. Especially considering that the fauna of the eastern half of the continent is significantly less diverse and far better known than that of the west.

To my utmost surprise the study (published 2008 in the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification) not only turned up four new species of mason wasps but also two new paper wasps (Polistes). As you know, paper wasps are some of the most iconic species in the world of wasps, almost as much as their odious relatives, the yellowjackets. Further to that, they have received great attention as model organisms for the study of social behaviour and its evolution in insects. Finding not only one, but two new species in a group like this was beyond what I expected in my wildest dreams.

So how did it come to pass? As a novice to paper wasps I expected that reviewing the taxonomy of such a high-profile group would be like a walk in the park. Weren’t there scores of scientists before me who seemingly had no difficulties in identifying these sizeable and handsome insects for their behavioral studies, filling up cabinets of specimens in collections across the continent? Or so I thought! After months of fruitless staring through the microscope my nonchalant attitude gradually turned into frustration. One of the species, the common and widespread Northern Paper Wasp (Polistes fuscatus), was so variable that it blended virtually into almost every other species in the same subgenus. Previously published keys gave me a pretty clear sense of what typical specimens of each species look like, but where were the objective criteria that would allow me to identify the numerous intermediate forms? Truly, I found myself in a taxonomic quagmire!

Aedeagus of Polistes parametricus Buck. Vespidae Wasp

Aedeagus (penis) of Polistes parametricus Buck. The size, shape and position of teeth is diagnostic with regard to P. fuscatus and P. metricus, with which this species was previously confused (Photo credit D.K.B. Cheung & M. Buck).

Grasping for straws I turned to three taxonomic methods that had not been applied to Polistes before: DNA barcoding, detailed study of male genitalic features and morphometric analysis. During the previous months, I had rounded up a number of puzzling specimens which represented the spearhead of my taxonomic headaches, and submitted them for sequencing. The results came back like a thunderclap, turning my anguish into cautious excitement: the DNA barcodes of these troublemakerswere clearly different from any of the described species. With renewed energy I launched into a detailed morphological study which led to the discovery of several new diagnostic characters, confirming the distinctness of these wasps beyond a doubt. A lot of hard work had finally paid off, and I was looking at the first newly discovered species of paper wasps in eastern North America since 1836 when Amédée Louis Michel Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau described Polistes rubiginosus!

Female of Polistes parametricus Buck Vespidae Wasp

Female of Polistes parametricus Buck nectaring on goldenrod in West Virginia (Photo credit: Donna Race).

Since molecular methods, and in particular DNA barcoding, have received a lot of attention in recent years, it seems opportune to share some of my experiences working on Polistes. Unlike a few other taxa (such as spider wasps, Pompilidae), vespids sequence nicely and easily from pinned specimens, which makes them an ideal group for this kind of study. I found the sequence data extremely helpful but they certainly did not provide the cure of all taxonomic confusion. Barcoding uncovered an unexpected genetic diversity below the species level, which proved to be hard to interpret in the absence of other data. In Polistes there is no hint of a « barcoding gap », which postulates that genetic distances between individuals of the same species are (nearly) always greater than those between conspecific individuals. In fact, some of the species were genetically so similar that they differed by a mere 2 base pairs (out of 658). Nonetheless, the combination of molecular data with fine-scale morphology resulted in a quantum leap forward for Polistes taxonomy. Just days ago, I found out that a group of researchers in Germany and Switzerland are making similar progress on European paper wasps using a nearly identical approach.

My research paper on eastern Nearctic Polistes, including formal descriptions of Polistes hirsuticornis Buck and P. parametricus Buck, was published in the journal Zootaxa on October 1st.
Matthias Buck, Tyler P. Cobb, Julie K. Stahlhut, & Robert H. Hanner (2012). Unravelling cryptic species diversity in eastern Nearctic paper wasps, Polistes (Fuscopolistes), using male genitalia, morphometrics and DNA barcoding, with descriptions of two new species (Hymenoptera: Vespidae) Zootaxa, 3502, 1-48 Other: urn:lsid:zoobank.org:pub:6126D769-A131-49DD-B07F-0386E62FF5B9

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Popular galls on Poplar

Hi, my name is Holly Caravan and I am a PhD student in Dr. Tom Chapman’s social insect lab at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Currently my work is focused on galling aphids and their potential for antimicrobial activity within the gall. This past summer I visited Dr. Patrick Abbot’s lab at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) where I was able to access three species of galling aphids. But, to address the ultimate goal of my research, I want to include the species Pemphigus spyrothecae which produces spiral galls on Lombardy poplar, Populus nigra. This species has a soldier caste which is morphologically specialized, different from the other three species I have already researched. I am looking for any information on locations of this aphid species in Canada; Newfoundland would be ideal, but my hopes are not high! Attached are links with pictures of the host tree and the spiral galls produced by the aphids. Any information would be greatly appreciated! I can be contacted at holly.caravan@gmail.com or hcaravan@mun.ca!

http://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/pemphigus-spyrothecae

http://www.parkwoodpines.com.au/html/lombardy_Poplar.html

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Australia’s call for international researchers: A Canadian entomologist in the Outback

Jacob Coates is an MSc student in the Chapman Entomology Lab at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Cockroach – Photo by Jacob Coates

If you’ve never thought of visiting Australia, you’re making a terrible mistake. I just recently returned from a 6 month stint in Sydney based out of a Lab in Macquarie University. I carried out lab and field work on several species of gall-inducing thrips. I owe this great trip to the Australian Endeavour’s Awards, An Australian government run program which takes applications from students all over the world and to those lucky enough to be accepted, ships you to an Australian University with a wage, living allowance and travel cash. On top of getting some serious work done I enjoyed snorkeling around the many beaches, hiking in the Blue Mountains, and took part in the City 2 Surf road race where over 80,000 individuals take to the streets of Sydney to run the largest road race in the world.

Southern Queensland Red Road – Photo by Jacob Coates

In early June I completed a field trip into Southern Queensland to collect insect samples. Tenting through the outback presented some difficulties like torrential downpours, cold nights, and very sloppy road conditions (Nearly sinking a 4×4 in a flooded dirt road). Despite the problems, after nearly 2500 kms and 10 days of driving I returned to Sydney with thrips samples in hand and a very dirty truck to clean. Amazing wildlife, epic landscapes and great people await everyone in the outback, without a doubt the best trip of my life.

Jacob Coates

For those interested about the Endeavour’s award go to http://www.deewr.gov.au/International/EndeavourAwards/Pages/Home.aspx It’s well worth your time.

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New Mosquito Record on Newfoundland

Today’s post is by Kate Bassett of Memorial University. If you’d like more information about her work, she encourages you to contact her.

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Hi,

I’m a graduate student at Memorial University (MUN, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador), nearing the end of my masters…hopefully :). My research project is focused on a wildlife issue. Snowshoe hare, Newfoundland’s only Lagomorph, suffer from infection by California serogroup viruses (snowshoe hare virus and Jamestown Canyon virus). Helped by the province’s Chief Veterinarian Officer Dr. Hugh Whitney, I sampled the blood and tested for infection in wild hares and laboratory rabbits used as sentinels.  This work was based in part in the laboratory led by microbiologist Dr. Andrew Lang at MUN, as well as working with the team at the National Microbiology Lab headed by Dr. Michael Drebot in Winnipeg. But, my project also included studying mosquitoes that are thought to transmit these viruses. That part of my project was based in the social insect lab at MUN headed by Dr. Tom Chapman.

I spent two summers catching mosquitoes. Consequently, I can’t miss them. I seem to have permanently altered my hearing and vision such that a mosquito in flight always grabs my attention. Last May while putting in a load of laundry, a specimen alighted on the washer. I dropped everything and ran upstairs for my aspirator, and made it back to collect this girl to identify at work. I froze her and didn’t get around to id’ing until later in the summer, and I was shocked to see that it may be Culex pipiens. This mosquito gains attention on the East Coast of North America because it can transmit West Nile Virus, and when I made this determination the worst West Nile viral outbreak in N.A. was underway and centered in Texas. I was uncertain of my morphological identification, so I added a leg or two of this specimen to my DNA barcoding work, and I waited for the outcome. When the sequence confirmed by identification, I put out a press release, which had me immediately doing live interviews on TV and Radio. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, I just went from interview to interview. It was a good experience; I do recommend it. I should add that we don’t have confirmation of West Nile Virus in Newfoundland, but we don’t know what lies ahead. Drs. Lang (aslang@mun.ca), Chapman (tomc@mun.ca) and Whitney (hughwhitney@gov.nl.ca) are looking for students to pick up where I am leaving off.

Culex pipiens photo by Kate Bassett

Here’s a picture of Cx. pipiens I took using a digital camera mounted on a dissecting scope. I used the program Helicon for producing a wide focal plane. It’s not the one that I got in May and fingerprinted, but another one that I got last weekend (September, 2012), also in my house!

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Physiology Fridays: A feeding frenzy–Insulin signalling in larval brains

Insulin is perhaps best known as the crucial molecule whose lack leads to diabetes.  It’s a hormone that regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism, and signals cells to increase uptake of glucose from the blood.  What most people don’t know is that insects use insulin too.

“Insulin signalling is a very conserved pathway which has been investigated extensively in humans as well as more recently in Drosophila melanogaster,” says Dr. Ana Campos, a researcher in the Biology Department at McMaster University.

And it turns out that in both insects and humans, insulin plays a much broader role in the brain than previously thought.  In a recent paper Dr. Campos and her technician Xiao Li Zhao published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, they showed that insulin signalling in the mushroom body (a critical region of the insect brain) regulates feeding behaviour in fruitfly (Drosophila melanogaster) larvae.

“Insulin has been implicated in a wide variety of biological processes. Its importance goes beyond its well-known role in the regulation of carbohydrate and fat metabolism, says Dr. Campos.  “In addition, it has been implicated in synaptic plasticity and cognitive function in humans and relevant animal models.  Recent findings indicate that abnormal insulin levels contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases.”

Image: Mushroom body in D. melanogaster (from Jennett et al. 2006, BMC Bioinformatics, doi:10.1186/1471-2105-7-544)

Investigating the role of insulin signalling in the mushroom body came about by a chance observation in their lab: they found a mutation in the Ran-binding protein M gene (RanBPM) that disrupted feeding behaviour in D. melanogaster larvae also inhibited insulin signalling.  Since this gene is also highly expressed in the mushroom body, it made sense to the researchers to investigate how the mushroom body influenced feeding behaviour and whether insulin signalling mediated it.

The researchers created a series of D. melanogaster strains with different parts of the known insulin-signalling pathway knocked out.  Then they measured the amount of food eaten by the different strains of mutant larvae as well as their resultant growth. By using immunohistochemical labelling, they also were able to find that reduced insulin signalling in the mushroom body on reduced the total number of neurons produced in the brains of these larvae.

Taken together, Dr. Campos and Xiao Li suggest their results mean that the mushroom body could be the brain region responsible for collecting signals about nutritional status in insects, and helps regulate feeding behaviour.  More broadly, this contributes to the knowledge about how insulin signalling impacts brain function.

Zhao, X. L. and Campos, A.R. (2012) Insulin signalling in mushroom body neurons regulates feeding behaviour in Drosophila larvae. J. Exp. Biol. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22786647

Keywords: Physiology Fridays, Mushroom body, Insulin, Drosophila melanogaster, research blogging

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Here be giants. How do they breathe?

By Brent Sinclair, University of Western Ontario
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I’m currently on sabbatical in the Department of Zoology, University of Otago in Dunedin New Zealand.  This is the department where I did my PhD, so it is an opportunity to come back to familiar territory and re-connect with all sorts of people and places from the past.  It’s not a very insect department, but there is a lot of interesting work on ecology, parasites and freshwater biology.  A sabbatical is all about recharging scientific and creative batteries, so my main goal here is to write and read and think (and drink coffee and run and hike – but that’s for a different blog), but I felt that I also needed to justify coming all this way by actually gathering some data while I’m here.  Respirometry is the perfect answer – once set up, it’s possible to gather data on metabolic rates, breathing patterns and water loss at the expense of only a few minutes at each end of a run, leaving plenty of space for writing and drinking New Zealand’s excellent coffee in between.

What is respirometry?

Respirometry is the science (art?) of measuring the products and substrates of respiration – depending on your strategy, you can measure oxygen consumption and/or carbon dioxide production (to get a handle on metabolic rate) and water loss – among other things.  Because I work on generally small insects at generally low temperatures, we mainly measure carbon dioxide production and water loss (the instruments are much more sensitive), and can do some clever calculations to turn this into estimates of metabolic rate.

The equipment itself can look quite intimidating – and certainly like Science – with plenty of tubes and wires (when I calibrate the water channel, there’s even a bubbling flask!), but it’s not that difficult once you figure out what everything is doing, and it looks scary enough that other people generally don’t mess with it.  We pass CO2-free, dry air over an insect, and measure the CO2 and water vapour in the excurrent air – all the CO2 and water vapour must have come from the insect, so we can calculate how much it is breathing out.  The equipment we use is from a company in Las Vegas called Sable Systems International.  Sable Systems’ head honcho, John Lighton, is an insect physiologist who has published in places like Nature and PNAS, which means that when he designs the equipment, he often has insects in mind.

The respirometry system set up in a controlled-temperature room at the University of Otago. CO2-free dry air is supplied by the gas cylinder, and passes through a chamber containing the insect housed in a temperature-controlled chamber (the big grey cooler box), before going on to an infra-red gas analyser (the green box), which uses IR absorbance to measure CO2 and H2O.

What else can we learn from respirometry?

As well as a simple measure of metabolism, it is possible to use respirometry to determine the thermal sensitivity of metabolism (this is important in understanding the effects of climate change), as well as the metabolic costs of various environmental stresses, like freezing or chilling.  We can also use respirometry to study how insects breathe (there is much debate surrounding the adaptive significance of the Discontinuous Gas Exchange Cycles observed in some insects), and we can also use respirometry to figure out how much water is being lost across the cuticle of insects – even small ones like individual flies!

What am I …er… respirometing?

After 65 million years of evolution without mammals, New Zealand has an amazing array of endemism and some pretty weird insects.  My favourites are the alpine insects, which include impressive radiations of cockroaches, stick insects and weta – large Orthoptera related to the Jerusalem crickets of North America.  The mountains are fairly young (<3 million years old), so it’s possible to do all sorts of work comparing alpine species with their lowland relatives .

A group of alpine weta, Hemideina maori found under a stone at 1400 m a.s.l. on the Rock and Pillar Range, Central Otago, New Zealand. The males defend harems of 2-7 females. Female weta can weigh over 5 g, and males over 7 g, making them the heaviest insect known to survive internal ice formation. Photo by B. Sinclair.

Of course, it is the most fun to work on the big, weird insects.  So far I’ve been putting alpine weta (Hemideina maori, Orthoptera: Anostostomatidae) and New Zealand’s longest insect, the gloriously-named phasmid  Argosarchus horridus through their paces.  Male alpine weta can weigh up to 7 g, and are the largest insect species known to withstand internal ice formation.  The stick insects can easily reach 4 g, and posed some unique challenges in respirometry – with a body form so long and stick-like, it makes perfect sense to use a converted spaghetti-storage container!

A large female Argosarchus horridus (this one weighs a shade over 3 g) ready to go in her respirometry chamber. Photo by B. Sinclair.

The main questions I will be addressing will be about the evolution of thermal sensitivity and water loss in alpine insects, but the great thing about respirometry is that I never know what I’ll find along the way!

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Brent Sinclair is an Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario.  He is the 2012 recipient of the Entomological Society of Canada’s C. Gordon Hewitt Award.