Explaining Science – vermiform mites

You have heard of mites – minute arachnids that have four pairs of legs when adult, are related to the ticks and live in the soil, though some are parasitic on plants or animals. But what are vermiform mites? Maybe you have heard of vermi-compost, a composting technique that uses worms (like your earthworm in the garden) to decompose organic matter. So vermiform mites are mites with a body shape like a worm:

worm-shaped nematalycid Osperalycus

Why are they shaped like a worm, you may ask – To find out more I interviewed Samuel Bolton, former PhD student in the acarology collection at our museum, now Curator of Mites at the Florida State Collection of Arthropods. Sam’s main research interest is in mites that live on plants and in the soil, especially Endeostigmata, a very ancient group of mites that dates back around 400 million years, before there were any trees or forests. Sam’s PhD research with Dr. Hans Klompen here at OSU, was focused on a small family (only five described species) of worm-like mites, called Nematalycidae.

side note: You may have heard of Sam’s research in 2014 when he discovered a new species of mite, not in a far-away country, but across the road from his work place in the museum.

When Sam started his research it was not clear where these worm-like mites in the family Nematalycidae belong in the tree of life. To find out Sam studied several morphological characters of Nematalycidae and other mites. He focused in particular on the mouth-parts of this group. As he learned more about the mouth-parts of this family, he found evidence that they are closely related to another lineage of worm-like mites, the gall mites (Eriophyoidea). Eriophyoidea have a sheath that wraps up a large bundle of stylets. They use these stylets to pierce plant cells, inject saliva into them and suck cell sap.
Although Nematalycidae don’t have stylets, one genus has a very rudimentary type of sheath that extends around part of the pincer-like structures that have been modified into stylets in Eriophyoidea.

So what did Sam and his co-authors discover?

“.. Not only are gall mites the closest related group to Nematalycidae, but the results of our phylogenetic analysis places them within Nematalycidae. This suggests that gall mites are an unusual group of nematalycids that have adapted to feeding and living on plants. Gall mites use their worm-like body in a completely different way from Nematalycidae, which live in deep soil. But both lineages appear to use their worm-like bodies to move around in confined spaces: gall mites can live in the confined spaces in galls, under the epidermis (skin), and in between densely packed trichomes on the surface of leaves;  Nematalycidae live in the tight spaces between the densely packed mineral particles deep in the soil.”

This research potentially increases the size of Sam’s family of expertise, Nematalycidae, from 5 species to 5,000 species. We have yet to confirm this discovery, but it is highly likely that gall mites are closely related to Nematalycidae, even if they are not descended from Nematalycidae. This is interesting because it shows that the worm-like body form evolved less frequently than we thought. This discovery also provides an interesting clue about how gall mites may have originated to become parasites. They may have started out in deep soil as highly elongated mites. When they began feeding on plants, they may have used their worm-shaped bodies to live underneath the epidermis of plants. As they diversified, many of them became shorter and more compact in body shape.

I wish I could tell you now to go out and look for these oddly shaped mites yourself, but you really need a microscope. Eriophyoid mites are minute, averaging 100 to 500 μm in length. For your reference, an average human hair has a diameter of 100 microns.

eriophyoid Aceria anthocoptes

Reference:

Bolton, S. J., Chetverikov, P. E., & Klompen, H. (2017). Morphological support for a clade comprising two vermiform mite lineages: Eriophyoidea (Acariformes) and Nematalycidae (Acariformes). Systematic and Applied Acarology, 22(8), 1096-1131.

 

About the Authors: Angelika Nelson, curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, interviewed Samuel Bolton, former PhD graduate student in the OSU Acarology lab, now Curator of Mites at the Florida State Collection of Arthropods, in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Plant Industry.

 

Bat sounds

Bats are social mammals that use a repertoire of vocalizations to communicate with each other and to move around in the environment.

To detect obstacles and prey in their environment, bats emit a series of ultrasounds, very high-pitched sounds above 20,000 Hz, beyond our range of hearing. As a bat flies and calls, it listens to the returning echoes of its calls to build up a sonic image of its surroundings. Bats can tell how far away something is by how long it takes the sounds to return to them, how big the target is based on the strength of the returning signal, and what shape the target has based on the spectral pattern of the returning sound waves. We call this process echolocation.

Individual bat species echolocate within specific frequency ranges that suit their environment and prey types. This means that we can train ourselves to identify many bats by listening to their calls with bat detectors.

Let’s LISTEN to recordings of the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) and the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) for comparison. – But how can we listen, if we cannot hear their calls? Let’s use a trick: When we slow down the recordings by a factor of 10, the calls are transposed to 10 times lower pitch and become audible to us.

Note: To make the sounds visible in sonograms we plotted frequency in thousands of cycles per second (kilohertz, kHz) on the vertical axis versus time in seconds on the horizontal axis. The varying intensity of colors ranging from dark blue (low intensity or quiet) to red (high intensity or loud) indicates the amplitude or loudness of each call. Amplitude is also shown in the top part of each figure with larger waves representing louder calls.

Little brown bat: Calls last from less than one millisecond (ms) to about 5 ms and sweep from 80 to 40 kHz, with most of their energy at 45 kHz.

sonogram of little brown bat Myotis lucifugus calls

Call series of a little brown bat Myotis lucifugus

 

Big brown bat: Calls last several milliseconds and sweep from about 65 to 20 kHz, and are thus lower pitched than calls of little brown bats.

bigsonogram of brown bat Eptesicus fuscus echolocating calls

Call series of a big brown bat Eptesicus fuscus

 

 

The above call series were recorded when the bat is generally surveying its environment, but what happens when it actually detects prey? Listen to this feeding buzz of a little brown bat:

sonogram of feeding calls of little brown bat

Feeding calls of a little brown bat Myotis lucifugus

 

When closing in on prey, a bat may emit 200 calls per second.

What might sound to us like the bat is getting excited – don’t you talk faster when you are excited about telling something? – this rapid series of calls actually helps the bat to pin-point the exact location of its prey, then it swoops in, and GULP – dinner is served, or not!

 

We hope you enjoyed listening to these bat sounds; if you have any questions please contact Angelika Nelson.794@osu.edu, curator of the animal sound archive at The Ohio State University.

The Ohio State University - logo

 

All recordings are archived with the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics (BLB.OSU.EDU) at The Ohio State University.

A gull look-alike

Another seabird species that I found to breed in Ireland is the Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis. In a fleeting glimpse this bird may look like a gull but a closer look quickly reveals that is a close relative of albatrosses and shearwaters, the tubenoses Procellariiformes.

Can you see how this group of birds, the tubnoses, got its name? Doesn’t it look like they have a tube on top of their bill? This tubular nasal passage is used for olfaction. Yes, some birds do have the ability to smell. Especially seabirds use this sense to locate flocks of krill, shrimp-like animals that feed on single-celled marine plants (phytoplankton) right below the ocean’s surface. Breaking up phytoplankton cells releases a chemical called dimethylsulfide that concentrates in the air above areas where phytoplankton and thus krill are abundant. Researchers suspect that seabirds may smell their prey.

An acute sense of smell may also aid these birds to locate their nest within a breeding colony – you may recall the dense breeding conditions on the coastal cliffs from Monday’s post.

Furthermore, at the base of their bill these true seabirds have a gland that helps them excrete excess salt as they drink seawater. These birds and their relatives often spend long times out over the ocean without any land in sight. Thus they depend on drinking seawater.

So what do Northern Fulmars sound like? They are especially vocal when they return to their partner on the nest, they engage in an often minutes-lasting greeting ceremony. Listen to this pair recorded by Gabriel Leite in Clare county, Ireland (XC372370):

The unique morphological characteristics make these birds well adapted to their preferred environment of the northern oceans. They are among the longest-lived birds known, researchers estimate an average lifespan of 32 years for the Northern Fulmar.

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and currently teaches at the Audubon summer camp on Hog Island, ME.

 

Playing the role of a bee

Mid-spring through mid-summer is a good time to see our native orchids in flower here in Ohio.  One of the showiest groups is the Lady’s Slippers, which have a distinctive pouch-shaped lip.  We have four species of Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium) in Ohio and one of the more frequent ones is the Yellow Lady’s Slipper (C. parviflorum).  There are two varieties of this species – Large and Small.  The Large (var. pubescens) tends to be a plant of rich woods in more upland situations, while the Small (var. parviflorum) is a plant of wet and often more open situations.  In addition, there are floral differences, including overall flower size and coloration of petals.  In many places they are quite distinct, but in others there seem to be intermediates, which is the main reason that they are not called distinct species.

The Small Yellow Lady’s Slipper in flower at Cedar Bog.

The Small Yellow is the less common one in Ohio, given that there are fewer instances of its habitat than for the Large.  One place that the Small occurs is Cedar Bog in Champaign County.  Cedar Bog is really less of a “bog” and more of a “fen” or swamp, because it is not a lake that has been filled in with Sphagnum moss, creating an acidic habitat, but is rather an alkaline wetland that has water flowing through it.  Cedar Bog is owned by the Ohio History Connection and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Pollinating a flower.

Unfortunately, the numbers of Small Yellow Lady’s Slippers at Cedar Bog have been declining recently, so the preserve managers wanted to have the flowers hand-pollinated to increase the changes of seed set, rather than depending on bees to do the job.  They called on me as an orchid specialist to perform the pollination, since orchids have a rather specialized floral morphology.  Two weeks ago my colleague, Richard Gardner, from the ODNR Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, picked me up and we headed out to Cedar Bog.  Once there, we put on rubber boots because we needed to hike off the boardwalk to the orchids.  We made our way to the plants, which had been surrounded by plastic fencing to keep the deer from browsing them.  We opened the enclosures and I set to pollinating, removing the pollen masses (pollinia) from one plant with forceps and transferring them to another.  There were only five stems up this year, and only three of those were in flower, so each pollinium was fairly precious.  I did my best, but we won’t know for a few weeks if the pollination was successful – hopefully we will soon see capsules beginning to swell that will be filled with mature seeds by the end of the summer.

You can learn more about Cedar Bog at this website.

About the Author: Dr. John Freudenstein is Director of the OSU Herbarium and Professor of EEOB.  Photographs by Richard Gardner.

An 1892 Framed Plant Mount on display at the Thompson Library

The first director of The Ohio State University Herbarium and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. William Ashbrook Kellerman, prepared quite a large number of framed mounts of Ohio plants in 1892. According to the previous curator of the herbarium, Dr. Ronald L. Stuckey, these were “part of an exhibit of the Ohio flora displayed in the Ohio State Building … at the Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. The total collection consisted of a display of mounted specimens of leaves, twigs, flowers, fruits, section of wood and bark of Ohio’s forest trees, and flowering plants, mosses, lichens, and algae.”

One of these framed mounts, twigs and wood section of the white oak tree, Quercus alba L., is currently on display at the Thompson Library until May 14, 2017. Dr. Florian Diekmann, head of the Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Library and Student Success Center, was in contact with the staff of the OSU herbarium early June last year seeking help in displaying specimens of white oak as many of the wooden structures of the main library were obtained from that plant.

Since the original twigs and leaves were not in good condition and the glass was chipped in a corner, Dr. Diekmann agreed to have it restored and refurbished. This is just one of the many framed, mounted but not displayed items in the Herbarium hitherto. The idea behind the gallery is to show the “unique connections and history shared between The Ohio State University and Ohio’s forests.” The Ohio State University Herbarium was glad to share its resources with the general public and has also made other items available for display at the gallery.

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Mesfin Tadesse, curator OSU herbariumAbout the Author: Mesfin Tadesse is curator of vascular plants at The Ohio State University Herbarium.

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Dynamics of Neo-Tropical Arachnids

Today’s post is a guest post by Andrew Mularo,  an undergraduate student in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology. He is currently doing his Tropical Behavior Evolution and Ecology research project under Dr. Rachelle M. M. Adams and Dr. Jonathan Shik.

You may love them or you may fear them, but no one can deny the incredible ecological importance of spiders and scorpions. As an aspiring biologist, I have chosen to study the interactions between arachnids and their environment in the tropical rainforests of Panama for the 2017 Tropical Behavioral Evolution and Ecology course. The tropics are a biodiversity hotspot for the majority of the world’s organisms, so there are plenty of creatures to look at. From the smallest spiderling to the largest tarantula, I am curious to see how these cryptic and intriguing animals interact with their ecosystem.

For my project, I am doing an observational study where I am assessing the relationship between leaf litter and arachnid diversity and abundance. I am accomplishing this by creating several 50 meter transects in the Panamanian rainforest, sampling leaf litter with 1 square meter quadrants along each transect. For each quadrant, I take a measurement of leaf litter depth, and sift through the leaves to extract any organisms out of the area. Back at the lab, I sort through the organisms, first finding any arachnids in the sample, and then any other insect or invertebrate, such as ants, beetles, millipedes, snails, mites and many others. With these data, I hope to make a correlation between leaf litter abundance and arachnid diversity and abundance, as well as a correlation between the diversity of potential prey items and arachnid predators.

Naturally, the majority of the organisms that I have been assessing have been very small, from the size of a thumbnail to not even being visible to the human eye. However, there

Wandering Spider (Photo by A. Mularo)

are several occasions where I have observed some extremely imposing arachnids in the tropical forest. One of these includes the huntsman spider, an extremely large nocturnal species that does not rely on a web to capture its prey. This family of spiders is very poorly researched, and is largely unknown how dangerous the venom is for the majority of species. However, they are quite shy, and often scurry away at the sight or sound of a human.

Another fascinating group of organisms I see occasionally are scorpions. The two pictured below are from the genus Tityus, whose venom is very potent. I found the two in the picture below, which we believe to be different species, huddled in close quarters in the water well of a bromeliad. While potentially dangerous, these are a relatively uncommon sight in the rainforest. Nevertheless, it is always good to be careful where you step.

Tityus scorpions (photo by A. Mularo)

While many of them are feared, arachnids are some of the most fascinating organisms on the planet. They come in all shapes and sizes, and have a wide array of interesting characteristics that are of great interest to scientists. Being interested in biology since I was a child, I have always dreamed of coming to the tropics so I could study the vast diversity of organisms, and I could not have picked a better group of organisms to focus on!

Dragonflies and Damselflies of Ohio


Dragonfly at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

Dragonfly at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

The Triplehorn Insect Collection is beginning a collaborative project to survey the dragonflies and damselflies of Ohio.

These spectacular aerial predators are surprisingly diverse: currently 164 species have been recorded in the state. Brilliant colors and striking markings make them the songbirds of the insect world. The immature stages of all species are aquatic, and these animals are found in lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.  Although many dragonflies and damselflies are common, a number are listed as threatened or endangered.

This new Ohio Odonata Survey is scheduled to last 3 years. The work will be done together with the ODNR Division of Wildlife, the Ohio Odonata Society, and a network of avid volunteers and citizen scientists across the state.

MaLisa Spring, an Entomologist and recent OSU graduate, just joined us as coordinator for all of these efforts.  She will be working out of the Triplehorn Insect Collection in Columbus, and will be actively interacting with participants around the state.

Information on the project can be found in the newly created Ohio Odonata Survey website.  Project activities will also be widely advertised on social media.

Ohio naturalists are invited to contribute to the project. If you have images that can help document the distribution and seasonality of the various species of dragonflies and damselflies in our state, please check out the guidelines.

Finally, the Ohio Odonata Society will be holding its 2017 annual meeting, ODO-CON-17 on 23-25 June at the Grand River Conservation Campus in Rock Creek, OH.

Resources:

Photos by L. Musetti (dragonflies) & Huayan Chen (damselfly).

About the Author: Dr. Norman F. Johnson is an Entomologist, Professor at Ohio State University, and Director of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

Backyard Bug Explorer


Visitors touring the Triplehorn Insect Collection are invariably drawn to the biggest, longest, most colorful creatures that we have among our four million specimens. Giant walking sticks, Goliath beetles, white witch moths, and birdwing butterflies are a sure hit with visitors of all ages.  One question that usually follows that exhilarating experience is … “Are these from Ohio?” And, unfortunately, we have to say that no, those enormous and colorful insects come from tropical forests in Africa or South America or elsewhere.

That is not to say, though, that there aren’t plenty of interesting and very striking insects in Ohio. In fact, there are plenty of cool insects right in our own backyards, many of them still poorly known or even completely unknown to science.

Here are just a few examples of the insect fauna that I found in my urban backyard in the past few weeks.


Bees & bee nests

During Spring, carpenter bees and bumble bees are very busy building their nests and collecting pollen. Well, that’s true of the female bees, anyway. The male carpenter bees are far too worried about patrolling their territory and checking out everything that comes along, all in the hope of finding a female that might be susceptible to their charms. Not to worry: the males are harmless, and you’d practically have to grab hold of a female before she would think of stinging.

 

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Under a clay pot that was left leaning against a wall, a queen bumble bee has dug a hole into the soil where she’s starting her own colony. The same sort of gardening accessories are also great places for spiders to build their webs and for insects to hide away their eggs from predators.


Wasp nests

A mud-nesting solitary wasp found the perfect place to build her nest among the wrinkles of a deteriorating plastic cover on an old outdoor fireplace in our yard.  This might be a mud dauber or perhaps a potter wasp nest. Either way, the mother wasp builds the nest using soft mud, then goes hunting for caterpillars or other insects.  The prey – stung into a state of suspended animation – is stuffed into the nest accompanied by a single wasp egg.  The larva that later hatches will feed on the living prey and develop into a new flying adult wasp.


Insect eggs (my all time favorite)

The most exciting finds for me are insect eggs. Sometimes the eggs are parasitized and produce the little wasps that are my object of study. Here on our screen door I found the eggs of an assassin bug. Each egg is like a small piece of art in itself each with a beautiful ornate crown. I’ve been watching carefully to see if assassin bug nymphs will emerge or if the eggs will produce any of my parasitic wasps.

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Ants

When I rolled over a log, I found a number of Lasius interjectus.  These bright yellow ants are commonly called “citronella ants.” If you disturb them, they respond by releasing a bouquet of repellent chemicals that smell like lemon or the citronella candles used to repel mosquitoes. These ants are farmers: they maintain underground “herds” of aphids or mealybugs. These “cows” feed on the fluids in plant roots and excrete a sweet honeydew that the ants love.

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Here’s a quick video of the citronella ants. They are very cute!


Beetle larvae

I love looking for insects on, in, and under dead trees. Recently I found quite a number of very slick and shiny beetle larvae beneath the bark of a large dead tree near our house. I actually don’t know what kind of beetles they are, but I am hoping my buddies who study beetles will be able to identify them. And who knows, maybe I found something entirely new?!

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When disturbed the larvae move deeper into the soft wood.


I have more photos and videos of local insects, but I’ll stop here for now.  Yes, I know, the local bugs are not massive and showy like the amazing things that come from tropical rain forests, but pay close attention and you will find that they are just as fascinating. And best of all, they are right here in our backyard!

 Insects are everywhere. The more we learn about them the more we see how absolutely fascinating, beautiful, and important they are.

 

So take your family outside the house and go explore. Look around your backyard, watch for signs of insects, check out the flowers, the underside of tree leaves, listen to the buzz of the bees and see what they are doing.  Notice the differences between a bumble bee and a carpenter bee and other bees (get more info here.)



A final note: Monday, May 22, is the International Day for Biological Diversity. People all over the world and here in Ohio will be celebrating the day with the goal of increasing understanding and awareness about biodiversity, and to have a good time observing nature.

What a great opportunity to connect with fellow bug explorers and to promote the insect biodiversity that is right around us! Post your discoveries, photos, and musings about Ohio insects on social media. Use the hash tag #OhioBugs so we can keep in touch.

Hope to see you out there!


About the Author: Dr. Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and the current Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection at The Ohio State University.

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Follow on Tweeter or Instagram: @osuc_curator

Flight of the Butterfly

What does re-animated life in the Triplehorn insect collection look like? What if a butterfly took flight from its drawer? Watch for yourself: Flight of the Butterfly by Tamara Sabbagh

THANK YOU Luciana Musetti, curator of the OSU Triplehorn Insect collection for facilitating the students’ visit.

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the outreach and multi-media coordinator at the Museum of Biological Diversity and facilitates visits of school classes and students.

*** Which of the animations is your favorite? ***

Samsara – Cyclicality of life

Another video of re-animated life produced by a student in the Moving Image Art class organized by Amy Youngs, Associate Professor of Art:

Samsara – Cyclicality of life by Yuntian Zang: Inspired by the antlers on the wall, a deer goes wandering …

THANK YOU Stephanie Malinich, collection manager of Tetrapods, for facilitating the students’ visit.

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the outreach and multi-media coordinator at the Museum of Biological Diversity and facilitates visits of school classes and students.

*** Which of these animals is your favorite? ***