Staff spotlight – Scott Glasmeyer

We met up with Scott Glassmeyer, a student research assistant in the Fish Division, to get an inside view on his role in the Museum of Biological Diversity.

Scott Glassmeyer holding a Rock Bass (fish)Hilary: “What is your major?”

Scott: “My major is Forestry, Fisheries, and Wildlife, with a specialization in Fisheries and Aquatic Science. I’d always loved fish since I was a kid and before I got into this program, I didn’t know that you could go to college to study fish, or do anything relevant with fish in a job, besides working to commercially collect fish. So, I did research to see if there were any higher education programs that involved learning about fish and aquatics and I found that Ohio State had this program.”

Hilary: “How long have you been a student research assistant in the Fish Division?”

Scott: “Since spring of 2016, but I started as a volunteer in January of 2016 where my primary role was to take older jars containing fish specimens and place them in new ethanol, to better preserve the fish.”

several fish in ethanol in glass jar

Fish in ethanol

Hilary:  “What is the mission of the Fish Divsion?”

Scott: “To preserve historical records of species of fish for future reference and overall long-term data collection and education. It’s a way to validate that this species of fish was recorded in a particular area and a specific species was recorded in general, as fish get misidentified a lot. So it improves a lot of accuracy regarding records.”

Hilary: “What fish are housed here?”

Scott: “Mostly Ohio fish, but we have some from the entire 50 states as well. There are also some fish species from other countries, some saltwater fish, and some aquarium fish here as well.”

Hilary: “Are the specimens here largely donated?”

Scott: “A lot of the specimens are collected through the museum, as well as the Ohio EPA. The Ohio EPA has a division that monitors streams and stream quality statewide and they will collect fish in the process and send them to us.”

collecting fish with seine nets

Staff collecting fish with seine nets

 

Hilary: “How are the fish preserved?”

Scott: “The way the preservation process works is that you put the fish specimens in formaldehyde for a certain amount of time, then you place them in water for about a day, before you start adding the ethanol bit by bit, as you slowly add larger amounts of ethanol to build up the tolerance – and that’s what they stay in. It takes up to a week and a half to two weeks to put them in this preserved state.”

Hilary: “Why is it important to study these fish?”

Scott: “It’s really important to study these fish because it helps you not only understand the water quality of their habitat, but also the intrinsic value of their ecosystems. For example, if you have a stream that’s just concrete because it was filled in, this could possibly only allow for about 5 species of fish to live there, whereas before, when the stream had natural morphological features and geological shapes, there were a lot more species of fish living within in this habitat.”

“A good example of this is from about 6 or 7 years ago, when the 5th Avenue Dam along the Olentangy River near campus was removed. Trees, plants, and wetlands were added along the bank and this natural state contributed to the value of the stream, not just for people, but for the fish as well, as this improved quality increased the level of biodiversity within in and around the river.”

Scott Glassmeyer holding Giant bottlebrush crayfish

Scott Glassmeyer holding a Giant bottlebrush crayfish

Hilary: “What’s your favorite part about working in the Fish Division?”

Scott: “I love going outside, putting waders on, getting in the stream and finding fish. You can read all you want about how healthy a stream is, but when you go out there and you see the biodiversity in the water as you collect data, you can tell just how healthy the water is and it’s wonderful.”

“I also really like the people who work here with me. Everyone’s very patient here and they take the time to help you out as your learning, which is really nice as learning to identify fish for the first time involves a learning curve.”

Hilary: “What is a project that you’re working on now?”

Scott: “I’ve been editing photographs of fish taken by Brian (my colleague who is the Sampling Coordinator in the Fish Division) and getting them ready to be put into the field guide version of the Fishes of Ohio.”

book cover Fishes of Ohio by Milton B Trautman

“The Fishes of Ohio was a guide written in the ‘50s, by Trautman, and then it was revised in the ‘80s by Trautman, and so what we’re working on now would be the next revision. There’s around 190 species or so of fish in Ohio, including invasive species and extinct species, so we’ve been photographing each species listed in the field guide, oftentimes with more than one picture, as you’re taking pictures of what you use to identify them. For example, for some of the sucker species of fish, you have to show the mouth, as that helps with identification. So with these species, there’s some photographs detailing the mouth from underneath, and there’s some side photographs, so that you can see the shape of the head and the mouth from the side for identification.”

 

Hilary: “Do you photograph the fish in their habitat?”

Scott: “It depends. There was one species of fish where we went out during their spawning season and had the tank set up to photograph them. We caught them, put them in the tank, and took a picture quickly, as they can lose their colors pretty fast. If a fish we find doesn’t have a particular color, we take them, put them in a cooler with an aerator, and take them away from location to photograph them. It’s a time consuming process, with the drive to the specimen’s location, the set-up, hours of wading for fish, and then the tear-down of equipment and the drive back from the site, so taking them away to photograph them can be easier than doing it onsite.

Hilary: “You said that fish lose their colors – what does that mean?”

Scott: “Fish have pigments in their skin, underneath their scales. There’s a lot of colorful fish in Ohio, like darters and minnows, that will have breeding colors and so, during certain times of the year and certain times of the day (or even after they eat) they’ll get a lot of pigment and colors in them. And even if they’re not a colorful fish, their colors can change. For example, you can take a large mouth bass that has some pattern to it and put it into a bucket that’s really light and pull the fish out ten minutes later, and the fish will look really pale. But if you put it in a dark cooler, the fish is going to remain dark and have more color. The stress levels will impact them.”

Hilary: “Do you have a favorite fish species?”

Scott: “This question’s hard. So, my answer changes every month when I discover a new fish, but currently my favorite fish is the Common Dolphin Fish, or the Mahi-mahi. There’s a reason why I like it: So, over 50% of its diet is flying fish, and that’s pretty cool to me. Also, its maximum life span is five years. A marlin or a swordfish can live to be about 27 years of age, and a medium sized Ohio fish species can live to about 15 years. However, the Dolphin Fish lives such a short span of time compared to these fish, yet it grows extremely quickly, as they get up to 36 pounds in 8 months. And it’s really fast too, swimming speeds up to 50 miles an hour.”

Hilary: “With all of your experience and studies, what do you hope to do in the future?”

Scott: “I’d love to work as a fisheries biologist, working for the environment. It’s challenging to get in those types of roles, as they’re very competitive, but I’m going to try.”

 

Hilary HirtleAbout the Author: Hilary Hirtle is the Faculty Affairs Coordinator at the OSU Department of Family Medicine; her interest in natural history brings her to the museum to interview faculty and staff and use her creative writing skills to report about her experiences.

A Snapshot of Ohio Lichen Diversity 125 Years Ago

The Kellerman Displays for the 1903 Chicago Exposition

Most of the specimens at the Ohio State University Herbarium (OS) are tucked neatly into cabinets, not on display. But adorning one long wall are what at first glance look like pictures. Artfully arranged, with wood frames and a glass front, a close look reveals they are not paintings but are in fact real, once-living, plants and fungi.

Framed specimens at The Ohio State University Herbarium

The displays are quite pretty and they’re obviously rather old, but I never stopped to consider just how old they are, or how they came to be. A modern interpretive sign explains that they, along with four larger, more intricate panels of Ohio trees, were assembled for display at the World’s Columbian Exposition, a big world’s fair held in Chicago for six months in mid-1893.

write-up by Ronald L Stuckey about Kellerman's Columbian exposition mounts

Write-up by Ronald L Stuckey about Kellerman’s Columbian exposition mounts

At the top of each 18 x 22-inch panel is a printed heading “Flora of Ohio,” and beneath that, in ornate old-style penmanship, are the words “Prepared by Professor and Mrs. W. A. Kellerman.” William A. Kellerman was remarkably energetic and wide-ranging in his botanical interests. Making these panels was an appropriate hobby for a person whose life revolved around plants and fungi. An Ohio native born in 1840, he attended Cornell University for undergraduate studies and later received his Ph.D. from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He taught at schools in several nearby US states before returning home to become OSU’s first botany professor and Chairman of the Department of Botany when it was formed in 1891. That same year, he established the Herbarium in a building aptly named “Botany Hall” that unfortunately no longer exists on OSU’s oval. Since then the Herbarium has moved twice, first to the also aptly named “Botany and Zoology” building (now Jennings Hall) and then to its present location as part of the Museum of Biological Diversity on West Campus (1315 Kinnear Rd.). While his principal research interest was rust fungus diseases of crops, Kellerman’s numerous works on the flora of the regions where he lived reveal an extraordinary breadth of knowledge. He wrote a guide intended principally for use by teachers entitled “Spring Flora of Ohio” (1895) and co-authored, beginning in 1894 and subsequently updated several times, “A catalogue of Ohio Plants.” Sadly, while Kellerman was on a research trip to study fungi in Guatemala, he contracted a fever (most likely malaria) from which he died in 1907.

Photo of WA Kellerman in the Journal of Mycology

Photo of W.A. Kellerman in the Journal of Mycology

The panels are an interesting snapshot of the flora of Ohio. While aesthetics and enthusiasm for particular plants may have played a major role in their selection by the Kellermans, the panels were indeed portrayed to fairgoers as indigenous representatives of our flora. As there have been substantial changes in the composition of our vegetation, especially for such pollution and disturbance-sensitive organisms as lichens, they arouse curiosity about the past versus present status of these organisms.

Lichens are dual organisms consisting of fungus plus alga. The algae are single-celled photosynthetic organisms. The fungus, which constitutes most of the body of a lichen, provides a home for the algae, usually in a layer just beneath the surface. Most lichens fall into one of three growth-form categories: (1) usually small “crustose” lichens that are tightly attached to the substrate and so don’t have a discernable lower surface; (2) small to medium-sized “foliose” lichens that are flattened and can usually be separated from the substrate, and (3) “fruticose” lichens that have a bushy shape, either standing upright from the surface they are growing on, or dangling off a tree branch or trunk. Most of the lichens in the panels are foliose species.

Illustration of three growth-form categories of lichens

Three growth-form categories of lichens

There doesn’t seem to be a strict organization scheme for the lichen panels; they’re not in alphabetical or taxonomic order, except that one panel consists mostly of crustose species, while the few fruticose ones represented are grouped together, sharing space with some foliose ones. I suspect that the paucity of fruticose types is attributable to the display method only being suitable for flat or readily flattened specimens.

Each panel includes 9 specimens, with handwritten labels. The classification of lichens has undergone substantial change in the past century and a quarter, hence many of the names written by the Kellermans are not in use today. Fortunately, an on-line database called “Consortium of North American Lichen Herbaria” lists specimen records for lichens residing in collections spanning the continent, and the site lists all the names by which a species has been known in the past.

The present distribution of lichens in Ohio is well described in The Macrolichens of Ohio by Ray E. Showman and Don G. Flenniken, published in 2004 by the Ohio Biological Survey, and distribution maps presented on the web site of the Ohio Moss and Lichen Association. The status of the lichens more broadly is set forth in a monumental book, Lichens of North America by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia D. Sharnoff and Stephen Sharnoff, published in 2001 by Yale University Press, along with an updated companion volume by Brodo published in 2016 by the Canadian Museum of Nature, Keys to Lichens of North America: Revised and Expanded.

One panel caught my eye. This is a group of mostly rather large foliose lichens, including several “lungworts,” members of the Lobaria –robust broad-lobed species found on bark.

Display of a group of mostly rather large foliose lichens

A group of mostly rather large foliose lichens

Among the most easily recognized of all lichens, lung lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria, was once widely distributed across Ohio, but no more. All but one of the 14 county records for lungwort are pre-1945, with the other one record being sometime between 1945 and 1965. Extensive searching has failed to find lung lichen today.

Why is it lung lichen gone from Ohio? It’s probably due to a multiplicity of factors that prevailed during the late 19th, and early 20th centuries: air pollution and disturbance of old-growth forests. Now that conditions are better for it to grow, perhaps a lack of propagules is keeping it from reestablishing itself. While eventually a warbler or vireo might fly in from some north woods with a little piece of lungwort on its foot, this might be a good candidate for a deliberate reintroduction.

Photo of lungwort growing on a tree in Maine

Lungwort growing on a tree in Maine

This is what lungwort looks like, growing on a tree in Maine. It’s a beautiful lichen and that just might still be growing in in a bottomland forest somewhere in Ohio, or it might soon return. Keep an eye out for it the next time you go hiking!

About the Author: Bob Klips is Associate Professor Emeritus in the department of EEOBiology at The Ohio State University. He currently assists with moss and lichen databasing in the OSU herbarium. His research focuses on bryophyte ecology.

Staff Spotlight – Grant Terrell

Grant Terrell proudly presenting a specimen of yellow-bellied marmot

Grant Terrell proudly presenting a yellow-bellied marmot

We sat down with Grant Terrell, the Curatorial Assistant for the Tetrapod Collection, to learn more about him and his role within OSU’s Museum of Biological Diversity.

Hilary: “Are you a student at OSU?”
Grant: “Yes, this is my third year at OSU. When I first started my education here, I was an evolution and ecology major in the EEOB department, but I later added a history double major and a paleontology minor.”

Hilary: “What is your job at the Museum of Biological Diversity?”
Grant: “I’m currently the Curatorial Assistant for the Tetrapod Collection.”

Hilary: “How long have you been in this role?”
Grant: “I’ve been in this role for about 6 or 7 months now, so not too long, but I’ve been with the museum for three years. I actually had my first day of work before my first day of class at OSU! I reached out to the museum before I was a student, as I really wanted to work at the museum and it was a deciding factor in whether or not there was a place for me at Ohio State, as I was so fascinated with museum life and and I wanted to be a part of it. So, eventually I was hired as a Research Assistant, doing basic curatorial tasks, then moved onto Curatorial Assistant and am now the acting Collections Manager.”

Hilary: “What is a tetrapod?”
Grant: “The modern way to define it would be a group that contains mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds – their last common ancestor and then everything in between. So, dinosaurs are tetrapods, mammoths are tetrapods, and so on. Modern biology uses these types of definitions (they’re called clade-based definitions) for groups so as to avoid the arbitrary things that you can gain or lose in evolution – like legs.”

these are tetrapods: bullfrog, turtle, hedghog, squirrel, birds

These are all tetrapods

Hilary: “Why is it important to study tetrapods?”
Grant: “The Earth is a system and it depends on the inner workings of many organismal groups. Tetrapods are only one component of this system, so I believe studying tetrapods is only as important as the study of any of these other groups. Still, it’s rather impossible for one person to comprehensively study all components of this system, and so we are forced to specialize.”

Hilary: “What is your favorite part about working in the Tetrapod Collection?”
Grant: “Being surrounded by diversity at all times of the day. For my spring break, I took a trip to Costa Rica (which is a biodiversity hotspot), but the diversity of animals in the tetrapod collection is at a magnitude much more dense than what I’ve ever experienced before, even in Costa Rica. And it is all right here in the museum – just drawers and drawers of specimens who have unique stories behind them.”

Hilary: “What is a discovery that you’ve made while working here?”
Grant: “When you start skinning and preparing the specimens, every mammal or bird, even something as common as a house sparrow – every single one is different. Not a single one is the same and when you’re with this specimen for hours preparing it, you start thinking about it’s life – about how it grew up, what it did throughout its day, what it was doing before it died – just with each individual one, you recognize that no one specimen is the same.”

Hilary: “You mention ‘skinning’ and ‘preparing’ specimens – can you elaborate on this? Is this something that you do on a day-to-day basis?”
Grant: “Typically, what I create are called study skins, which are different from taxidermy mounds. Taxidermy is more of an art form where you’re trying to depict an animal in a realistic lifelike pose, while study skins are to give you more of a general shape and visual idea of that particular individual, so you can look at things like molt patterns, color variations, differences in measurements – and they’re made to fit into a museum drawer. Preparing a specimen can sometimes feel like performing surgery, as some of the specimens that we receive have injuries, so you have to be careful with the work that you’re doing so as not to further damage the specimen.”

“Usually just about once a week at most I’ll do skinning because it’s so time consuming and once you’ve started on a skinning project, you can’t necessarily stop. But, if a specimen needs prepared, I prioritize by what I have time to do, what we have room for, and what would be valuable for the collection.”

Hilary: “Do you get these specimens as donations?”
Grant: “The majority of what we get is what we call “salvage” – specimens that are road kills or who have been victims of window strikes. In the past, people would kill the animals in the wild to add to the collection – those specimens are known as voucher specimens, which is essentially taking the species for educational purposes.”

The word "strike" is spelled out of bird study skins

“STRIKE”-An art installation created to represent building fatalities in birds. ©Amy Youngs, 2015

Hilary: “What projects are being worked on now?”
Grant: “One of the biggest projects we’re working on now is to rebuild a relationship with the zoo to try to get future deceased specimens from them. The museum used to have a relationship with the zoo many years ago, but as the years went on there was a breakdown in the relations and we haven’t been getting regular specimens from them since the 70’s, so we’re currently working on building that relationship again. A lot of the animals at the zoo are critically endangered, so we want to preserve as many endangered specimens as we can for study, data collection, and genetic analysis for future generations.”

barbet specimens from the Columbus Zoo

Barbets from the Columbus Zoo

“There’s also a lot of active research going on in the collections, and one of the big things that troubles us is space – we never have enough space and so we are working on acquiring more storage units – and we’re also undertaking projects to optimize space – such as pulling some of the older specimens that don’t necessarily have any data and trying to make room for the ones that do, so that we can add more to the collection.
I am also working on supervising weekly mammal preparations. I myself have only recently been trained in this- bird prep remains my forté – but I recently prepared a Douglas Squirrel and a Yellow-bellied Marmot, the first of its species in the collection. I plan to prepare a porcupine which we have in our freezer and I am expecting this to be quite the undertaking.”

tree squirrel specimens prepared by Grant Terrell

Tree squirrels prepared by student volunteers

Hilary: “Is everything in the collection used for research?”
Grant: “Most of it. There’s also what we call a “teaching collection” – a lot of which is stuff that is older and outside of Ohio and it’s not as valuable for research, so we usually use it for teaching and outreach.”

Hilary: “What is the craziest thing you have found in the collection?”
Grant: “A dried sheep’s stomach inside of a manila envelope. It was just sitting in a random drawer and I was going through the collection one day, trying to catalogue items that hadn’t been catalogued and I opened up the envelope and there’s this sheep’s stomach. It didn’t have any information associated with it, except a tag that said “ovis,” which is the genus that sheep’s are in.”

“Another one is a raccoon specimen that we received, who had died after getting its head caught in a mason jar and the person who had prepared the specimen had left the rim of the jar around the neck of the specimen as a reminder to how the animal had died. I like that one because, to me, it symbolizes what I was saying earlier about every one of these individuals having a story and a life behind it. It reminds you not to take all of these specimens that we have here for granted.”

Hilary HirtleAbout the Author: Hilary Hirtle is the Faculty Affairs Coordinator at the OSU Department of Family Medicine; her interest in natural history brings her to the museum to interview faculty and staff and use her creative writing skills to report about her experiences.

2018 Museum Open House – Magnified

Mark your calendars – we will have our annual open house on Saturday April 7, 2018. The event will take place at 1315 Kinnear Rd from 10am through 4pm. Following our success form the last years, we will have some kids activities outdoors – as well as plenty of things to do and see indoors.

Our motto this year is “Magnified“. Displays will focus on magnifying all small things in our collections. Have you ever looked an insect in the eye? What does the inside of a flower look like? Are bird feathers 3-dimensional? You will find answers to these and many more natural history questions at our open house.

To stay up-to-date, please follow us on Facebook or send us a message.

Junior Explorer Club of Upper Arlington visits ant lab

How do animals communicate?

ant sketch

Morgan Oberweiser introducing animal sound activities to junior explorer club

Morgan Oberweiser introducing animal sound activities to junior explorer club

The Adams Ant Lab hosted elementary school children from the Junior Explorer Club of Upper Arlington. Recent graduate Mazie Davis and undergraduate students Andrew Mularo and Morgan Oberweiser put together a program to teach the little ones about various ways that animals communicate. First the students played a bioacoustics guessing game – they listened to some diverse audio recordings, courtesy of the Borror Lab of Bioacoustics, and tried to guess what animals they came from.

Can you tell which animals make these sounds? Look for the correct answers at the bottom of this post.

mystery sound 1:

mystery sound 2:

mystery sound 3:

Next the students learned about the use of coloration for communication. They observed camouflage in northern walking stick insects and African ghost mantises, as well as warning coloration in Peruvian black velvet stick insects and yellow banded poison dart frogs.

The last animal communication system we discussed was chemical communication. The students played a game in which they were each given a scented cotton ball (peppermint, almond, vanilla) and were tasked with sorting themselves into groups using only their noses. Then they compared their skills to those of our large Atta ant colony.

Ant colonies & fungus gardens in R Adams lab at OSU-MBD

Ant colonies & fungus gardens

The grand finale of the trip was a quick tour of the tetrapod collection lead by Dr. Katherine O’Brien. It was a joy to have such wonderful and inquisitive kids come to visit – we expect to see many of their excited faces return come next spring’s Open House (April 7, 2018)!

About the Author: Morgan Oberweiser is an undergraduate (Evolution and Ecology major) research assistant in Rachelle Adams‘ lab.

Answers to animal sound quiz: sound 1 = American alligator (chickadees scolding the alligator), sound 2 = Texas leafcutting ant, sound 3 = South American catfish

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.

 

Explaining Science – taxonomy of parasitoid wasps

Professor Norm Johnson, Director of our C.A. Triplehorn Insect Collection, studies systematics of parasitoid wasps and so do his students. Graduate student Elijah Talamas collected many insect specimens during his PhD work at Ohio State and revised several taxa. Recently he published a photographic catalog of some primary types of parasitoid wasps in the large insect order Hymenoptera.

I contacted Elijah in his current position at the The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service and asked him to give us some insights into his life as a researcher. He recently published results from work he did as a a postdoctoral fellow for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC:

Elijah TalamasElijah: “I am the curator of Hymenoptera (bees, ants and wasps) at the Florida State Collection of Arthropods, which is part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. I have broad interests in the taxonomy, morphology, and evolution of platygastroid wasps, especially groups with potential for biological control. I was trained by Dr. Norman Johnson at The Ohio State University, and maintain active collaboration with him and members of his lab.”

Angelika: “What species did you study?”

Elijah: “As a taxonomist, I study many species and genera in the superfamily Platygastroidea. These are parasitoid wasps that require development in a host to complete their life cycle, i.e. their larvae live as parasites that eventually kill their hosts. The past few years have focused on the genus Trissolcus which are parasitoids of stink bug eggs.”

(Angelika’s note: You may recall that the brown marmorated stink bug is an invasive species from Asia, now found in the eastern half of the U.S., as well as California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. You may have seen one in your home, especially in late fall when they are looking for a sheltered place to overwinter)

Angelika: “What was your research questions in this particular study?”

Elijah: “A typical taxonomic project will “revise” a genus and involves many questions: What are the characters that define the genus? How many species does it contain and how do we identify them? The separation of organisms into species is the foundation of organismal biology and this is one of the jobs of a taxonomist.”

brown marmorated stink bugAngelika: “What do we know already, and why is it important to know this?”

Elijah: “We know that many parasitoid wasps attack the eggs of agricultural pests. This is important because they are often the best, and sometimes only solution to control numbers. The invasive brown marmorated stink bug is an invasive pest that can be found in Ohio, and it is not controlled by natural enemies in the United States. However, there are parasitoid wasps in its native distribution in Asia that kill the stink bugs’ eggs very efficiently. Biological control research about these wasps requires thorough study of their morphology to ensure that
species are properly identified.”

Angelika: “How did you study this question?”

Elijah: “I study parasitoid wasps by examining them under a microscope, documenting their anatomical structures, and the variability that can occur within a species. This often requires examination of specimens from all over the  world, and sometimes international travel is required to access specimens in foreign institutions and to collect fresh material. I rely heavily on photography to document and share information about these wasps, but I also use other techniques, including scanning electron microscopy and analysis of DNA.”

When looking at detailed features one may notice that some of them are different from how they were originally described and the specimen may be more closely related to to another group of specimens. This means that sometimes the classification of the species needs to be revised and renamed to reflect these new relationships. For example, in the figures below you can see the holotype, the specimen that was used to describe the species Psilanteris nigriclavata. This species was originally described with the name Opisthacantha nigiclavatus in 1905. The specimen was embedded in glue, which obscured some of its diagnostic characters and hampered a clear assessment of its identity. As part of this project, Elijah dissolved some of the glue and determined that it shared characteristics with other species in the genus Psilanteris. Thus this species was moved to this genus and now operates under the name Psilanteris nigriclavata.

62 head, mesosoma, metasoma, lateral view; 63 head and mesosoma, anterodorsal view (sk=skaphion); 64 head and mesosoma, lateral view. Scale bars in millimeters.

Angelika:  “Why is this research important?”

Elijah: “Taxonomy informs us about many aspects of the biological world. It is the science that reveals the planet’s biological diversity and discovers the evolutionary relationships between organisms. It enables other disciplines to identify organisms for the studies of behavior and ecology, and applications with large scale societal impact, such as biological control of invasive pests.”

Angelika: “What do you hope to have achieved with this study?”

Elijah: “For parasitoid wasps in the superfamily Platygastroidea, this study provides photographs of all holotype specimens in the National Musuem of Natural History and makes them freely available online. Taxonomists all over the world now have immediate access to these specimens through the internet, enabling them to make better informed decisions for classification, and more refined hypotheses about evolution.”

Let us know if you have any questions, we would like to hear form you!

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Some explanations you may find helpful:

Anterodorsal means in front and toward the back.

A holotype is a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based.

Lateral means from the side.

The body of arthropods is composed of three parts, from front to back, the prosoma, mesosoma, metasoma.

A parasitoid is an insect whose larvae live as parasites that eventually kill their hosts.

Superfamily is an intermediate classification rank directly above family and might contain one or more related families. For example, Muroidea, a superfamily of rodents, contains six families of rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils. Taxonomists use several levels to classify living things. They follow the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature which specifically mentions superfamily, family, subfamily, tribe, subtribe, genus, subgenus, species, subspecies.

Reference: Talamas, E. J., Thompson, J., Cutler, A., Schoenberger, S. F., Cuminale, A., Jung, T., … & Alvarez, E. (2017). An online photographic catalog of primary types of Platygastroidea (Hymenoptera) in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Journal of Hymenoptera Research, 56, 187.

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and the Outreach and social media manager for the museum. Here she interviewed Elijah Talamas, currently Postdoctoral researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

Squirreling in the Pacific Northwest

You may have heard that researchers discovered a new species of flying squirrel. These squirrels had lived in plain sight for decades but only recently did Brian Arbogast and colleagues investigate the DNA of some of these animals. Their findings were revealing: The Pacific squirrels cluster separately from the northern and southern flying squirrel. The researchers analyzed mitochondrial DNA as well as microsatellite data to reveal this new evolutionary relationship.

Note: Mitochondrial DNA and microsatellites are parts of a species’ genome that are regularly used to construct evolutionary trees. In addition to the DNA in every cell’s nucleus in our body, mitochondria, the energy powerhouses in our cells, have their own genome. This mitochondrial genome is relatively small, is inherited from the mother only and has relatively high mutation rates. It is like a small clonal lineage within an organism which makes it ideal for evolutionary studies.   Microsatellites are short sequence repeats in the nuclear genome that do not produce proteins. Thus they are free to mutate at a higher rate than coding sequences – mutations will not mess up protein production- and they frequently vary in length and thus reveal relationships among organisms. 

A few weeks ago, before this study was published, 2 species of flying squirrels were considered to exist in North America, the northern and the southern flying squirrel. Here in Ohio the northern flying squirrels is resident – it is nocturnal though, that’s why you probably have not seen one yet.

Map showing distribution of now 3 species of flying squirrels

Map showing distribution of now 3 species of flying squirrels

DNA analysis showed that the coastal squirrels in Washington and Oregon are distinct from their northerly relatives and that they actually only co-occur with them at 3 sites in the Pacific Northwest. Northern and the newly described Humboldt’s flying squirrel do not interbreed at these sites. By the way, the researchers named the new species Glaucomys oregonensis because the specimen that was used to describe the species was collected in Oregon.

You may recall from a previous post, that Dr. Andreas Chavez in our department of EEOB studies relationships among squirrels in a different genus, Tamiasciurus, the red squirrel T. hudsonicus and the Douglas squirrel T. douglasii. These two species share habitat in the Pacific Northwest and they do hybridize.

Dr. Chavez was not available for an interview for his thoughts on the new species description of flying squirrels, because he is currently pursuing his own fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest. He and his field assistant Stephanie Malinich are collecting data to better understand the hybrid zone dynamics between the Douglas and red squirrel.

We will give you an update on Dr. Chavez’ research once he returns.

About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and writing this post for Stephanie Malinich, collection manager of the tetrapods collection. Stephanie is currently doing fieldwork on the red and the Douglas squirrel in the Pacific Northwest.

Songs on both sides of the Atlantic

Like every year I will leave for Hog Island, Maine tomorrow morning. I will teach at two of the Audubon summer camps that have been held on the island almost every summer since 1936. You may recall this from my previous post.

This year I am particularly excited to watch birds along the Atlantic coast as I just returned from a trip to Ireland, on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. There I spotted birds of several species that also occur along the US coast. I doubt that the birds themselves make the crossing, but members of their species reside and breed on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rathlin Island

So which birds are we talking about? In Europe we visited Rathlin island, a small island off the coast of Northern Ireland, where we watched Atlantic Puffins Fratercula arctica, Razorbills Alca torda and Common Murres Uria aalge – or Common Guillemot as they are referred to in the UK. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) runs a seabird center along the cliffs of the island where volunteers and staff regularly survey the breeding colonies and answer visitors’ questions. The resident naturalist shared with us the latest numbers: they estimate 100,000 Common Murres to breed on the cliffs, with them 20,000 Razorbills and some 700 pairs of Atlantic Puffins, everyone’s favorite due to their colorful breeding plumage.

Two Atlantic Puffins on Eastern Egg Rock

Atlantic Puffin on Eastern Egg Rock

On the US side of the Atlantic, in Maine, some 550 breeding pairs of these colorful seabirds have been reported in the largest colony on Seal island, ME.

Enjoy some photos of the Irish coastal scenery – I wish my photos conveyed the noise and smell that comes with large seabird colonies like these … David Attenborough in his Life of Birds series refers to these breeding conditions as the” slums in the bird world”.

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Most of these seabirds are not known for their vocalizations (although Black Guillemots may be exceptional with their distinct whistle; you can hear some in the background of the puffin recording below). Here are some recordings that I found in our collection:

Doug Nelson recorded this Atlantic Puffin on Matinicus Rock, Knox county, Maine, USA on 3 June 1981 (BLB23883):

Lang Elliott recorded a Common Murre on water near the Gaspesie Provincial Park, Bonaventure Island, Quebec, Canada on 1 July 1989 (BLB17181):

Common Eider is another bird that breeds on both sides of the Atlantic. Hear some nestling calls recorded by Don Borror on Eastern Egg Rock, Muscongus Bay, Knox county, Maine, USA on 23 June 1958 (BLB3508):

As you can see, most of these recordings were made a long time ago; time to go back and get some more recent recordings!

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

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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