Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Featured insect: Eucurtiopsis kitchingi (Coleoptera: Histeridae)

It may be difficult to tell, but this is actually a beetle. More specifically, it goes by the name of Eucurtiopsis kitchingi and is in the subfamily Chlamydopsinae of the Histeridae. It was very recently described (in September) by Alexey Tishechkin from material collected during the Santo 2006 expedition. Doesn't it look cool!

The Chlamydopsinae are an interesting group. Shunning the scavenging and predatory stereotype that the histerids have, the chlamydopsines cohabit with ants and termites, where they might feed on eggs and larvae. One species has also been observed riding on top of their host ants as a means of transport. Until recently, they were considered to be a relatively species-poor group, with only 47 species in 1997. However, the past 10 years has revealed a startling amount of diversity, particularly on the Pacific Islands of New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and undoubtedly with more to be discovered in other regions also.

Unfortunately, nothing is known about the biology of E. kitchingi. It was collected in flight intercept traps, and was not detected in any of the ant nests the author investigated. At 1.5 mm in length, it's not going to make its presence felt, and is unlikely to be found serendipitously. This being said, ant research is an active area currently, and so it might pay for ant workers to keep these beetles in mind as they do their field work.

Caterino MS, Degallier N. 2007.A review of the biology and systematics of Chlamydopsinae (Coleoptera: Histeridae). Invertebrate Systematics 21: 1-28.

Tishechkin AK. 2009. Discovery of Chlamydopsinae (Insecta, Coleoptera, Histeridae) in Vanuatu with the description of eight new species from Espiritu Santo Island. Zoosystema 30(3) : 661-690.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Fire ant origins and genetics

The fire ant Wasmannia auropunctata is one of the most annoying things in the Solomon Islands. They have a very irritating and itchy bite, are so small as to be invisible, and they have a penchant for living in your underwear draw. Not pleasant. Unfortunately, they are another of the invasive species that have invaded the islands from elsewhere, in this case South America. They are found naturally through a large part of South America, from Argentina to the Caribbean islands. They have been introduced to a number of places, including Hawaii and the United States, Gabon in West Africa, and in the South Pacific both the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.

To investigate where these ants came from, Alexander Mikheyev and Ulrich Mueller conducted a genetic study on a bunch of both natural and introduced populations of the fire ant. Looking at a little bit of the mitochondrial COI gene, they discovered that the Solomon Island populations have affinities with US and Hawaiian, and Northern South America and Caribbean populations. New Caledonian specimens were quite different, originating from southern natural populations in Argentina and Brazilian populations. Gabon has also been invaded by this group. This suggests that the two Pacific populations sampled were independantly derived, probably through trade or troop movements during WWII.

An assumption that I've usually made with invasive species in the Pacific is that they tend to do a bit of island-hopping, and in this case I would've hypothesised that the New Caledonian and Solomon Island populations would be the same. This is obviously not the case here, and it is a reminder that it's worth keeping in mind that there are many ways for organisms to get from place to place.

Mikheyev AS, Mueller UG. 2007. Genetic relationships between native and introduced populations of the little fire ant Wasmannia auropunctata. Diversity and Distributions 13:573-579.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Featured insect: Tossinola pamianorum (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae)

When the word 'wasp' is mentioned, people get scared as the image of angry yellow jackets or paper wasps is conjured up. When I tell people that I'm interested in them, they tend to respond with a sense of bewilderment and treat me as if I'm crazy.

The order Hymenoptera is one of the largest insect orders, being beaten only by the beetles. Of that, only a small proportion sting, bite or otherwise make a nuisance of themselves, the others minding their own business and performing their vital services to the environment. A good many of them are parasitoids of other insects, their young developing in eggs, larvae, pupae or adults of other species. Frequently, species are host-specific in that one species of parasitic wasp will only develop in a single species of insect.

The featured insect for today, Tossinola pamianorum was recently described from Colo-i-suva in Fiji by Andrew Bennett as a result of the Fijian Terrestrial Arthropod Survey. It is in the subfamily Banchinae of the family Ichneumonidae, which is not only one of the major wasp families, but is one of the largest families of insects in general. A rare species, it was described from seven species from the total haul of the survey. While the host is not yet known, other species in the same group lay their eggs in caterpillars. One particularly gruesome feature in this instance, is that the caterpillars continue to move, eat and grow despite being inhabited by a parasitic wasp...

What is particularly interesting about this species of wasp is that it is the first time this subfamily has been found in Fiji. The genus is also known from the Philippines, Central Asia and West Africa, so there's some huge gaps in the distribution of this species. The subfamily has no other representatives in the South Pacific, though there are a number in Australia and New Zealand, so it may well be that people haven't looked for them rather than that there are none there.

This is not surprising, as the Ichneumonidae has been very poorly worked on despite (or perhaps because of?) it's size and economic importance. A great thing about this paper is that it not only starts to reveal some of the ichnemonid diversity of the South Pacific, but it also provides a useful entry into the fascinating world of Ichneumonidae taxonomy in general. A very interesting and worthwhile publication.

Bennett AMR. 2009. The Ichneumonidae (Hymenoptera) of Fiji: keys to subfamilies and genera with a review of the species of Anomaloninae, Banchinae, Brachycyrtinbae and Diplazontinae. In: Evenhuis, N.L. & Bickel, D.J. (eds.), Fiji Arthropods XIV. Bishop Museum Occasional Papers 105: 3-68.

Monday, 12 October 2009

LaTeX tips and tricks

I have been using LaTeX for the past 10 months or so and have been really enjoying it. It's making the thesis writing process a delight for the most part, and produces some really nice output. Too nice sometimes as it can be easy to forget that the content is the important part!

Unfortunately, I have found installing packages on Linux to be a bit of a challenge. I installed the package manager MikTeX, but that's been playing up for some strange reason, so I'm going to try doing it manually. Thankfully there's some help available here.

Here's a couple of other resources on MikTex for linux and an introduction to table of contents formatting. I've also found the LaTeX Community Forum to be very helpful.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Carpophilus publications

Searching for things on Carpophilus species, I came across a couple of papers by Alexander Kirejtshuk on the things. There's one on the nitidulids of India and one on the African fauna.

I was also very interested to find a short report on nitidulid molecular systematics, as I have been completely unaware of any work that's being going on in that vein other than my own.

On the left is a beautiful picture of Carpophilus oculatus. Isn't it nice!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Santo 2006 results

In 2006, a major expedition to Espiritu Santo island in Vanuatu was undertaken, headed up by Phillipe Bouchet and a team from the French research organisation L'Institut de recherche pour le développement, (IRD). It was named, rather originally, Santo 2006. This was a massive effort that attempted to survey a transect across Vanuatu's largest and highest island.

The idea and scheme is cool. Unfortunately though, the results from the survey have been slow in coming out and has had many people concerned that this might be another one of those major biodiversity efforts that begin with a hiss and a roar and ends with an extended whimper as people and funding agencies realise that the process of figuring out what you've found takes a lot longer and is a lot slower than is expected.

Serendipitously, thanks to a friend who is mighty keen on dragonflies, I was able to come across some of the papers that are starting to trickle out. The most recent issue of Zoosystema, one of the publications of the
Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle (MNHM), is chock full of Santo 2006 results.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Inkscape tutorials

A little while ago in a previous post about vector graphics, I complained that there weren't any good online tutorials on biological illustrating with Inkscape (or other vector graphics packages for that matter).

I still haven't found any with an explicit biological focus (except maybe how to draw a gherkin), however there are a few which may be useful:

How to trace and colour photos, creating a "hackergotchi";

The Inkscape tutorial blog;

and finally, some general tips and tricks.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Melicope: Hawaii's export to the Pacific

Over the years, the general consensus has been that islands of the Pacific, and particularly the incredibly isolated archipelago we fondly know as Hawaii have been the passive collectors of fauna and flora that have just happened to have swum, flown, drifted, or been blown onto their fair shores. It's generally been thought to have been a one-way process, that once something has arrived there, it settles down and makes the most of their tropical paradise. Something that those of us stuck in cold climates can relate to very well -- why would you want to leave a place that is extremely amiable and is yours for the taking?

However, recent systematic research on a number of organisms is starting to shake up this tidy story somewhat. It appears that we may have underestimated the ability of these islands to send their biota elsewhere.

The particular paper sparking this post, written by Danica Harbaugh and coauthors, features the shrub Melicope. It's widely distributed across Asia and the South Pacific, but has undergone an "explosive radiation" in Hawaii, with 47 species found in the group. As usual, the authors hypothesised that all Hawaiian species had originated from a single colonisation and formed a monophyletic group restricted to the islands. Data from a number of genes were analysed, and it was found that although it does seem to be the case that all Hawaiian Melicope were derived from a single colonisation, it hasn't remained stuck in the one place. Surprisingly, their data suggested that Hawaii has exported some of their plants to the Marquesas Islands, where they have subsequently speciated.

This data adds to the body of work that suggests that Pacific biogeography is a lot more dynamic and complicated than initially suspected. It is also another example of the very intriguing connection that exists between Hawaii and the Marquesas.

Harbaugh DT, Wagner EI, Allan GJ, Zimmer EA. 2009. The Hawaiian Archipleago is a stepping stone for dispersal in the Pacific: an example from the plant genus Melicope (Rutaceae). Journal of Biogeography 36: 230-241.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Tokelau Ant Communities

Tokelau is a small place, far away from anywhere. Unfortunately, like all Pacific Islands, it has been overrun by invasive ants, which have massive impacts on the ecosystem of the islands. Phil Lester and his crew from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand made the most of a bad thing and took the opportunity to investigate community structure and assembly processes on these islands. What they did which few others have done was investigate the effect of abundance on community assembly, as opposed to just recording which species are found in the same places as each other. As expected, they found that as the abundance of ants went up, the number of species present decreased.

The ant that was dominant, was the yellow crazy ant, Anoplolepis gracilipes. And boy, was it dominant! Maximum abundances were 100 times that of the most abundant species. Rather unsurprisingly, the authors comment that
"in high abundance, A. gracilipes was associated with reductions in the number of co-occurring species and their abundance."
In this research, the authors only looked at the effect on other ant, which are also introduced to Tokelau. However, the effect of the ants can be devestating. One of the most publicised crazy ant invasions is their effect on the ecosystem of Christmas Island, Indian Ocean, home to the charismatic red land crab. A couple of reports about the invasion in the popular press are this one from the ABC and a report from the Australian Government

PJ Lester, KL Abbott M Sarty and KC Burns. 2009. Competitive assembly of South Pacific invasive ant communities. BMC Ecology 9:3