Rebecca Recommends #4

I missed last week's summary of all things zoological, entomological, sciency and other general stuff, so here it is in all its glory:

  • Insect outbreaks reduce wildfire severity
  • Bearded dragons show REM and slow wave sleep
  • Trauma in a bee
  • Sexual dimorphism of Centris bees
  • Snow days, slow days
  • How climate change could make office work even unhealthier
  • Hydropeaking of river water levels is disrupting insect survival, river ecosystems
  • Fishery models and ecological understanding
  • Methane production reduced in ruminants
  • Super duper June bugs
  • A new parasitoid wasp from Russia may help the fight against emerald ash borer
  • Estimates of cheetah numbers are 'guesswork', say researchers
  • This bug wears its victims' carcasses as camouflage
  • Evolutionary history and conservation significance of the Javan leopard Panthera pardus melas
  • A fecal pellet’s worth a thousand words
  • New species of fly is first in its family to parasitize ants
  • Nine years of censorship
  • Australia: engagement upgrade
  • Assessment: academic return
  • Cashing in on science
  • Research commercialization
  • Academies: diversity drive
  • Faculty positions: tenure figures tumble
  • Conservation: debate over whale longevity is futile
  • Ethology: intrepid translator of the hive
  • Camera traps may aid conservation
  • Knowledge alters public perception
  • How tree crickets tune into each other’s songs
  • New evidence connects dung beetle evolution to dinosaurs

Insect outbreaks reduce wildfire severity

Forest scientists have found an unexpected 'silver lining' to the insect outbreaks that have ravaged millions of trees across western North America. While insect outbreaks leave trees looking like matchsticks, a new University of Vermont-led study finds these hungry critters significantly reduce wildfire severity. The findings contrast sharply with popular attitudes - and some U.S. forest policies - which connect tree-eating insects with increased wildfire activity.

Source/read more University of Vermont 

Bearded dragons show REM and slow wave sleep

Behavioural sleep is ubiquitous among animals, from insects to man. In humans, sleep is also characterised by brain activity: periods of slow-wave activity are each followed by short phases of Rapid-Eye-Movement sleep (REM sleep). These electrical features of brain sleep, whose functions are not well understood, have so far been described only in mammals and birds, but not in reptiles, amphibians or fish. Yet, birds are reptiles — they are the feathered descendants of the now extinct dinosaurs. How then did brain sleep evolve? Gilles Laurent and members of his laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, describe for the first time REM and slow-wave sleep in a reptile, the Australian dragon Pogona vitticeps. This suggests that brain sleep dates back at least to the evolution of the amniotes, that is, to the beginning of the colonisation of terrestrial landmass by vertebrate animals.

Central Bearded Dragon  Pogona vitticeps  (Ahl, 1926) | [public domain]

Central Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps (Ahl, 1926) | [public domain]

Source/read more Max-Planck-Gesellschaft 

Trauma in a Bee

Twisted-winged parasites of the species Stylops ovinae reproduce using so-called traumatic insemination. Entomologists of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena and the Christian Albrechts University of Kiel published on this phenomenon in the new edition of the science magazine 'Scientific Reports'. To inseminate the eggs, the males injure the endoparasitic females with their hook-shaped penis and inject the seminal fluid directly into their body cavity.

Source/read more Friedrich-Schiller-Universitaet Jena 

Sexual dimorphism of Centris Bees

For Arizona, this April morning  (4/26/2016) was rather cool and very windy. At 72 degrees Fahrenheit and gusts up to 40 mi per hour, the only insects flying seemed to be big, strong Centris bees visiting our Foothills Palo Verdes (Parkinsonia microphylla). The big bees were actually flying in wind so strong that it ripped one of our swamp coolers off its foundation.

At around 8 am, many Centris bees were actively collecting among the bright yellow flowers that are just beyond their prime by now. Other bees were still asleep, clinging to twigs with their tarsi, but more firmly with their strong mandibles.

Snow Days, Slow Days

I feel the need to apologize for the relative lack of content here lately, but several circumstances are conspiring to reduce the frequency with which I have been posting. Some are beyond my control, others a function of having differing current priorities. For once, these are valid explanations, not merely excuses.

Source/read more Bug Eric 

How Climate Change Could Make Office Work Even Unhealthier

As the world heats up around us, many people take solace in the idea that their indoor lives may not be affected much by climate change.

But a number of experts say that hotter outdoor temperatures and extreme weather events like drought or storms may cause unhealthier conditions and less productivity in offices, schools and other buildings.

“When it comes to climate change and office work, I think that the reality is that our built environment, the buildings we work in and all of our systems, were built for a climate that we’re no longer living in,” says Aaron Bernstein, the associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. “From any number of angles, climate change can increase the risk for potentially harmful environments.”

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Hydropeaking of river water levels is disrupting insect survival, river ecosystems

A group of researchers concluded today in a study in the journal BioScience that “hydropeaking” of water flows on many rivers in the West has a devastating impact on aquatic insect abundance.

The research was based in part on a huge citizen science project with more than 2,500 samples taken on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and collaboration of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Oregon State University, Utah State University and Idaho State University. 

It raises serious questions about the current practice of raising river volumes up and down every day – known as hydropeaking – to meet hour-by-hour electricity demand, which has nearly wiped out local populations of some insects that feed local river ecosystems.

Noninsects dominate below hydropeaking dams. A photo collage showing genus-level invertebrate richness for three well-studied Western US rivers. The Green River below the Fontenelle Dam (left) has a low hydropeaking index value, and invertebrate assemblages comprise 54 unique genera, including many insects. The Green River below the Flaming Gorge Dam (middle) has a moderate hydropeaking index value and contains 47 unique invertebrate genera. The Colorado River below the Glen Canyon Dam (right) has a high hydropeaking index value and supports only 12 unique invertebrate genera, most of which are noninsects | From  Kennedy et al. (2016)

Noninsects dominate below hydropeaking dams. A photo collage showing genus-level invertebrate richness for three well-studied Western US rivers. The Green River below the Fontenelle Dam (left) has a low hydropeaking index value, and invertebrate assemblages comprise 54 unique genera, including many insects. The Green River below the Flaming Gorge Dam (middle) has a moderate hydropeaking index value and contains 47 unique invertebrate genera. The Colorado River below the Glen Canyon Dam (right) has a high hydropeaking index value and supports only 12 unique invertebrate genera, most of which are noninsects | From Kennedy et al. (2016)

Source/read more Oregan State University 

Fishery Models and Ecological Understanding

Anyone interested in population dynamics, fisheries management, or ecological understanding in general, will be interested to read the exchanges in Science, 23 April 2016 on the problem of understanding stock changes in the northern cod (Gadus morhua) fishery in the Gulf of Maine. I think this exchange is important to read because it illustrates two general problems with ecological science – how to understand ecological changes with incomplete data, and how to extrapolate what is happening into taking some management action.

Source/read more Ecological Rants 

Methane production reduced in ruminants

Researchers at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) have taken part in a study of the effect of one molecule, 3-nitrooxypropanol, in inhibiting methane production in ruminants. The work has been published in the magazine, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Ruminants are animals which digest their food through fermentation carried out by microorganisms living in the rumen. This process produces organic acids: acetic acid, propionic acid, and butyric acid, all of which are absorbed and metabolized by the organism as a source of energy. But, in addition, it also produces methane, which escapes into the atmosphere in the form of gas.

Source/read more Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) 

Super duper June bugs

Last June, after spending the day collecting insects at Sand Hills State Park in south-central Kansas with Mary Liz Jameson, Jeff Huether and I setup our blacklights at the edge of the dunes. We were hoping to attract males of the genus Prionus, following a hunch that maybe the dunes — a popular historical collecting site — would prove to be the habitat for the enigmatic Prionus simplex (known only from the type specimen labeled simply “Ks.”). We knew it was a long shot, made even longer by a bright moon and the unseasonably cool temperatures that settled over the dunes as the sun dipped below the horizon, and in the end no Prionus would be seen. We did see, however, some other interesting insects, one of the more interesting being males of Hammond’s lined June beetle — Polyphylla hammondi. Almost immediately after sunset a number of these large, chunky-bodied beetles resembling super-sized versions of their far more diverse and commonly encountered relatives in the genus Phyllophaga (May beetles) began arriving at the lights — each one noisily announcing its visit by its loud, buzzing, flight and bumbling thud onto the ground nearby.

Source/read more Beetles in the Bush 

A New Parasitoid Wasp from Russia May Help the Fight Against Emerald Ash Borer

Scientists working on environmentally friendly ways to combat insect pests continually quest for biological control’s version of a better mousetrap: natural enemies of a harmful species that outperform those already employed against it. In the case of invasive pests, the hunt may take scientists far afield, even to remote corners of the globe. So it was that Dr. Jian J. Duan, an entomologist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Delaware, trekked twice into the vast forests of Russia’s Primorsky Krai region, a magnificent wilderness of mixed hardwoods and conifers so wild that it is a last stronghold of the majestic Siberian tiger.

Source/read more Entomology Today 

Estimates of cheetah numbers are 'guesswork', say researchers

In the early 1900s it was believed that around 100,000 cheetahs roamed the Earth. The most recent estimate by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) puts the figure at 6,600 – mainly in eastern and southern Africa – amid fears that the fastest land mammal is racing to extinction.

However, a team of scientists from the Kenya Wildlife Trust’s Mara Cheetah Project, the University of Oxford and the Indian Statistical Institute says this number is simply a best guess, given the difficulty of counting cheetahs accurately.

The researchers have now developed a new method to accurately count cheetahs, which in time will help determine the magnitude of the threats they face and assess potential conservation interventions.

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Cheetah in Masai Mara NP Kenya |  Benh Lieu Song/Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

Cheetah in Masai Mara NP Kenya | Benh Lieu Song/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Source/read more University of Oxford 

This Bug Wears Its Victims' Carcasses as Camouflage

The assassin bug is one of the most cunning predators in the micro world, gluing the exoskeletons of its prey to its back as camouflage. While disturbing, it's a very effective survival strategy.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Evolutionary history and conservation significance of the Javan leopard Panthera pardus melas


The leopard Panthera pardus is widely distributed across Africa and Asia; however, there is a gap in its natural distribution in Southeast Asia, where it occurs on the mainland and on Java but not on the interjacent island of Sumatra. Several scenarios have been proposed to explain this distribution gap. Here, we complemented an existing dataset of 68 leopard mtDNA sequences from Africa and Asia with mtDNA sequences (NADH5 +  ctrl, 724 bp) from 19 Javan leopards, and hindcasted leopard distribution to the Pleistocene to gain further insights into the evolutionary history of the Javan leopard. Our data confirmed that Javan leopards are evolutionarily distinct from other Asian leopards, and that they have been present on Java since the Middle Pleistocene. Species distribution projections suggest that Java was likely colonized via a Malaya-Java land bridge that by-passed Sumatra, as suitable conditions for leopards during Pleistocene glacial periods were restricted to northern and western Sumatra. As fossil evidence supports the presence of leopards on Sumatra at the beginning of the Late Pleistocene, our projections are consistent with a scenario involving the extinction of leopards on Sumatra as a consequence of the Toba super volcanic eruption (~74 kya). The impact of this eruption was minor on Java, suggesting that leopards managed to survive here. Currently, only a few hundred leopards still live in the wild and only about 50 are managed in captivity. Therefore, this unique and distinctive subspecies requires urgent, concerted conservation efforts, integrating in situ and ex situ conservation management activities in a One Plan Approach to species conservation management.

Source/read more Journal of Zoology 

A Fecal Pellet’s Worth A Thousand Words

Scat, dung, guano, frass, manure, night soil. We have a lot of fancy words for feces, don’t we? Perhaps it’s because even uttering the word poop somehow feels unclean.

But for scientists, poop is not something to recoil from — it represents unexplored data. Each nugget, cow patty and meadow muffin is brimming with information that can be used to divine all sorts of interesting things about not only the animal that left it, but also the world in which that animal lives.

For instance, a fresh splat of bear scat full of berry seeds and fruit stones might be used to predict how cherry trees will adapt to climate change.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

New Species of Fly is First in Its Family to Parasitize Ants

Researchers in Panama have discovered a new species of fly in the family Chloropidae. The name of the new species is Pseudogaurax paratolmos, as reported in a recent paper published in Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

While a new species is interesting enough by itself, the researchers discovered something unique about this fly: it is the first known member of its family to parasitize ants. With this discovery, there are now four fly families that are known to parasitize ants (the other three are Tachinidae, Syrphidae, and Phoridae).

Source/read more Entomology Today 

Nine years of censorship

Early one Thursday morning last November, Kristi Miller-Saunders was surprised to receive a visit from her manager. Miller-Saunders, a molecular geneticist at the Canadian fisheries agency, had her reasons to worry about attention from above. On numerous occasions over the previous four years, government officials had forbidden her from talking to the press or the public about her work on the genetics of salmon — part of a broad policy that muzzled government scientists in Canada for many years. At one point, a brawny ‘minder’ had actually accompanied her to a public hearing to make sure that she didn’t break the rules.

Source/read more Nature 

Australia: Engagement upgrade

It is often said that when it comes to research excellence, Australia punches well above its weight. Despite a population of only 23 million, the country ranked 12th in the global Nature Index (see, which tracks the contributions of countries and institutions to high-quality scientific journals. This impressive performance can be partly attributed to a research-output measure introduced in 2010 to encourage quality over quantity. The Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) metric looks at the breadth of research from universities and evaluates the quality against international standards. “The ERA exercise, focusing on quality of the outputs at universities, has been very beneficial to the university system in Australia,” says Aidan Byrne, chief executive of the Australian Research Council in Canberra, which administers the framework. “It has been a focus that all of the universities in Australia positively responded to, and it added to the strength of the Australian university system.”

Source/read more Nature 

Assessment: Academic return

When Julia Lane began working in scientific-funding policy she was quickly taken aback by how unscientific the discipline was compared with the rigorous processes she was used to in the labour-economics sector, “It was a relatively weak and marginalized field,” says Lane, an economist at New York University.

Source/read more Nature 

Cashing in on science

University research powers innovation and economic development. Countries with intensive research and development (R&D) programmes differ in their approach to turning lab studies into commercial enterprises.

Source/read more Nature 

Research commercialization

A thirst for a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the Universe is a powerful motivation for research. But pursuit of commercial success is also a compelling driver. The ability of these forces to interact and reinforce one another is propelling scientific enterprise forward.

Source/read more Nature 

Academies: Diversity drive

Women represent an average of 12% of the memberships of academic science societies worldwide, finds a report from the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP): The Global Network of Science Academies. Women for Science: Inclusion and Participation in Academies of Science examined the membership of 69 national science societies around the world, and found that women comprise 14–16% of academies whose members are concentrated in the biological, medical and social sciences. In maths and engineering societies, women average 5–6% of membership. Female representation on academy governing boards, however, average 20%. Just 40% of the societies said that they have a gender policy or strategy to increase female participation in academy activities. The report recommends that IAP member academies collect and report data annually on membership and activities. It also suggests that academies create committees to establish strategies that will boost gender equality in membership and governance.

Source/read more Nature 

Faculty positions: Tenure figures tumble

The number of US faculty members who have tenure or are on the tenure track is falling, according to a report by the American Association of University Professors in Washington DC. Over the past 40 years, the proportion of the academic labour force that is in a full-time tenured position has shrunk by one-quarter, and the proportion in tenure-track posts has halved, reports Higher Education at a Crossroads. In 2014, the study found, 21% of faculty appointments were full-time tenured and 41% were part-time. On average, male professors earned more than female professors in full-time positions at every rank and across all types of institution. Overall, positions in New England paid the most, whereas those in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota paid the least. The report also found that part-time appointees were less likely to conduct long-term research and experiment with teaching methods and course content. Citing a correlation between lower student-graduation rates and increases in the number of part-time and non-tenure-track positions, the association calls for institutions to convert part-time, non-tenure positions into tenure-track posts.

Source/read more Nature 

Conservation: Debate over whale longevity is futile

The unquestionable importance of ethical animal husbandry aside, I doubt whether the ongoing dispute over the respective lifespans of captive and wild killer whales (Orcinus orca) will contribute anything to our long-term efforts to save the species (see Nature 531, 426–427; 2016).

The days of keeping killer whales in captivity are in any case numbered for marine parks such as SeaWorld in the United States. And the conservation value of breeding the tiny number of captive killer whales worldwide is negligible.

Source/read more Nature 

Ethology: Intrepid translator of the hive

One of the most remarkable scientific discoveries of any century was honeybee dance language. Foragers and scouts run and turn to communicate the distance, direction and quality of flowers or nest sites to other worker bees. Many scientists were involved in elucidating the dance's sophisticated communicative functions, but Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch (1886–1982) delivered the main results during the 1940s, for which he won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Excellent observations, painstaking experimental designs, laborious research and some controversy made von Frisch's work novelistic in its drama. Brilliance was required to discover and translate the language of an invertebrate as behaviourally complex as the bee.

Source/read more Nature 

Camera traps may aid conservation

A study using motion-triggered cameras in the wild has revealed that grasslands and floodplains are home to the most diverse communities of mammals in northern Botswana.

Source/read more Nature 

Knowledge alters public perception

An awareness of the causes of climate change, rather than its consequences or physical characteristics, can increase the public's concern about global warming.

Source/read more Nature 

How tree crickets tune into each other’s songs

It’s known as the cocktail-party problem: in the cacophony of sound made by insects in a spring meadow, how does one species recognize its own song? Insects such as the tree cricket solve this problem by singing and listening at a single unique pitch.

Source/read more University of Toronto 

New evidence connects dung beetle evolution to dinosaurs

Researchers have found an evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and dung beetles. An international team of scientists uncovered the first molecular evidence indicating that dung beetles evolved in association with dinosaurs. The findings place the origin of dung beetles (Scarabaeidae: Scarabaeinae) in the Lower Cretaceous period, with the first major diversification occurring in the middle of the Cretaceous. This timeline places their origins approximately 30 million years earlier than previously thought. The research explores the potential of a co-extinction with dinosaurs 66 million years ago. The study published May 4 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.