Cool Cats

The trees in front of the building I work in have been crawling with life. And mostly one kind of life- the caterpillars of the fir tussock moth, Orgyia detrita. These colorful larvae are all over the place- in and around trees, walking along pavement, on the sides of buildings, etc. Interestingly, it appears that earlier instars stick to the host plant they emerged on whereas later ones, like the one photographed below, start to be a bit more adventurous.

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The fir tussock moth caterpillar (Orgyia detrita)

As I tend to post my photos to Facebook as well as here, I have become the go-to guy for questions regarding all things small and chitinous. The last wave of related questions I received was in the fall about leaf-footed bugs (Acanthocephala declivis) but now I am hearing all kinds of stories about these hairy caterpillars with red heads. One person even told me that an aggregation of them took over her bike.

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This dark coloration and setal pattern is only fully developed in the latest instars

Despite the abundance of larvae this spring, I don’t remember encountering any adult Orgyia moths last year. Hopefully I will have the chance to find an adult, as I am especially hopeful to find an adult female. This is because the females of this group have become secondarily wingless, giving them an odd isopod-like look that is very unusual. The pupal stage lasts about two weeks, so I am hoping to encounter some odd ladies in the near future.

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The buck moth caterpillar (Hemileuca maia)

Lastly, since I could squeeze it in tangentially, I also had the chance to encounter the famed buck moth caterpillar (Hemileuca maia) recently as well, although just a single specimen in this case. Much like the io moth caterpillar (Automeris io), which I photographed last year, this little guy will turn into a spectacular saturniid!

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The natural defense for buck moth caterpillars is to roll into a ball and let the spines do the work

 

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Marvelous Millipede

I may not live in a greenhouse, but that didn’t stop a greenhouse millipede (Oxidus gracilis) from paying my front door a visit. Greenhouse millipedes are not native to Louisiana, but the real question is where are they really from? Like many organisms that have a wide introduced range and poor documentation of introductions, the exact native range of this species is not certain, but is thought to be Japan (it is now found on all major continents).

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Oxidus gracilis, the greenhouse millipede

When people think of invasive species, the first thing to come to mind are usually very conspicuous, costly and destructive examples like the zebra mussel and yellow jackets, which displace native species. Sometimes a distinction is made between invasive and introduced on the basis of whether the organism expands its range after introduction or stays localized, but with inconspicuous organisms this line is blurry. When I look back after a day of taking photos, I usually can find at least one introduced organism in the lot (often more, sometimes many more). We may not think of the greenhouse millipede as a destructive invader, but we don’t really know what the cumulative effects of countless introduced organisms to new regions will be. This is an ongoing debate among ecologists and conservationists, and I am nearly well versed enough to claim to have answers, but when the first millipede I have stumbled across in Louisiana is from Japan (and there are native millipedes here), it makes me scratch my head a bit.

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Introduced or not, it was very cute

 

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Who are You Calling Plebeian?

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Paratrea plebeja, the plebeian sphinx moth

To the ancient Romans, the word “plebeian” roughly meant “commoner.” The name hardly fits Paratrea plebeja, the plebeian sphinx moth, which is the sole member of its genus and a very striking and beautiful moth. Luckily, one landed just outside my front door last week and I had the opportunity to photograph it. I have been getting lucky with sphingid moths- given that I had the lovely Xylophanes tersa show up at my house as well.

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A dorsal view, showing the wing patterning

Interestingly, the larvae of this species feed on a variety of plants, including passionflowers (Passiflora sp.). In our region, Passiflora is also a major food source of gulf fritillary caterpillars (Agraulis vanillae). The larvae of this species resemble the familiar tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta, being largely green with light colored bands and a conspicuous posterior spine.

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Ready for takeoff

 

Adults act as pollinators for several elongate, tubular flowers like honeysuckle. It is always very fascinating to watch adult sphingids feed, as they hover in place while extending their proboscis into the flower to retrieve nectar, more closely resembling the feeding behavior of hummingbirds than butterflies.

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What month is it again?

May beetles (genus Phyllophaga) get their common name from the typical time adults emerge (late spring) and their Latin binomial name from the eating habit of the adults: leaves. This one was a bit early (showing up in early March), but then again I am sure there is some natural variation in the phenology of the over 400 described North American species of Phyllophaga.

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A May beetle (Phyllophaga sp.)

As true scarabs (Scarabaeidae), Phyllophaga has its antennae divided into sheet-like plates called lamellae. In the photo above, they are held together like a book, but they can be spread wide like a fan at times. I have found it hard to induce this for a photo, sadly.

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Another view of the same individual

As voracious herbivores both in their larval and adult stages, these guys can be major agricultural pests. In fact, I found an entire doctoral dissertation on the effects and control of one Phyllophaga species on the sweet potato crop here in Louisiana.

 

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Mystery Solved?

As I continue databasing old photos, I have renewed interest in trying to identify things that I gave up on identifying at the time (typically years ago). Sometimes, like many problems, taking a break and coming back with a fresh mind can give you new perspective and lead you to the right answer.

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A specimen I believe to be Chrysilla lauta

In this case, the problem was this jumping spider that I photographed in Lambusango, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, back in 2011. I am by no means a spider expert, and when I got back I figured this little guy was a member of the genus Cosmophasis, which is made up of many colorful and iridescent tropical jumpers, mainly from Asian and Australasian regions. I went through the laundry list of members but couldn’t find a good fit, and eventually moved on to something else (as I had come back with photos of hundreds of organisms). Well this time around I checked my assumption on Cosmophasis (I don’t quite know why I was so confident about that back then) and looked around a bit more and found a good match with the genus Chrysilla, specifically C. lauta. Some images online closely match my specimen in coloration, with the exception of the fact that most online images have a red transverse band across the top of the cephalothorax, which mine lacks. Interestingly, one expert I emailed about this issue was unsure if this species has been recorded East of Wallace’s line, so this may be evidence for a range extension if this really is C. lauta.

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A white band surrounds the cephalothorax

I vividly remember taking photos of this specimen (I took hundreds). My friend Silviu, a herpetologist from an English university, dubbed him “senor spectaculario” for his outrageous, luchador-like coloration. Truth be told, I am not very happy with my photos and it makes me cringe a bit to look back on them despite the incredible beauty of the specimen. I had recently purchased my dSLR at the time, and was shooting solely in JPEG instead of RAW to conserve memory card space, as I went days or weeks at a time in the field without an opportunity to save my photos to a hard drive. Furthermore, I did not have a flash unit, so I used the body’s flash or natural light, and the situation was very dim. With my current gear and experience I would have made much more of this opportunity, but alas I have no idea if I will encounter this amazing animal again. I only saw one individual during a month in the rainforest.

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Unlike many results for C. lauta on google images, this individual lacks a red transverse band over the middle of the cephalothorax

 

 

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Photography and citizen science 

One of the interesting and important things about photography of naturally occurring organisms in the internet age is that photos can become usable data. If you post a photo on the Internet which has an identifiable organism in it with time and location information, you have now produced a potential data point in any number of studies dealing with conservation, biogeography, phenology, or any number of other fields. Organizing that data is a major challenge. However, a plethora of organizations and sites have taken up the task of transforming the observations of people around the country or world into standardized data sets. Many are niche projects, limited taxonomically or geographically, such as BAMONA (butterflies and moths of North America) or the lost ladybug project. Others are larger and broader in scope, such as iNaturalist, an all-in-one place to upload observations in the form of photos or even sound clips from anywhere in the world of any kind of organism.

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My first observation on iNaturalist, a mallard duck in the Hudson River

I have posted observations on iNaturalist since 2008, albeit with some major gaps that I am working on filling. My observations have been used for projects such as a survey of Mid-Atlantic terrestrial arthropods or biodiversity of Louisiana. I have seen iNat grow a lot over my time submitting observations, and when I saw that over two million observations have been submitted I was amazed. I now take a lot of pride in the fact that my first observation on the site was it’s 76th.

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Sieboldius albardae, a Japanese dragonfly which I mistook for an Oni-Yanma (genus Anotogaster). Helpful iNat members assisted me in correcting the ID.

As many kind and helpful people have assisted me in identifying my observations, I am trying to put more effort in helping those with unidentified arthropods (especially crustaceans) get good IDs on their photos. I try to look over new unidentified submissions during my lunch break.

 

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Finishing the Set

A few months ago I posted photos of two different nymph instars of leaf footed bugs in the genus Leptoglossus. Until the cold that finally came this past week here in southwestern Louisiana, the adults were all over town (several local friends asked me about them on Facebook). This gave me the opportunity to finally complete my set of photos as well as use this key to determine the species: these guys are Leptoglossus fulvicornis.

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An adult leaf-footed bug, Leptoglossus fulvicornis

If my identification is correct, and given the straightforwardness of the key I am confident in it despite the fact that I am not a Hemiptera expert by any means, this would be the first record of this species from Louisiana on BugGuide: my first new state record! Now, there are many IDed to genus only from Louisiana, so it is more than likely someone else did post one, but I am happy to take credit anyways! This species ranges across eastern North America, from Ontario to Florida to Texas, so it is certainly expected to be here.

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Three stages of Leptoglossus fulvicornis

Lining up my photos reminds me of a set of Pokemon. Something about the transition in shapes and colors in the intermediate instar between the early instar and the adult draws comparisons to many 3-stage Pokemon. After all, Pokemon creator Ken Sugimori was inspired to create the series by childhood insect collecting!

EDIT: Sadly, I have found out that the adult that I photographed is actually Acanthocephala declivis, a different coreid. I foolishly assumed this individual was a member of Leptoglossus and followed the key from there, I suppose that is a lesson in what happens when one assumes. Now, even more than before, I am determined to find an adult L. fulvicornis so that I can truly finish the set!

 

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