Tuesday, December 17, 2013

And the most common xanthopygine rove beetles is

Xenopygus analis (Erichson). Distributed from southern Mexico all the way down to Argentina, also found in the Caribbean and introduced in Hawaii.  By far the most frequently encountered and most frequently collected Xanthopygina.

As they say, I would be a millionaire if I had a penny for each specimen I had identified in collections
around the world. With so many populations around central and south America, this is a going to be a cool phylogeography project someday. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dumpster diving xanthopygine rove beetles

Let's face it, a lot of beetles are associated with ants. But few go to the extremes that rove beetles go to make themselves at home with the ants. Many rove beetles not only look like ants, they also smell like ants. If you want to see some really cool, yet ultimately bizarre beetles, I suggest you read the blog post by Joe Parker and Taro Eldredge on Pselaphinae and Aleocharinae myrmecophiles.

A few xanthopygine rove beetles are known to be associated with ants but these beetles are typically found on ant refuse piles (=dumpsters). The refuse piles are nutrient-rich, thriving micro-communities that support many types of arthropods, fungi and bacteria. Most rove beetles are there to feed on the fly larvae but we really do not know the details. Navarrete-Heredia (2001)* lists 65 genera (148 species) of rove beetles associated with leaf cutter ants, either Atta or Acromyrmex. Several xanthopygine beetles made the list, including species from the genera Glenus, Paraxenopygus, Tricholinus, Scariphaeus, Smilax and Plociopterus.

Glenus jelskii Solsky is known from refuge piles of Atta sexdens (Scheerpeltz 1936)
One striking feature of all these xanthopygines is that they are good-looking beetles. I would have expected that an insect hiding in a refuge pile would be dull-colored (why spend energy on coloration?) but most of these have shining metallic colorations with bright yellows and reds. Not sure if this is a plesiomorphic characteristic (most xanthopygines have impressive metallic coloration) or if there is an adaptive significance of the coloration.

Some xanthopygines take their Hymenoptera associations one step further: they are known from debris piles of wasps and stingless bees. One of largest (almost 3 cm) known xanthopygine rove beetle, Triacrus dilatus, is known from the debris piles of the wasp Stenopolybia Agelaia vicina (Wasmann 1902).

Triacrus dilatus Nordmann
A couple more species, Xanthopygus cyanipennis and Xenopygus analis have been recorded from the nest of Trigona clavipes (a stingless bee) (Luderwalt 1917), although both of these instances might be accidental/opportunistic. Xenopygus analis is extremely widespread (Mexico to Brazil, introduced in Hawaii) and will feed on anything. A while back I posted a video clip of X. analis eating rotting Gustavia superba fruits.

A lot of cool work remaining to be done here, both systematic and ecological, to understand these associations and map the evolution of these behaviors.

*Thanks to Adam Brunke for providing some of these references.


Luderwalt H (1917) Biologishes uber brasilianische Staphyliniden. Z. Wiss. Insektenbiol. 13: 44-47

Navarrete-Heredia JL (2001) Beetles associated with Atta and Acromyrmex ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Attini). Transactions of the American Entomological Society 127(3): 381-429.

Scheerpeltz O (1936) Die von Prof. Dr. H. Eidmann gelegentlich seiner im Jahre 1933 nach Brasilien unternommenen Studienreise aufgesammelten Staphyliniden. I. Die in den Nestern von Atta sexdens L. aufgefundenen Staphyliniden, nebst einigen Bemerkungen uber die Gattung Scariphaeus Er. Archiv fur Naturgeschichte (N.F.), 5, 483–540.

Wasmann E (1902) Riesige Kurzflügler als Hymenopteren-Gäste. (132 Beitrag zur Kenntniss der Myrmekiphilen und Termitophilen.). Insektenborse 19: 267–268, 275–276, 282.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Beeria nematocera: The most interesting rove beetle in the world*^

A few months back I was asked to identify some Staphylinini specimens from Prince of Wales island in Alaska by Derek Sikes. If I remember correctly there were a lot of Atrecus and Quedius (pretty boring things for a neotropical rove beetle guy like me who is used to beetles like this) but one specimen made the whole sorting worthwhile:

I present to you Beeria nematocera (Casey). The species was first described by Casey who described it in Philothus from some specimens collected in the Pacific Northwest. Later Smetana (1977, paper behind paywall) transfered the species in its own genus and for a long time it was considered a "hybrid" between Philothina and Quediina. 

The species is extremely rare in collections (I will be shocked if there are more than 10 worldwide) and I know that several rove beetle systematists have sampled the type locality without being able to collect any specimens. The specimen I received was collected by Derek and students in a pitfall trap and the habitat looked like this:

Photo by D. Sikes. Original photograph here:
Yeah, good luck collecting Beeria down there without a trap. 

The detailed record for the specimen can be found on the Arctos database that Derek maintains at the Museum of the North (love the name by the way), University of Alaska here and here.

A recent morphological phylogenetic analysis of Staphylinini (Brunke and Solodovnikov 2013, paper behind paywall) placed Beeria as the sister group of 'Staphylinini propria' ("Anisolinina", Staphylinina, Xanthopygina, and Philonthina). However, the particular position on the tree may be an artifact due to the lack of proper morphological characters to clearly identify the sister group of Beeria. I mean, look at the huge postcoxal process here (yellow arrow):

Now, can I have some DNA quality specimens please? 

* where 'interesting' means we have no clue where it belongs phylogenetically and I really want it for DNA work, and 'the world' really is North America here.
^ whoa, people are very geographically sensitive. I am not implying here that "the world" is North America; I was just paraphrasing the "most interesting man in the world" commercial...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The limits of morphology

I was told early on as a graduate student that an insect taxonomist should "kill first, ask questions later" during fieldwork. This was usually said in the context that you might lose a rare specimen if you spend time looking at it, rather than putting in a vial. I am here to tell you that I have deeply regretted following that advice.

Every single time I am working on a taxonomic paper I catch myself having the same wish: "I wish I had seen these specimens alive, just to get a glimpse of how they are using these structures." Morphology can tell us a lot of things but sometimes a dead insect hold its secrets very well.

Exhibit A: In a paper published in 2005, Steve Ashe and I revised the genus Philothalpus. These are striking beetles with questionable taxonomic affinities (at least according to DNA).
Philothalpus brooksi

Abdominal sternum VII

Males in this genus have a perplexing structure (indicted by a white arrow on the figure above) on the ventral side of their abdomen, specifically on the 7th abdominal sternum. Back then we called it a "porose structure". Truth is, we have no idea what it is. A hole on the body with setae around it. Only males have it. But how do they use it? I have no clue. I guess I will be inclined to accept the notion that is used in male/female interactions since it is only present in males but, boy, if only I had seen these guys alive...

The example above came to mind when I recently examined a species (in another genus) with a similar structure:

Exhibit B:

 The structure is present in the same abdominal segment (VII) but it is clearly different than the one above. Are these structures homologous?  Are they used for the same purpose? Morphology cannot answer these questions. Sure, we can do fancy evo-devo here, but that requires live specimens, identifying conserved developmental genes and so on.

What we really need is good old basic natural history observations that can solve these problems. But "kill first, ask questions later" attitudes really do not help. So, next time you are in the field, jot down some observations before you kill those insects.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A little monster from Paraguay

Long time no blog post. Well, the fall semester is here and I plan to reactivate this site. It has been pretty dormant this summer due to my travels and other joyful and not-so-joyful moments in my life over the the past few months.

I figured we will start with something impressive, the species shown below is Gastrisus nobilis (Wendeler) although the species certainly does not belong in Gastrisus. it is actually a member of a new genus (along with several other species) soon to be submitted for publication in Zootaxa. Average length of these guys is ~ 15 mm and like so many other rove beetles, really nothing is known about their biology.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Visiting the alma mater

I am going on a solo road trip next week to Lawrence, KS to work at the University of Kansas for 10 days. KU is the place where I got my Ph.D and it be will be nice to chat again with friends and colleagues. I am looking forward to the visit, although, since my family is staying back, it will probably be non-stop work for these 10 days.

When I was a graduate student, SEMC used to be in Snow Hall. Awesome building but not really built for collections. Currently, Snow Hall houses the department of Economics (how do you like the mothball smell?) and SEMC is the Public Safety Building, right next to the police department. The building is great for collections but it lacks the 19th century appeal of Snow Hall. For the first three years of my graduate career, I was in Snow Hall every single day (if I was in town). Then I met my wife.

It looks like we are going to have a mini paleontology symposium there with colleagues visiting from Spain and France. I am definitely looking forward seeing all these new fossils and perhaps I will find some time to sort out some xanthopygines.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Natural History with toddler

Lately after I pick up my daughter from daycare, we come home and we go sit on the bench in the backyard. I call this the "Banana/Natural history time" and typically involves her eating a banana, while we both unwind from our day activities. This is becoming fast my favorite time of the day. As mentioned in a famous book series "The world is quiet here" during that time.

The above-mentioned toddler during snack time

Right behind the bench, there is a little patch (maybe 1x2 square meters) of native plants. Inspired by David Haskell's book (The Forest Unseen) we have been doing daily natural history observations during the "banana time".

We have been watching ants digging new tunnels, blue-eyed grass flowering, azalea's dropping their flowers and creating pulp-like substrate and bryophytes producing their sporophytes. Now, I do realize that my 21 month daughter cannot assimilate most of that, but you got to start them early, right?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Biology related music

We all get feedback from students and frankly this two way communication is one of the best perks in the job. During the Spring semester, I was talking about conifers in my Principles of Biology II class. Specifically, I was taking about the bristlecone pines (Pinus aristata) found in the western USA and how some of those have been around for several thousand years.

One of my students later emailed me saying that my lecture reminded her of the song "Bristlecone" by the "The New Empires".  It is a lovely song and you can listen to it here

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Do xanthopygine rove beetles eat fruit?

It's been a long time since the last post, but I was out for good reasons: end of the semester craziness, grading a mountain of exams, working for a three letter (scientific) government agency and on top of all  these a sick child. Now I need to start the paper writing machine for the summer.

I have been uploading several video clips of rove beetles on figshare and you can see many of those here Almost all of those are from my graduate school days and were shot on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, either in 2000 or 2001. I used some of the data to write a paper on Nordus fungicola natural history (a link to the paper is here).

Here is a clip of another Xanthopygine rove beetle (Xenopygus analis) munching on rotten Gustavia superba fruits. Almost all xanthopygine rove beetles are considered to be carnivorous, but I guess there are always exceptions out there.



Here is a more typical example of feeding behavior,  a male Nordus fungicola stealing a prey item from an ant (no idea what this is) and then proceeding to chew (technically speaking, this is extra oral digestion) the fly larva. 


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The value of teaching collections

When I first arrived at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga five years ago, I did not expect to find much in the form of an entomological collection. To my surprise, our little Natural History Museum had a descent teaching collection (~48 drawers) with many of the families of insects found in the Southeast. Like most teaching collections, specimens are collected by students, identified (typically) to the family level and the locality labels can be problematic (e.g. on non-archival paper, with non-archival ink) without enough details. I bet most specimens in the collection have labels in the following format:

TN: Hamilton Co.
Chattanooga, date

Yet despite these problems, teaching collections can contain real gems. Last week we had a visitor from Alabama (Steve Krotzer) who wanted to examine our collection for tiger beetles. Tiger beetles are particularly hard to collect and if you don't care much about them (let's say you study rove beetles) you don't collect them, so our research collection did not have any. The teaching collection contained 31 specimens (10 species) and among those they were 13 new county records (!): ten from Tennessee, one from Alabama, one from Georgia and one from Florida.

Anybody else want to examine specimens?


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Green River rove beetles

Part of my research program is dedicated to paleoentomology and so I frequently describe fossils rove beetles. The fossil below is from the Green river formation (~50 MYO).

It's probably a member of the subtribe Cryprobiina (Paederinae). I presented a poster of on the fossil rove beetles from the Green River formation at the Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America and I have a ms in (the very early stages of) preparation.  Since the paper will not be available for a couple of more years I have decided to post the poster online at figshare and it can be found here

Monday, February 25, 2013

TOL, EOL and rove beetles

I have been rather sad to see the diminish of the Tree of Life (TOL) project. The TOL is still of course available on line, but to my knowledge no new pages have been added for a while (at least according to the growth monitor list). I was a somewhat regular contributor with ~16 pages of rove beetle genera and several other node pages.

What I really liked about the TOL: there was a classification structure to the pages. Perhaps it was not perfect, with sometimes genera missing, but there was a logical structure where you could navigate and find what you were looking for.

But people move on and eventually want to do other things. So the TOL project at some point did not have funds to hire more people and the site stopped growing.

The Encyclopedia of Life is a project that started with a lot of fanfare (hey, E. O. Wilson). I think the site is very successful on what it does (random deposition of biological data) but it is not TOL. A search for rove beetles produces this page:

Can we count how many things are wrong in this page?

1)"Staphylins" is not a common or scientific name for rove beetles, unless of course you are French.

2) Staphylinidae "found in 5 classifications", three of them being various iterations of the erroneous ITIS classication, another being the Paleobiology database and the last one being the Marine species database (seriously?). So, EOL uses five classifications, all of them problematic. How about using the one in TOL?

3) A picture of Tachinus as the first image on the website? Among all magnificent rove beetles, the best we can do is a Tachinus?

And do not get me started on the travesty of how EOL harvests content from the TOL. Compare e.g. the pages for Nordus in TOL and EOL.

Don't get me wrong, I see the value of EOL for the general public. But is the opening page for rove beetles much better than the Wikipedia page for the family? Honestly, I do not think so. So what is the value of EOL to me as a scientist, besides a statement on my NSF proposal regarding broader impacts? That's something I am struggling with since I do want to have meaningful broader impact contributions.  I am just a bit more skeptical now than I was five years ago regarding the longevity of all these projects, and the permanence of placing data online.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Finally, a rove beetle post!

One of my current projects involves the revision (or better, "a review") of the genus Trigonopselaphus. The name (as it is currently defined in Herman 2001) does not mean much and this is part of the reason why I am working on this review. These are truly amazing rove beetles, some with lengths over 20 mm and bright metallic coloration. They are also extremely rare in collections with just a handful of specimens known in all major collections.

Taxonomy had always such a great appeal to me because part of what you do is detective work - you try to figure out what happened to names (and specimens!) since they were originally proposed. Usually the work is rewarding but sometimes frustrating and perhaps disappointing, especially when you realize that historical specimens are lost forever.

One such story is the fate of Trigonopselaphus herculeanus (Laporte), 1835. The species was described originally in the genus Staphylinus (like anything else in those early days) by Laporte, whose full name was François Louis Nompar de Caumont LaPorte, comte de Castelnau. Neal Evenhuis wrote recently a great paper in Zootaxa regarding Laporte and the mysterious loss of (part of) his collection. To make a long story short, Laporte decided to donate his personal collection to the USA and the collection arrived in the National Institution (later to be called Smithsonian) in 1842. Unfortunately, that collection was destroyed by fire in 1865. But perhaps the type of T. herculeanus was not included in the materials destroyed by fire?

A second collection of Laporte is held today in Australia at Museum Victoria but that collection contains only his later materials. Ken Walker (curator at Museum Victoria) explained to me that Laporte kept little cardboard drawings of all the species he did not have for his second collection. And unfortunately, a drawing of T. herculeanus was present in his Staphylinidae drawer at the Museum Victoria.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Do you trust GBIF or the revising author?

I was playing around with GBIF the other day (=procrastinating) and found an interesting case. I was looking to see what records exist in GBIF for the taxa I have revised. It turns out that only two institutions reliably put their records on GBIF [at least for the insects that I care]: INBIO and SEMC (the Entomology Division of the Biodiversity Institute). I searched for records of the neotropical genus Ocyolinus, a genus I revised a few years back. It turns out that according to GBIF, there is a specimen in Texas!

Looking at the specific data:

The specimen has a barcode label of 72395 and a quick look at my paper (see below) revealed that the specimen is actually from Costa Rica, which makes sense for a taxon with neotropical distribution:

Of course this is obviously a data entry error and I do not mean to pile dirt on my friends at SEMC. However, the problem is this: If I am writing a paper on the distributions of animals (see previous post), I will probably not check the revision of the genus and I will assume that the record is correct.
GBIF does have a Feedback button (and I used it) but I am wondering if it will be wise to have some sort of control mechanisms in place to prevent such errors: e.g. do not allow data for terrestrial organisms in the middle of the ocean, or in this case a neotropical taxon to have a single nearctic record.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Updated Zoogeographic regions

A cool new paper appeared today in Science by Holt et al (link -  unfortunately behind paywall) where they redefine the zoogeographic areas of the world originally proposed by Wallace in 1876.
Image Credit: Science/AAAS
I particularly like the establishment of the Panamanian area, since many of the taxa I study seem to have a Panamanian distribution. And that brings me to my only problem with this paper: the areas were established using mammals, birds and amphibians. True, they used data from ~21,000 species, which is impressive but arthropods were ignored [the authors claim that data on plants, reptiles and invertebrates are not available, although I am not sure what available means here].

My question is this: are we ever going to see studies of this magnitude using insect data? 

Sometimes Twitter does not cut it.

So, it occurred to me that sometimes I have things to say that are longer than 140 words. Solution: blog! Hopefully I will post here at least once a month.