Posts Tagged ‘insect’

Is an ant worth less than a mammal?

In August 2014, Uncategorized on August 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Kirsti Oecophylla Cairns

Kirsti: I’m in the midst of planning an AntBlitz for a National Science Week project here in Armidale.

An AntBlitz is comparable to ECOBLITZ, or BUSHBLITZ, or BIOBLITZ. Essentially, it’s a 24 hour period in which citizens can help us collect ants, sort ants, identify ants and curate a reference collection for a given location. All this activity will go toward helping a local tree group understand their ant communities and document their change over time. Ants are used as bioindicators of ecosystem health, and can be used to measure the impact of various land management practices.

What the citizens don’t see is a whole heap of careful planning and experimental design. We aim to ensure that our projects create useful data, not just a load of dead ants in vials that no one will look at ever again.

Yep, we kill the ants.

We kill them without ethics approval from anyone. We can do this because there are no requirements for ethics approval relating to invertebrates other than cephalopods.

Anything with a backbone? The approval processes, forms, committees and meetings one must work through are time consuming and don’t always guarantee you can continue with your research. And rightly so. Ethical issues regarding the use of animals in research are subjective, highly contentious and tricky to navigate. Humans have made many mistakes in the past whilst using animals in research, and some would say we still do.

But for invertebrates things are different. Reasons given for why these creatures are not protected by ethics approval vary, from citing underdeveloped nervous systems (and therefore reduced capacity to experience pain, stress and distress) to the fact that so many are killed in every day life anyway.

But an important part of my work is about acknowledging moral objections that others may have in killing ants. I argue there is ethical value in killing a relatively small number of individuals representing a social colony in order to learn more about their ecology, their identities, their sociality, and their function on our planet. Killing non-reproductive individuals of a colony formed by hundreds, if not thousands, rarely if ever impacts on their population dynamics. Because turnover of worker ants is high, those individuals we have gratefully taken are replaced. Quickly.

I’m currently developing a Code of Conduct (kind of similar to this one) with respect to how School of Ants deals with ant collections, specimens and curation of our reference collections. I’m really keen to get some feedback on the diversity of opinions on the killing of ants for research purposes.

CONTACT ME if you’ve got a view on this!

[photo by Kirsti Abbott]


And speaking of poo…

In November 2013 on November 30, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Kirsti honeydew Ultracoelostoma Noble text

Kirsti: Earlier this week, Mia wrote about POO POWER! I too have a story about the science of poo.

Lots of insects feed on phloem, a.k.a. plant sap. And just as we excrete waste from an omnivorous diet as a conglomerative breakdown of those foods, sap-sucking creatures such as scale insects, aphids, psyllids and others  poo honeydew, the waste from the sugar-rich foods they ingest.

Even further down the food chain exist microbial communities that survive on the honeydew (poo) that makes its way down onto the surface of leaves, which are little ecosystems in their own right. If you live there, you live in the phyllosphere!

We don’t know that much about life in the phyllosphere. But recently some scientists in New Zealand looked at fungi from the phyllosphere of native beech forests in New Zealand. Endemic scale insects that live on these trees produce up to 4500 kg  dry weight/ha/year of honeydew.

The insects use an ingenious method to keep themselves clean and minimise fungal growth on their bodies:  the honeydew is flicked off the end of an anal wax-tube (as shown in picture).

Together, all the excreted sugary delights from these creatures  fuel the growth of an abundant mould. The mould appears black and kind of powdery from afar, with human eyes. But look closer – a LOT closer, down a scanning electron microscope then even closer at their genes – and you will see a circus of species, a kaleidoscope of colour, most of which cannot be identified!

The study that identified these fungi communities in New Zealand emphasises that despite the sooty mould being such a ubiquitous element in the scale insect-beech system, we know very little about the microbial diversity. The conference I have just been at highlighted the same gap in knowledge for ecology in general.

So people, let your imaginations run wild! Poo of all sorts of species powers communities, even if it’s a microscopic one in the phyllosphere.

Oh, if you’re interested in microbial communities supported by your own body, I’d highly recommend reading The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn, a fantabulous science writer from North Carolina State University.

[image thanks to David Noble]

Day 355. I was hooked

In August 2013 on August 1, 2013 at 2:45 pm


Yesterday Tanya Ya wrote about the moment science captured her heart.

Although I have been exposed to science my whole life  – as explained here in my letter to Sir David Attenborough – I can recall a few key moments that stand out. Incidents that sealed the deal, as it were. Here’s one:

I received a ‘science kit’ around the age of 10.  It contained a very low power microscope, some dissection instruments plus two creatures preserved in alcohol – a crustacean and a freakishly large grasshopper.

Every part of me wanted to cut open the animals and see what was inside. I vividly recall clutching the scalpel and pressing it against the the softened shell of the wee crayfish. But to pierce its exterior was one step I couldn’t make. I hesitated, preferring instead to perform a detailed anatomical study. I turned it and its insect friend around and around, over and over, picking up new details upon each revolution.

Prompted by the booklet that accompanied my microscope, next I took to a nearby stream with an ice-cream container. As instructed by the manual, and clad in my best gumboots, I stood in the water and identified large rocks. Placing the container underwater and immediately downstream of a chosen boulder, I lifted it up and allowed whatever was sheltering underneath it to be collected in my plastic tub.

I found the most incredible aliens! Although I know now these were probably larval stages of local insect species, back then I thought I’d discovered never-before seen creatures of the night. With my new microscope, I marvelled at their freaky bodies, legs, pincered mouths and antennae. Simply fascinating.

I was hooked.

[image thanks to Dave Huth on flickr]

Day 104. Bugmania

In November 2012 on November 24, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Shopping for a dear friend’s 40th birthday present today, I popped into the beautiful emporium that is One Rundle Trading.

In one of the front rooms I discovered an amazing array of mounted insects and arachnids – yes, real ones. I wondered where on Earth such a shop would one source such bizarre and compelling items. A small note on the reverse of the frames revealed a name: Bits and Bugs.

The company website presented the following information:

As company policy, b&b™ does not trade in endangered, rare or otherwise protected wildlife. No specimen is listed on CITES. We source some of our supplies of common, abundant insect species from Government regulated ranching cooperatives in many countries, your purchase actually aids environmental conservation rather than detracting from it.

Furthermore, all of our frames are not made from real wood. Ethical concerns over deforestation in many third world countries has led us to pioneer the use of timber substitute framing. All frames have glass fronts with a hook ready to hang.

Fancy any of these on your dining room wall?

Day 76. Compost

In October 2012 on October 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Down at the back of my suburban block, behind the quince tree and the hills hoist, is a big black barrel.

Each week we dump peelings, skins, seeds, leaves, egg shells, paper, cardboard and even rejected porridge into the barrel. What starts as an enormous volume of discrete materials threatening to push the lid askew rapidly breaks down into a dense, uniform, deep brown mass of compost.

The process is so amazingly efficient that it still blows me away every time I see a new wheel-barrow full of the stuff.

Fortunately, there are some lovely websites around which explain how it works.

For example, Mansfield Middle School, apparently ‘the place where compost happens’, has put together a great page of information for the interested gardener.

Based on their content, I’ll give you a quick summary of the active components in compost:

  • psychrophile bacteria, which love cool temperatures;
  • mesophile bacteria, which do most of the breakdown work;
  • thermophile bacteria, which bring the temperature of the compost up and thus kill any weed seeds;
  • actinomycete bacteria, which break down woody material, form long, thread-like branched filaments that look like gray spider webs stretching throughout compost, and give the pile a pleasing earthy smell;
  • fungi, including moulds and yeasts which break down tough debris;
  • sowbugs, crustaceans which feed on leaves and stems;
  • earthworms, which have a number of roles including aerating and stabilising the compost;
  • millepedes, which feed on decaying plant matter; and
  • invertebrates including nematodes (roundworms), mites (small relatives of spiders) and springtails (small wingless insects) which feed on the smaller creatures listed above.

The bit I really like about compost is that last week’s vege scraps are going to provide nutrients for this summer’s nectarines – growing on the tree shown here in front of the wheelbarrow. We planted this beauty after it arrived as my 40th birthday present in January, and it’s already bearing a bumper crop of young fruit.

I’m already planning a Maggie Beer nectarine tart for my 41st birthday.

Day 38. Spitfire

In September 2012 on September 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm

My 7-year old daughter has a wonderful teacher who excels in many things. These things do not include insect wrangling.

This morning she sent me the photo shown here, with the message,

What the hell. A random black cluster of writhing black spikey mean wormie things near my front door. Please explain, Sarah Keenihan, you’re the science person!

Only too happy to oblige, I turned to my most sciencey, nerdy and steeped-in-tradition method of research. Social media. Facebook and twitter, stat.

@Mozziebites or any other entomologists/nature enthusiasts know what these critters are? En masse in #adelaide this am (with photo attached).

Within minutes, my buddy James Hutson (@jameshutson) had replied on Facebook:


and posted a link to a web page at the Australian Museum:

In almost perfect synchrony, Remma Rattan (@reemarattan) replied on twitter:

Sawfire larvae, also known as spitfire.

With a name to work with, I then turned to my trusty friend Professor Google and hence found lots of further information on a ‘bug of the month’ page at Museum Victoria:

  • Steel Blue Sawflies are native to Australia, and closely related to wasps. The adult insect does not bite however;
  • The name ‘sawfly’ derives from a ‘sawbench’ under the abdomen of the female with which she lays eggs;
  • The larvae (which feature in the photograph) hatch and feed on gum leaves, grouping together for protection in a rosette pattern, similar to the head-outwards stance adopted by Bison when under attack. This is known as a ‘ring defence’, or cycloalexy. As the larvae grow, they collect in larger groups around branches during the day and spread out to feed at night.
  • When ready to pupate, the larvae leave the host tree and burrow down to make mass cocoons in the soil. Here they sit through spring and summer to emerge in early autumn. Adults have no mouthparts and do not feed, living only for a week or so;
  • Sawfly larvae have an unusual defensive mechanism that has given them the name ‘spitfires’. They store eucalyptus oil in a small sac in their gut, and regurgitate this oil when under threat. Despite their nickname, they are unable to actually spit this fluid and the oil itself is harmless unless eaten (like all eucalyptus oil). In fact it has a very pleasant eucalytpusy smell.

With this new information, and given that ‘spitfire’ is not accurate, I think we should come up with a new nickname for the Steel Blue Sawfly .

Oil vomiter? Eucalyptus breath? Gum dribbler?

Love to hear your ideas.

P.S. Let the record show that entomologist @MozzieBites later replied to conform Reema’s response