Friday, October 31, 2014

Oldest Fossil Found of Insects Copulating

(posted by Livia Margon) - This New York Times article is cool not only because it shows how fossils can help us understand animal behavior but also because is sites one of the authors we read this semester on week 2, Marlene Zuk. The fact that this insect species has been copulating for millions of years in the same way gives us a new perspective on evolution and it reminded me of the reading we had on beetles that have been feeding of the same gymnosperm trees for 200 million years (A Taste for Flowers Helped Beetles Conquer the World by Carol Kaesuk Yoon), and how that has likewise astonished scientists. Below is the full article, and it is linked here.

Case of Insect Interruptus Yields a Rare Fossil Find


Researchers say the oldest fossil of two insects copulating -- in this case, froghoppers killed in a volcanic eruption 165 million years ago -- was identified in what is now Northeastern China.

About 165 million years ago, in what is now northeastern China, two insects were doing what comes naturally. Suddenly, in the middle of copulating, they were struck dead, felled by poisonous gas from a volcanic eruption.

Shu Li and Chen Wang
A fossil of a pair of copulating froghoppers. Scientists have dated the find to 165 million years ago.
But the moment was not lost. Fortunately for science, the insects, still in the grip of what passes for passion among froghoppers, sank to the bottom of a lake where they were preserved for the ages under layers of ash and sediment.

They ended up in an insect fossil collection in Beijing, and scientists poring over the collection recently discovered and exposed them.

The scientists, Shu Li and Dong Ren, of Capital Normal University, and colleagues there and at other universities reported Wednesday in the journal PLoS One that the exquisitely detailed preservation is the oldest fossil of two insects copulating.

In a clear act of sentiment, the researchers titled their paper, “Forever Love: The Hitherto Earliest Record of Copulating Insects from the Middle Jurassic of China.” But the discovery is scientifically significant because the mating behavior exhibited is essentially the same as that of froghoppers today.

Fossils that show behavior of any sort are unusual, and fossils of mating insects even more so.

“This one is so rare,” said Chungkun Shih, a visiting professor at the university and one of the authors of the paper. “I got involved in this research in 1999, and I have seen more than half a million fossils,” but this was the only one in which the insects were clearly mating.

Only 33 examples of copulating insects are known to exist in the entire fossil record, most of them caught in amber. Until now, the oldest was two tiny flies, what fly fishers call midges, preserved in 135 million-year-old amber from Lebanon.

George O. Poinar Jr., a paleoentomologist at Oregon State University, who wrote about those flies, said he did not know of any other fossil of froghoppers copulating, probably because “they’re so big they don’t stick in amber.”

The froghoppers are part of a treasure trove of creatures killed in the volcanic eruption, including feathered dinosaurs, all somehow ending up in the lake. The froghoppers were mating “belly to belly,” the scientists reported, although they may have been pressed into that position by the weight of sediment during fossilization.

Dr. Shih, a retired chemical engineer and businessman who found a second career working with the fossil insect group at Capital Normal University and now lives in New Jersey, said that modern froghoppers mate side by side or belly to belly, depending on whether they are on a flat surface or clinging to a vertical stem.

Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota and author of “Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language From the Insect World,” said that by and large, “behavior doesn’t fossilize,” so it is rare to have it preserved so clearly.

“Obviously,” she said, “there’s behavior going on here.”

As to why the froghoppers’ behavior has remained essentially the same for 165 million years, the authors did not comment in the paper. But Dr. Shih said he thought the explanation was probably simple. “This works,” he said. “They don’t need to change.”

A version of this article appears in print on November 7, 2013, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Case of Insect Interruptus Yields a Rare Fossil Find.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Velvet Worm Named for Totoro

With a defensive technique that is both alarming and beautiful, learn more about this sister to insects here. Though cute, they are not very nice. 

- Liz Chipman

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Clinton's must read - insects and humans, the advantage of social life

(posted by Livia Margon)

Last Month the Journalist Fareed Zakaria from CNN interviewed the former President Bill Clinton on a variety of topics, from his Global Initiative project to his grandchildren. At the end of the interview Zakaria asked Clinton, as is his ritual, one book recommendation that was a must read for the former president. The president mentioned two books. The second, The Social Conquest of the Earth is an elaboration on why social insects and humans have been so successful in conquering the Earth. Below is the transcript of his explanation.

"Edward O. Wilson is a Nobel Prize winning microbiologist, but he writes as best he can from all the known evidence about the history of life on Earth from single-cells organisms to the present day. The reason I would like them to read that is that he said if you look at all the species that have ever lived on Planet Earth, the most successful were ants, termites, bees and people. Why? Because they're the greatest cooperators. And even - and I saw the other day a story about how there are 25,000 species of spiders on Earth and for reasons nobody understands, a couple of dozen of them have started cooperating and they build stronger, better webs. Cooperation will save the future. And America should lead it. Every time humanity has been in danger of extinguishing itself, our consciousness and our conscience have led us to come together. That's the big issue of the 21st century. That's the great fight of the next 25 years."

BLOG EDITOR"S NOTE: EO Wilson is not a microbiologist and he has not won a Nobel Prize! He is an ant and biodiversity  biologist who has won two Pulitzer Prizes though. Bill, please get your people to check the facts :)


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

Moth Pit!!

I saw a gif titled "Moth Pit" from this vine on someone's blog and just cracked up. I actually don't know why moths and some other insects like to fly towards lights even though it would kill them but I found this very short NPR segment that explains it.

Also reminded me of this scene just for kicks.


Saturday, October 11, 2014


relevant to this week and last week, thought i'd share


"Since 1997, the federal government has spent over $236 million to combat the beetle in New York alone. New York State has spent millions as well."

Close ups of beetle weaponry:


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Bug's Life

I saw this gif  from "A Bug's Life" and couldn't help but laugh, so I thought I would share!
Silly movie... they use their wings not their legs!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Plastic-eating Fungi! Rad!

Very rad! "Fungus Discovered in Rainforest Capable Of Eating Plastic Pollution"

Was thinking about how this relates to natural selection + random mutations; nature's random evolutions save our butts yet again.

- luis m

Monday, October 6, 2014

Funny and Weird

A website called Worth1000 held a photo effects contest called Mamsects and Insmals where people used photoshop to combine insects and mammals.  Maybe not relevant but there are some funny and weird combinations. My favorites…


"Elephant Bee"

"Monkey Fly"

"Camel Bug"


"Lion Tiger Bee"

-Emma L

Biodiversity Resource

I have been hunting for scientific prints for a project I'm doing and came across the account "BioDiversity Heritage Library" on Flickr.  It has almost 92,000 images, many of which are beautiful scientific illustrations ranging in subject.  Some are copied from catalogues from the Smithsonian, others from varied collections around the world.  An awesome resource for anyone looking for cool and informative images to draw inspiration from or admire.

-Emma L

Saturday, October 4, 2014

of Milkweeds & Monarchs

As the collecting season draws to a close, I just wanted to mention an important host plant - the milkweed - which provides not only milkweed bugs (pictured here in very nymphal stages of their red and black glory), but also the beloved migratory Monarch butterfly, a species whose numbers have hit record lows in the last few years...

This article from Yale University's environmental news discusses some of the causes, including the disappearance of milkweeds due to use of for herbicides tailored for GMOs:

"A new census found this winter’s population of North American monarch butterflies in Mexico was at the lowest level ever measured. Insect ecologist Orley Taylor talks to Yale Environment 360 about how the planting of genetically modified crops and the resulting use of herbicides has contributed to the monarchs’ decline."

 Some of this censusing is done through the Monarch Watch tag and release project, which our class took a part in, catching only and tagging fewer than usual again this year:

Chicago artist Jenny Kendler - this year an artist-in-residence at the National Resource Defense Council - has a wonderful project "Milkweed Dispersal Balloons" that is trying to take matters of reviving the Midwest habitat back into our own hands, and indeed onto the wind itself -  here is a picture from her website:

At the end of collecting this past week I grabbed some nice dry pods just splitting open and gave them a good shake - POOF!

Take it easy easy down there in Mexico till next year, flutterbys!


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bugs In Books

See how insects were illustrated in different selections of medieval manuscripts! Here

- Lizzy