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Catalogue of Organisms

An inordinate fondness for systematics

Last Build Date: Mon, 23 Apr 2018 17:27:24 +0000


Narona decaptyx: A Fossil Vampire

Fri, 23 Mar 2018 04:14:00 +0000

13.5 mm long specimen of Narona decaptyx, from Landau et al. (2012).Narona decaptyx was described by Brown & Pilsbry (1911) from a single small, fusiform fossil shell, 11 mm in length, from the Gatun Formation of Panama, north of Panama City. They regarded the formation as probably Oligocene in age but Landau et al. (2012) later referred N. decaptyx to the upper Miocene. Until it's redescription by the latter, this species was only known from Brown & Pilsbry's original holotype; Landau et al. described further material from the Bocas del Toro region to the west of the original locality. Both the sites from which N. decaptyx are known are on the Caribbean coast of Panama.Narona decaptyx is a member of the Cancellariidae, the nutmeg snails. Cancellariids are one of the smaller families of the great neogastropod radiation, the group that also includes such forms as whelks and cone shells. They generally have a more or less developed sculpture of criss-crossing spiral and axial ribs; the latticed pattern this produces is formally referred to as 'cancellate' and provides the source of the family's name. The most distinctive feature of Cancellariidae is their radula, a slender ribbon of long, flexible teeth arranged in a single row. How this radula functioned was long a mystery. Dissections of the gut of cancellariids failed to find any trace of solid food, and it was suggested they may be adapted to some form of suctorial feeding. Some authors suggested that cancellariids might feed by slurping up micro-organisms. Then, in the 1980s, one species of cancellariid Cancellaria cooperi was observed feeding on sleeping electric rays. The snail would cut incisions in the ray's skin, presumably with its radula, before inserting its proboscis to slurp up the fish's blood (O'Sullivan et al. 1987). Other cancellariids have been observed feeding on fluids from other invertebrates such as benthic molluscs or their egg masses.Cancellaria cooperi feeding on an electric ray, copyright Clinton Bauder.The genus Narona to which N. decaptyx belongs is now restricted to the north Pacific. In this respect, it is not unique. Cancellariids are poorly represented in the modern Caribbean fauna with only six species known from the sea's shallow waters but they were much more diverse there in N. decaptyx's time. However, following the rise of the isthmus of Panama, many cancellariid taxa once found widely in the tropical Americas became extinct for whatever reason on the eastern side of the divide. This happened regularly enough that the term 'paciphile' has been coined for referring to such taxa. A number of distinct waves of paciphile extinctions have been identified in the Caribbean cancellariid fossil record and they have been used to identify distinct chronological zones. Narona decaptyx became extinct as part of the GNPMU (Gatunian Neogene Paciphilic Molluscan Unit) 1 period. Other Narona species persisted in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico for longer, surviving into the Pliocene, but eventually they too succumbed to whatever dampened this family's prospects in the region.REFERENCESBrown, A. P., & H. A. Pilsbry. 1911. Fauna of the Gatun Formation, Isthmus of Panama. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 63 (2): 336–373.Landau, B., R. E. Petit & C. M. da Silva. 2012. The family Cancellariidae (Mollusca: Gastropoda) in the Neogene of the Bocas del Toro region, Panama, with the description of seven new species. Journal of Paleontology 86 (2): 311–339.O'Sullivan, J. B., R. R. McConnaughey & M. E. Huber. 1987. A blood-sucking snail: the Cooper's nutmeg, Cancellaria cooperi Gabb, parasitizes the California electric ray, Torpedo californica Ayres. Biological Bulletin 172 (3): 362–366.[...]

The Adrastini

Wed, 21 Mar 2018 00:48:00 +0000

Glyphonyx sp., copyright Mike Quinn.

For the subject of my next post, I drew the click beetle tribe Adrastini. Well, actually, I drew the tribe Synaptini but dibs on that name was originally called by a family of sea cucumbers so it seems that 'Adrastini' should be the tribe's proper name. I described click beetles, and the nature of their click, in an earlier post.

The Adrastini are one of those groups of animals for which there seems to be little known to discuss other than their general morphology. The more typical click beetles tend to be fairly uniform in their general appearance and are often not that easy to distinguish. Adrastins belong to the subfamily Elaterinae and resemble other elaterines in their deflexed mouthparts, arcuate prosternum, open mesocoxal cavities and tarsal claws without basal setae. They differ from other elaterines in having serrate tarsal claws according to Stibick (1979). Mind you, another related group, the Melanotini, are supposed to be distinguished by their pectinate claws and I'm not entirely sure what the difference between 'serrate' and 'pectinate' is supposed to be in this context.

The Adrastini are widespread though they seem to be absent from Australia. Several genera are recognised; one of these, Glyphonyx, is distinctly larger than the rest and includes about half the tribe's known species. As far as I know, the larva has never been described for any member of this group, so what they are doing ecologically remains a largely unknown quantity.


Stibick, J. N. L. 1979. Classification of the Elateridae (Coleoptera). Relationships and classification of the subfamilies and tribes. Pacific Insects 20 (2–3): 145–186.(image)

The Stilt Bug Neides tipularius

Thu, 15 Mar 2018 04:15:00 +0000

Image copyright Janet Graham.

This is Neides tipularius, a widespread bug in the western part of the Palaearctic region. It feeds on a wide range of plants: I've seen references to it on grasses, on composites, or on chickweeds. It prefers drier regions such as coastal dunes or heaths.

Neides tipularius is a fairly typical member of the stilt bug family Berytidae. Berytids are more or less slender bugs in general but Neides is one of the more slender and long-legged ones. There are few other bugs with which a berytid could be confused; not only is there the wispy legginess to mark them, but berytids have distinctive long antennae with a short, spindle-shaped terminal segment forming a dark bobble at the end. Latreille (1802) did place N. tipularius in the genus Ploiaria, but that is now used for a group of small, long-legged assassin bugs with raptorial forelegs for catching prey.

Image copyright Sanja565658.

As with many other bugs, Neides tipularius exhibits polymorphism in wing development with flightless brachypters having narrower wings that only just reach the tip of the abdomen. Whether a given individual grows into a flying or flightless adult appears to be connected to the conditions under which they develop. Hot springs and summers have been noted to lead to increased numbers of macropterous adults.


Latreille, P. A. 1802. Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière des crustacés et des insectes vol. 3. Familles naturelles des genres. F. Dufart: Paris.(image)

Rust, Anyone?

Tue, 13 Mar 2018 00:51:00 +0000

At certain times of year, when the weather is warm, you may see patches of yellow or orange appear on plant leaves. It is often particularly notable on grass. These patches are known as rust and are the fruiting bodies of parasitic fungi. In some cases, they may be merely a nuisance or an eyesore. In other cases, their effects can be devastating. Rust fungi may cause enormous damage to commercial crops. One particularly nasty strain of the stem rust Puccinia graminis that goes by the label of TTKSK or Ug99 has been spreading through Africa and Asia since its discovery in Uganda in 1999, causing up to 100% losses in wheat crops where it hits. A similar strain of the same species was recently involved in outbreaks in southern Europe. And this rust can't just be covered over with a bit of bog.Stem rust Puccinia graminis uredia on wheat, from the US Dept of Agriculture.Puccinia is the largest genus of rusts with around 3000 known species (Liu & Hambleton 2010), infecting a wide range of host plants. Many rusts have complicated life cycles...or perhaps that should be 'insane'. Some of you may be aware that, until recently, mycologists (researchers of fungi) maintained a system of dual nomenclature that classified sexual and asexual forms of fungi separately, due to the difficulty in matching one to the other*. Rust fungi can have a life cycle involving a sexually reproducing stage and two different asexually reproducing stages on two different hosts, all of them distinct in appearance, so many rust fungal species could masquerade under no less than three distinct names! But then, some species might have simpler life cycles dropping one or more of the possible stages, and some might restrict their attentions to a single host. The difficulty of wrapping one's head around rust life cycles may perhaps best be conveyed by reproducing one paragraph from the review by Petersen (1974), which I invite you to look upon below in all its hideous hideousness:*I believe that the botanical code of nomenclature was recently changed to no longer allow this set-up as a formal system, but I presume that it's going to take a long time to work that one through.A complex system of nomenclature has been developed to quickly indicate the stages found in any particular life cycle in the rusts. While easily understood by students of the group with some experi- ence, the system at first appears bewildering. Those taxa which exhibit all five stages during their life history are called Euforms. They may be Heter-Eu- (infecting more than one host) or Aut-Eu- (occurring on a single host). In some rusts, the aecial stage is deleted, or the aecia and aeciospores are morphologically identical to uredia and uredospores, these organisms being termed Brachy-forms. All these forms are autoecious, thus enabling the "aut-" prefix to be dropped. For those organisms in which spermogonia and spermatia are missing, Maire used Cata- as a prefix, but this usage is rarely seen nowadays. When the uredial stage has been dropped, the organism is called an Opsis-form. This may be used as a prefix, such as Opsis- Gymnosporangium, or more commonly as a suffix, such as Gymno- sporangiopsis. Again, forms can be Heter-Opsis-, or Aut-Opsis-. If this life cycle also deleted spermogonia, it was dubbed Catopsis- by Maire. In more general terminology, rust fungi exhibiting chiefly teliospores (with or without spermogonia) are known as Micro-forms, but Maire again specified those which exhibited both telia and spermogonia as Hypo-forms. In these forms, the teliospores are normal in that they require a resting period before germination. In some taxa, teliospore-like propagules are produced which are lighter in color, exhibit thinner walls, and more obscure germ pores, and which require no resting period before germination, often germinat- ing in situ. These spores have been called leptospores, and the life cycle, otherwise identical to that of Micro-forms, is known as Lepto- form. Occasionally, only uredosp[...]

Holding Forams Together

Wed, 28 Feb 2018 04:00:00 +0000

Nouria polymorphinoides, from past posts relating to the Foraminifera, I've made reference to the changes in classification undergone by this group over the years. Forams are unusual among unicellular organisms in producing a hard, often complex test that means they have both left an extensive fossil record and provided a number of characters on which to base a classification. However, there has been much disagreement over the relative attention due to particular features of the test. The classification used for forams in the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology by Loeblich & Tappan (1964), one of most influential sources in recent decades, made its primary divisions on the basis of the structure and chemistry of the test itself. Forams that produce a test by gluing together (agglutinating) sand particles and other foreign objects were treated as fundamentally distinct from those that secreted calcareous tests. Because the foram cell itself is amoeboid, there was an underlying assumption that the test architecture was too mutable to indicate anything more than low-level relationships.However, there were some prominent inconsistencies with this assumption (Mikhalevich 2013). One is that the division between agglutinated and calcareous tests is not always perfect. Agglutinated forams might not secrete the bulk of the test themselves but they do secrete the cement used to hold the sand grains together, and there is a definite spectrum in the proportion of sand to cement used by a given foram. In some agglutinated forms, a distinct calcareous layer may underlie the agglutinated section of the test, and it is easy to envision how a progressive reduction in the proportion of agglutinated material could lead to the evolution of an entirely secreted test. This was not in itself fatal to the earlier system as it had generally been assumed that agglutinated forams were likely to represent a paraphyletic group. More problematic was the common appearance of foram species that were extremely similar in test architecture with the only really significant difference being that one was agglutinated and the other calcareous. This lead some authors to argue that whereas a small number of such cases might be accepted as the result of convergence, the abundance of such cases suggested that changes in test composition were more common than previously recognised. Molecular studies of forams are still in their infancy but have offered some support for the significance of test architecture, such as the division between globular and tubular forams (Pawlowski et al. 2013) that I referred to in an earlier post.Liebusella goesi, from Foram Barcoding.One effect of this change in focus is that the Mikhalevich (2013) classification divides the agglutinated forams between a number of groups that are not recognised in alternative systems. One such group is the Nouriida, known from the Cretaceous to the present day. Mikhalevich included the Nouriida in a larger group called the Hormosinana; at least one hormosinanan was placed by Pawlowski et al. (2013) at the base of the globular foram lineage. In contrast, Loeblich & Tappan (1964) included most of the nouriidans in the family Ataxophragmiidae, other members of which belong to the tubular forams. Nouriida and other Hormosinana are united by having the aperture of the test in a terminal position; in some nouriidans, it may be raised on a short neck. Nouriida differ from other hormosinanans in the arrangement of chambers in the test. In early stages they tend to be more or less trochospiral; with maturity, the number of chambers to a whorl decreases and the test may become biserial or uniserial. The two subfamilies recognised within the Nouriida by Mikhalevich differ in the internal structure of their chambers: Nourioidea have internally simple chambers but Liebuselloidea have the lumen of the chambers complexly subdivided.I haven't found much about their ecological role; at le[...]

Walruses, Sea Lions and Fur Seals

Thu, 15 Feb 2018 09:03:00 +0000

Adaptation to a primarily aquatic lifestyle has happened numerous times within mammals, but some groups have radiated more in this environment than others. One particularly well-known group of marine mammals is the pinnipeds, the seals and sea lions.Australian sea lions Neophoca cinerea on a beach on Kangaroo Island, copyright Diver Dave.Pinnipeds are highly modified for life in the water, with streamlined bodies and all four limbs modified into flippers. When I was young, many of the animal books that I read referred to pinnipeds as their own distinct order within the mammals. However, it has long been recognised that pinnipeds are derived from within the Carnivora and these days they are almost universally treated as a subgroup of the latter. Modern pinnipeds are divided between three families: the Phocidae ('true' seals), Otariidae (fur seals and sea lions) and Odobenidae (which has only one living species, the walrus Odobenus rosmarus). While some morphological analyses have argued for a relationship between the walrus and the Phocidae, the majority view treats the walrus and the Otariidae as together forming a clade Otarioidea, commonly referred to as the eared seals. There has historically also been some argument about whether the pinnipeds represent a single clade; some have argued for two separate origins, Otarioidea being related to bears whereas Phocidae were supposed to be closer to otters and weasels. However, the current majority supports a single origin for the group.Northern fur seals Callorhinus ursinus, photographed by M. Boylan.Eared seals differ from true seals in the possession of small external ears, and the ability to turn the hind flippers back under the body so that they can still function (if somewhat awkwardly) as feet when moving on land. I have seen Australian sea lions on coastal islands near Perth (there are boat tours that will take you to see them) and I can confirm that they can run along the beach at a surprising speed when they wish to. True seals have the hind flippers permanently directed behind them and so are forced to awkwardly belly-flop along when not swimming (doubtless as a result of this, true seals also differ from eared seals in that males lack an external scrotum). In the water, the hind flippers provide the main source of propulsion in true seals whereas eared seals get more of their thrust from the fore flippers (sea lions have been said to swim like penguins). As an aside, eared seals are also apparently unusual among mammals in that their milk completely lacks lactose. The lactose intolerant among you need not be denied dairy, you need only milk a walrus.Mounted skeleton of Allodesmus sp., copyright Momotarou2012.The earliest eared seals are known from the Miocene when they appear to have originated in the northern Pacific. Two extinct families from this place and period, the Enaliarctidae and Desmatophocidae, are commonly included in the Otarioidea, though it remains possible that either of these families should be placed outside the pinniped crown group, or closer to the true seals. The early Miocene Enaliarctidae differ from other otarioids in retaining differentiated premolars and molars (later forms have the cheek teeth uniform in appearance) and may well represent the ancestral form of the group. The mid- to late Miocene Desmatophocidae combined a rather Phocidae-like skull with a more Otarioidea-like post-cranium; the best-known genus Allodesmus had larger eyes than other otarioids and may have hunted in deep waters. One species of desmatophocid, Allodesmus sinanoensis, may have reached a length approaching five metres, making it larger than a modern walrus and rivalling the elephant seals in size. I highly recommend a series of posts on Allodesmus written a few years back by Robert Boessenecker (1, 2, 3, 4) that cover just about everything you might want to know about this animal.Skull of Gomphotaria pugnax, from Robert Boessen[...]


Thu, 15 Feb 2018 00:28:00 +0000

Shell of Turris crispa crispa, copyright H. Zell.At this point, I've made numerous references on this site to the gastropod family Turridae, discussing its members and non-members and alluding to its sordid history. So maybe I should set out the basics of the story properly.The Conoidea are a diverse group of marine predatory gastropods with over 4000 known living species. They are best known for the production by many species of venom used to paralyse their prey, in some species being potent enought to threaten humans. In the majority of conoideans, this venom is delivered via a tooth that becomes detached from the radula and is held at the end of the retractable proboscis. Until relatively recently, Conoidea were commonly divided between three families. Two of these families, the Conidae (cone shells) and Terebridae (awl shells) were well defined and constrained. The third family was the Turridae, including by far the greater number of species but not really defined within Conoidea beyond 'the rest'. Many of 'the rest' were small, many were restricted to deep water, many were poorly known. Different systems were proposed over the years in an attempt to break the turrid mass into more manageable units but each system differed significantly from the next and no one system became universally accepted. Some authors would focus on the protoconch as their guide to classification, others would focus on the radula, others might call out features of the operculum. One author commented in 1922 that turrids were "considered by those who meddle with them to be more perplexing than any other molluscan family", and this complaint was still being upheld by Kilburn (1983) over sixty years later.Though it had long been accepted that the 'turrids' probably did not represent an evolutionarily coherent group, it wasn't really until the advent of molecular phylogenies that things started falling into place. Puillandre et al. (2011) identified two main lineages within the Conoidea, leading to the dissolution of the original Turridae into no less than 13 families in order to maintain the already-established Conidae and Terebridae. Turridae in the strict sense was restricted to a much smaller clade of a bit over a dozen genera, sister to the Terebridae (Bouchet et al. 2011).In contrast to the bewilderment of the original turrid array, Turridae sensu Bouchet et al. is a morphologically quite coherent group. They are more or less fusiform (spindle-shaped) shells, often with a narrow, high spire and relatively weak sculpture. Indeed, but for the fact that most tend to have a long siphonal canal at the base of the shell, they often bear a distinct resemblance to their sister group, the terebrids. The majority of turrids have a multispiral protoconch, indicating an extended, planktonic-feeding larval stage in development, but there are some species with a paucispiral protoconch indicative of direct development.Radula of Xenuroturris legitima, from Kantor & Puillandre (2012); ct = central tooth.The radula of turrids usually comprises three apparent teeth in each row. The central tooth is actually formed from three teeth (the original pointed central tooth and two plate-like lateral teeth) fused together; in some species the division between these teeth remains visible whereas in others the central tooth disappears entirely. The main business part of the radula is the single pair of marginal teeth which, as in other conoideans, are enlarged and modified for venom delivery. They have a distinctive 'duplex' form; in older publications, this was referred to as a 'wishbone' form because the tooth appears under light microscopy to be divided between two branches. After the advent of electron microscopy, it was discovered that these two 'branches' in fact represent the thickened margins of an undivided tooth. The larger of the two margins is mostly attached to the radular membrane with only the[...]

Blister Beetles

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 05:22:00 +0000

Zonitis sayi, copyright Carol Davis.This is a blister beetle of the genus Zonitis. Blister beetles, the family Meloidae, get their name from their production of cantharidin, a defensive chemical that can burn the skin of would-be predators. Zonitis is a widespread genus of blister beetles with over 100 species described from around the world. However, it should be noted that its wide distribution may relate to the genus being poorly defined and future revisions may divide its members between other genera (as I believe has already happened for the Australasian 'Zonitis'). As it is, Zonitis species are characterised by fully developed elytra and functional wings, and cleft tarsal claws with two rows of teeth on the upper section (Enns 1956). Adult Zonitis are flower-feeders, visiting composite plants (i.e. daisies and similar plants), and some species have the mouthparts modified into a tube for sucking nectar.Most blister beetles exhibit what is known as hypermetamorphism or hypermetaboly, where the larvae pass through morphologically differentiated stages before reaching pupation. Zonitis species develop as parasitoids or kleptoparasites of bees. Females lay large numbers of eggs (up to and exceeding 500 in a batch) on their host plant, most commonly on the flowers though sometimes on the undersides of leaves. The eggs hatch into active, long-legged larvae that attach to bees visiting the flowers and so get carried to the bee's nest. Once there, they moult into a less mobile stage and feed on the food stores laid aside for the bee's larva, and potentially on the larva itself. In the North American species Zonitis atripennis flavida, the beetle larva completes its development in a single cell but European species consume the contents of two bee cells before reaching maturity. Following the initial active instar, meloid larvae pass through four feeding instars before entering a quiescent, immobile stage called the hypnotheca or prepupa. The hypnotheca moults into another feeding instar before the larva finally enters the pupal stage (Bologna et al. 2008). What the point (if anything) of the hypnotheca is, I have no idea. However, it is worth noting that hypnothecae of another meloid species, Hornia boharti, have been recorded surviving for multiple years without feeding before moulting to the next instar.Once adults emerge from the host cell, they of course disperse to conduct their own affairs. Natural history data is patchy but indications are that many species are picky in their choice of host plant. From an economic perspective, their damaging role as a parasite of pollinating bees may be partially counterbalanced by their potential role as pollinators in their own right, but who can say which way the scales lean?REFERENCESBologna, M. A., M. Oliverio, M. Pitzalis & P. Mariottini. 2008. Phylogeny and evolutionary history of the blister beetles (Coleoptera, Meloidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 48: 679–693.Enns, W. R. 1956. A revision of the genera Nemognatha, Zonitis, and Pseudozonitis (Coleoptera, Meloidae) in America north of Mexico, with a proposed new genus. University of Kansas Science Bulletin 37 (2): 685–909.[...]


Thu, 01 Feb 2018 00:45:00 +0000

Textbooks will tell you that the term 'bug' should be restricted to insects of the order Hemiptera though, as I've noted before, I don't know if I've ever met anyone who actually used the word that way. For many people, one of the groups of actual bugs that they are most likely to be aware of are members of the Cicadomorpha.Tasmanian hairy cicada Tettigarcta tomentosa, copyright Simon Grove.Cicadomorphs include the cicadas (Cicadoidea), leafhoppers (Membracoidea) and spittlebugs (Cercopoidea). As a group, they are distinguished by an enlarged postclypeus (the upper part of the front of the head below the antennae), simple antennae with a whip-like flagellum, and small and narrowly placed mid-coxae (Dietrich 2005). The enlarged postclypeus is associated with adaptations for feeding on xylem, deeper in the plant stem than many other plant-sucking bugs prefer, though derived subgroups of the leafhoppers have changed back to phloem or parenchyma. Well over 30,000 species of cicadomorph are known from around the world. Cicadas can be readily distinguished from other cicadomorphs by their possession of three ocelli in a triangle on the top of the head whereas leafhoppers and spittlebugs have only two or no ocelli.Male bladder cicada Cystosoma saundersii, one of the world's more ridiculous animals, from Brisbane Insects.Cicadas are best known, of course, for their singing. The songs are produced by a pair of membranous 'drums', the tymbals, at the base of the abdomen; muscular vibration of the membranes produces the sound. In most cicadas, only the male possesses these tymbals. However, both sexes possess tymbals in the hairy cicadas Tettigarcta, two species found in alpine regions in south-eastern Australia. Hairy cicadas also differ from the remaining cicadas in other ways, most notably in lacking the well-developed tympana on the underside of the abdomen that typical cicadas hear with (hairy cicadas have simpler hearing organs in their place). As a result, Tettigarcta is placed in its own distinct family, sister group to the remaining cicadas in the Cicadidae. Though now restricted to Australia, fossil species from the Mesozoic and Palaeogene of other parts of the world have also been placed in the Tettigarctidae (Shcherbakov 2008); however, they are mostly so placed on the basis of shared primitive rather than derived features and may well represent stem taxa for Cicadoidea as a whole. Other derived features of the cicadas proper in the Cicadidae include gas-filled chambers in the abdomen that resonate the calls produced by the tymbals. In males of another Australian species, the bladder cicada Cystosoma saundersii, these resonating chambers reach a remarkable size and the entire abdomen looks to have been blown up like a beach ball.Froghopper Cercopis vulnerata, copyright Richard Bartz.The spittlebugs or froghoppers of the Cercopoidea are smaller cicadomorphs, distinguished from species of the Membracoidea by their short and cylindrical (rather than long and quadrate) hind tibiae. The name 'spittlebug' refers to the nymphs of these bugs living covered with a protective covering of foam. In one family, the Machaerotidae, the nymph produces a calcareous tube around itself that it fills with fluid. The foam or fluid used for protection by cercopoids is primarily composed of the nymph's own excrement: the xylem fluids that they feed on are mostly water, after all, so they produce a large quantity of watery excreta.Mango leafhopper Idioscopus nagpurensis, one of the world's many, many species of Cicadellidae, copyright Arian Suresh.The third main subgroup of the cicadomorphs, the Membracoidea, is by far the most diverse, particularly the largest family Cicadellidae (leafhoppers). My own impression from my experience of collecting insects in various locations is that cicadellids are just everywhere. Over 20,000 sp[...]

The Colours of Rot

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 01:01:00 +0000

Bracket fungi Fomitopsis pinicola, copyright Marek Novotnak.Apart from those species readily purchased at the supermarket, perhaps the macrofungi most likely to be encountered by the average person are the brackets. Bracket fungi are the hard, woody, shelf-like fungi that may be found growing from tree-stumps and fallen logs. Whereas other fungal fruiting bodies may emerge, release their spores, and collapse away within a matter of hours, those produced by bracket fungi (properly known as 'conks', apparently) may persist for years with a new layer of reproductive tissue added each cycle.Phlebiopsis gigantea, a resupinate member of the Polyporales, copyright Jerzy Opioła.The majority of brackets belong to the fungal order Polyporales, one of the major subgroups of the basidiomycetes with about 1800 known species (Binder et al. 2013). While brackets may be the most familiar Polyporales, the order is morphologically diverse. Indeed, no one morphological feature characterises the Polyporales as currently recognised; it has only been recognised as a clade following the advent of molecular analyses. Some members of the Polyporales produce persistent fruiting bodies like brackets, others are more ephemeral. They may be sessile and shelf-like, or they may be raised on a stalk. The spore-producing layer may appear as minute pores, as gills, as protruding teeth, or may be entirely smooth. There are also a large number of Polyporales species that are what is known as resupinate: that is, they don't produce discrete fruiting bodies at all. Instead, the reproductive structures are produced as a more or less undifferentiated crust spreading over their substrate.Hexagonal-pored polypore Polyporus alveolaris, copyright Andreas Kunze.The greater number of Polyporales are associated with decaying wood; they play an integral role in breaking down and releasing nutrients that might otherwise be locked away from environmental cycles. Most species only grow on wood that is already deceased but there are some that are pathogenic on living trees. Based on the appearance of the wood being broken down, Polyporales may be divided between 'white-rot' and 'brown-rot' species. The difference is not merely an aesthetic one. Wood is made up primarily of two organic polymers, cellulose and lignin. Both these chemicals are difficult to metabolise (we ourselves, for instance, cannot digest either) but lignin is a particularly tough nut to crack. White-rot fungi are able to digest both cellulose and lignin but brown-rot fungi digest the cellulose only. White-rot fungi extract more nutrients from the wood overall but brown-rot fungi extract nutrients faster. And while the efforts of white-rot fungi may result in almost the entire carbon quotient of the wood being released to the environment, brown-rot fungi leave a lignin-rich residue that is largely indigestable by any other organism. Genomes have been sequenced from both white- and brown-rot taxa and a fair amount of effort has been invested into studying the different chemical pathways underlying the different rot types.Caulifower fungus Sparassis brevipes, copyright AL'S.Phylogenetically speaking, Justo et al. (2017) recently recognised eighteen families within Polyporales corresponding to well-established molecular clades (plus a handful of taxa that could not yet be confidently placed in a 'family') but these show the same challenges to morphological characterisation as the order as a whole. Many of these families include both fruiting and resupinate taxa, and transitions in fruiting body morphology are the rule more than the exception. Interestingly, one 'morphological' feature that does show a fair degree of phylogenetic consistency is the rot-type. It seems clear that the ancestor of the Polyporales was a white-rot fungus with the majority of brown-rot fun[...]

Meandering Forams

Thu, 11 Jan 2018 01:47:00 +0000

Specimen of Meandropsina vidali, showing the patterning on the external surface, from Loeblich & Tappan (1964).There are some taxonomic names that just instantly bring up a mental image of the sort of organism to which they refer. For my part, I've always felt that Meandropsina is one of those names. The Meandropsinidae are another family of relatively large and complex foraminifera (growing up to a number of millimetres across) that are known only from the Upper Cretaceous. The several genera of the family are predominantly European, with only the genus Fallotia also known from the West Indies.Cross-section of Meandropsina vidali, from Loeblich & Tappan (1964).Meandropsinids are (as far as I know) more or less lenticular in shape with chambers enrolled in a flat spiral. The name of the type genus Meandropsina refers to the way that the outer margins of the chambers tend to meander irregularly around the test, giving it something of an ornate appearance. Both molecular and structural evidence indicate that multi-chambered forams arose from ancestors with undivided tests on more than one occasion, and the majority of multi-chambered forams can be assigned to two major lineages (Pawlowski et al. 2013). In one lineage, the Globothalamea (which includes, for instance, the rotaliids), the basic chamber shape is globular with successive chambers in the test being wider than long. In the other lineage, the Tubothalamea (including the miliolids and spirillinids), the basic chamber shape is tubular, and the test may grow through a number of spirals before it even starts to be divided into chambers (if at all). Members of the two lineages with calcareous tests may also be distinguished by their test structure: in calcareous globothalameans, the crystals making up the test are arranged regularly so the overall appearance of the test is hyaline (glass-like). In contrast, tubothalameans have the crystals of the test arranged irregularly so the appearance of the test is porcelaneous (like porcelain). Meandropsinids are unmistakeably tubothalameans in both regards.Like other large forams of the Mesozoic, meandropsinids did not make it past the end of the Cretaceous. Early Palaeocene taxa that have been included in the families represent distinct lineages that evolved to take their place, occupying the ecological spaces opened up by the mass extinction ending the era.REFERENCESLoeblich, A. R., Jr, & H. Tappan. 1964. Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt C. Protista 2. Sarcodina: chiefly "thecamoebians" and Foraminiferida vol. 1. The Geological Society of America, and The University of Kansas Press.Pawlowski, J., M. Holzmann & J. Tyszka. 2013. New supraordinal classification of Foraminifera: molecules meet morphology. Marine Micropalaeontology 100: 1–10.[...]

Doe, it's Deer

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 02:02:00 +0000

Marsh deer Blastocerus dichotomus, copyright Jonathan Wilkins. An animal that just screams out, "Am I wearing the Chanel boots? Yes, I am."I hardly need to explain what deer are, do I? Deers (Cervidae) are generally recognised as the second most diverse family of hoofed mammals (after bovids) in the modern fauna. Their most recognisable feature, of course, is the possession of antlers: bony cranial appendages that are shed and regrown every year rather than being permanently in place like the horns of a bovid. When antlers first grow, they are covered with a layer of skin (the velvet) that supplies them with blood, but this skin is later shed to expose the bare bone. In most species, antlers are only grown by males whose use them in conflicts during the mating season. The only genus of deer that grows antlers in both sexes is Rangifer, the reindeer. There is also one living species that lacks antlers, the Chinese water deer Hydropotes inermis; instead of antlers, males of this species possess large, dagger-like canines. In the majority of deer species, antlers are subcylindrical and often branched but broad palmate antlers have evolved on multiple occasions within the family. Antler morphology is generally significant in distinguishing taxa but it should be noted that variation within species is not unknown. For instance, the few recorded males of the small, now possibly extinct population of moose introduced to the south of New Zealand lacked the large palmate antlers generally associated with the species, probably due to poor nutritional conditions. Instead, they had more slender antlers that only became moderately palmate distally, like those of a fallow deer Dama dama.One of the few photographs of moose from New Zealand, from here. I think this might be the one shot at Herrick Creek in 1952 but I could be wrong.The first antlered deer are known from Europe back in the early Miocene, about 17 million years ago. They are not known from North America until some time later in the Pliocene, about five mya (Pitra et al. 2004), though these days they are every bit as diverse in the Americas as in Eurasia. They never made much inroad into Africa, only extending into the northernmost part of the continent, and they never made it into Australasia under their own steam, though a number of species have been dispersed to various parts of the world by humans. For instance, at least half a dozen species have become established in New Zealand, and until recently reindeer might be found wandering among penguin colonies in South Georgia.Reindeer and king penguins on South Georgia, from here.Recent decades have seen some pretty wild swings in cervid taxonomy, with the number of subfamilies recognised varying from two to seven, and some authors recognising a much larger number of genera and species than others. However, our general understanding of cervid interrelationships is pretty good these days, with many differences between systems being a question of ranking more than anything else. Recent studies have agreed that modern deer can be divided between two primary lineages that may be called the Cervinae and Capreolinae (Gilbert et al. 2006). The Cervinae include the majority of deer species in the Old World with a single species (the wapiti Cervus canadensis) extending its range into the New World. The remaining New World deer all belong to the Capreolinae, which also includes four genera (Rangifer, Hydropotes, the roe deer Capreolus and the moose Alces) found in Eurasia.Male tufted deer Elaphodus cephalophus, copyright Heush.The Cervinae can be divided between two tribes, the Muntiacini and Cervini. Muntiacini include the muntjaks of the genus Muntiacus and the tufted deer Elaphodus cephalophus. These are small deer native to southern a[...]

Conus jaspideus or Conasprella jaspidea, Take Your Pick

Tue, 09 Jan 2018 00:56:00 +0000

Live Conasprella jaspidea, copyright Anne DuPont.Cone shells are one of the classic varieties of tropical sea shells, perhaps only rivalled in their familiarity with the general public by cowries and conches. Over 800 species of the family Conidae have been described from around the world. The specimen above represents one of these species, going by the name of Conasprella jaspidea or Conus jaspideus. The alternatives reflect the conflict between those who would treat all cone shells as belonging to a single genus Conus, or those who would divide them between multiple genera (Conasprella jaspidea is the name used for this species by Puillandre et al., 2014). One 2009 classification went so far as to divide the cone shells between 89 genera in five separate families, which does seem perhaps a little excessive. Among other features, Conasprella species differ from Conus sensu stricto in having a higher spire to the shell.The type specimen of Conasprella jaspidea, copyright MHNG.Conasprella jaspidea is found in coastal sections of the western Atlantic between Florida and the area of Rio de Janeiro. It is a medium-sized shell, reaching about three centimetres in length. Whorls of the spire are marked by distinct shoulders, and the body whorl is ornamented by spiral cords. The colour of the shell is white, orange or brown with darker brownish or violet spots. Shells of C. jaspidea may vary in texture from granular to smooth. These variants were initially recognised as distinct species or subspecies Conus jaspideus and C. verrucosus but, not only can both forms be found intermixed within a single population, the difference between them may be simply a question of the degree of wear a shell has been exposed to (Santos Gomes 2011).Like other cone shells, Conasprella jaspidea is venomous with the radula bearing a single functional tooth modified into a short of hypodermic needle for injecting venom. Species of Conasprella are vermivorous (that is, they feed on worms). Feeding by a live individual of C. jaspidea was observed in an aquarium by Santos Gomes (2011). Photographs therein show the individual ingesting a polychaete worm that was perhaps not too much shorter in length than the cone shell itself; the process of feeding (from the initial strike with the radula to completion of ingestion) took about eighteen minutes from start to finish.REFERENCESPuillandre, N., T. F. Duda, C. Meyer, B.M. Olivera & P. Bouchet. 2014. One, four or 100 genera? A new classification of the cone snails. Journal of Molluscan Studies 81: 1–23.Santos Gomes, R. dos. 2011. Conus jaspideus (Mollusca: Neogastropoda: Conoidea) on the Brazilian coast. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 91 (2): 531–538.[...]

Darklings, Tok Toks and Pie-dishes

Sun, 07 Jan 2018 02:40:00 +0000

False wireworm beetle Gonocephalum sp., copyright EBKauai.It has been noted to the point of cliché that the Creator has an inordinate fondness of beetles. Even within the massive range of beetle diversity, though, certain families stand out as particularly diverse. One such family is the Tenebrionidae, with over twenty thousand known species worldwide. The family is sometimes referred to as the darkling beetles but no one vernacular name is really sufficient for this group. Not only are tenebrionids taxonomically diverse, they are morphologically diverse, varying from long-legged and elongate to hemi-spherical and robust, from smooth and shining to ornate and hairy, from dull-coloured and retiring to bright and striking. Habits vary from detritivorous to xylophagous (feeding on decaying wood) to herbivorous to mycetophagous, with even a few predators. Larvae of some species are of economic significance as pests: the false wireworms feed on the roots of crops or lawns, while mealworms and flour beetles attack stored products (mealworms are, of course, also used as pet food and occasionally even as human food). Several species live as inquilines of social insects such as ants or termites. The highest diversity of tenebrionids is in relatively arid regions; some species, such as the tok tok beetles of southern Africa and the pie-dish beetles of Australia, are familiar sights in such habitats.Pie-dish beetle Helea sp., copyright Australian Museum.With such high diversity, it is not easy to define this group without encountering exceptions, but generally tenebrionids have the antennae eleven-segmented and inserted below lateral expansions of the genae. The procoxal cavities are usually closed externally, and the legs of most species have a 5-5-4 tarsal formula. The first three sternites of the abdomen are fused (Kergoat et al. 2014). Several subfamilies are recognised, but they are commonly grouped into three clusters known as the lagrioid, pimelioid and tenebrionoid branches of the family (Matthews & Bouchard 2008). Many members of the lagrioid and tenebrionoid branches possess well-developed defensive glands in the abdomen. The rear sternites of the abdomen in these species are hinged on the sides rather than along the midline as in more primitive forms, allowing the abdomen to expand as the gland reservoirs fill with a repugnant fluid that can be expelled when required. Many larger tenebrionids have a tendency to walk with their rear ends tilted upwards, ready to unleash at a moment's notice.Allecula rhenana, copyright Stanislav Krejčík.Members of the pimelioid branch, including the subfamilies Pimeliinae and (possibly) Zolodininae, lack abdominal defensive glands. In many parts of the world, pimelioids are the dominant tenebrionids in dry habitats. The lagrioid branch includes the single subfamily Lagriinae, defined by features of the genitalia. Matthews & Bouchard (2008) also listed the small subfamily Phrenapatinae in this branch but a molecular phylogenetic analysis of the family by Kergoat et al. (2014) placed this latter subfamily in the tenebrionoid branch. The tenebrionoid branch also includes the Tenebrioninae, Diaperinae, Alleculinae and Stenochiinae, though monophyly of the Tenebrioninae and Diaperinae is uncertain (Kergoat et al. 2014). Diaperines include a number of shiny, sometimes strikingly coloured species; members of the tribe Leiochrinini look more like ladybeetles of the Coccinellidae than typical tenebrionids. The Tenebrioninae include such notable members as the false wireworms of the tribe Opatrini, the mealworms of the Tenebrionini and the flour beetles of the Triboliini. Finally, the Alleculinae are a distinctive group of often relatively soft-bod[...]


Fri, 29 Dec 2017 04:28:00 +0000

The world is home to a wide variety of leafhoppers, both in terms of number of species and range of morphological disparity. One of the more diverse leafhopper families is the Delphacidae, including over two thousand species from around the globe. Delphacids are relatively small leafhoppers that are easily distinguished from other families by the possession of a large movable spur at the end of the tibia of the hind leg. I can't say as I know what the function of this spur is, but similar structures in other insect groups may be used for grooming.Brown leafhoppers Nilaparvata lugens, from ICAR. The individual on the right is a long-winged disperser, the one on the left is a flightless brachypter.Delphacids feed on the phloem of their host plants; the greater number of species are associated with monocots such as grasses. A number of species are significant economic pests; perhaps the most infamous are the brown leafhopper Nilaparvata lugens and white-backed leafhopper Sogatella furcifera which attack rice. They feed at the base of rice plants, causing the formation of round, yellow patches that soon dry up and turn brown, a condition known as 'hopper burn'. Death of the entire plant will often follow. As well as the direct damage from feeding, these leafhopper species also transmit viruses that further impact yields. Historically, numerous famines have been blamed on leafhopper outbreaks, such as the Kyoho famine of 1732 that saw rice production reduced to only 10% of its previous level. Estimates of the number of people affected by the famine seem to vary widely—according to Wikipedia, the official death toll was a bit more than twelve thousand people, but estimates of the actual number of fatalities range well in excess of 150,000. In more recent years, leafhopper outbreaks may be exacerbated by indiscriminate fertiliser and pesticide use, with the latter reducing competition for the hoppers from other insects or predators.Delphacids (and many other leafhoppers) commonly exhibit polymorphism in wing development with both flying macropterous and flightless brachypterous forms occuring in a single population. The question of macroptery vs brachyptery is an environmental one. If a developing delphacid receives sufficient nitrogen then it will develop into a flightless adult, remaining in the place of its birth to continue to benefit from the good feeding conditions there. But if feeding conditions become degraded and the developing nymph is deprived of nitrogen then it will develop into a fully-winged adult that can leave its home in search of more favourable conditions elsewhere. Because of their small size, migrating delphacids may be carried long distances by the winds. In the case of pest species, this phenomenon of migration further exacerbates the problem of control as hopper populations from different countries are regularly mixed, increasing genetic diversity and resistance to varying control methods.REFERENCEUrban, J. M., C. R. Bartlett & J. R. Cryan. 2010. Evolution of Delphacidae (Hemiptera: Fulgoroidea): combined-evidence phylogenetics reveals importance of grass host shifts. Systematic Entomology 35: 678–691.[...]

When the Wolf Breaks Wind

Thu, 21 Dec 2017 08:06:00 +0000

Common puffballs Lycoperdon perlatum, copyright H. Krisp.In an earlier post, I described the way in which the 'gasteromycetes' of historical fungal classifications have come to be expunged as a category. The enclosure of spore-producing structures within a contained fruiting body such as a puffball, instead of exposed on a membrane such as on the underside of a mushroom cap, is something that has evolved many times in fungal history. One possible suggestion for why this may occur is as a protection against moisture loss, allowing the fungus to thrive in drier or more exposed habitats than before.In that earlier post, I also mentioned off-hand that one of the best known groups of 'gasteromycetes', the puffballs of the Lycoperdaceae, are in fact close relatives of some of the best known typical mushrooms in the Agaricaceae. Indeed, it appears that recent authors may go so far as to synonymise the two families. Puffballs emerge as globular fruiting bodies that become packed with spores as they mature, until one or more openings develop in the external skin of the fruiting body and allow the pores to escape. Supposedly many puffballs are quite edible if collected before the spores begin to develop, though I've never tried myself. Particularly sought in this regard is the giant puffball Calvatia gigantea whose fruiting bodies grow particularly large; supposedly, examples have been found over a metre in diameter and weighing up to twenty kilogrammes.Giant puffball Calvatia gigantea, copyright Alan Wolf.Dispersal of spores from puffballs may be achieved in a number of ways. In species found in habitats with more regular rainfall, such as species of the genus Lycoperdon, spores are spread by 'boleohydrochory' (Gube & Dörfelt 2011). '-Chory' means dispersal, '-hydro-' obviously means water, 'boleo-' I think may mean something like 'throw'. The puffball opens through a hole in the top, and drops of rain (or other sources of pressure such as being tapped by an animal) cause a puff of spores to be squeezed out. The water may then carry the spores away. The name Lycoperdon, as it happens, literally translates as 'wolf fart', and this is another one of those names I am completely at a loss to explain. The 'fart', obviously, refers to the appearance of the spore puffs, but what on earth do they have to do with wolves?Tumbling puffballs Bovista pila, copyright Dan Molter.Other puffballs may spread their spores via 'anemochory', dispersal by wind. This is particularly the case with species found in drier habitats. Some species, such as some members of the genus Bovista, exhibit a variation on this called 'geanemochory' in which the entire puffball becomes detached and blown about by the wind, with the spores escaping through openings in the external shell like pepper being shaken from a pepper-pot. Differences in dispersal method between puffball species are generally reflected by differences in their spore morphology. Hydrochorous species usually have strong ornamentation, with the outside of the spore being covered with warts or the like. These warts provide more surface area for the water to catch onto; they may also help prevent the spores from clumping together. In contrast, anemochorous species have spores that are smooth, making them more streamlined for being blown through the air or, particularly in the case of geanemochorous species, making them less likely to become trapped by hyphae or other structures inside the fruiting body itself and so facilitating their escape.REFERENCEGube, M., & H. Dörfelt. 2011. Gasteromycetation in Agaricaceae s. l. (Basidiomycota): morphological and ecological implementations. Feddes Repertoriu[...]

The Forams that Bind

Mon, 18 Dec 2017 08:32:00 +0000

Cross-section of Fabiania cassis, from BouDagher-Fadel (2008).

Here we see an example of Fabiania. Fabiania is a genus of foraminiferan known from the Eocene epoch that could reach a relatively large size as forams go, up to several millimetres across (nowhere near as large as some that I've covered on this site, maybe, but still respectable). It had a conical test with a rounded apex and a deeply excavated centre; depending on growing conditions, individual Fabiania might be a regular or a flattened cone. In its early stage, Fabiania had two globose thick-walled and perforate chambers; later chambers were cyclical and divided by horizontal and vertical partitions. The aperture of the test was a single row of pores opening into the large umbilicus. The wall of the test was thick and calcareous, and covered with coarse perforations on the upper side of the cone (BouDagher-Fadel 2008; Loeblich & Tappan 1964).

Fabiania lived in association with coral reefs, often preferring the undersides of corals and other sheltered locations. It was primarily found around the mid-depths, not too close to the water's surface but also not too deep (Bosellini & Papazzoni 2003). I've referred in an earlier post to another group of coral-encrusting forams, the acervulinids. Because reef forams tend to be cryptic (in more exposed parts of the reef they tend to get out-competed by coralline algae), and are often variable in morphology making them taxonomically difficult, they tend to be less studied than the reef's more prominent components. However, forams may play a not so insignificant role in developing the reef's structure, helping to bind the reef in place.


Bosellini, F. R., & C. A. Papazzoni. 2003. Palaeoecological significance of coral-encrusting foraminiferan associations: a case-study from the Upper Eocene of northern Italy. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 48 (2): 279–292.

BouDagher-Fadel, M. K. 2008. The Cenozoic larger benthic foraminifera: the Palaeogene. Developments in Palaeontology and Stratigraphy 21: 297–418.

Loeblich, A. R., Jr & H. Tappan. 1964. Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt C. Protista 2. Sarcodina, chiefly "thecamoebians" and Foraminiferida vol. 1. The Geological Society of America and The University of Kansas Press.(image)

The European Blackbuck

Sun, 17 Dec 2017 06:18:00 +0000

Horn cores of Gazellospira torticornis hispanica, from here.

From one -spira genus to another, somewhat different one. Gazellospira is a genus of spiral-horned gazelles known from the Pliocene and early Pleistocene of Europe and northern Asia (the reference to Miocene on the Wikipedia page for this genus looks like it might be an error). Most of the known specimens of Gazellospira have been assigned to a single species, G. torticornis, but a second species G. gromovae has been named from the lower Pleistocene of Tadzhikistan. Specimens from the Upper Pliocene of Spain have also been assigned to a distinct subspecies G. torticornis hispanica on the basis of their smaller size than G. torticornis from elsewhere (Garrido 2008).

Gazellospira is a close relative of the modern blackbuck Antilope cervicapra of southern Asia and would have resembled it in overall appearance. The most obvious difference between the two is probably the horns which diverge at a much greater angle in Gazellospira than in the blackbuck (at an eyeball estimate, the angle between the horns in Gazellospira looks to be close to 90° versus closer to 45–60° in Antilope). Like the blackbuck, Gazellospira was probably a more or less mixed feeder, alternating between browsing and grazing as the seasons required.

Gazellospira's eventual extinction was probably connected to the cooling climate of the Pleistocene (the related genus Gazella, which survives to the present in more southerly regions, disappeared from Europe at about the same time). It seems to have been gone from the greater part of Europe by the end of the Pliocene (Crégut-Bonnoure 2007), persisting into the Pleistocene as remnant populations in Iberia, Italy, Greece and central Asia.


Crégut-Bonnoure, E. 2007. Apport des Caprinae et Antilopinae (Mammalia, Bovidae) à la biostratigraphie du Pliocène terminal et du Pléistocène d’Europe. Quaternaire 18 (1): 73–97.

Garrido, G. 2008. Lu muestra más moderna y completa conocida de Gazellospira torticornis (Bovidae, Artiodactyla, Mammalia en el Plioceno superior terminal de Europa occidental (Fonelas P-1, Cuenca de Guadix, Granada). Cuadernos del Museo Geominero 10: 413–460.(image)


Fri, 15 Dec 2017 00:53:00 +0000

Shell of Cochlespira radiata, photographed by Jan Delsing.

This beauty is a member of the genus Cochlespira, another one of the conoid shells previously classed as 'turrids' (it now belongs in the family Cochlespiridae since the disassembly of Turridae in the broad sense). Cochlespira species can be relatively large as conoids go, reaching lengths of up to five centimetres. They are found in deep waters in various parts of the world, with a fossil record going back to the Eocene (Powell 1966; Powell treated the western Atlantic species as a separate genus Ancistrosyrinx, but this and the Indo-Pacific Cochlespira have since been synonymised). One of the genus' more distinctive features is a little hard to miss: that eye-catching keel around the outside of the whorls, ornamented with serrations or spines.

As with other deep-water conoids, our knowledge of how Cochlespira species live their lives seems to be pretty limited. The radula has a broad-based central tooth with a single median cusp, and a pair of marginal teeth that are elongate but not as slender as those of many other conoids (Powell 1966). The rhynchodeal walls in the foregut are muscular and the proboscis is long. The venom glands are well-developed but join the oesophagus at about its midlength rather than in the buccal mass (Simone 1999). The arrangement looks to my admittedly inexpert eyes like it might be suited for sucking up invertebrate prey, perhaps something that might be expected to be relatively slow-moving or soft-bodied.


Powell, A. W. B. 1966. The molluscan families Speightiidae and Turridae. An evaluation of the valid taxa, both recent and fossil, with lists of characteristic species. Bulletin of the Auckland Institute and Museum 5: 1-184.

Simone, L. R. L. 1999. The anatomy of Cochlespira Conrad (Gastropoda, Conoidea, Turridae) with a description of a new species from the southeastern coast of Brazil. Revista Brasileira de Zoologia 16 (1): 103–115.(image)

Powder-post Beetles: Got Wood?

Wed, 29 Nov 2017 04:41:00 +0000

Jesuit beetle Bostrychopsis jesuita, from PaDIL.Back when I was collecting insects in the Australian arid zone, one of the more easily recognisable animals that we would regularly come across was the jesuit beetle Bostrychopsis jesuita. I have no idea what gives them the name 'jesuit beetle', but these relatively large black beetles with their spiny pronotum with its two 'horns' coming off the front is not likely to be confused with much else. (Actually, now I think about it, could it be the horns that make them Jesuits? In which case, ouch.)Bostrychopsis jesuita is one of the larger beetles belonging to the Bostrichidae, a family commonly going by the vernacular names of auger beetles or powder-post beetles. Both these vernacular names refer to the fact that many species in the family, particularly as larvae, are wood-borers (not fortune-tellers—that would make them augur beetles), with the ability to turn sapwood into a powdery frass. As a result, a number of species are notable timber pests. Other species, particularly the larger grain borer Prostephanus truncatus and the lesser grain borer Rhyzopertha dominica, are seed-feeders and pests in stored grain. A single genus, Endecatomus, is mycophagous, feeding on polypore fungi growing on dead hardwood trees (Liu & Schönitzer 2011). Bostrichids belong to a larger group of beetles, the Bostrichoidea, that are superbly adapted to feeding on dry foodstuffs (other members of the Bostrichoidea include the spider beetles of the Ptinidae and the carpet beetles of the Dermestidae). Modifications of the gut in most bostrichoids allow them to efficiently resorb water from the gut contents, and they can obtain pretty much all the moisture they need direct from the air.Lesser grain borers Rhyzopertha dominica, from the US Department of Agriculture.The bostrichids are divided between a number of subfamilies, members of which appear quite distinct from one another. Members of the Bostrichinae (to which Bostrychopsis belongs) and Dinoderinae are cylindrical and robust, with short sturdy legs. In some species, the rear of the body appears sharply cut off by a flat declivity in the rear of the elytra; this declivity can be by males to block the entrance to holes in the wood while the female is laying eggs deeper within (Lawrence & Britton 1991). Superficially, Bostrichinae can bear a close resemblance to another, unrelated group of wood-boring beetles, the bark beetles of the Scolytinae (I have to confess to confusing them myself when sorting specimens). The two groups can most readily be distinguished by their antennae, which are geniculate (elbowed) with a compact club in scolytines but non-geniculate with a loose clube in bostrichines.A lyctine Trogoxylon impressum, copyright Udo Schmidt.Members of other bostrichid subfamilies are not adapted to boring in wood as adults as well as as larvae, and as such are more elongate and less compact. The Lyctinae are more or less flattened, rectangular beetles that have been treated as a separate family in the past due to their distinct appearance. One group of lyctines, the Cephalotomini, are even more flattened than others, and are specialised for living as inquilines in the tunnels made by other bostrichids, feeding on their frass; their flattened bodies allow them to press themselves against the side of the tunnel and allow their host beetles to walk over them. Rather than boring deep into wood like bostrichines to lay eggs, females of species with non-boring adults use a long, flexible ovipositor to reach into cracks and other br[...]

Edible Stinkbugs

Wed, 25 Oct 2017 08:17:00 +0000

In recent years, there has been some discussion in certain circles about whether people in western cultures should become more accepting of the practice of entomophagy: that is, eating bugs. For the most part, insects do not play a big part in diets in the English-speaking world except indirectly. In other parts of the world, however, certain insects may be eaten with relish. One such insect is the edible stinkbug Encosternum delegorguei of southern Africa.Edible stinkbug Encosternum delegorguei, from Dzerefos et al. (2013).The edible stinkbug is a member of the family Tessaratomidae, one of a number of families in the stinkbug superfamily Pentatomoidea. Tessaratomids are mostly relatively large, flat-bodied stinkbugs, often with shining metallic coloration, found in warmer parts of the world. They are all plant-suckers; one species, the lychee stinkbug Tessaratoma javanica, is a significant pest of lychee crops while the bronze orange bug Musgraveia sulciventris is a pest of citrus trees in Australia. The edible stinkbug feeds on a range of tree species, belonging to a number of different flowering plant families such as Combretaceae, Fabaceae and Ebenaceae. Though widespread in southern Africa, their distribution seems to be patchy; only certain ethnicities have a tradition of stinkbug harvesting (Dzerefos et al. 2013).Harvester collecting stinkbugs, copyright Cathy Dzerefos.Edible stinkbugs are collected during winter (the dry season) when they aggregate in large protective clusters (up to football-sized) on particular trees. Like other stinkbugs, Encosternum delegorguei produce a foul-smelling defensive chemical from glands on the thorax. As well as smelling bad, this chemical can stain skin and may cause temporary blindness if it gets into eyes. Dzerefos et al. (2013) note that stinkbug harvesters informed them that exposure to the defensive chemical over several years could cause fingernail loss and wart growth. The chemical needs to be removed from the bugs before they are cooked for consumption because, as one harvester explained, "if you eat the unprepared one it will kill taste for a month".Clusters of stinkbugs are collected live into bags which are then shaken to encourage the bugs to discharge their chemicals. Further processing could be done by two methods. Perhaps the more common method is to pinch off the head of each bug then squeeze out the contents of the thorax, after which the bugs are cooked immediately. However, the Bolobedu people (who collect stinkbugs more for commercial sale than for their own consumption) place the bugs into a bucket with a perforated base, then pour hot water over them and stir vigorously. The bugs discharge their glands into the water as the heat kills them. They are then rinsed off in cold water, then returned to hot water for about eight minutes, then spread out on bags on the ground to dry. Any bugs that had not fully discharged their glands before dying can be recognised by dark marks on the thorax and are discarded. Though slightly more involved than the waterless method, this process of preparation has the advantage that bugs can be stored for some time rather than having to be cooked immediately. Stinkbugs are usually cooked by braising in a frying pan with salt; they are supposed to have a spicy taste, like chili.Basket of prepared stinkbugs, from here.According to Dzerefos et al. (2013), many of the stinkbug harvesters they spoke to reported a decline in populations of the bugs in recent years. Potential reasons for the decline i[...]

Publication date of Bulletin de la Société Philomathique

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 00:48:00 +0000

I should say up front, this is going to be a pretty esoteric one. It's just that this is something I spent a fair chunk of a morning trying to work out, and I may as well put what I found up here in case someone else finds it useful.A few weeks back I found myself, as one does, trying to sort out the exact publication date of early numbers of the Bulletin des Sciences, par la Societé Philomathique de Paris, which has been archived online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The Société Philomathique was an association of French scientists and polymaths from a wide range of disciplines founded in 1788. You can find the webpage for the current iteration of the Société here. In 1791, the Societé decided to circulate a bulletin of abstracts of their meetings, including summaries of papers and letters presented there.The title page of the volume of the Bulletin available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library gives the dates of "Juillet 1791, a Ventôse, An 7", or July 1791 to February–March 1799, which is the dates of the meetings presented therein ("Ventôse, An 7" is a date in the Republican Calendar that was introduced for a period following the establishment of the French Republic in 1792). Citations I could initially find for individual notices in the Bulletin were all attributed to dates of the separate meetings that they were presented at (e.g. something presented at the May 1794 meeting would be cited as "1794"). But it was immediately obvious to me that the notices could not have been published at the times of the original meetings, at least not as they appeared in the volume reproduced, because abstracts from separate meetings would appear on the same page! Hence my search for information on the Bulletin's actual publication date: were notices for individual meetings issued separately at the time, or did they not actually appear in print until the subsequent publication (presumably in 1799 or even later) of the collected volume? I should note that some of the abstracts in the Bulletin included descriptions of new species, so the question of publication date could have further taxonomic implications.A page from the collated Bulletin, showing how the last entry for the December 1792 meeting is followed immediately by the section for January 1793, without a page-break for originally separate issues to have been collected together.Eventually, I was able to establish that separate Bulletin issues had indeed been released for each meeting (you can see reproductions of the uncollated originals at Gallica). However, there is a complication. Early issues of the Bulletin were written by hand, and distributed only to the members of the Société (about 18 people at the time). It was not until November 1792 that a printed version of the Bulletin began to be disseminated more widely. Now, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature requires that any publication for taxonomic purposes produced before 1986 must "have been produced in an edition containing simultaneously obtainable copies by a method that assures...numerous identical and durable copies" (Article 8.1.3). A handwritten manuscript would not meet that requirement, so any zoological name appearing in those early bulletins would not count as published. They would not become established until the subsequent publication of the collated volume, which according to an introduction written by Jonathan Mandelbaum in 1977 for a bound collection of the original Bulletin issues (reproduced at Gallica her[...]

Harden Up, Puffball!

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 06:59:00 +0000

Near my home back in Australia, there's a park where we walk the dog most days. During the summer, when Perth receives little rain, the grass in the park dries off and the ground becomes hard. In some particularly dry spots, ground cover is absent completely (there's a large bare patch that used to house a meat ant colony; the ants died off a few years back but the nest site has never been re-claimed by grass). As autumn approaches, cream-coloured lumps can be seen in these bare patches, pushing their way through cracks in the ground. The lumps eventually crack and split, turning to dust over the course of several weeks. These lumps are Pisolithus puffballs.Mature Pisolithus 'arhizus' puffballs, copyright Paul Venter.A long-established system in the classification of basidiomycete fungi (the class of fungi that includes most familiar mushroom-forming species) divided many of the species between two groups, the hymenomycetes and the gasteromycetes. Hymenomycetes (the name means 'membrane fungi') included the classic mushrooms, with spores produced on an exposed membrane on the open fruiting body (often underneath) from which they were expelled when mature. Gasteromycetes ('stomach fungi') were forms such as puffballs in which spore-producing structures were completely enclosed within a sealed fruiting body; these structures would break apart at maturity and only then would the fruiting body open up to release the freed spores. However, while the hymenomycete-gasteromycete division was certainly convenient, it was not entirely watertight. For instance, ink-cap mushrooms were clearly hymenomycetes going by their exposed membranes, but the way their fruiting bodies dissolved to release their spores was more than a little gasteromycete-like. When molecular phylogenetic studies came to be included in the mix, it became clear that the two groups were not phylogenetically distinct. Indeed, the usual poster-children for gasteromycetes, the Lycoperdaceae puffballs, have turned out to be close relatives to the most familiar of all hymenomycetes, the field mushroom Agaricus bisporus. 'Gasteromycetes' have evolved from 'hymenomycete' ancestors on several different occasions; a puffball is basically a mushroom that doesn't open.When molecular studies came to examine Pisolithus and a number of related 'gasteromycete' taxa, they turned out to be related to the 'hymenomycete' boletes in the order Boletales. Boletes are spongy mushrooms in which the spore-producing section on the underside of the cap is divided into pores rather than gills. Some boletes are highly regarded for their edibility, if you can get to them before other animals and insects that find them equally tasty do (others, however, are toxic, so as always with mushroom-hunting you need to know what you're eating). A new lineage in the Boletales, the Sclerodermatineae, was recognised for Pisolithus and its relatives; this lineage includes some forms that would have been recognised in the past as gasteromycetes and some that would have been called hymenomycetes. As with other members of the Boletales, most if not all members of the Sclerodermatineae are ectomycorrhizal, forming close symbiotic associations with the roots of certain trees. In most cases, these associations are essential to the well-being of both members of the partnership as the two exchange nutrients.Salmon gum mushroom Phlebopus marginatus, copyright Ian Sutton.'Hymenomycete' genera of the sclerodermatines include Gyr[...]

Fusulinoids: Complex Forams of the Late Palaeozoic

Sat, 07 Oct 2017 14:12:00 +0000

Among the most characteristic fossils of the latter part of the Palaeozoic are the group of Foraminifera known as the fusulinoids. These forams, known from around the middle of the Carboniferous to the end of the Permian, can be extremely abundant. Indeed, I get the impression that some fossil deposits are pretty much made of fusulinoids. Fusulinoids did not merely thrive in their environment; they were the environment.Limestone block dominated by fusulinids, copyright James St John. Field of view is about 3.9 cm across.Fusulinoids are distinguished from other forams by their test composition, built from minute granules of calcite, and complex internal structure. Externally, fusulinoids (defined here to exclude their forerunners, the endothyroids) were fairly conservative, with a planispiral, usually involute test (that is, each successive whorl covers the last). The last whorl ended on a transverse wall without a defined aperture; instead, the only connection between the interior and exterior of the test was by a series of pores in said wall. Early forms were disc-shaped; later species could be more globular or fusiform. Some of the later fusulinoids also reached gigantic sizes by single-celled organism standards: whereas the earliest fusulinoids were only a fraction of a millimetre across, the late Permian Polydiexodina could be up to six centimetres along their longest axis (Loeblich & Tappan 1964). Internally, fusulinoids had an incredibly complicated and varied structure which I'm not going to go into too much detail about here, primarily because I barely understand a word of it myself. Any description of fusulinoid morphology quickly devolves into madly throwing about terms like chomata, parachomata, spirotheca, tectorium, and the like, and your humble narrator feeling the need to go look at something else.Cutaway diagram of a fusulinid, showing an example of internal structure, from here.I have to go into some detail, though, because some features of the fusulinoid wall structure may explain their success. The ancestral state for the fusulinoid test wall involved a thin layer of solid calcite, the tectum. In most species, the inside of the tectum was coated with a thicker, less dense layer. As the test wall becomes more derived, this inner layer becomes more or less translucent, or pierced by tubular alveoli to produce a honeycomb-like appearance. It has been suggested that these modifications may have been adaptations to accomodating symbiotic microalgae, striking a balance between maintaining the protective test and allowing optimal transmission of light. Microalgal associations with fusulinoids may be corroborated by the discovery of minute fossils of probable planktonic relationships such as Ovummuridae preserved within fusulinoid tests (Vachard et al. 2004).Ecologically, fusulinoids were restricted to off-shore marine habitats, being mostly found preserved in limestones and calcareous shales. They are absent from deposits that would have been formed in brackish water, and while they may be found in sandstones it is debatable whether such occurrences represent life associations or post-mortem transport (Loeblich & Tappan 1964). Fusulinoids would therefore have been ecologically similar to the inhabitants of modern-day photic zone coral reefs, another reflection of their probable co-dependence with photosynthetic microalgae. However, as successful as the advanced fusulinoids were in their time[...]

Hyopsodontids: Little Slinkers of the Palaeogene

Mon, 02 Oct 2017 13:43:00 +0000

The oft-repeated quote about mammalian palaeontology is that it tends to be focused on "the tooth, the whole tooth, and nothing but the tooth". This is primarily the result of pragmatic constraints: because they are much harder than the other bones of the mammalian skeleton, teeth are much more likely to be preserved in the fossil record. There are a great many fossil mammals for which the teeth remain pretty much the only part of the animal known. However, there is no question that this focus tends to limit our understanding of mammalian evolution. On the one hand, the complex morphology of many mammalian teeth means that they provide a wealth of characters for analysis. On the other, the morphology of teeth is heavily influenced by their bearer's diet and lifestyle, meaning that phylogenetically informative features are probably outweighed by the products of ecological convergence.Reconstruction of Hyopsodus from Savage & Long (1978), via here.All of which is pretty important background to keep in mind for any discussion of the Hyopsodontidae, a group of small (mostly rat- or weasel-sized) mammals recognised from the Palaeogene, the early part (Palaeocene and Eocene epochs) of the Caenozoic era. Hyopsodontids are generally assigned to the 'Condylarthra', a group of mammals that has long been recognised as one of the classic examples of a 'wastebasket taxon'. Condylarths were originally united as primitive relatives of the ungulates, the hoofed mammals. However, the individual condylarth families themselves have not got much in common otherwise, and (particularly with the current acceptance that 'ungulates' are probably not a monophyletic group) it is hard to come up with a definition for 'condylarths' that amounts to much more than 'medium-sized, unspecialised Palaeogene placentals'.The hyopsodontids have been recognised as one of the longest-lived groups of 'condylarths', with assigned members extending from close to the start of the Palaeocene right up to near the end of the Eocene. Here again, though, we come up against the question of definition. The majority of taxa that have been aligned with the hyopsodontids are among those known only from teeth. Features of the hyopsodontid dentition include fairly simple incisors and premolars, small canines, and molars that are more or less bunodont (that is, the cusps are rounded or conical and clearly separate from each other rather than being connected by lophs). The problem is that these are all primitive, unspecialised features. Hyopsodontids are therefore defined more by their lack of alternate specialisations than anything positive, making them something of a wastebasket within a wastebasket.Until recently, the only hyopsodontid known from much in the way of postcranial material was the type genus Hyopsodus, a number of species of which are known from an extended period of the Eocene. Indeed, Hyopsodus was one of the most abundant mammalian genera of its time, accounting for over a quarter of mammalian remains in a number of deposits where it is found (Rose 2006). These remains combine to give a picture of Hyopsodus as a long, low-bodied animal that has been compared in its proportions to a dachshund, a weasel, or a prairie dog. Hyopsodus would have been a ground-hugging slinker of an animal, build for concealment rather than speed. Short claws on the forelegs may be consistent with a certain degree of digging ability, wheth[...]