Outro with Bees

This video is incredibly cool – 2,500 time-lapsed photos of honeybee development in its comb. From wee to, well, less wee.

Photo Credit: Anand Varma

Photo Credit: Anand Varma

I’m amazed at the ingenuity of this project. Read the article to learn more about how an artist turns experimentalist to capture this incredible footage.

Really makes me want to bust out my camera and make pretty, pretty things with animals.

Hiders

Have you ever come upon a biologist outside doing strange things? Did you just ignore them, or did you stop to ask them what they were doing?

Once while on a visit back home, I ended up meandering through the Texas hill country. It was only natural that I would start turning over rocks, which certainly raised an eyebrow or two. Only one person bothered to ask me what I was doing. This curious soul learned that I had one thing in mind as I searched eagerly, and it was this:

File:Neobisiid pseudoscorpion.jpg

A Neobisiid pseudoscorpion collected by Casey Richart & Bill Leonard, in Thuja + Abies + Tsuga habitat, St. Joe National Forest, Idaho (Wiki Commons)

The elusive pseudoscorpion!

I spent my first few years in grad school researching these fascinating arachnids. In case you’re confused, not all arachnids are spiders. Within this class of animals, there are also harvestmen, solfugids, ticks, mites, and a handful of others. But pseudoscorpions. Well, they’re as cute as can be. (I definitely just used a Texan drawl to say that.)

So what’s so cool about these critters? Well, for one, they’re secretive. They tend to live in small crevices and cracks, or under leaf litter or rocks. They like it dark and damp. Not unlike their spider relatives.

What’s more is their strange body shape, for which they are named. The front of their body is scorpion-like, but they lack the tail and stinger of a true scorpion. Hence, the name “false scorpion.”

Are they dangerous? Only if you’re tiny prey. Pseudoscorpions range in size from 1 to 8 millimeters, so they’re about the size of a freckle. No one ever got attacked by a freckle, did they?

Just like the majority of other arachnids, they are carnivorous and hunt their prey. Which they’re damn good at.

Pseudoscorpion feeding (Photo Credit: Kristin Hook)

Pseudoscorpion feeding – microscopic view (Photo Credit: Kristin Hook)

Here’s an image I took of a pseudoscorpion holding three prey items – it’s got one springtail on each pedipalp (pincer) and one in its mouthpart! Normally, they pierce their prey using their palps, and then they put the prey up to their mouthpart so they can digest it. Some pseudoscorpions even have venom in their palps that they can infuse into their prey to immobilize it.

With over 3,300 species, they are found practically in every corner of the world except the ocean and Antarctica. You might wonder how such tiny creatures get around on the Earth. The likely answer is a really cool behavior called phoresy. They hitch rides on other animals!

File:Leptopeza.flavipes.with.Lamprochernes.2.jpg

A fly (Leptopeza flavipes) with passenger pseudoscorpion (Lamprochernes sp.) in Cologne, Germany (Wiki Commons)

Now of course, the best part about pseudoscorpion behavior involves their mating habits. They are incredibly diverse in how they transfer sperm to females, but the majority of pseudoscorpions transfer their sperm indirectly. Which means males can fertilize females without ever encountering them!

These males deposit lots of little packets of sperm on a stalk, which look like a little balloon gift.

A pseudoscorpion spermatophore (Photo credit: Kristin Hook)

Females wander around, and if they’re receptive, they pick them up. That’s it. Pretty boring sex, but highly exciting if you’re a researcher! Mostly because these stalks differ in their complexity. The species in which males and females do encounter one another entails much more elaborate spermatophores.

From my short time working with these creatures, I appreciate this: animals can be hard to study, especially in the lab. But nothing is more exciting than going out into the field and successfully finding a critter that is literally more difficult to find than a needle in a haystack. And in another country no less!

From this, I hope you appreciate two things: there is a tiny world among us that is there if you bother to look just below the surface. Also, that taking the time to bother a strange biologist might just lead to a pleasant surprise or two. In our case, it was a pseudoscorpion AND a scorpion under the same rock. Huzzah!

Because of the Bees

It’s not even 5pm, and it’s already dark out. It’s only November 13th, and it’s already snowing out. These two things can only mean one thing. It’s an Isabella Rossellini Green Porno kind of day.

Green Porno

Green Porno: a Sundance TV original web series that delves into the mating habits of different creatures. They’re creative, artistic, playful, funny, and mostly accurate.

Check out this video on how honeybees get down. It’s a nice follow-up to yesterday’s post on ant queens and their mating habits.

Enjoy!

Old World Underground

Do you know the leaf cutter ant?

Costa Rica, spring 2005

Atta cephalotes – Costa Rica, spring 2005

I really hope you do. They’re a group of ants found predominantly in the tropics that are best known for their agricultural practices. Those little leaves they’re cutting are to farm a special fungus that feeds them. They feed the fungus, and the fungus in turn feeds them. Pretty brilliant!

What’s more is their underground colonies are comprised of anywhere from 5-20 million individuals, all compartmentalizing tasks to live a nice, communal life. But there’s only one suprema per colony – the queen – just like the colonies of bees. Her main job is to lay eggs. Then lay eggs. Then lay some more eggs. Then wash, rinse, repeat.

I want you to think about the life of most insects compared to the life of a mammal like us. We tend to have few young with relatively long lives. In comparison, most insects have lots of young with relatively short lives. Of course there are exceptions to the rule (I’m looking at you cicadas!), but generally, we imagine insects we encounter as having teensy weensy lifespans. But not that of a leaf cutter ant queen. These queens can live upwards of 15 years – the same as a house cat!

Even more intriguing is something I learned about them yesterday. Lots of bees and ants mate relatively early on in their lives. Being the fascinating creatures that they are, the queens store sperm from matings in a specialized area of their reproductive tract called the spermatheca.

Now, let’s put these two facts together. Leaf cutter ant queens live 15 years, AND they store sperm throughout their lives. This essentially means the sperm of leaf cutter ant males are capable of surviving for a decade within the female!

Granted, they mostly remain inactive until a series of unknown events gets their juices flowing (so to speak) and prepares them to be used up to make some daughters. But still – decade old sperm that doesn’t involve cryogenics?!

How spectacularly innovate nature is. Just imagine the wonder that still awaits us as we begin to unravel the things we do not yet know.

Oh! You Pretty Things

Sheesh. Last night was rough. But let’s not get too depressing here. Clearly, what you need is a reminder of the beauty that still exists in the world. I’m talking about praying mantises of course!

The Devil’s Flower Mantis:

Devils Flower Mantis

Photo Credit: Igor Siwanowicz

Bicycle Mantis!

Photo credit: Eco Suparman

Orchid Mantis:

https://kristinhook.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/a62b5-orchid-mantis-praying-mantises.jpg

Photo Credit: Zulkifli at OrchidCraze

And another..

Photo credit: Thomas Marent, Minden Pictures/Corbis

Turquoise Praying Mantis:

Photo Credit: Unknown

Mediterranean Mantis:

http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/u/TvyamNb-BivtNwcoxtkc5xGBuGkIMh_nj4UJHQKuoXI2z4EAnzEmuARj1jgJAb-3R_QKKcPZ7iS33w/

Photo Credit: Hasan Ba lar/Hasan Baglar, National Geographic 2014 Photo Contest, Sunward
Photo Credit: Unknown (via thesun.co.uk)
Conehead Mantis:
Photo Credit: (© Mehmet Karaca/ National Geographic Photo Contest)
And my personal favorite:
IMG_8052
Photo Credit: Unknown
Indeed.

Little Fury Bugs

Sex lives are a funny thing, particularly when you’re talking about bed bugs. Did I say funny? I meant insane. These wingless insects in the family Cimicidae win the award for the most depraved sex in all of the animal kingdom.

If you’re familiar with these blood-suckers, which I truly hope you are not, then you probably have encountered the common bed bug, Cimex lectulariuswhich feeds exclusively on human blood. To dine at their favorite restaurant – you – they must live in and around human dwellings (termed synanthropism).

Bed Bug Nymph Cimex lectularius)   Photo Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Common Bed Bug Nymph (Cimex lectularius). Photo Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What better place than your bed? You are bound to spend roughly a third of your life there, so they will always find you. And assuming you are like most humans and sleep at night, you are an easy target because these parasites are mostly active at night. They’re also teensy weensy and so can go undetected. That is, until you wake up with itchy rashes in your nether regions and beyond. But while their habitat is pathetically predictable, their sexual escapades are not.

It’s called traumatic insemination, and it is just as terrible as it sounds. Using a specialized external copulatory organ, the male pierces the female’s body and inseminates into her body cavity through the wound. The sperm then enters a special sperm receptacle inside the female before migrating to her ovaries to fertilize her eggs.

Male bed bug (top) traumatically inseminating a female bed bug (bottom). Photo Credit: Alex Wild

Male bed bug (top) traumatically inseminating a female bed bug (bottom). Photo Credit: Alex Wild

Imagine it – a knife for a penis that stabs you in the abdomen all in the name of baby-making! One cool feature of this male organ is that it bears chemosensors that allow it to detect whether or not the female is a virgin.

Male Bed Bug Copulatory Organ (Photo Credit: Andrew Syred)

Microscopic image of the male bed bug’s piercing copulatory organ. Photo Credit: Andrew Syred

This coercive male mating strategy is how all cimicids mate, despite the fact that females DO have genitalia. What likely once served as a means for mating now only functions for egg laying.

Such extraordinary abdominal wounding  is undoubtedly a form of sexual conflict (see this post) and is very costly for females. In addition to shortening their lifespan or possibly even resulting in their death, female bed bugs must deal with enhanced risk of infection through the wound. And you thought you had it bad!

How might females deal with such bodily injury? In some species, females may reduce such injury through their behavior – by moving their abdomen to either resist the male or control where he pierces her. In other species, unique structures have evolved. Some females have developed a special site on their abdomen as well as specialized grooves to help guide the male as he traumatically inseminates her.

Site on female bed bug's abdomen for male insemination. (Photo Credit: Stutt and Siva-Jothy 2001)

Site on female bed bug’s abdomen for male insemination. Photo Credit: Stutt and Siva-Jothy 2001

Female abdominal grooves that guide male's piercing copulatory organ. Photo Credit: Andrew Syred

Female abdominal grooves that guide male’s piercing copulatory organ. Photo Credit: Andrew Syred

These structures, in addition to the presence of a sperm receptacle, may reduce the amount of injury that a male is able to inflict and, subsequently, the costs of such bodily trauma.

So that’s the crazy truth about bed bug sex. They’ve been a pest to humans for thousands of years, and yet only recently have their sexual exploits been discovered. All the while, they were right under our pillow!

Venus as a Boy

If you haven’t heard yet about the female insects found to have penis-like genitals, then you might be living under a rock.

If it’s a rock that is found in a Brazilian cave, come on out of there and start searching for these sex-reversed female Neotrogla booklice. Unfortunately, Google-ing this genus will only retrieve for you one giant Neutrogena ad. And since there aren’t any good, actual photos of this recently discovered species, we’ll have to imagine this as our female of interest:

Screen shot 2014-04-18 at 4.44.51 PM

Thankfully, the researchers who discovered this strange, sex-reversed genitalia have managed a proper photo of it.

(Photo Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al. 2014)

The copulatory organ, or gynosome, of the female Neotrogla booklice. (Photo Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al. 2014)

What a marvel!

While not the norm for females in the animal kingdom, a copulatory structure such as this tends to be typical in males of internally fertilizing species because it provides them with a way to deliver their sperm inside the female. Instead, these female booklice use this gynosome (note: not penis) to enter the male!

The male’s opening is similar to a vagina, and during copulation (which lasts from 1 1/2 to 3 days by the way!) he provides his partner with a nutritious ejaculate (composed of sperm as well as seminal fluids), or a nuptial gift if you will. But no wedding vows are necessary for this act.

(Photo Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al. 2014)

Microscopic image of a copulating booklice pair.  (Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al. 2014)

It’s hypothesized that this system evolved due to the cave environment of these booklice. With limited resources, nuptial gifts are likely very costly for the males to produce. Meanwhile, females probably want to acquire as many of these nuptial gifts in their lifetime as they can by mating multiple times. When males and females have a conflict between their strategies relating to reproduction – be it the amount of mating they do or how they do it – we have a classic case of sexual conflict. 

A tell-tale sign of such conflict is the fact that this gynosome is equipped with spines, not unlike the male penises of many organisms, including your cat!

An SEM of a male cat's penis. It has a band of about 120–150 backwards-pointing 1mm-long spines. (Photo Credit: Dr. Mark E. Peterson)

SEM of a male cat’s penis, covered in 120–150 backwards-pointing 1mm-long spines. (Credit: Dr. Mark E. Peterson)

I know, you’ll never look at Mewbacca the same again.

Why the long-spines? The better to hold on to you, my dear.

Researchers discovered these spines on the female booklice copulatory organ by trying to separate a mating pair. The male’s abdomen tore off, but his reproductive area remained intact with the female!

Thus, these spines likely evolved to aid the female in lengthening the amount of time spent copulating, thereby increasing the amount of nutritious ejaculatory gifts they can extract from a male.

Before you get too excited about the idea of an insect sex marathon though, I leave you with this:

Were you to wake up one morning and find that you had been transformed into a Neotrogla female, would you rather:  continue to mate with your current male and run the risk of depleting his special sauce, or separate with said current male in search of a new male who is possibly a virgin and therefore full of special sauce?