August 8, 2014
While insects from the tropics like the famous Morpho butterfly get most of the credit for their stunning iridescent colors, insects from more Mediterranean climates such as Los Angeles can also exhibit striking metallic exoskeletons. One such dazzling discovery, pictured below in all its glimmering azure glory, is a mason bee that has turned up from only 2 sites: our Museum's Nature Garden and our LA River adjacent site in Atwater. Solitary mason bees, like their close cousin the leaf cutter bee, use materials from their environment such as mud, leaves, or flowers to line the cells where they provision and protect their young. This specimen stands out like a beacon (or a bee-con?) when surrounded by mostly dark to earth-toned specimens in the sample, which prompts the question about this little flying jewel: what's the purpose of all this showiness? [caption id="attachment_500" align="alignnone" width="572"]
Solitary mason bee collected from the Nature Garden. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey[/caption] As it turns out, the metallic suit may occur for a variety of poorly understood reasons (including warning coloration), or may just be a very aesthetically pleasing (to our eyes) by-product of the reinforced cuticle that makes up the exoskeleton. The insect's outside structure is composed of many layers of various compounds including chitin and sclerotin that can interact with light by refracting color, resulting in what we call "structural coloration" (in contrast to color produced by pigments produced inside the body). Insects that have these brilliant shields of blues, purples or greens are protected by the extra layers of cuticle which work like a coat of armor against insect defenses, such as stings. Take for example the cuckoo wasp, pictured below, which gets it name for its sly ability to sneak into other wasp's nests to lay an egg, just like a cuckoo bird. Cuckoo wasps stake out other wasp's tunneled nests, and rather than tossing the eggs in hand-grenade style, or using a long egg-laying tube as many other wasps do, enter boldly in hopes of finding the precious provisions they seek to co-opt for their offspring. If the mother wasp happens to return home at the time of the fearless break in, the cuckoo wasp rolls into a ball like a tiny armadillo and keeps its cool, knowing that the stings will not penetrate her armor. [caption id="attachment_501" align="alignnone" width="3534"]
This cuckoo wasp was collected in Victoria Park, Mid-City LA, although they are found from all 30 sites. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey[/caption] These reinforced exoskeletons protect the insects in life, resulting in gorgeous structural coloration that gives them a bedazzling gem-like appearance long after their job on this planet is done. Specimens in our collection that date back to the beginning of the Entomology Department (101 years ago, when the museum opened!) that have this type of coloration will remain as beautiful today as they did the day they were collected. [caption id="attachment_502" align="alignnone" width="3829"]
Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey[/caption]
June 12, 2014
Photo by Kelsey Bailey.[/caption]At first glance, the gangly creature above looks remarkably like an ant, but it is actually a flightless wasp from the family Dryinidae. Unlike ants, these wasps are solitary. They are parasitoids of insects in the order Hemiptera, the order we call "true bugs". This order includes cicadas, leafhoppers, and all manner of other plant eaters. As parasitoids, the females use a sharp ovipositor (egg laying projection) to pierce into the host hemipteran. The larva begins to grow inside the host insect, but soon begins to protrude like a giant tumor from the host body. A tough, leathery covering develops to protect the growing larva. Eventually, the larva pupates and a new adult emerges to begin the cycle anew. As you might imagine, things do not go well for the host hemipteran — it does not survive the process. That's why this insect is called a parasitoid (as opposed to a parasite): parasitoids kill their host, while parasites are non-fatal. [caption id="attachment_487" align="alignnone" width="3008"]
Photo by Kelsey Bailey.[/caption] This particular specimen, from a BioSCAN trap of course, is a female. In this family of wasps, the females are sometimes wingless, the males always winged. I just love the "hammerhead" appearance of this beautiful lady. My absolute favorite feature of this wasp is the front legs. You may have to look rather closely (click on the image to see it full size), but the front legs are modified into what I can best describe as "tongs with teeth". These modified appendages are used to hold the host insect still while Momma Wasp lays her eggs. Ouch!
June 6, 2014
Have you see this moth flying around Los Angeles? My friend Kat has. She got up-close and personal with one when it flew in through her balcony window a few months ago. It was a sultry spring evening and Kat was minding her own business until something flew into her Mid-Wilshire apartment. At first she thought it was a hummingbird as they're always flying outside her window, but as she got closer she realized it wasn't a hummingbird at all, but rather a large moth. Being a fellow nature-lover, she captured the creature under a glass jar, snapped a picture, and helped it back outside.
Saving the moth. Photo courtesy of Kat Superfisky. Then, she texted me the picture with this caption: "what is it?" Instead of trying to write a lengthy response, I called her and told her all about hummingbird moths — the bird imposters of the moth world. Hummingbird moths belong to a group of insects in the family Sphingidae, which are also known as sphinx moths or hawk moths. This particular individual was a White-lined Sphinx moth, Hyles lineata, one of Los Angeles' commonest moths. Just like hummingbirds, these moths hover over flowers as they sip nectar. Being similar in size and wingspan to the dainty birds, they are often mistaken for hummingbirds — even when they fly in through your window in the evening. One big reason these moths are so common is their choice of host plants. White-lined Sphinx caterpillars can feed on a huge range of plants including, apple, grape, tomoto, evening primrose, elm, and fuschia. And, like their adult counterparts, caterpillars nearing pupation are large and showy, therefore hard to miss in your garden.
Check out the horn on this caterpillar, Hyles lineata. Photo courtesy of Lila Higgins. But, they're even harder to miss when they're crawling around on your desk at work. Which is exactly what happened to the Museum's Head Gardener, Richard Hayden. It was ten days after a Museum event, for which Richard had graciously provided cut flowers to decorate the cocktail tables. Before composting the Elegant Clarkia cuttings, he brought them back to his office, to brighten up his desk. While responding to e-mails, he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked closer, and saw a huge caterpillar crawling over the flowers. Looking closer still, he noticed there were lots of caterpillars in various stages of development. Since we share an office, it didn't take very long for me to be marveling over the caterpillars too, and confirming Richard's guess that they were sphinx moth caterpillars! Around the same time, Museum gardener, Daniel Feldman, also reported adults in the garden via my Instagram account. "I've seen more than a few after ten minutes in the garden this morning...They seem disoriented!" But it wasn't just our gardeners finding them, our scientists were too. Lisa Gonzalez and Emily Hartop, Curatorial Assistants for our BioSCAN project, have been taking note. Every time samples are sorted from the 30 insect traps the project has set-up all over L.A, they document what has been found. They tracked the first appearance of a White-lined Sphinx moth back to the week of January 28, from a backyard trap in Eagle Rock. That was just the tip of the iceberg. In early March, the moths showed up in seven more traps — in Glendale, Los Feliz, Eagle Rock, Glassell Park, Pico Union, and even in the trap at Carthay Center Elementary School. Then in late March/early April the moths were found in ten traps including many of the same neighborhoods, but also including Silver Lake, Jefferson Park, Larchmont, Mount Washington. It was finally in this round of sampling that the moths finally appeared in the Museum's Nature Gardens trap. Now that summer is officially here, you may think you've missed these mega-moths. Don't worry, they stick around throughout the coming months. According to Insects of the Los Angeles Basin, "During the summer, adults often may be caught at rest near the lights of storefronts, even in the metropolitan area." So if you're out and about on nighttime adventure, make sure you keep your camera handy. If you find these moths attracted to lights at night, snap a picture and send it into our L.A. Nature Map. We just love sharing your nature sightings in the city!
June 5, 2014
By Emily Hartop When the BioSCAN Project moved into the Marine Biodiversity Center, the whole team soon realized the project required myriad people, talents, and skills. Adam Wall, Assistant Collections Manager of Crustacea, has a keen interest in problem solving, and soon found himself helping USC students seek answers to BioSCAN-related questions. Adam comes from a fascinating background in electrical engineering. He previously worked for JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a part of NASA) on robotics. I was excited to learn that he worked on walking robots called "spiderbots" — which even pre-BioSCAN he realized would be more accurately termed "insectbots", due to their having six legs instead of eight. These walking robots were being developed as alternatives to the more traditionally wheeled or tracked robots used both in space and military applications. Walking robots were smaller, more versatile, and less expensive than their traditional counterparts. Adam eventually moved on to a small startup company where he helped construct robots still used by USC to teach robotics. Adam eventually left the world of robotics to study at USC. Although he initially pursued biochemistry, it was through his work study at the Natural History Museum that he first realized his love for biology. Working upstairs with Dr. Regina Wetzer, it was all about "coffee and problem solving", two things Adam finds irresistible. When he casually mentioned to Regina that one day he would like to name and describe a species, he had no idea the journey he was about to embark on. Adam has spent the last five years revising a subgenus within the isopod genus Exosphaeroma. A single, poorly described species from 1857 has become five species stretching from Alaska to Baja. Perhaps best of all, Adam got to name a species of isopod after his closest uncle. Now that his isopod work is coming to completion, he is unsure of what the future might hold. His big goal is always the question, the problem solving — we could find him studying just about anything next! For now, though, he is helping our students with both the genetics work in the lab, and the study of Wolbachia, a bacteria that lives inside the reproductive organs of insects. This bacteria can affect the life history of its host, and the "sheer insanity" of the relationship intrigues Adam. When he's not consumed by isopods or BioSCAN, Adam delights us with his fondness for mechanical toys. Above, you can see him powering a miniature version of the amazing Strandbeests.
May 22, 2014
Photo by Kelsey Bailey. As you well know, we are fly obsessed here at BioSCAN. Particularly, we are phorid obsessed. I am particularly obsessed with the macabre species Conicera tibialis, commonly known as the Coffin Fly. Perhaps it's the shadowy lighting as I view them under the microscope, but these flies, with their dark velvety bodies and (almost sinister looking) conical antennae (males only, females have round antennae), appeal to me tremendously.
Photo by Kelsey Bailey A number of phorid species are known to colonize humans remains, but C. tibialis seems the most determined. Adult females of this species are known to dig down through over 2 meters of dirt and enter coffins to lay their eggs. To complete an equivalent journey, a human being would have to dig 2 miles down — in perspective the feat seems all the more remarkable! Once the females reach the corpse they lay their eggs on, or near, the cadaver. The maggots hatch and feed on the decaying tissue — they are known to prefer lean tissue (while other taxa, such as some species of beetles, prefer adipose tissue). Yes, even corpse eaters can be picky! C. tibialis is known to be able to cycle multiple generations without surfacing (what they are doing below ground, the living can only imagine!). When the flies do surface, they do so by crawling the reverse path of their ancestors: back up through many feet of dirt. Charles Colyer, in a paper from 1954, conveyed the observations of his friend Mr. R.L. Coe that were some of the first key insights into the life history of this species. In May of that year, Mr. Coe observed a number of C. tibialis running about a patch of his garden, where 18 months before he had buried his deceased dog. As Mr. Coe observed more closely, he realized that all the running about was actually a mating frenzy — complete with pairs frolicking in coitu! On Colyer's request, Coe dug down to the corpse of his former pet, observing phorids at every depth along the way. The flies were all traveling toward the surface, in a mass exodus from the grave — hoping to join the mating party so that they might return to this, or another, grave and lay eggs of their own. Alas, Mr. Coe reported that by June 16 the phorids could no longer be found in their mating frenzy in his garden — where for weeks they had been seen "running over the ground in sunshine, and congregating under loose clods of earth in inclement weather".
Photo by Kelsey Bailey. C. tibialis is known not only to dig to astounding depths for corpses, but to wait unbelievably long periods of time to colonize. Corpses are typically utilized over a year after burial, and a paper by Martin-Vega et al. (2011) revealed a case where the species was found breeding on human remains 18 YEARS postmortem. Phorid species are some of the key insects used in the field of forensic entomology — a branch of forensics utilizing insect life cycles to help approximate the age of a corpse. A story detailing the occurrence of C. tibialis in California was recounted by Father Thomas Borgmeier (1969), one of the "fathers" of phoridology. He was sent specimens of the fly that were collected in a mausoleum in Colma. A family had constructed an above-ground resting place for their deceased in 1962, and in 1965 noticed large numbers of the flies both in the mausoleum and around the cemetery. The family made the decision to open the four crypts. All four crypt interiors were dry and filled completely with C. tibialis and spiders. I bet the phorids were happy they had such easy colonization - no digging required! The take home message of this macabre tale should not be one of disgust. Although the details may be gruesome, insects that colonize corpses are performing the necessary breakdown of organic material that must occur postmortem. Only by this breakdown — by insects, fungi, and bacteria — can bodies be released to reenter the circle of life. Consumers of carrion are beneficial, performing an invaluable service to us below the surface. BioSCAN Principal Investigator Brian Brown likes to say that being food for C. tibialis is one way we can all contribute to the well being of phorids. I hope you might be as delighted by this fly as I am after reading the amazing life history and marveling at the amazing photos taken by our star photographer Kelsey Bailey, who expertly capture the dark, sleek aesthetic of this species on film (well... digitally [did I just date myself?]). When I handed Kelsey a vial with several dried specimens, I told her I wanted creative photos to visually express the morbid life history of these flies. As you can see, she did not disappoint. I particularly enjoy the photograph at the top of the post — Kelsey beautifully mounted the specimen on the head of an insect pin — a glittery orb I wish appeared more often in entomological photos. I also like the film noir feel of the "portrait" she took of this species. Yes, I really like this fly. Perhaps my love for C. tibialis is so deep (2 meters, to be exact) because I know they will be with me not just in life, but for up to 18 years past my death. VITA INCERTA, MORS CERTISSIMA.
May 15, 2014
A note about specimen sacrifice: We do not advocate needless killing of any creature, big or small. Unfortunately, there are aspects of science that we are unable to examine without sacrifice.
Photo by Doug Booher. A note about specimen sacrifice: We do not advocate needless killing of any creature, big or small. Unfortunately, there are aspects of science that we are unable to examine without sacrifice. The ant nest that was used for our cast was sacrificed to create an amazing and permanent research and educational tool. The loss of one nest allows us tremendous insight into this species, which will benefit future efforts at understanding and conserving these native insects. As a research natural history museum, specimens are prepared and maintained at the highest museum standards, so that they will be available for researchers in perpetuity. By Emily Hartop The BioSCAN crew dug ourselves into a hole last weekend when we journeyed to Anza-Borrego to cast ourselves an ant nest from molten aluminum! This amazing sculptural project was made possible by Aida and Armando Gonzalez, and led by the incomparable myrmecologist Doug Booher, a Ph.D. student at UCLA. If you'd like to see the six-foot-tall results of our day in person, you will have to come visit the BioSCAN table at Bug Fair , but read on for some information about the process, and the ants that built the nest!
Photo by Doug Booher. Meet Myrmecocystus navajo, a species of honeypot ant. Honeypot ants are aptly named — they use workers called "repletes" to store nectar (collected from plants and other insects, such as aphids) for the colony. These repletes can get so engorged with honey they look like squishy, glistening marbles as they hang from the top of inside chambers. You can see some photos of repletes here. We chose to cast the nest of this species for its size, complexity and beauty. First task of our day in the desert was to locate a suitable ant nest. Below, you can see our chosen nest. Although from the surface this nest is just a hole in the ground, we were tremendously excited by what we knew was hidden out of sight!
Photo by Emily Hartop. Next step was to fire up the kiln to melt us some metal! Crafted by Doug using techniques developed by Walter Tschinkel (detailed PDF of his techniques here), the kiln is powered by charcoal (and physics) to get hot enough to melt aluminum (Lisa is pictured with our raw material, below).
Photo by Emily Hartop. The kiln, like a barbecue, takes a while to heat up. Once hot, we added the aluminum to the interior compartment (called a "crucible") and let it melt. Below, you can see Doug right after he pulled the full crucible from the kiln in preparation for the pour.
Photo by Emily Hartop. It's Pompeii for ants as Doug pours in the molten aluminum. A moment of silence, please...
Photo by Emily Hartop. Now the fun really began...as we dug...and dug...for hours...and hours...in the hot desert sun, with the wind fiercely blowing sand all around us. In the picture below, you can see the sand whirling around Lisa as she worked down in the pit. Why are we digging? Regrettably, one cannot simply yank a nest casting out of the ground. One exhumes it, inch by inch.
Photo by Emily Hartop. The final product was a nest over six feet deep — we hope you are able to come see it (and us!) at Bug Fair this weekend. Doug Booher, who led our trip, will be there so you can meet him. A big thanks from BioSCAN goes out to him for all his amazing efforts to make this dream project a reality! Big thanks also go out to Walter Tschinkel, the myrmecologist who refined the technique of casting ant nests and passed his knowledge on to Doug. Previously, casts were made with plaster and other materials that made storage and transport difficult. He is pictured, below, on his porch in the California desert celebrating a (different) successful day of ant casting.
Photo by Emily Hartop
May 8, 2014
By Emily Hartop Out of the hundreds of bee species found in Los Angeles County, a single species gets most of our attention: Apis mellifera, the European honey bee. This species has a relationship with man that has existed for centuries. It is an exotic species that was introduced to North America. In addition to being widespread in the wild, they are widely used for pollination of commercial crops, as well as for honey — that sweet elixir of regurgitated nectar that is excellent in tea, cookies, breads, cakes, and all manner of other culinary delights. If you would like to know more about this species, we suggest the fun read "Sweetness and Light" by Hattie Ellis — what we'd like to focus on here are the many other bees with which you might not be as familiar. These are the bees that have been right here all along, our native bees of Los Angeles. Native bees are a diverse and fascinating group. Most of the species are solitary — meaning they build individual nests rather than living in colonies of thousands like the honey bee. Even the few of our native species that are social (like bumble bees and sweat bees) have colonies that rarely exceed a few dozen workers. One of the great things about native bees, apart from their fascinating diversity, is that they are not aggressive stingers. Ironically, the bees that have the cutest, fuzziest image (the aforementioned honey bees and bumble bees), are the most prone to give you a nasty sting. Native bees are mainly attracted, obviously enough, to native plants, from which they gather pollen for their offspring. Most of the solitary species of native bee tend to specialize on a specific plant or group of plants for pollen, while some of the social species are generalists that will take advantage of more diverse resources. All types of bees will visit virtually any flower for nectar. Bees that take advantage of more diverse resources are better adapted to make use of the wide range of resources that may be available in urban environments.
Photo by Kelsey Bailey. The beautiful bee above is a male bee in the genus Agapostemon. In the family Halictidae, they are also known as Metallic Sweat Bees. Though they are part of this family, named because of their attraction to sweat, this particular genus does not exhibit this trait. This specimen is easily distinguished as a male bee — females of this species are uniformly metallic, while males have a more typical "beelike" striped abdomen. Most Agapostemon are solitary, digging a deep vertical burrow in sloping soil or bank. When to look for them: Summer to fall Where to look for them: On composite "daisy-like" flowers
Photo by Kelsey Bailey. Pictured above is perhaps the most endearing genus of bees, Bombus: the bumble bees. This particular specimen is the one and only bumble bee that has been caught in a BioSCAN trap (Site #1, NHMLA Nature Garden). There are 26 species of bumble bees in California and some have been in serious decline since the 1990s due to commercial keeping of bumble bees, habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. Bumble bees are generalists with long tongues that can obtain nectar from even very deep flowers. They are social bees that live in colonies of up to 1,000 individuals, although most colonies have under 50 bees. These colonies, unlike honey bee colonies, do not provision for overwintering. Instead, the colony dies off in the fall and the queen overwinters alone — emerging in spring to start up a new colony. Bumble bees are better pollinators than honey bees for crops like tomatoes, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, and field beans. This is partly due to the fact that some flowers only release pollen when the anthers are vibrated at certain frequencies — the "buzz" of a bumble bee accomplishes this! When to look for them: Early spring to late fall Where to look for them: Flowers with tubular shapes
Photo by Kelsey Bailey. Our next bee is a specimen from the genus Andrena — a Miner Bee. Before we get into the details on this genus, we want to show you how much care and love go into specimen processing for bees. Below, you see my esteemed colleague and entomological other half, Lisa Gonzalez, carefully drying a bee (look at the intense expression — this is serious!). Using a paintbrush (close up, second photo below), Lisa carefully fluffs up the hairs on each bee as she uses a blow dryer to dry them. Without this extra effort, the fuzz on bees would dry matted and stuck together. So all the fluffy bees in these blog photos are thanks to Lisa's delicate handiwork! [caption id="attachment_378" align="alignnone" width="1406"]Photo by Phyllis Sun.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_380" align="alignnone" width="1504"]Photo by Phyllis Sun.[/caption] Andrena is associated with willow, and emerges in large numbers in spring when willow blooms. This makes perfect sense to us — we found over 100 bees in a single spring sample from right near the L.A. River, where there is plenty of willow growing! These bees are mostly solitary, but nests can be clustered together in aggregations in sandy soil or near shrubs. When to look for them: March-September Where to look for them: Nearly any sort of flower — including wind-pollinated species like willows
Photo by Kelsey Bailey. This next bee is a large leaf-cutter bee from genus Megachile. Leaf cutters use their mandibles (mouthparts) to cut leaves or flowers of plants and use them to form nest cells. This genus includes both specialist and generalist species, including M. rotundata which specializes on alfalfa and is an introduced species critical to commercial pollination of that crop. These bees are cavity nesters, and will make use of bee hotels — they will line cells with the pieces of leaves they cut. This group also includes some species that use resin and mud to build above ground nests and some ground dwellers — most are opportunists that take advantage of their surroundings. An interesting feature of Megachile is that the scopa, which is a group of hairs that collect pollen, is on the underside of the abdomen, whereas most bees have this adaptation on their legs. One of the scientists working at the Museum, Anna Holden, works on Megachile from the La Brea Tarpits. A National Geographic article featured her work, you can find that article here. When to look for them: Summer Where to look for them: Many flowers, but especially in the pea family (Fabaceae) A related genus of bees, the small leaf-cutter bees, genus Osmia, win the award for the cutest bees! These small, stout bees have an abdominal scopa like their larger cousins the Megachile. They often have a metallic green or blue sheen, and are efficient pollinators of a number of fruit trees. 250 female bees of this genus can out-pollinate tens of thousands of honey bees! We had to mention them here so that we could share this amazing video of an Osmia using an abandoned snail shell for a nest, or how about this beautiful use of flower petals? When to look for them: Spring to summer Where to look for them: Mostly perennial shrubs and trees, and Phacelia If you'd like to attract native bees to your own yard, the Xerces Society webpage is a great resource. Additionally, bee hotels can be made or purchased in a variety of forms to help your garden space become a nesting place for solitary species. There are many resources for different types on the internet, but you can start here. For more information and help with indentifying native bees, we recommend the Field Guide to the Common Bees of California by Gretchen Lebuhn.
May 1, 2014
Photo by Phyllis Sun. By Emily Hartop This week we feature another of BioSCAN's amazing USC students, Jennifer Camello. Jennifer is a junior at USC majoring in Anthropology. She plans to go to medical school with the admirable goal of being a leader in global health advocacy, helping to make the world a more equitable place. Jennifer came to our lab "squeamish around insects". Although she admits that she is still working on not panicking when there are bees or wasps around, she now finds herself intrigued by most of the insects she encounters. Not only does Jennifer identify the insects she sees to the level of order (part of what she does for the project), but she even tries to examine the genitalia of flies to determine the sex. We have trained her well. Her favorite part about the BioSCAN project is "being surrounded by people who are so passionate about their work". She loves "when somebody finds a really exciting insect under the microscope and gathers everyone else around to take a look at it". She is also a great asset at the BioSCAN table in the Nature Lab, where she enjoys explaining BioSCAN to children visitors. She loves that some are "super intrigued and others are completely grossed out"! We have confidence that Jennifer's previous aversion to insects can help her relate to the grossed out children and help them find their own inner entomologist. Working on an urban biodiversity project has been a revelatory experience for Jennifer. She stresses the importance of studying the biodiversity of our cities in the face of expanding urbanization. She is amazed at the number of insects she sees in the samples — she had no idea there existed such diversity in an urban setting. As many might, she overlooked a vast majority of our urban biodiversity because "most of them are so tiny and just look like specks to the naked eye" — if you didn't see last week's post on microscopy, you should read about the tools that helped to change Jennifer's perspective. When asked what she liked best about working in the BioSCAN lab, she revealed one of our best kept secrets: BioSCAN staffers love to eat delicious food! Not only do people bring in delicious treats they buy or make, but the lab is inclined to turn into a makeshift sushi restaurant for special occasions. Unfortunately, we don't do outside events, so please, no calls for catering. Outside of BioSCAN and her busy school schedule, Jennifer finds time for travel...and more travel! This summer, she will make it to her fifth continent when she visits China (she has previously visited South America, Europe and Africa). Last summer she spent a month in Ghana. After graduation, her travel plans include Egypt, Morocco and Thailand. Even with all her traveling atop school and BioSCAN, Jennifer also loves to bake, curl up with hot tea and a good science fiction book, explore new cities and try new foods, find the best taco stands/trucks around Southern California (I will be asking her for recommendations), ski and snowboard, and scuba dive. She is obsessed with Greek mythology. She is looking forward to her trip to China this summer, her upcoming 21st birthday, and to returning home in the fall to a new football season and her senior year! Lastly, in typical Southern California style, Jennifer had her few seconds of fame in a music video. If you think you can, try to spot her here.
April 24, 2014
SEM by Emily Hartop By Emily Hartop As many of you know, a principal research focus of the BioSCAN project is the phorid fly. Although a majority of us encounter phorids everyday, we are mostly oblivious to their existence due to their small size. Luckily, scientists have tools that allow us to enter the microscopic world of the phorid in order to study them in detail. Three of these techniques: scanning electron microscopy (SEM), slide mounting with compound microscopy, and stereo microscopy are the subject of this week's blog. The photo above is the male genitalia of a species of phorid of genus Megaselia taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). This specimen came from a BioSCAN trap, and was dried from its ethanol-soaked state with a chemical called HMDS. Entomologists use HMDS to dry specimens to reduce distortion during dehydration. If dried straight from ethanol, specimens end up crumpled — sometimes beyond recognition. The detail from SEM photography is far greater than what scientists can achieve with a regular light microscope. The seemingly giant, barbed spikes on this fly's genitalia appear as minute bristles, even at the highest magnification on a compound microscope. SEM photography is done using a focused beam of electrons bounced off of an electrically conductive specimen — for this, biological specimens are "sputter coated" with a conductive material before being placed in the vacuum chamber where they are blasted with electrons.
Photo by Kelsey Bailey[/caption] Another useful microscopy technique is slide mounting. The photo above is of the genitalia of another species of Megaselia that has been "cleared" and slide mounted. Clearing is done with pure clove oil, which the specimens are transferred to from the ethanol they are collected in. Through extended soaking, the clove oil dissolves away the soft internal tissue of the specimens and leaves behind the rigid structures that contain the morphological features scientists use for identification. Once cleared, the specimens are mounted on glass slides in small drops of Canada Balsam (a tree resin) for permanent storage and study. BioSCAN scientists are hard at work everyday, mounting hundreds of specimens for closer examination. Dozens of species have already been identified from the project — a number of them are potentially new species.
Photo by Kelsey Bailey Last but not least, the photo above is a stereo microscope shot of BioSCAN specimens still in the ethanol from the Malaise trap. Using stereo, or dissecting, microscopes, BioSCAN scientists are able to sort many of our phorids to species without the additional processing of slide mounting or SEM. This leaves only the really tricky specimens for more advanced techniques. Since we are dealing with thousands of phorids from the BioSCAN sites every week, the more species we can identify using this first method, the better. You may be wondering why we entomologists appear to be so fixated on the genitalia of these flies. The answer is simple — features of male fly genitalia are one of the principal ways of identifying these flies to species. BioSCAN scientists must study male phorids to determine all the species we have in the Los Angeles fauna — females often lack enough discernible morphological features to easily separate to species. One goal the BioSCAN entomologists have is to get scientific illustrations done of the male genitalia of each phorid they come across — creating an incredible visual encyclopedia for phorid identification in the years to come!
April 17, 2014
Photo by Phyllis Sun By Emily Hartop This week, I am pleased to better acquaint you with BioSCAN's Co-Principal Investigator, and Associate Curator & Director of the Marine Biodiversity Center, Dr. Regina Wetzer. Regina was a natural fit for the BioSCAN project. She is a marine biologist with a passion for taxonomy and biodiversity. She is also an accomplished ambassador — she works closely with both professors and students at USC and has colleagues across disciplines and around the globe. She understands deeply how collaborations allow researchers to accomplish bigger, greater goals than what they could achieve individually. As Co-Principal Investigator of this project, she supervises much of the day-to-day activity of the BioSCAN lab — including advising our many USC students on their BioSCAN-related research projects. She also manages the lab with impeccable organization and style, and plays a key role in putting on events like last weekend's soirée for our BioSCAN site hosts. Regina grew up here in Southern California — in fact, her grandfather used to push her stroller through the Exposition Park Rose Gardens next door to the Natural History Museum. She earned degrees at both Loyola Marymount (B.S. Biological Sciences) and Long Beach State (M.S. Biological Sciences/Invertebrate Zoology) before taking a job with a marine supply company. There, she worked for Rim Fay, Southern California's answer to Dr. Ricketts from Cannery Row. Eventually, fate led her back to the Natural History Museum here in Los Angeles. As a curatorial assistant, Regina found herself smitten — with crustaceans. After moving to the San Diego Natural History Museum for a time, she traveled across the country to get her doctorate working on crustaceans at the University of South Carolina. Regina's work in recent years has been on the taxonomy of crustaceans, focusing on the isopod family Sphaeromatidae. She has been working on this group's phylogeny and mate-guarding behaviors since 2002 — with work around the world including East Africa and the Great Barrier Reef. It is a testament to her dedication that twelve years after this project began, Regina is still working hard to answer the questions originally posed when she started her work on this particular phylogeny.
Photo by Dean Pentcheff Regina's work has taken her to South America, the South Pacific, Australia, and even Mongolia (photos above and below — and, yes, landlocked countries have crustaceans, too!), but she speaks most fondly of her extensive travels in Baja. Part of her affinity for the peninsula comes from her fascination with organisms that are adapted to life in extremely harsh conditions, including desert flora and fauna. The fantastic landscapes of the San Felipe and Vizcaino deserts of Baja, with their boojum trees, ocotillo, and giant cardon, intrigue and delight Regina. These are magical lands for all who visit them, and Regina is lucky enough to have visited them many times.
Photo by Dean Pentcheff In addition to her prolific body of scientific work, Regina is a fantastic and passionate cook, an avid gardener of cacti and succulents, and a devoted fan of gypsy music (she grew up with a father who plays accordion!). Her favorite vacation destination is her beloved Baja "Boojumland" (although she's in Tibet as we post this!). She's an amazing leader, an excellent scientist, and a fascinating human being — we're incredibly lucky to have her on the BioSCAN management team!