Saturday, June 17, 2006

Back to the bugs

The flow of photos from Panama resumes. Here are three of the same moth, a male Urania fulgens that had the misfortune to be roadkilled just outside Altos de Campana National Park. U. fulgens is a day-flying moth that strongly resembles a swallowtail butterfly. Although this one was killed by a vehicle, its wings remained mostly intact; I froze it at the STRI lab in hopes that someone will pin it and give it new life as a permanent entomological specimen.

U. fulgens from above:

And from below, showing the underside of the wings:

One more, unfortunately a bit less sharp, but with my hand present for scale:

For more information about this beautiful moth, I'll defer to an expert, Dr. Neal Smith, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Panama. Here's his Urania page.

Friday, June 16, 2006

How to not survive in the woods

I'll soon return to the flow of bug photos from Panama, but have to digress briefly. If it turns out to be substantiated, this story is extremely sad on many levels.

I can completely understand someone who kills a venomous snake because it got into the back yard or the chicken coop, or because he really wants to try out Uncle Bubba's recipe for rattlesnake chili. But deliberately, needlessly attacking a non-aggressive but highly venomous snake until it's provoked to bite is -- well, I'm not sure I can come up with the proper words for it. I really hate to call a dead guy "stupid". More likely, "drunk" and "panicked" are sufficiently accurate adjectives. But if the group really had cell phones handy, why didn't they call for help? If you find a snake's presence so terrifying that you feel a need to corner the animal and beat it to death with sticks and bottles, doesn't it make some sense that you should seek help if bitten? (There's an antivenin available to treat coral snake bites; prompt treatment might well have saved this guy's life.) I don't know which was more toxic -- the snakebite itself, or the mixture of fear, ignorance, and alcohol that would cause people to get into this situation.

Venomous snakes aren't out to get us. They're also neither toys nor punching bags for confused humans. Rather, they're living organisms that bear a potent hunting weapon, which most will readily use for defense if threatened. And this sort of incident is as needlessly dangerous as it would be to escalate a minor argument between neighbors by waving loaded handguns around.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A midnight snack with friends

During the last two weeks of my recent trip, I shared a room with a marvelous colony of ants. I think they were Dolichoderus laminatus; if my identification is in error, one of my many myrmecologist friends will undoubtedly correct it, so watch this space.

I did sample a few of their number (the ants, not the myrmecologists) for experiments, but felt a bit churlish for collecting my own roommates, so almost every night I shared a bit of jam or peanut butter with them. They were exceptionally fond of my peach preserves:

In fact, they were rendered so placid by gifts of food that I was able to successfully practice my close-up shots with the new camera while they were feeding. For everyone who knew that I'd have some of the local insects eating out of my hand: You were absolutely right.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Ant bites, captured on camera

I've finally posted some promised images to YouTube. This one shows me annoying an Azteca ant nest on Barro Colorado Island. The "videos" were actually taken with my still camera -- a tiny Coolpix 5600 that has a "movie" feature that I was using for the first time. I was alone on the trail, juggling the camera, an aspirator, and a backpack full of other collecting equipment, when I recorded them. That's why the camera angles get vertiginous sometimes. That's also how I accidentally turned off the camera during the process, which is why the encounter is divided into two separate videos, called Azteca 1 and Azteca 2. Watch them in order for maximum effect; the combined length of the two videos is a bit over four minutes. Oh, and if you really want to share the experience: Make yourself some popcorn, and sprinkle it with bleu cheese and coconut.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Picture time

I'm back from Panamá and very tired, but will re-start the flow of photos now that my internet connection is more reliable. These are from Ciudad de Panamá's Parque Natural Metropolitano. First of all, a typical footpath in this urban oasis:

The next two photos show three things about one plant that can make you go "ouch". Fortunately, none of them actually inflicted any ouchies on me. Below is a bullthorn acacia. If you look closely, you can see not only the fierce-looking thorns, but the Pseudomyrmex ants that live there. They are reputed to have a potent sting, but my aspirator was too fast for them.

And third is this bell-shaped nest of Polybia wasps. I actually collected a few of these ladies as well, by waiting patiently with a net and nabbing them as they left or returned, but without actually jostling the nest. Unlike the Parachartergus on Barro Colorado, they weren't successful at finding my nose.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

More as it breaks

I'll be returning to Rochester tomorrow, so the flow of photos will resume soon. In the meantime, many thanks to Don, Jennifer, Julio, Mabelle, Edgardo, Marcela, Maria, Oris, Arabella, Jeannette, and all the other researchers and support staff at Tupper, Naos, and Barro Colorado Island, who for the last three weeks have helped put the STRI in Stridulations.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Awright, who bit me?

First of all, I'm still having extreme difficulty uploading photos from my location, which is a little frustrating since I have some great bug shots lined up. It's possible that the slide show will have to be resumed after next Wednesday, when I return to the U.S. and my wireless connection.

We took a field trip yesterday to the Parque Nacional Altos de Campana, west of Ciudad de Panamá, where I saw a tremendous variety of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and expanded my ant, fly, and wasp sampling. Didn't see any snakes, which I'm told are fond of many of the park trails, but I did have one altercation with an unknown bug. While walking on a trail scouting for ants and mushroom-feeding flies, I reached up to brush away something that had fallen onto my back. It immediately sank something sharp into my middle finger. I reflexively flung it into the brush, where it flapped away angrily without my getting a clear look at it. (I take full responsibility for the anthropomorphism here.)

Whatever it was, it drew blood, it hurt more than the Parachartergus wasps did, and like the former, it left me stinging all day. Since it flapped when flung, and didn't leave tooth marks, it was clearly an insect. It's possible that it was merely a nip inflicted by mandibles, but it didn't look like one, and I'm pretty sure the critter envenomated me (no swelling, but that prolonged burning and tingling was suspicious). So, I'm guessing that it was either a sting from a wasp, bee, or winged female ant, or else it was a bite from a true bug (order Hemiptera), as true bugs have piercing mouthparts. Since the predatory Hemiptera, much like spiders, inject digestive fluids into their prey, some true bugs can inflict a truly irritating bite.

Some tropical American "assassin bugs" in this order can transmit Chagas disease, although a casual bite in self-defense probably wouldn't be an effective way to do so. Infections with this disease usually happen when a bug feeds at length on an individual and defecates while taking its blood meal. This releases parasites onto the broken skin of the bite victim, who may inadvertently rub them in while scratching the bitten area.

So, if even on the outside chance that my adversary was an assassin bug, its brief attack probably hurt nothing but my finger and my entomological pride. I really wish I'd seen it, because I'd have prepared a special ethanol vial with the critter's name on it. However, after my having collected (permanently) more than a few specimens during this trip, it's probably poetic justice that I'd get chomped or stung by one that just happened by. If the leaf-litter ants were as anthropomorphic as I was in my second paragraph, they'd be laughing their little gasters off.

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