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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Posts Tagged ‘butterflies’

Triassic Butterfly Park: Oldest Fossil Unhinges Flower-Pollinator Timeline

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2018

Modern Glossata

By Richard Conniff/Scientific American

For years, researchers studying core samples drilled from deep in the Earth have noticed odd flecks of material, possibly from insects—and generally treated them as a distraction from the real work: They focused instead on pollen and spores as a continuous record for understanding past ecosystems. But a surprising abundance of those flecks in a recent sample from northern Germany has now led a team of researchers to pay closer attention.

Writing in the journal Science Advances, Timo van Eldijk and his co-authors describe their find as the earliest fossil record of Lepidoptera, from about 201 million years ago, at the boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic periods. The new find fits the timeline for evolution of the Lepidoptera suggested by molecular evidence and helps correct a puzzling gap in the fossil record.

Triassic Wing Scale

The study looks at 70 specimens, found in a drill core from more than 300 meters below the surface, and identifies them as the wing scales that give butterflies and moths their spectacularly varied colors and patterns.  A light microscope, and later a scanning electron microscope, revealed the scales to be petal-like structures.  Some of them are beautifully preserved, with neatly ridged surfaces, herringbone webbing between the ridges, “micro-ribs,” and in some cases, perforations in the surface.

The perforations turned out to be a critical detail. They indicate, according to the co-authors, that a moth of that period had the hollow wing scales characteristic of Glossata, the taxonomic group that includes all modern moths and butterflies equipped with a sucking proboscis. The oldest previously known such fossil was from 129 million years ago–just as the flowering plants were making their spectacular emergence across the planet.  And the accepted theory was that the sucking proboscis only emerged at that point as a product of co-evolution between flowers and the insects that pollinate them.

That co-evolution, and the often exquisitely precise matchup between flower and pollinator, have been a subject of perennial fascination for naturalists.  In one of the most celebrated stories in all of botany, for instance, Read the rest of this entry »

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Natural History Museums Go Digital & Science Benefits

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 29, 2016

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

(Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Until the 1990s, at many prominent natural history museums, the staff would ritually log new specimens into their collections much as they did it 200 years ago, using a pen dipped in India ink to inscribe the details into a leather-bound volume.

It was Dickensian, and reliance on that sort of record keeping at museums everywhere was a major impediment to knowing where different specimens were located. That made it difficult, at best, for scientists to put those specimens to work making sense of our world. But this old roadblock is rapidly disappearing, because of the digitization of specimens at museums around the world. At the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, recently, entomologist Eulàlia Gassó Miracle showed me how it works.

Before digitization. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Before digitization. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

First, we took a look at what it’s like for scientists to begin to make sense of a collection that hasn’t been properly sorted—specifically tens of thousands of swallowtail butterflies collected by a Dutch physician, JMA van Groenendael, working in Java in the 1930s. A drawer-size sorting box held a dusty jumble of 20 or so of these specimens at a time, each contained in a wax paper envelope or a page of a colonial newspaper neatly folded into a triangle. The job was to open each specimen, photograph it, identify the species, record the information on a database, and place it in a properly labeled archival envelope for permanent storage. Now and then a rare specimen would be set aside to be pinned, or mounted, as if alive, in a collection drawer.

Van Groenendael and his wife had survived in a Japanese internment camp

Read the rest of this entry »

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Our Blue-Butterfly Days Are Rapidly Vanishing

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 14, 2016

The large blue butterfly is on the way to recovery in the United Kingdom after having been declared extinct there in 1979. (Photo: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

The large blue butterfly is on the way to recovery in the United Kingdom after having been declared extinct there in 1979. (Photo: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

You do not need to be a naturalist to love butterflies. Dolly Parton sings about them. So does Miley Cyrus. Tracy Morgan says he used to be an angry young man in a cocoon, but “now I’m a beautiful black butterfly.” And the poet Robert Frost once celebrated the “blue-butterfly” days of spring.

But hold the lyrics. The butterflies are vanishing, according to an article in this week’s edition of the journal Science, and it’s happening even in protected areas. In a reserve in Germany’s Bavaria region, for instance, a study early this year found that just 71 butterfly species survive where there were 117 in the 19th century. That’s a 40 percent decline. In the Netherlands and England’s Suffolk County, researchers have found that 25 to 42 percent of resident breeding species are extinct.

“There is evidence for similar declines,” writes Oxford University lepidopterist Jeremy A. Thomas, “in North America, Japan, and hotspots of butterfly endemism such as Brazil, South Africa, and Australia.” Charismatic species such as the Indo-Pacific birdwings, with their six-inch wingspan, are among the victims.

Thomas acknowledges that the decline in butterflies is not exceptional. Bumblebees, dragonflies, moths, and ladybirds (or ladybugs, in this country) may be even worse off because of environmental damage inflicted by humans. Those insect groups really matter in the sense that they have ecological value for pollination and predator control. Butterflies, on the other hand, are mostly just pretty to look at.

But their very uselessness, their pointless beauty, is the one thing that has made butterflies

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Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Biological Warfare of Very Small Wasps

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 28, 2014

What a home invader looks like to a caterpillar

This is how a home invader looks to a caterpillar (Photo: José L. Fernández-Triana)

My latest for Takepart, the website of the movie company Participant Media:

Earlier this year, a study came out describing a new plant species in the Andes that is the sole home of an estimated 40 or 50 kinds of insects. I thought that had a certain “wow” factor. It also seemed like a chance to write about “keystone species”—the ones on which whole ecosystems depend—and the ripple effects when such a species goes extinct.

So I asked for a comment from evolutionary ecologist Dan Janzen at the University of Pennsylvania, and he responded with characteristic pith and vinegar. “You tell me what species on the planet is not an important part of the life cycle of many tens to hundreds of other species,” he demanded. “As for so-called keystone species, that simply means a species whose removal or other kind of perturbation happens to create a set of ripples big enough for a two-meter-tall, diurnal, nearly deaf, nearly dumb, nearly odor-incompetent, nearly taste-incompetent, urban invasive species”—that would be us, Homo sapiens—“to see, or bother to see, the ripple.” I let that project slide.

But a new study out this week in the journal Zookeys gives me a better idea of what Janzen was getting at. It describes 186 new species in northwestern Costa Rica, all parasitic wasps, the largest of them about half the length of my pinkie nail, and most—at one to five millimeters—much smaller. They’re certainly too small for most people to notice and too obscure to care about—except perhaps that each is a deadly master of a macabre kind of biological warfare.

First, the background. For more than 30 years, ecologists and parataxonomists—the foot soldiers in the science of species discovery—have been methodically prowling the Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Cool Tools | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Taxonomy for Dummies

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2013

It’s embarrassing to admit, since my books are about the natural world, but I often make the same dumb mistakes of confusing dolphins with porpoises, or butterflies with moths.  So here’s some help from Bird and Moon.

Now what about crows and ravens?

taxonomy for dummies

Posted in Biodiversity, Species Classification | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »