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A Secret Superpower, Right in Your Backyard

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As the verdant hills of Wakanda are secretly enriched with the fictionalmetal vibranium in “Black Panther,” your average backyard also has hidden superpowers: Its soil can absorb and store a significant amount of carbon from the air, unexpectedly making such green spaces an important asset in the battle against climate change.

Backyard soils can lock in more planet-warming carbon emissions than soils found in native grasslands or urban forests like arboretums, according to Carly Ziter, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The results of her research, published Tuesday in the journal Ecological Applications, were something of a surprise, given that those of us who have yards generally don’t think of them as “nature,” or as especially beneficial to the environment. But at least in this case, the things we enjoy for ourselves are also helping the community at large.

Ms. Ziter studied the powers of yards by knocking on doors in Madison and asking residents to let her sample their backyard soil. Parents would often send their children outside to observe Ms. Ziter’s work. “They would say, ‘Oh, there’s a scientist in the yard, go see what she’s doing,’” she said, laughing. “All of a sudden there would be three small children and a dog surrounding me when I’m taking soil samples.”

As cities look for ways to mitigate the effects of global warming, urban green spaces are often cited as a potential solution. Green spaces can reduce temperatures in cities where paved surfaces magnify hot weather, and they can capture storm water to reduce flooding as climate change leads to increasing rainfall in some parts of the country.

Until now most research in this vein focused on larger green spaces like parks, which could give the impression that smaller spaces like yards do not contribute to the bigger urban ecosystem.

“But what we realized is that people’s backyards are a really big player here,” Ms. Ziter said. 

To get a more nuanced picture of the services that green spaces provide in a city, Ms. Ziter took soil samples from 100 sites in Madison. The sites ranged from forests to grasslands to open spaces, a category that includes parks, golf courses and cemeteries. She also sampled from residential lots, which cover 47 percent of Madison’s landscape (but only parts of those lots are yards).

The study showed that the soil in forest ecosystems was best at absorbing water. But soil on open and developed land — like golf courses and backyard lawns — was better at absorbing carbon.

It was not clear why the soil in residential green spaces was better at sequestering carbon, but Ms. Ziter thinks it might be related to how people manage their yards, like by mowing. So there is a risk that the carbon we release using gas-powered lawn mowers, for example, could eclipse the soil’s ability to absorb carbon.

And before we start chopping down forests and putting in lawns, it is important to note that the study focused on soils, not on what may be growing above.

“Carbon storage as an ecosystem service can’t be just reduced to soil carbon,” said Marco Keiluweit, an assistant professor of soils and the environment at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who was not involved with the study. “You also have to factor in the carbon above ground. If you have a forest ecosystem you probably have as much locked up in trees.”

Still, the study suggests that fragmented ecosystems like those in backyards do benefit cities and should be factored into urban planning. For example, green spaces placed next to developed spaces might act as a buffer against the negative effects that impervious surfaces have on the environment.

Ms. Ziter and Dr. Keiluweit agreed that minimizing pavement and keeping green spaces green was an important first step.

“You don’t need to have a perfect lawn for it to be really beneficial,” Ms. Ziter said. “You don’t have to have an incredibly intensive management system. It’s O.K. to have things to be a little wild.”

See Full Article from New York Times

Study shows mosquito pesticides do not cause honeybee mortality

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LSU AgCenter researchers in the Department of Entomology found mosquito control done properly has minimal effects on the health of honeybees. The three-part study, funded by a 2013 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, evaluated the effects of pesticides on honeybees.

“You have a lot of attention focused on caring for bees and keeping them healthy,” said AgCenter entomologist Kristen Healy. “They produce honey, but they’re also important because they pollinate crops worldwide.”

LSU entomology graduate student Vivek Pokhrel views bees at the USDA Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge on July 22, 2016. Pokhrel has been studying bee enzymes to determine bee stress levels. Photo by Olivia McClure

LSU entomology graduate student Vivek Pokhrel views bees at the USDA Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge on July 22, 2016. Pokhrel has been studying bee enzymes to determine bee stress levels. Photo by Olivia McClure

The project was a collaboration among scientists at the LSU AgCenter, the U. S. Department of Agriculture Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control and USDA agricultural engineers from Texas. Local beekeepers were also involved in the study.

The research included laboratory, semi-field and field components. AgCenter researchers conducted lab tests using specific insecticides that target mosquitos to find toxicity levels for bees.

Research in the past focused on toxicity in a lab without real-world testing in the field. “We know the concentration that would kill a bee, but is it realistically going to get exposed to that concentration in the field?” Healy said.

After determining lethal concentrations, scientists conducted semi-field tests, where a truck sprayed six of the most common mosquito control insecticides toward pairs of cages containing bees and mosquitos. The cages were placed on poles from 50 feet apart to 300 feet apart, the typical distance insecticides can drift from spray trucks.

Honeybees crowd on a honeycomb at the USDA Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge on July 22, 2016. Photo by Olivia McClure

Honeybees crowd on a honeycomb at the USDA Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge on July 22, 2016. Photo by Olivia McClure

“This is the highest possible label rate that mosquito control would ever use out of a truck, and we didn’t see any bee mortality, even at 50 feet,” Healy said.

Mosquito control products use extremely small doses that target mosquitos, and the chemicals break down within hours. “Mosquitos are 100 times more susceptible to these pesticides than bees are,” she said.

The third stage included field tests. Local beekeepers volunteered, half of them with hives in areas of frequent mosquito treatment, with the other half in areas without control.

Scientists found no differences in the mortality rates of bees in both groups. “These pesticide concentrations used out in the field are not high enough to kill bees,” Healy said.

Researchers also measured stress by analyzing indicator enzymes from the field-test bees. They found no difference in stress between the two groups.

Mosquito control agencies do not indiscriminately spray chemicals, Healy said. They use science-based research like surveillance, trapping and population counts while testing for pathogens like West Nile virus and Zika virus to plan targeted mosquito control.


Bees are contained in a cage in Baton Rouge where researchers conducted semi-field tests with a truck spraying mosquito pesticides at cages of bees and mosquitos. Photo by Olivia McClure

Bees stay inside their hives during the night when mosquito controls are usually sprayed and forage during the day when chemicals have disappeared. Still, it’s important for beekeepers and mosquito control agencies to communicate frequently.

“I’m happy that we’re not killing bees with mosquito control,” Healy said. “The exciting part was having people with both interests that were there every step of the way.”
Healy regularly gives presentations to the community, including beekeepers, who are understanding of the situation.

“They say I don’t like mosquitoes, so if it’s not having an effect on my bees, I think I’d rather opt for protecting my family and pets against West Nile and Zika,” she said.

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Study Highlights Diversity of Arthropods

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Distribution of dust mites detected in door trim dust from inside homes across the United States (purple) compared with the range where they are predicted to be most abundant (tan). Image credit: Anne A. Madden.

Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Colorado Boulder used DNA testing and citizen science to create an “atlas” that shows the range and diversity of arthropods found in homes across the continental United States.

Scanning electron micrograph of home dust including dust mites, animal fur, fibers, and pollen. Image credit: Anne A. Madden, with the assistance from Robert Mcgugan at the University of Colorado, Boulder Nanomaterials Characterization Facility. False-coloring done by Robin Hacker-Cary. Click to enlarge.Scanning electron micrograph of home dust including dust mites, animal fur, fibers, and pollen. Image credit: Anne A. Madden, with the assistance from Robert Mcgugan at the University of Colorado, Boulder Nanomaterials Characterization Facility. False-coloring done by Robin Hacker-Cary. Click to enlarge.

Previous research found a significant diversity of arthropods in homes in one part of North Carolina – we wanted to use advanced DNA sequencing-based approaches to get a snapshot of arthropod diversity in homes across the country,” says Anne Madden, a postdoctoral researcher at NC State and lead author of a paper on the new work. “This work is a significant step toward understanding the ecology of our own homes, with the goal of improving our understanding of how those organisms in our homes may affect our health and quality of life.”

To collect nationwide data, the researchers recruited more than 700 households across all 48 states in the continental United States. Study participants swabbed dust from the top of a doorway inside their house or apartment. The swab was then sealed and sent to the research team, which used high-throughput DNA analysis to identify every genus of arthropod DNA found in the dust samples.

“We found more than 600 genera of arthropods represented inside people’s homes – not including food species, such as crabs and shrimp, which also showed up,” Madden says. “That’s an incredible range of diversity from just a tiny swab of house dust.”

After analyzing the data, researchers identified several variables that were associated with greater arthropod diversity: having cats or dogs in the home; having a home in a rural area; or having a home with a basement.

“Greater diversity does not necessarily mean greater abundance,” Madden says. “We’re talking about more types of arthropods, not necessarily larger populations of arthropods.”

Researcher Anne Madden, looking at trays of samples containing DNA samples from homes. Image Credit: Adrianne A. Madden.
Researcher Anne Madden, looking at trays of samples containing DNA samples from homes. Image Credit: Adrianne A. Madden.

These findings expand on previous work that found pet ownership also increased the biodiversity of microbial organisms, such as bacteria and fungi.

“We were surprised to see that these three variables – which we have some control over – were more powerful predictors of biodiversity than climate,” Madden says. “We had expected environmental factors associated with regional climate to play a larger role than they actually did.”

However, the scope of the study data also allowed the researchers to create a national atlas they can use to track the range of specific arthropod genera. And, depending on the genus, climate factors were seen to play a significant role in determining the range of some arthropods.

For example, dust mites can be serious allergens in homes and the team found that they were more often associated with homes in humid regions of the country.

In addition, researchers were able to use the atlas to identify genera that had significantly expanded their range – but no one had previously noticed.

For example, the Turkestan cockroach (Shelfordella lateralis) was previously thought to be found only in the southern and western regions of the United States – but the data from this study showed that it had expanded as far as the Northeast.

“We’re just scratching the surface of how we can use this data set and the arthropod atlas,” Madden says. “What can it tell us about the food webs in our own homes? What can it tell us about how arthropod populations expand and contract across the country? What emerging allergens can it reveal? We’re just getting started.

“Also, we want to stress that this was a citizen science project,” Madden says. “This study would not have been possible without the participation of people from across the country who volunteered to be actively involved in the work.” [Note: anyone interested in participating in future citizen science projects with this research team can visit]

The paper, “The diversity of arthropods in homes across the United States as determined by environmental DNA analyses,” is published in the journal Molecular Ecology. The paper was co-authored by Albert Barberán and Noah Fierer of the University of Colorado Boulder; Matthew Bertone and Holly Menninger of NC State; and Rob Dunn of NC State and the University of Copenhagen. The work was done with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“The diversity of arthropods in homes across the United States as determined by environmental DNA analyses”

Authors: Anne Madden, North Carolina State University and University of Colorado, Boulder; Albert Barberán and Noah Fierer, University of Colorado, Boulder; Matthew A. Bertone and Holly L. Menninger, North Carolina State University; Robert R. Dunn, North Carolina State University and University of Copenhagen

Published: Nov. 1, Molecular Ecology DOI: 10.1111/mec.13900

Abstract: We spend most of our lives inside homes, surrounded by 3 arthropods that impact our property as pests and our health as disease vectors and producers of sensitizing allergens. Despite their relevance to human health and well-being, we know relatively little about the arthropods that exist in our homes and the factors structuring their diversity. Since previous work has been limited in scale by the costs and time associated with collecting arthropods and the subsequent morphological identification we used a DNA-based method for investigating the arthropod diversity in homes via high-throughput marker gene sequencing of home dust. Settled dust samples were collected by citizen scientists from both inside and outside more than 700 homes across the United States, yielding the first continental-scale estimates of arthropod diversity associated with our residences. We were able to document food webs and previously unknown geographic distributions of diverse arthropods—from allergen producers to invasive species and nuisance pests. Home characteristics, including the presence of basements, home occupants, and surrounding land-use, were more useful than climate parameters at predicting arthropod diversity in homes. These non-invasive, scalable tools and resultant findings not only provide the first continental-scale maps of household arthropod diversity, our analyses also provide valuable baseline information on arthropod allergen exposures and the distributions of invasive pests inside homes.

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Ant behavior tracked by tiny radio receivers in pioneering scientific study

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Researchers from the University of York are fitting one thousand northern hairy wood ants with tiny radio receivers in a world first experiment to find out how they communicate and travel between their complex nests.

The three-year research project will take place on the National Trust’s Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire a hotspot for these internationally protected ants. This unique site contains more than a thousand nests and is home to up to 50 million worker ants.

Experts will carefully catch the ants and in a few seconds attach a radio receiver of one millimetre to each one. The ants are the size of an adult thumbnail but this process will not interfere with, nor harm them in any way.

Researchers will examine how the ants communicate with each other in their colonies, which are housed in several nests connected by a network of ant highways, with multiple ant queens spread between the nests.

The findings from the research will then be used by National Trust staff on the Longshaw estate to manage the ancient woodland, made up of oak and birch trees, where the ants can be found.

Samuel Ellis, the biologist from the University of York, who will be carrying out the research, said: “This research is about trying to find out how the ants communicate and commute between the vast network of nests and how they travel in this environment.

“The radio receivers act like a barcode to mark out each individual ant. A single ant is not particularly clever but is part of an elaborate system that is clearly performing very effectively at Longshaw.

“The way the ants use this network has important implications for how they interact with their environment. And the way information is passed through the network may even have implications for our information and telecommunications networks.”

Northern hairy wood ant with one of the tiny radio receivers. Image: Changing ViewsFindings will also influence the land management of Longshaw as the ants depend on sap-sucking aphids that favour oak, birch and pine trees but northern hairy wood ant populations struggle in dense woodland of this kind.

The ants use the honeydew produced by gently stroking these aphids to feed their young and in return the ants protect the aphids.

Chris Millner, National Trust Area Ranger at Longshaw, said: “It is fascinating to sit and watch the ants as they go about their business and they are easy to spot on a sunny day as they gather in vast numbers around their nests at this very special site.

“We will be carrying out some forestry work over the next few years, removing lots of conifer trees from modern plantations which will create a larger area of wood pasture, ideal for the ants to move into.

“The study will give us a real picture of where the ants are and how we can improve the habitat for them and other wildlife without causing disturbance.”

The northern hairy wood ant has an international near-threatened conservation status with the two main populations in England found in the Peak District (including Longshaw) and in the North York Moors.

Top ten northern hairy wood ant facts

Wood ants farming aphids. Image: Changing Views

  1. Hairy wood ants (Formica lugubris) are a northern species in the UK, but can be found as far south as mid-Wales.
  2. The hairy wood ant is named so because of its hairy ‘eyebrows’ visible through a microscope.
  3. Hairy wood ants live in mound-shaped nests made out of leaves and twigs and are designed keep the nest warm by trapping heat.
  4. They can defend themselves from predators by spraying formic acid a smelly substance about as strong as vinegar which can blister the skin.
  5. Some birds such as Jays and Green Woodpeckers use this spraying to their advantage, using the formic acid as a cleansing agent to get rid of parasites.
  6. Queens can live for up to 15 years, whereas workers live for about a year.
  7. They are aggressively territorial, and will often attack and remove other ant species from the area.
  8. The wood ant is the largest native ant species of the British Isles. Workers can measure from 8-10mm in length.
  9. The ants are carnivorous and workers can find food by hunting and scavenging, they locate prey by vibration although they can see for up to 10cm.
  10. In the tree canopy Hairy Wood ants farm herds of aphids, milking them for sugar rich honeydew, and protecting them from predators. They also aggressively hunt other invertebrates.

Originally posted by: York University

New Wasp Species Discovered Parasitizing Pests of Pine Trees

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January 19, 2017 by

Baryscapus dioryctriae is a new species of wasp that parasitizes two moths of the genus Dioryctria, a pest of pine trees in China. (Photo credit: Li-Wen Song, et al)

Baryscapus dioryctriae is a newly discovered species of wasp that parasitizes—and could be a potential biological control agent of—two moth species of the genus Dioryctria, a pest of pine trees in China. (Photo credit: Li-Wen Song, et al)

By Josh Lancette

A new parasitoid wasp species, named Baryscapus dioryctriae, has been discovered in China. The new species is known to parasitize larvae of two species of Dioryctria, which are serious pests of pine trees, and was found during a survey looking for natural enemies of Dioryctria pryeri and D. abietella. This finding, published today in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, is important because the new species could potentially be used as a biological control agent. The Dioryctria moth larvae that hurt pine trees are often concealed within the cones, making insecticides generally ineffective. An effective biological control agent such as a parasitoid wasp could provide a way to manage the pest in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Baryscapus dioryctriae appears to have the characteristics of a superior biological control agent for suppression of its hosts because of its relatively high parasitism rate, the relatively large number of wasp individuals reared from a single host pupa, and the high female:male sex ratio,” write the researchers.

Baryscapus dioryctriaeBaryscapus dioryctriaeBaryscapus dioryctriae

Furthermore, the new species appears to lend itself well to mass rearing, as the researchers successfully reared it on several other related hosts, such as the European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis) and the greater wax moth (Galleria mellonella).

For a complete description of the new species, see “A new species of Baryscapus (Hymenoptera: Eulophidae) parasitizing pupae and larvae of two Dioryctria species (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae),” in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

Josh Lancette is manager of publications at the Entomological Society of America.

Devil Frog Vomits Up a New Ant Species

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Finding new species may call to mind images of scientists tracking mysterious footprints in the mud or cutting paths through the dense jungle.

But sometimes, a discovery is as easy as getting a frog to open its mouth and say, “Ah.”

Such is the case for Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri, a new tropical ant species found in the belly of a diablito, or little devil frog (Oophaga sylvatica), in Ecuador.

The diablito, a kind of bright orange poison frog, is known for its love of ants, says Christian Rabeling, a myrmecologist at the University of Rochester, New York. The new ant species is named after Bert Hölldobler, a German evolutionary biologist and ant expert, for his 80th birthday.

Because ant-eating frogs go hunting for bugs in tiny and hard-to-access places, scientists use them as a tool to go where they can’t go. By capturing a wild frog and flushing their stomachs, the amphibians vomit whatever is in their bellies—revealing potential treasures, like the new ant.

“Sometimes people think that our world is very well explored. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Rabeling, who led a new study on the ant, published September 19 by the journal ZooKeys.


Because the only known specimen of L. hoelldobleri is a dead one from a frog’s stomach, scientists know almost nothing about it.

A glimpse through a high-powered stereomicroscope at that ill-fated ant, however, has offered a few clues. (See “Watch: Ants Use Giant Jaws to Catapult Out of Death Trap.”)

“The shape of the mandibles reminds me of forceps,” says Rabeling. This may mean that the ant, which is less than a quarter of an inch long, uses its mouthparts to pry even smaller prey animals, such as termites, out of tight crevices. “But I am just speculating,” he admits.

If the scientists could find living L. hoelldobleri in the Ecuadoran rain forest, the team could submit the little guys to a “cafeteria test,” which means offering an animal multiple prey items to see what it prefers. (See “Surprising Ant ‘Mixing Bowl’ Found in Manhattan.”)

“The difficulty is finding the ants!” says Rabeling.

The little devil frog, obviously, has figured out how to locate them—and for good reason.

Poison frogs get their namesake chemical defenses from alkaloids found in the ants and other critters they consume, says Jonathan Kolby, a National Geographic grantee and director of the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center.

“Physiologists regard ants as mini chemical factories,” adds Rabeling. The insects likely use the chemicals as signals to communicate with other ants in their complex societies.

As for where the ants get their alkaloids, Kolby says some species may acquire it from the plants they eat. But what role, if any, L. hoelldobleri may play in the poison game is anyone’s guess.


Because many amphibians are endangered—the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists O. sylvatica as near threatened—any research with wild frogs must be done carefully, and only by trained experts, Rabeling notes. (Read more about why amphibians are vanishing.)

 To flush the stomach, scientists insert a soft tube into the amphibian’s mouth and gently fill it with water, prompting whatever the frog has eaten recently to flow out of its mouth and onto a tray. The frog can then be safely returned to its natural habitat.

This is not the first time a new species has been found inside another animal’s stomach, by the way. Kolby points to the example of Dunn’s earth snake (Geophis dunni), which was found in the stomach of a coral snake (Micrurus nigrocinctus) in Nicaragua in 1932.

Furthermore, it seems L. hoelldobleri had some company in the little devil frog’s stomach. The research project that first identified the new ant also found several other as-of-yet undescribed insects.

It seems the little devil’s frog’s belly might be the gift that keeps on giving.

Steve McQueen and the Start of Motorcycle Madness

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by Dana

In my youth motor cycle racing was a passion. Motocross racing to be specific. The passion began in about 1969 after watching the movie The Great Escape, a World War Two film about; as you might expect, a great prisoner of war escape based upon an actual event.  In the movie, the actor Steve McQueen commandeered a motor cycle from a German combatant by stringing a wire across the road. As the German bad guy motors bye, McQueen employs the snare disembarking the rider from the bike in dramatic fashion and steals the motor bike.  McQueen proceeds to elude the German army upon this bike by riding across the country side and even jumping over fences.  How great was that.  He eventually got recaptured after crashing into a barbed wire fence and is sent back to solitary confinement along with his baseball and glove to pass the time. Steve McQueen was so cool and we all wanted to be like him. Turns out in real life McQueen raced motor cycles. As youngsters often do we emulated McQueen. Us kids would stand on opposite sides of our neighborhood street and as a car approached we would make the motion of pulling taunt a wire. The prank sometimes causing the motorist to jam on the brakes as we gleefully scattered using a predetermined escape route. When that got boring we began using real kite string.  Later we got bold enough not to even run away. When the driver angrily exited the vehicle to scorn us we would just stand there and laugh. Boldness however can escalate into extremism.  After the ‘stop cars with a string trick’ no longer generated the necessary levels of adrenaline, we invented more sinister pranks. One such delinquent act was to tie the kite string to a rock and toss it over the nearest street lamp that hung over the center of the road. The rock was than replaced with a water balloon and hoisted up. When an unexpected motorist approached, the goal was to release the string just at the right moment for the water filled balloon, assisted by the laws of gravity to drop upon the roof of the car. Kaboom! Ha Ha Ha.  Interestingly enough we executed this dirty deed within full view, in full daylight of all the picture windows of the homes lining the street. Stay at home Moms must have been more tolerant in those days. Or perhaps not, after all do parents know what children are doing on the internet today? My Mother did have limits of proper behavior however that were not tolerated. When the balloon trick no longer provided enough fun, we escalated our terror tactics by aiming pop bottle rockets at passing motorist. In one incident, our aim was too accurate.  Hidden at the side of our house one evening, as a car approached we lit the fuse, aimed and swoosh the aerial device shot through the air and into the open driver’s side window where it proceeded to bounce around the interior in a shower of sparks.  As the driver leapt from his vehicle we hastily entered into the back door of my parents’ home. There we encountered my mother, coolly waiting with her signature spanking rod. She had observed our foolish behavior.  As my friends and I bolted pass the threshold towards the basement stairs we all received a formidable whack.  Mother did not discriminate, she would wield out justice to her own sons as well as my friends whenever we crossed the line.

To advance the story, about this time the film On any Sunday was released. A documentary about motor cycle racing that also featured Steve McQueen. In those days motor cycle racing events were held on Sundays because the sport was still in its infancy and most participants were amateur enthusiasts. Before indulging how this film influenced a motorcycle passion for myself and a generation of others I must first briefly describe the geography in which I lived.  You should know we lived in the post war suburban expansion.  Our home was right on the edge of modern suburbia and rural environment. From our neighborhood north 20 miles to the city of Detroit was a nearly continuous development of suburban track homes. From our small fenced in back-yard south was rural western Michigan. We truly lived on the edge of two worlds, urban to the north and rural to the south.  Behind our back fence was woods and a drainage ditch that we interpreted as a creek, it was our playground. During the summer as kids we spent our time from breakfast until the streets lights came on, building forts, spearing carp fish in the creek, climbing trees, fighting kids from rival neighborhoods whose homes also bordered the woods, and playing games such as “two catch all” and even “torture”.  With Television programing limited and computers nonexistent we developed our own alternate reality games typically based around our limited comprehension of the great war or Cowboys and Indians.  In the game torture, a dozen or so of us  would split up into groups between the younger kids and older kids. The older kids would seek out the younger kids hiding in the woods and if caught perform Indian torture techniques, staking them to the ground and sprinkling dirt or dry weeds on exposed torsos to cause discomfort and maybe there was some red ants nearby to increase the pain. Man, that was some good times. As part of the young kids I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of not being caught. So, before I get back to the motorcycles I have to set the stage some more.  Behind the back fence as I mentioned was a forest of oak trees, maples, elms, weeds, reeds and all types of deciduous plants.  At some point the older kids had decided we needed our own personal ball park. Now you got to know in the late 60’s the baby boom era was still in full swing, there was dozens of kids on our neighborhood block and it was common for us to challenge other blocks in various sporting contests, football, street hockey, baseball, snow ball fights and any type of activity that involved competition often resulting in bloody noses and broken collar bones. Anyhow it was decided we would create a ball field out of the forest behind our homes.  We raided our parent’s garages accumulating hatchets, saws and shovels and began to chop down trees and set them on fire.  As you might imagine some of the parents became curious of our activity and began to investigate our youthful ambition.  Keep in mind were talking kids between the age of ten and fourteen who embarked upon a slash and burn technique directly behind our home.  The parents were a little concerned about our methods but to their credit did not criticize our ambition but rather instigated an alternative plan.  My next-door neighbor, Bob was a local cop.  He was the neighborhood egotist and self-proclaimed hero type, originally from Kentucky I believe.  Bob was the type of guy who would confiscate illegal fireworks from all the kids in town all year and then set them off on fourth of July for our neighborhoods enjoyment. I remember once a car sped by our home exceeding the 25-mile speed limit. Bob was in his yard working on his lawn. He jumped into his patrol car and gave chase presumably apprehending the culprit it short order.  Bob made the offender drive back to the neighborhood, park in front of his house, where he proudly wrote him the citation for all the neighbors to witness. Bob was also an expert marksman, the bar in his basement was filled with shooting competition trophy’s.  Sadly, he was once involved in a lethal shooting of a criminal that resulted in controversy.  We all feared him but also respected him.  As a bit of a trouble maker myself it was bad luck living next door to Bob. He protected his home turf with a vengeance and knew what all us kids were up too.  Bob did serve us kids well with the slash and burn project however.  He used his influence with the city, borrowed a bull dozer and spent a weekend or two clearing about two acres of forest behind our homes to create our ball field.  The parents even got together and erected a back stop using cyclone fence material to complete the project adding a touch of class.  I’m still not certain who owned that land, whether it was public domain or private but I’m rather certain no permission or permits were ascertained. No harm no foul was the rule, besides who would dare get on Bobs bad side. We had some raucous ball tournaments on that crude field but more importantly it became our local dirt bike track in the years to come.  As you recall we thought Steve McQueen and his motorcycles were so cool.  One day in 1970 I was out exploring the woods. There was a single-track trail that followed the creek for miles and we rode our bicycles along the path pretending to have motors . Suddenly three dirt bikes came screaming down the trail. They were loud and fast and the riders were dressed in black leather.  The riders were some tough kids I recognized from school, guys I went out of my way to avoid.  They entered our field and proceeded to ride around and around, kicking up dirt, creating a cloud of blue exhaust and raising general hell and chaos.  I never felt such envy in my life.  I knew right then and there my life would never be fulfilled until I had a dirt bike. My parents however would have nothing to do with me getting a dirt bike. My older brothers Mark and Tony also wanted bikes and our normal adolescent negotiating techniques were un successful. Tony who was four years my elder was nearly of adult age, eighteen in those years, and was still rebuffed by my mother who was adamantly fearful he would become a motorcycle gang member if she relented.  My father however was known for his negotiating skills and proposed a solution that was presumably in his favor.  He challenged Tony if he could find any research that proved motorcycles were safe than he could buy one.  Damn if Tony didn’t go to the library and find a book that revealed statistically that motorcycles were indeed safe. So, it came about that in 1971 Tony purchased a Suzuki 125 dirt bike.  Not long afterwards the “old man” took a spin on that bike and was grinning from ear to ear.  Shortly after, one evening he ordered Mark and I, as he often did, into the station wagon to accompany him to the store.  Typically, we would end up at the hardware store or Sears to buy needed supplies for chores.  This time to our surprise we arrived at the motorcycle dealer, where we received a firsthand lesson on negotiating and drove home with a fire engine red Suzuki 90 to share.  Of course, it was learned quickly that two competitive brothers willing to in Hockey terms “drop the gloves” at any moment to solve disputes could not share a dirt bike and so it came to be that Mark was soon a proud owner of his own Wombat 125 dirt bike machine.

I cannot begin to describe the joy of being a 12-year-old with your own dirt bike and outside the gate of your backyard was an endless forest with trails. We rode every day after school and on weekends venturing off to the motocross track several miles away.  The track was located on some vacant corporate property not far from the new Detroit Metropolitan Airport. There was a large sandy area where a track developed surrounded by woods.  I don’t recall who owned the property but they apparently didn’t mind that it became a major dirt bike destination.  In those days, no one would have even thought about suing the owners upon injury, such an action would be simply too dishonorable.  We and dozens of other kids spent many of hours and days racing each other on that track.  The biggest problem with this informal race track however was riding there without getting busted by the cops. Much of the route was within the camouflage of several woods along the way however there were several stretches that required riding along the shoulder of a major roadway where we were vulnerable to the adjacent cities police department. The first few times we were spotted by the cops was scary, they would signal us to stop and when disobeyed by us, give chase. In time, we became defiant and comfortable, waving at them before darting into the protection of the next woods.  This behavior of course pissed off the Officers obliged to enforce the law.  They eventually learned are routine and tried to set up ambushes against us that failed to achieve desired results.  Eventually their investigation revealed what neighborhood we originated from and one day showed up at our home to interrogate my mother. Mom, who by this time was onboard with the motorcycle fun defended us essentially telling the overreaching cops to stay on their own side of the tracks and find more worthy criminals to pursuit.

About this time, the town was building a new middle school a mile or so south of our home.  They cleared away part of the woods for the construction site.  We would ride up to the site and climb the massive hill of dirt that was formed from excavation work, again eluding the authorities and the heavy equipment operators we furiously irritated.  The school opened at the beginning of my seventh-grade year in school and my friends and I could ride our motorcycles along the creek trail to the school yard.  The shop teacher, who owned a classic Norton motorcycle himself was ok with us parking them outside his class room.  The principle however had a different idea about that arrangement.  So, there you have it, my little story of how I began a decade long passion for a two-wheeled machine.  Not Pulitzer Prize material by any means but maybe you enjoyed it and hopefully it loosened some memories of your own wondrous youth.

Characterizing the Link Between Climate and Thermal Limits in Beetles

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Kimberly Sheldon

Kimberly Sheldon, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (pictured above with a dung beetle near Lake Naivasha, Kenya), studies how temperature change affects insects. (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Sheldon.)

January 31, 2017 by

By Amanda Biederman

Amid concerns over a rapidly changing climate, the abilities of different insects to survive at warmer temperatures has become a major question of interest. Kimberly Sheldon, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is employing a comprehensive approach to this problem.

Sheldon is studying the effects of climate change on temperate and tropical beetles across North and South America. She said it is important for researchers to consider not only increases in mean annual temperature but also increases in temperature variation across different environments.

Sheldon said her experiments were designed to test Daniel Janzen’s 1967 “seasonality hypothesis,” which postulates that an organism’s thermal physiology is driven by adaptation to thermal fluctuation in the environment. Further, the organism’s physiology should drive its capacity for distribution along a thermal gradient.

She said she first became interested in the link between thermal physiology and distributions when reading current perspectives on the topic as a graduate student.

“Around the time I was starting graduate school, I started reading papers by (Janzen’s) colleagues, and they started mentioning the holes and gaps in the work,” Sheldon said. “So then I thought that maybe there were some holes I could fill in.”

In a study published in 2014, Sheldon’s group analyzed four tribes of dung beetles (Canthonini, Dichotomini, Phanaeini) and one genus of carrion beetle (Nicrophorus). The beetles have different morphologies and life history strategies, but they are all distributed across North and South America.

Sheldon’s group collected specimens from the four beetle groups at four geographical sites in the United States, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. She hypothesized that beetles from the tropical, thermally stable regions (i.e. Ecuador and Costa Rica) would exhibit a narrower thermal tolerance breadth and distributional range than those from the temperate, thermally variable regions (i.e. United States, Argentina).

To characterize thermal tolerance breadth, Sheldon analyzed beetle behavior during temperature change. The body temperature at which an organism loses its righting ability during either acute cooling or warming is described as its critical thermal minimum (CTmin) or critical thermal maximum (CTmax), respectively. As predicted, Sheldon found that individuals from temperate regions had a broader thermal tolerance than those from tropical regions.

Next, Sheldon examined the link between thermal tolerance and elevational distribution. Her group reported differences in habitat range among species. All four beetle groups are distributed along an elevational gradient, and individuals at higher elevations and latitudes tend to be exposed to cooler temperatures.

Sheldon observed a positive relationship between thermal tolerance breadth and distribution, meaning that beetles from more seasonal, temperate regions exhibited not only a broader thermal tolerance but also a greater capacity to exploit different regions within their environment. This trait may be critical for survival in the future due to the effects of climate change.

In a follow-up study, Sheldon said she plans to investigate differences in phenotypic plasticity among populations. She said she will expose the beetles to different temperatures and determine whether they can adjust their critical thermal limits in order to cope with environmental change. She said she wants to determine whether beetles are capable of shifting their thermal limits and whether there are differences in populations from different latitudes.

Sheldon said it is important for biologists to consider the full ecological picture when studying the effects of climate change on organisms. She said the link between temperature variation and range breadth may be due not only to thermal physiology but also other factors such as competition among groups.

“I think some of the broader ideas are that the organism that can compete really well in its current range may have a hard time competing outside of temperatures that it has experienced,” Sheldon said. “So, some of it could be, for example, temperature-mediated competition that incorporates both elements.”

Read more: “The impact of seasonality in temperature on thermal tolerance and elevational range sizeEcology

Amanda Biederman is a graduate student at Ohio University, where she studies the thermal physiology of Antarctic fishes. She also works as a science writer for the Nanoscale and Quantum Phenomena Institute and writes science news articles for her blog,

The Great Imitator!

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An almost perfect similarity: A wasp (left) and a moth are barely distinguishable from each other.
Credit: Photo Michael Boppré

The masquerade is almost perfect. Certain moths of the subfamily Arctiinae are marked with a yellow and black pattern. But these day-active insects have wasp waists and their antennae resemble those of wasps. Their transparent wings are folded in a wasp-like way. For more than 150 years there has been a plausible explanation for this type of imitation, which is commonly known as mimicry. It says that the moths — just like many hoverflies and other insects — imitate wasps in order to protect themselves from birds and other hostile predators. According to textbook wisdom, these voracious foes have learned from painful experience.

They have been stung by wasps and since then have avoided any animal that looks like one. In the scientific journal Ecology and Evolution, a University of Freiburg biologist, Prof. Dr. Michael Boppré and his team have now presented an additional hypothesis that goes beyond this traditional view. Their interpretation is that, above all, the moths’ appearance deceives the very wasps they are mimicking.

As a rule, insects developing imperfect similarity to wasps is enough to keep learning predators at a distance. Yet the Arctiinae that Boppré observed during his biodiversity studies in South and Central America are different. The biologist says, “Especially when they are in flight, even for the trained eye it’s nearly impossible to tell apart the examples from the mimics.” That led Boppré to question why these Arctiinae have evolved this near-perfect imitation and what creatures they are trying to deceive. He says, “The answer — wasps — is stunningly simple.” Wasps hunt other insects as food for their larvae. Yet wasps do not attack each other, even when they are out on hunting flights they do not differentiate the wasps they encounter as originating from their own or other nests. The moths, therefore, are imitating the wasps so that these predators will perceive them as members of the same species and not attack for that reason.

Boppré and his co-authors emphasize that they are expanding upon rather than providing an alternative to the traditional explanation for mimicry. The researcher emphasizes, “The new explanation may seem to be a small detail at the outset, but this concept alone has far-reaching consequences.” The conventional explanation established more than 150 years ago played an immediate role in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is also based on fundamental assumptions. One of these is that mimicry can only function if the true ‘models’ (in this example the actual wasps), at least at times, are more abundant than their imitators. The assumption says that only then is it probable that predators learn to avoid these species through bad experiences. Species that develop this type of deception must pay for the advantage — the protection that imitation offers — with the cost of being fewer in number. But that’s not the case for these Arctiinae and various other insects. Says Boppré, “The imitation of wasps that innately fail to attack their imitators does not come at this cost.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Freiburg. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Michael Boppré, Richard I. Vane-Wright, Wolfgang Wickler. A hypothesis to explain accuracy of wasp resemblances. Ecology and Evolution, 2017; 7 (1): 73 DOI: 10.1002/ece3.2586

Ants craft tiny sponges to dip into honey and carry it home

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Ants use tools to collect honey
Soaking up a liquid lunch
Gábor Lőrinczi

Ants may be smarter than we give them credit for. Tool use is seen as something brainy primates and birds do, but even the humble ant can choose the right tool for the job.

István Maák at the University of Szeged in Hungary and his team offered two species of funnel ants liquids containing water and honey along with a range of tools that might help them carry this food to their nests.

The ants experimented with the tools and chose those that were easiest to handle and could soak up plenty of liquid, such as bits of sponge or paper, despite them not being found in the insects’ natural environment.

This suggests that ants can take into account the properties of both the tool and the liquid they are transporting. It also indicates they can learn to use new tools – even without big brains.

Some ant species are known to use tools, such as mud or sand grains, to collect and transport liquid to their nests. But this is the first time they are shown to select the most suitable ones, says team member Patrizia d’Ettorre from the University of Paris-North, France.

Tool up

To investigate this behaviour, the team offered Aphaenogaster subterranea and A. senilis ants various possible tools, both natural, such as twigs, pine needles and soil grains, and artificial.

The ants experimented with the tools and eventually showed preference for certain tools – even unfamiliar ones. The ants would drop the tool into the liquid, pick it up and then carry it to the workers back in the nest to drink from.

Subterranea workers preferred small soil grains to transfer diluted honey, and sponge for pure honey. Most of them even tore the sponge into smaller bits, presumably for better handling.

Senilis started off using all the tools equally, but then focused on pieces of paper and sponge, which could soak up most of the diluted honey they were offered. This indicates that they can learn as they go along.

Factors such as the weight of the tools could also have influenced the ants’ choice, but the researchers believe the tools’ absorbency and ease of handling mattered the most.

Stuck for space

Aphaenogaster ants possibly developed such tool use because, unlike many other ants, they can’t expand their stomach, says d’Ettorre. “They had to find a way to exploit the valuable resource of liquid food.”

This way, when ants come across a fallen fruit or a dead insect in the wild, their fluids can be transferred to the nest for the rest of the colony.

As ants live in a highly competitive environment, natural selection may favour using such tools to help feed the colony, says Valerie S. Banschbach at Roanoke College, Virginia.

And these ants may have been happy to try novel materials because which particular tools are available in their natural habitat varies according to the season.

“Many other accomplishments of these small-brained creatures rival those of humans or even surpass them, such as farming fungi species or using ‘dead reckoning’, a sophisticated navigation to find their way back to the nest,” says Banschbach. “The size of brain needed for specific cognitive tasks is not clear.”

“Tool use in insects is largely genetically controlled and evolved from selection of advantageous genetic mutations,” says Gavin R. Hunt at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. This is unlike most tool use in birds or primates, which begins as novel behaviour and can sometimes be enhanced through genetic changes, he says.

Journal reference: Animal Behaviour, DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2016.11.005