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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bug Wars: Spider Attacks Grasshopper and Disappears Down Black Hole

This week I have renamed Sam (NHM's media producer for Nature Lab) Spider-Man! He's been out and about carefully sticking a mechanic's device into spider homes, so visitors to our Spider Pavilion can get a view into spider lives, like never before.

Funnel web spider, family Agelenidae

Why you may ask? It's all in an effort to offer something new and interesting to Spider Pavilion visitors, and to test out ideas we have for media content in our upcoming Nature Lab exhibit. So Sam has been trekking around hillsides in the Santa Monica Mountains trying to find inhabited funnel webs.

Some hillsides are better than others. The best ones are covered with hundreds of webs, like miniature spider cities. When Sam finds a good web for filming he sets up his equipment and gently probes into the funnel to see if anyone's home. He's using a borescope, an optical device used by mechanics to inspect hard to see parts of engines. Sam has also been setting up HD camera traps above the funnels to catch spiders in the act.

Sam using the Borescope

Check out this bug war: Spider versus Grasshopper!

To see more of the hidden lives of spiders visit our Spider Pavilion, opening September 25.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gecko Hunting!

Instead of spending a cozy night in, reading Biology of Spiders (did I mention we're opening our Spider Pavilion at the end of September?), I went to Chatsworth on a gecko hunt!

At 8:30pm I parked on a dark street to meet up with a bunch of other lizard geeks (or Herpers, as they much prefer to be called). Among the party was my Museum colleague, Leslie Gordon (a self-proclaimed lizard lady and manager of our live vertebrate program), and Dr. Bobby Espinoza, Cal State Northridge's professor and researcher in the Laboratory of Integrative and Comparative Herpetology.  

Mediterranean House Gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus, trying to hide in a crack

We were here in deepest, darkest suburbia, looking for Mediterranean House Geckos (MHG), an introduced species of lizard from, you guessed it, the Mediterranean. As mentioned in an earlier post this is the first population of these lizards found in Los Angeles, and a boon to Bobby for his research. We were collecting the lizards so Bobby could sprint them down a racetrack! Seriously, Bobby is looking at temperature dependent performance in multiple gecko species. This will be the first batch of MHGs that Bobby has sent down the track. In total we collected 14 individuals. I wonder how they'll fare on the track?

Here are some pictures from our adventure:

Herpers looking high and low

Me showing off my awesome headlamp and geckos!

Bobby and one of his students counting lizards

Friday, August 5, 2011

Waiter There's a Wasp in my Fig!

A couple weeks ago we had the second round of our North Campus insect survey. Fifteen Museum staff tromped around the North Campus to see what insectuous wonders we could collect. Although we found some notably large specimens, the largest being a 3-inch bird grasshopper (Schistocerca sp.), the most interesting find was actually something a lot smaller. Much, much smaller in fact: a minute fig wasp about 2 millimeters in length!

Female Fig Wasp, Pleistodontes sp.

Fig wasps belong to the wasp family Agaonidae and as their name implies, they have a life history intricately linked with fig trees, family Moraceae. In fact fig trees can not produce figs without the wasps, and the wasps can't reproduce without the figs! The way this mutually beneficial relationship works is quite astonishing, especially if you take a journey to the core of a ripening fig!

Journey to the Center of the Fig
It all starts when a mature female fig wasp enters the synconium (an immature fig if you will) through its natural opening, called the ostiole. This sounds really easy when you think how small these wasps are, but nature has not made it easy on the fig wasp, as the opening is actually too small for the adult wasp to enter without damaging herself. It's so small that the fig wasp often loses her wings and much of her antennae as she struggles through the opening. To enable passage through the ostiole, the underside of her head is also equipped with spines that help to get a grip as she's going through the hole (see image above).

Once inside the synconium she passes over the fig's female flowers and inadvertently deposits pollen from the male flowers of her original host tree. She then deposits her eggs in the cavity. Her business being done, she dies. The Pleistodontes fig wasp we found is, interestingly, not a pollinator of edible figs. Instead, it is a pollinator of ornamental figs which can be found in backyards and parks across Los Angeles.

Once pollinated, the fig fruit begins to develop, consuming the wasp's dead body in the process. The eggs hatch and the larvae consume small parts of the developing fig. After the larva eat enough fig, they pupate and finally emerge as adult male and female wasps. The wingless male wasps have only two functions to perform in their short livesto mate and to escape! Finding a mate inside the fig isn't too difficult for the male wasp as all of his sisters are stuck inside the fig with him (remember how small the ostiole opening is). After he mates with at least one of his siblings (or offspring from another wasp), he begins digging a tunnel to exit the fig. This tunnel is the escape route that the female wasp uses to exit the fig, but not before she picks up pollen from the male flowers. This pollen will eventually pollinate the developing fig she visits to lay her own eggs in, and thus the life cycles of both fig and fig wasp continue. 

All I can say is WOW! Nature is weird, wonderful, and so cool!

Thanks to entomology curator Brian Brown for identifying and photographing the wasp.