Field of Science


The photo above (copyright Dmitry Telnov) shows a millipede of the genus Salpidobolus, photographed in West Papua. Salpidobolus is a genus of the family Rhinocricidae (in the order Spirobolida) that is found over a range from the Philippines, Sulawesi and Lombok in the west to Fiji in the east and Queensland in the south. There are also a handful of species that have been described from northern South America as part of Polyconoceras, a genus now regarded as synonymous with Salpidobolus, but Hoffman (1974) expressed the expectation on biogeographical grounds that future revision will show these species to be misplaced. Salpidobolus species are scavengers of vegetable matter and most active at night. When threatened, they can release a caustic spray from glands on the body segments that can cause irritation if it contacts mucous membranes such as around the eyes (Hudson & Parsons 1997). There are also reports (albeit unconfirmed) of production of bioluminescence by Salpidobolus (see here); observations on other millipedes suggest such bioluminescence could be related to the aforementioned caustic spray.

As has been mentioned in an earlier post, most millipedes tend not to be extravagant in their external variation, and spirobolidan millipedes look about as millipede-y as you can get. Notable features of the spirobolids as a whole include the presence of only a single pair of legs on each of the first five body rings, and modification of the eight and ninth pairs of legs into the gonopods (Milli-PEET). The Rhinocricidae are characterised by a broad collum (the first segment behind the head) with a rounded ventrolateral margin, and the anterior gonopods forming a single, more or less triangular, transverse plate. Sensory pits called scobinae are often present on the dorsal segments (Marek et al. 2003). Below the family level, as with other millipedes, it all comes down to genitalia. In Salpidobolus, the distal section of the posterior gonopods is flagellate and divided into two branches, one branch carrying the seminal channel (Hoffman 1974).

Gonopods of Salpidobolus meyeri, from Hoffman (1974).

The status of Salpidobolus was most recently reviewed by Hoffman (1974). The majority of species now included in the genus had previously been placed in the separate genera Dinematocricus or Polyconoceras. Salpidobolus was initially restricted to the type species, S. meyeri from Sulawesi, which differs from other species in the presence on the first three pairs of legs of distinct processes on some of the leg segments. Dinematocricus and Polyconoceras were supposed to differ on the basis of the number of sensilla at the end of each antenna: four in Dinematocricus, more than four in Polyconoceras. Hoffman felt that none of these differences warranted generic separation in light of the consistency of gonopod structure between the three 'genera', and united them all under the oldest available name.


Hoffman, R. L. 1974. Studies on spiroboloid millipeds. X. Commentary on the status of Salpidobolus and some related rhinocricid genera. Revue Suisse de Zoologie 81(1): 189–203.

Hudson, B. J., & G. A. Parsons. 1997. Giant millipede ‘burns’ and the eye. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 91: 183–185.

Marek, P. E., J. E. Bond & P. Sierwald. 2003. Rhinocricidae systematics II: a species catalog of the Rhinocricidae (Diplopoda: Spirobolida) with synonymies. Zootaxa 308: 1–108.

Water Moulds

Salmonid infected with Saprolegnia, from the Scottish Government.

In the 1970s and 1980s, stocks of salmon and trout around the North Atlantic Ocean took a sizeable hit. Mature fish entering fresh water had their skin break out in lesions that eventually became covered in a slimy, cottony growth. With the lesions eventually eating into the underlying tissue, many fish died from these infections before they could spawn.

The disease became known as ulcerative dermal necrosis, and its underlying cause remains unknown. The cottony growth so often associated with the disease, however, was made up of a mould-like organism called Saprolegnia. Saprolegnia belongs to a family Saprolegniaceae in a group of organisms known as the Oomycetes, commonly referred to as 'water moulds'. Most Saprolegniaceae function as saprobes, living off decaying organic matter. A few, however, can occasionally function as pathogens. In the case of the aforementioned necrosis outbreak, the Saprolegnia would have been a secondary infection that exacerbated the progress of the disease. Another genus, Aphanomycese, includes species that can cause root rot in vegetables such as peas or beets (Johnson et al. 2002).

Mature and developing oogonia of Saprolegnia, copyright George Barron.

In habit and lifestyle, water moulds resemble fungi, and were long classified as such. When they were first described in the 1700s, however, they were identified as algae due to similarities in their cell and spore morphology to freshwater algae such as Vaucheria. In recent decades, it has become clear that it was these original observers that were closer to the mark. Oomycetes are not directly related to the true fungi, but belong to a lineage known as the heterokonts or stramenopiles. Most heterokonts are microbial, but they also include algal forms such as the brown algae and (yes) Vaucheria. The heterokont affinities of water moulds become apparent during asexual reproduction when they produce motile zoospores bearing a pair of flagella (though many 'water moulds' are terrestrial rather than aquatic, these zoospores do require water to spread). As is typical of heterokonts, these two flagella differ in appearance: the anterior flagellum bears a series of lateral side-branches whereas the posterior flagellum in smooth. Other significant differences between oomycetes and true fungi are that oomycetes are diploid through the greater part of their life cycle (fungi are haploid), and their cell walls are composed not of chitin but of other compounds such as glucans and/or cellulose.

Drawing of zoospores of Saprolegnia, showing divergent flagella, from here.

Characteristic features of the Saprolegniaceae in particular include their possession of relatively broad hyphae, up to 150 µm in some cases (Dick 2001), that are not divided into cells by septae. Other distinguishing features relate to the production of reproductive cells. Most oomycetes are capable of both asexual and sexual reproduction, though one genus of Saprolegniaceae, Aplanopsis, is only known to reproduce sexually. In asexual reproduction, the motile zoospores are produced within a distinct zoosporangium (some other oomycetes do not separate the zoosporangium from the adjoining hypha until after zoospore formation). When first released, the zoospores move relatively little and soon transform into an immotile cyst. This cyst will eventually revert back into a zoospore, and it is at this stage that the greater part of dispersal happens. This secondary zoospore will then transform again into a cyst, from which will grow the mature hyphae.

Hyphae of an Achlya-like oomycete, with clusters of encysted zoospores at the ends of emptied zoosporangia, from here.

Sexual reproduction involves the production of distinct oogonia and antheridia, with the latter fertilising the former to produce oospores (some species can produce oospores parthenogenetically). These differ from zoospores in being aflagellate and immobile, with thick walls that make them more resistant to adverse conditions. Oospores of Saprolegniaceae contain oil globules that probably function as an energy store (like the endosperm of a plant seed). Depending on the species, the distribution of oil globules may vary between numerous small globules evenly distributed around the periphery of the centrally located cytoplasm (referred to as 'centric'), or one large globule pushing the cytoplasm off to one side ('eccentric'). An oospore may geminate into hyphae alone, or it may produce hyphae topped by zoosporangia.

Oogonium of Saprolegnia, with associated antheridium, copyright George Barron.

The genera of Saprolegniaceae have been primarily distinguished by features of the zoosporangia, such as the manner of release of the zoospores. In some genera, the initial zoospores may have already progressed to encystment or the secondary zoospore stage by the time they fully emerge. In genera such as Achlya, the spores are released from a single terminal opening and form a clump at the end of the emptied sporangium. In others such as Saprolegnia, they disperse individually as soon as they escape. And in genera such as Dictyuchus, the zoosporangium wall opens in multiple places and the spores are all sent out by their own distinct orifice. However, more recent phylogenetic studies have cast doubt on the integrity of some of these genera: the Achlya type of zoospore dispersal, for instance, is probably basal for the Saprolegniaceae as a whole and this genus is polyphyletic.


Dick, M. W. 2001. Straminipilous Fungi: Systematics of the Peronosporomycetes including accounts of the marine straminipilous protists, the plasmodiophorids and other similar organisms. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Johnson, T. W., Jr, R. L. Seymour & D. E. Padgett. 2002. Biology and systematics of the Saprolegniaceae.

The Hawaiian Honeycreepers: Diversity in Danger

'Apapane Himatione sanguinea, copyright Peter LaTourette.

In 1938, avian malaria was discovered to have affected pigeons in the city of Honolulu (Amadon 1950). This might have seemed like a minor detail—except among breeders, pigeons do not normally elicit much concern from the average person—but it was to prove a disaster. From the pigeons, the disease spread into native birdlife of the Hawaiian archipelago and wreaked havoc. Many species living at lower elevations were wiped out, unable to withstand the disease's effects. Others were forced into remnant populations above an elevation of 1500m, where the disease's mosquito vectors were unable to survive.

Among the malaria's victims were several species of the Hawaiian honeycreepers, a group of small birds unique to the archipelago. The honeycreepers have become recognised as one of the classic examples of an island adaptive radiation, like the Madagascan vangas or the Galapagos finches. From the original colonisation of the archipelago by what was probably a fairly generalised finch-like bird, perhaps some five or six million years ago (Lerner et al. 2011), the Drepanidini have diversified into a disparate array of seed-eaters, insectivores and nectar-feeders. Some have evolved massive reinforced bills to crush the seeds of local trees such as koa or naio. Other have long slender bills that they use to reach into the depths of flowers or prise insect larvae from holes in bark. Currently, about fifty species of honeycreeper are known to have been present in the Hawaiian archipelago prior to human settlement; new ones continue to be described from fossil or subfossil remains. Sadly, due to factors such as habitat loss, competition with and predation by introduced fauna, and diseases such as the aforementioned malaria, only about twenty species remain alive today and many of those are critically endangered.

Maui 'alauahio Paroreomyza montana, copyright Markus Lagerqvist.

Older references will refer to the Hawaiian honeycreepers as their own family, the Drepanididae, due as much to long-standing uncertainty about their relationships to other birds as to their own distinctiveness. Many authors, such as Amadon (1950), argued for a connection between the honeycreepers and the South American flowerpiercers of the tanager family, believing that the nectar-feeders among the Drepanididae were closer in appearance to the group's original ancestor. However, recent studies, both molecular and morphological, have been unified in supporting a connection between the honeycreepers and the finches of the Fringillidae, leading to the demotion of the 'family' Drepanididae to a 'tribe' Drepanidini of the fringillids. In his original studies on the honeycreepers, Perkins recognised two subgroups: the 'melanodrepanines' were mostly nectar-feeders and were largely black and/or red in coloration, whereas the 'chlorodrepanines' were mostly seed-eaters or insectivores and usually yellow or greenish. Recent studies have supported the 'melanodrepanines' as a clade but identified the 'chlorodrepanines' as paraphyletic.

Po'o-uli Melamprosops phaeosoma, copyright Paul Baker.

One unusual feature of many Drepanidini is that they carry a distinctive scent that has been referred to as the 'drepanidine odour' (this site describes it as a sweet, musty smell). Two primarily insectivorous genera, the po'o-uli Melamprosops phaeosoma and the ʻalauahios Paroreomyza, lack this 'drepanidine odour', and on the basis of this and a couple of other points it has been questioned whether they are properly assigned to the Drepanidini. However, the osteological analysis of Drepanidini by James (2004) confirmed their position as drepanidines, a result that has since been corroborated by molecular analyses. It seems likely that Melamprosops and Paroreomyza are basal drepanidines outside an 'odoriferous' clade (Pratt 2014). Together with the akikiki Oreomystis bairdi, these species form a basal grade of generalist feeders with fairly slender bills. It is possible that the akikiki and the Maui ʻalauahio Paroreomyza montana are the only members of this grade surviving.

Laysan finches Telespiza cantans, copyright S. Plentovich.

The next clade of drepanidines to diverge in molecular phylogenies includes the Hawaiian finches, an assemblage of often seed- or fruit-eating species with thick, strong bills (Pratt 2014). James' (2004) osteological analysis did not resolve the finches as a single clade, instead intermingling them with the aforementioned grade. Again, the finches have been hard hit by extinction, with the only survivors being the palila Loxioides bailleui, the Laysan finch Telespiza cantans and the Nihoa finch T. ultima. Amadon (1950) noted that the Kona grosbeak Chloridops kona was extremely rare even when first discovered in the late 1800s, being restricted to an area of only 'a few square miles' in the Kona district of Hawai'i. The grosbeaks of the genus Chloridops and the koa finches of the genus Rhodacanthis had particularly strongly developed bills for cracking seeds, looking almost parrot-like in the case of Chloridops (James 2004). Of uncertain relationships to the finches are two unusual extinct species, the 'o'u Psittirostra psittacea and the Lanai hookbill Dysmorodrepanis munroi. The 'o'u was a fruit-eating, large-billed bird that was once widespread on the main islands of the Hawaiian archipelago (in contrast to most other honeycreeper species, which were mostly restricted to a single island). It was last definitely recorded in 1989 and continued survival is considered unlikely. The Lanai hookbill was a particularly bizarre species in which the mandible and maxilla were curved toward each other, so that the base of the bill gaped open even when the beak was closed. The single known specimen is unusual enough that Amadon (1950) did not accept that it represented an actual species, expressing the opinion that it was probably a deformed 'o'u specimen; current authors accept it as a good species.

Crested honeycreeper Palmeria dolei, from the US Geological Survey.

As noted above, the nectar-feeding 'melanodrepanines' form a well-supported clade including three surviving species: the 'i'iwi Drepanis coccinea, the crested honeycreeper or akohekohe Palmeria dolei and the 'apapane Himatione sanguinea, the last of which is one of the more abundant living honeycreepers. The melanodrepanines have slender bills, which in the species of Drepanis (the 'i'iwi and two extinct species of mamo) are long and downcurved. Also probably belonging to the melanodrepanines is the extinct ʻula-ʻai-hawane Ciridops anna, which shared their black and red plumage despite being a fruit- rather than a nectar-feeder.

Kaua'i 'akialoa Akialoa procerus (front) and Kaua'i nukupuu Hemignathus hanapepe (rear), from Keulemans (1890).

The final group of drepanidines to be considered here is also the largest, and contains the most surviving species: the 'amakihis of the genus Chlorodrepanis, the 'akepas Loxops, and related taxa. These are slender-billed insectivorous forms with the more generalist species being similar in appearance to the basal genera Paroreomyza and Oreomystis. Indeed, the classification of drepanidines by Amadon (1950), which was decidedly more lumpy than the current norm, subsumed the latter two genera in an expanded Loxops. Possibly related to this group are the extinct 'akialoas of the genus (wait for it...) Akialoa, which had an extremely long down-curved bill. Two other genera of this group, Hemignathus (including the ʻakiapolaʻau Hemignathus wilsoni) and the Maui parrotbill Pseudonestor xanthophrys, are unique among passerines in having a maxilla that significantly overhangs the much shorter mandible. The Maui parrotbill, despite being primarily an insectivore, has a heavier bill somewhat reminiscent of the finch group, and James' (2004) morphological analysis (which was primarily based on skull features) associated it with Psittirostra and Dysmorodrepanis rather than with Hemignathus; the latter association, however, is supported by molecular analyses, indicating a single origin for the unequal bills.

The loss of this remarkable radiation can be regarded as nothing short of a tragedy. Only two species of Hawaiian honeycreeper are currently regarded as not threatened (as given in the IUCN listings at Wikipedia), the 'apapane and the common 'amakihi Chlorodrepanis virens. Even these species could become endangered as a warming climate allows malaria-carrying mosquitoes to encroach further on their highland refuges. And something truly wonderful could be lost from the world.


Amadon, D. 1950. The Hawaiian honeycreepers (Aves, Drepaniidae). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 92 (4): 151–262.

James, H. F. 2004. The osteology and phylogeny of the Hawaiian finch radiation (Fringillidae: Drepanidini), including extinct taxa. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 141: 207–255.

Lerner, H. R. L., M. Meyer, H. F. James, M. Hofreiter & R. C. Fleischer. 2011. Multilocus resolution of phylogeny and timescale in the extant adaptive radiation of Hawaiian honeycreepers. Current Biology 21: 1838–1844.

Pratt, H. D. 2014. A consensus taxonomy for the Hawaiian honeycreepers. Occasional Papers of the Museum of Natural Science, Louisiana State University 85: 1–20.

The Erisocrinoidea: Shallow Crinoids

Articulated calyx of Erisocrinus typus, copyright Richard Paselk.

The close of the Permian period saw the largest mass extinction ever recorded. It has been estimated that about 95% of all marine species were wiped out. Many prominent Palaeozoic lineages disappeared entirely; others were reduced to a mere remnant of their former selves.

One of the casualties of the end-Permian extinction was the crinoid group known as the Erisocrinoidea (or Erisocrinacea in older texts). These were a diverse group of crinoids divided between several families, recorded from the Carboniferous and Permian periods. One species, Erisocrinus typus, is known from a large number of well-preserved, articulated specimens from the mid-Late Carboniferous of the United States and is one of the best representatives of the Palaeozoic cladid crinoids. Erisocrinoids are characterised by a low cup, dominated by the ring of radial plates. The base of cup was often recessed, meaning that the basal and infrabasal plate rings were often partially or entirely obscured in outer view. Most significantly, the array of anal plates found in other crinoids was reduced to a single plate or even lost. The insertion points of the arms bear signs of strong muscular articulation, indicating that these were animals of higher-energy environments requiring more exertion to maintain an ideal feeding position. The anal sac, where it is preserved, was only weakly plated and would have been reasonably soft in life (Moore et al. 1978).

In other respects, though, the erisocrinoids could be somewhat disparate. Many, such as the type family Erisocrinidae and the families Protencrinidae and Catacrinidae, have biserial arms in which the arm's skeleton is comprised of paired rows of plates. In other families, such as the Graphiocrinidae and Diphuicrinidae, the arms were uniserial, with only a single row of plates. Webster & Maples (2006) noted that, even though all erisocrinoids shared the character of a reduced anal plate array, the exact position in the cup of the anal plate or its remnant differed between families. They therefore suggested that the erisocrinoids might not be a monophyletic group, but members of a number of different lineages that had converged on a similar morphology and presumably lifestyle.

This was not an entirely novel suggestion. Even while recognising a single superfamily Erisocrinacea, Moore et al. (1978) had suggested connections between individual erisocrinoid families and families placed in other superfamilies. The integrity of the Erisocrinoidea had also been questioned in relation to Encrinus, a genus from the Middle Triassic that had been included with the erisocrinoids on the basis of its combination of biserial arms and lack of an anal plate. If this assignment was correct, erisocrinoids would have survived the end-Permian extinction: the only crinoid lineage to do so other than the Articulata, the clade including the living sea lilies and feather stars. Articulates retain uniserial arms, a more plesiomorphic characteristic. However, while investigating the evolutionary origins of the articulates, Simms & Sevastopulo (1993) pointed out that Encrinus shared derived features with articulates that were absent in erisocrinoids. For instance, while Encrinus and the erisocrinoids both had each of the basic five echinoderm arms branching to form a total array of ten arms, in Encrinus they branched from the second primibrachial plate as in articulates, instead of from the first as in erisocrinoids. Rather than being a late-surviving erisocrinoid, Encrinus was an early side-branch of the articulates, and as far as is known only a single crinoid lineage survived the Permian.


Moore, R. C., N. G. Lane, H. L. Strimple, J. Sprinkle & R. O. Fay. 1978. Inadunata. In: Moore, R. C., & C. Teichert (eds.) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt T. Echinodermata 2. Crinoidea vol. 2 pp. T520–T759. The Geological Society of America, Inc.: Boulder (Colorado), and The University of Kansas: Lawrence (Kansas).

Simms, M. J., & G. D. Sevastopulo. 1993. The origin of articulate crinoids. Palaeontology 36 (1): 91–109.

Webster, G. D., & C. G. Maples. 2006. Cladid crinoid (Echinodermata) anal conditions: a terminology problem and proposed solution. Palaeontology 49 (1): 187–212.

A Crab Out of Water

Crabs are, of course, one of the most instantly recognisable groups of crustaceans. We all know what they look like, and we all know where can find them: under rocks at the beach, among seaweed,... climbing trees?

The Sri Lankan climbing crab Ceylonthelphusa scansor, copyright Harsha Meemaduma.

Though most of us probably think of crabs as animals of the seaside, there are several crab lineages that are found further inland, either in bodies of fresh water or among damp forests. One such group is the Parathelphusinae, an assemblage of freshwater crabs found in south-east Asia and the Indian subcontinent. A single genus, Somanniathelphusa, is found in southern China as far north as Taiwan and the adjacent mainland. Another, Austrothelphusa, is found in Australia. The group is diverse and new species continue to be described at a fair rate of knots. Most are found in swamps or on the banks of water bodies, in which they dig burrows up to a metre in depth (Davie 2002). They often emerge from the water to forage terrestrially, and at least one species, the Sri Lankan Ceylonthelphusa scansor, has been found in association with phytotelmata (water-filled hollows) in trees (Ng 2005). Parathelphusines are distinguished from the other subfamily of the Asian freshwater crab family Gecarcinucidae, the Gecarcinucinae, by the presence of a strong lateral groove on the male's second gonopods (Klaus et al. 2006). Until recently, most sources have treated these two groups as distinct families, but phylogenetic studies have suggested the Gecarcinucidae in the restricted sense to be non-monophyletic. The situation is further complicated by the diagnostic gonopod groove becoming reduced in some genera, so their gonopods look superficially more like gecarcinucines'.

Paddyfield crab Parathelphusa convexa in west Java, copyright Wibowo Djatmiko.

The Gecarcinucidae differ from the grapsoid terrestrial crabs referred to in earlier posts in that they do not need to return to the sea to release their eggs to hatch into larvae. Instead, gecarcinucids produce relatively large eggs that hatch directly into miniature crabs, that are brooded for a short period by the females before being released to face the world. Because of the lack of a planktonic stage, some parathelphusines have quite restricted ranges, and many are threatened by human developments.


Davie, P. J. F. 2002. Zoological Catalogue of Australia vol. 19.3B. Crustacea: Malacostraca: Eucarida (part 2): Decapoda—Anomura, Brachyura. CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood (Australia).

Klaus, S., C. D. Schubart & D. Brandis. 2006. Phylogeny, biogeography and a new taxonomy for the Gecarcinucoidea Rathbun, 1904 (Decapoda: Brachyura). Organisms, Diversity and Evolution 6: 199–217.

Ng, P. K. L. 1995. Ceylonthelphusa scansor, a new species of tree-climbing crab from Sinharaja Forest in Sri Lanka (Crustacea: Decapoda: Brachyura: Parathelphusidae). J. South Asian nat. Hist. 1 (2): 175–184.

The Polyctenidae: Blood-sucking Bugs on Bats

Dorsal, ventral and lateral views of Eoctenes spasmae, from Marshall (1982).

If you ever feel inclined to scan through host records for ectoparasites (and really, why wouldn't you?), you may be struck by the impression that bats seem to be peculiarly lousy animals. There seems to be an unexpected number of groups of ectoparasites that have their highest number of species on bats. One possible reason for this is that, with over 900 potential host species, bat-parasite diversity is high simply because bat diversity is high. Nevertheless, there are other features peculiar to bats that make them excellent parasite hosts. The modification of their fore-legs into wings means that their ability to groom themselves is curtailed. Because many bat species roost in dense colonies, transmission of parasites from one bat to another may happen freely. And because most bats will consistently return to the same roost, speciation is promoted by each colony becoming like an isolated island.

At the same time, referring to bats as 'lousy' is misleading because one ectoparasite group that is curiously absent from bats is the true lice (why this should be I have no idea). Instead, bats are often host to a number of parasite groups all of their own. One such group is the Polyctenidae, flightless true bugs that are found only on bats in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Polyctenids are closely related to the bed bugs of the Cimicidae and are not dissimilar in appearance. Noticeable differences are their relatively shorter antennae and absence of eyes. They also possess a number of bristle combs at various places on the body, roughly similar in appearance to those on fleas. Their front legs are short and have sucker-like structures on the tarsi instead of claws; the hind two pairs of legs are longer and clawed. The manner of movement of the legs is specialised for crawling among the hair of their host; if removed from the host, the bug is unable to move on a flat surface. Transmission of bugs from one host to another presumably happens only through direct physical contact. Polyctenids share with bed bugs the notorious practice of traumatic insemination with each male injecting sperm directly into the female's body cavity via sharpened genitalia. However, unlike bed bugs they are viviparous, producing live nymphs instead of eggs. The developing embryos are nourished by a 'pseudoplacenta' with a single female potentially containing several developing embryos in a conveyor arrangement at different stages of development. The most mature of these embryos protrudes from the female's genital opening for some time prior to birth and may be a third of its mother's size when born (Marshall 1982).

Type specimen of Hesperoctenes giganteus, from here.

Five genera of polyctenids are generally recognised, with four genera found in the Old World and only a single genus, Hesperoctenes, in the New World (Maa 1964; Ueshima 1972). A second New World genus, Parahesperoctenes, was described in 1947 from a single female, but as the features supposedly distinguishing it from Hesperoctenes related to the consistent duplication of combs, etc., it is thought likely that this was an ordinary individual of Hesperoctenes on the cusp of moulting from a nymph to an adult (so the features of the adult cuticle were visible through the translucent nymphal cuticle). Most of the polyctenid species have a restricted host range, being found on only a single bat species or a small number of closely related species. Some species of Hesperoctenes are more flexible, being found on a range of host species. Hesperoctenes and the Old World genus Hypoctenes are found on free-tailed bats of the Molossidae. Of the other Old World genera, Adroctenes is found on horseshoe bats and leaf-nosed bats of the Rhinolophidae and Hipposideridae, Polyctenes is found on ghost bats of the Megadermatidae, and Eoctenes is found on Megadermatidae, Nycterididae and Emballonuridae. Records of polyctenids from other bat families are currently regarded as suspicious, due to either mislabelling or cross-contamination. Ueshima (1972) suggested that records of Hesperoctenes fumarius from the bulldog bat Noctilio labialis might result from bugs being transferred while the bulldog bats were sharing a roost with their more usual molossid hosts.

Relationships between the genera were discussed by Maa (1964) who divided the family between two subfamilies on the basis of comparative features; a formal phylogenetic analysis of the family appears to still be wanting. On the basis of Hesperoctenes being the 'most specialised' genus and its shared host family with Adroctenes, Maa suggested an Old World origin for Polyctenidae. Eoctenes, with its broad host family range, was regarded as 'least specialised' and likely to be evolutionarily older than other genera. Many of the features distinguishing the polyctenid genera relate to the arrangement of combs: which combs are present where and how they are developed. Prior to Maa's revision, Hesperoctenes had been regarded as likely to be primitive within the Polyctenidae due to its relatively low number of combs. The mid- and hind legs of Adroctenes are fairly short compared to those of other genera.


Maa, T. C. 1964. A review of the Old World Polyctenidae (Hemiptera: Cimicoidea). Pacific Insects 6 (3): 494–516.

Marshall, A. G. 1982. The ecology of the bat ectoparasite Eoctenes spasmae (Hemiptera: Polyctenidae) in Malaysia. Biotropica 14 (1): 50–55.

Ueshima, N. 1972. New World Polyctenidae (Hemiptera), with special reference to Venezuelan species. Brigham Young University Science Bulletin, Biological Series 17 (1): 13–21.

In a Pichia

Culture of Pichia membranifaciens, from Tomas Linder.

In my previous post, I alluded to the revolutionary effect that DNA analysis had on the classification of bacteria. A similar thing happened for the study of yeasts. Previously, the taxonomy of yeasts (i.e. unicellular fungi) had suffered for the same reasons as bacterial taxonomy: a dearth of usable morphological features combined with uncertainty about the significance or otherwise of metabolic variations. With the availability of genetic information, the relations between yeast taxa became far easier to ascertain.

Needless to say, this lead to a significant shake-up in our understanding of individual yeast taxa. One of the harder-hit taxa was the genus Pichia, previously recognised as a large genus of close to 100 species. Molecular phylogenetic analyses showed that the various species of Pichia were widely scattered within the Saccharomycotina, a fungal clade that includes a large number of yeast species (including such familiar taxa as the brewer's or baker's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae). This probably did not come as a huge shock: part of the reason for Pichia's size was that it had not been very stringently defined. Members of this genus were characterised by multilateral budding (that is, buds could develop anywhere along the side of the yeast cell) on a narrow base. They could produce hyphae and/or pseudohyphae (except when they didn't), they might ferment sugars (except when they couldn't), and nitrate might be used as their sole source of nitrogen (except when it wasn't). Pichia spores might be hat-shaped, hemispheroidal or spherical, and they might or might not have a ledge or rim around the equator (Kurtzman 2011).

All of which adds up to a genus that probably tended to be defined as 'the genus that includes any yeast not belonging to these other genera'. In other words, the classic concept of a wastebasket taxon. As a result, the genus has been progressively pared down to a smaller array of species concentrated around the type, Pichia membranifaciens. This is a yeast commonly found as a spoilage organism on foods such as fruit or cheese. Among its other sins, it may grow as a film in the surface of wine, giving the wine an off taste. However, it's not all bad news: recently, P. membranifaciens has been studied as a potential biocontrol agent as it may produce a toxin that has an inhibitory effect on other contaminating fungi (Santos et al. 2009).

A growing culture of Komagataella pastoris, from here.

Somewhat unfortunately, one of the species to be expelled from Pichia is perhaps the best-studied: the yeast formerly known as Pichia pastoris (now supposed to be referred to as Komagataella pastoris though a quick Google Scholar search suggests that a great many authors are pretending that hasn't happened). This species can be grown using methanol as a sole carbon source, and protocols were developed in the 1970s for growing it in high densities at an industrial scale. The original plan was for it to be used for high-protein stock-feed using methanol produced as a by-product of oil refining (the modern agricultural industry has been described as the process of turning oil into food; this would have been a somewhat literal example). Rising oil prices rendered this proposal economically inviable but the P. pastoris industry was to have a reprieve, as the culture method was adopted as a means of producing active proteins (Cereghino & Cregg 2000). Procedures were developed for inserting foreign genes into the yeast, with the resulting pure methanol-based culture allowing the target protein to be generated at a greater rate and higher purity than might be possibly with a culture of the original source organism. Enzymes for laboratory studies, vaccines, medical products such as insulin: whatsitsname pastoris has been used in the production of them all.


Cereghino, J. L., & J. M. Cregg. 2000. Heterologous protein expression in the methylotrophic yeast Pichia pastoris. FEMS Microbiology Reviews 24: 45–66.

Kurtzman, C. P. 2011. Phylogeny of the ascomycetous yeasts and the renaming of Pichia anomala to Wickerhamomyces anomalus. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek 99: 13–23.

Santos, A., M. San Mauro, E. Bravo & D. Marquina. 2009. PMKT2, a new killer toxin from Pichia membranifaciens, and its promising biotechnological properties for control of the spoilage yeast Brettanomyces bruxellensis. Microbiology 155: 624–634.