Field of Science

Apiocera: Flower-Loving Flies that Don't Particularly Care for Flowers

The insect world is full of animals that may be striking in appearance but about which we know relatively little. Such, for instance, are the flies of the genus Apiocera.

Male Apiocera, copyright Chris Lambkin.


Apiocera is a genus of a bit over 130 known species of relatively large flies, about half an inch to an inch in length, that are found in hot, arid habitats in disparate parts of the world: western North America, southern South America, southernmost Africa and Australia. Records of Apiocera from Borneo and Sri Lanka were regarded by Yeates and Irwin (1996) as probably errors. They are similar in their overall appearance to the robber flies of the family Asilidae, differing lacking the piercing mouthparts of robber flies or the moustache of bristles below the antennae. The venation of their wings is more similar to that of the mydas flies of the Mydidae, but they differ from most mydids in having shorter antennae and the regular triangle of three round ocelli on top of the head (Woodley 2009).

Observations of Apiocera species have been fairly few. A study of North American species by Toft & Kimsey (1982) found them to be restricted to sandy habitats with a fair amount of subsurface moisture, such as the shores of lakes and rivers or among sand dunes. The larvae, so far as we know, are similar to those of robber flies and are probably burrowing predators in the sand. Adults emerge from holes in the ground late in the growing season. In some places (such as Wikipedia), you may find Apiocera referred to as 'flower-loving flies' but visits to flowers are few. Toft & Kimsey (1982) found that the species they observed emerged after most plants had finished flowering and, indeed, questions have been raised historically as to whether adult Apiocera feed at all. Nevertheless, they may take honeydew from plant-sucking insects, and I will direct you to the photo below by Jean & Fred Hort that seems to show at least one Apiocera individual feeding at a flower. Males may congregate at certain locations, seemingly to form leks, though it is unclear whether they maintain territories. Toft & Kimsey (1982) noted that tussels between males of A. hispida were common, observing that "two males would make rapid contact in mid-flight, and stay together in a buzzing, tumbling ball for several seconds".


There seems to be little question that Apiocera and mydas flies are closely related. In fact, an analysis of Apiocera's phylogenetic relationships by Yeates & Irwin (1996) lead to a number of other genera that had previously been classified with Apiocera in the family Apioceridae being reassigned to the Mydidae (I suspect that it is the behaviour of these other 'apiocerids' that is behind the erroneous association of Apiocera with the 'flower-loving' moniker). Apioceridae is still maintained as a distinct family for Apiocera alone but, as noted by Woodley (2009), one could be forgiven for questioning whether Apiocera would be better treated as a very basal mydid. But that, of course, is simply a question of categories.

REFERENCES

Toft, C. A., & L. S. Kimsey. 1982. Habitat and behavior of selected Apiocera and Rhaphiomidas (Diptera, Apioceridae), and descriptions of immature stages of A. hispida. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 55 (1): 177–186.

Woodley, N. E. 2009. Apioceridae (apiocerid flies). In: Brown, B. V., A. Borkent, J. M. Cumming, D. M. Wood, N. E. Woodley & M. A. Zumbado (eds) Manual of Central American Diptera vol. 1 pp. 577–578. NRC Research Press: Ottawa.

Yeates, D. K., & M. E. Irwin. 1996. Apioceridae (Insecta: Diptera): cladistic reappraisal and biogeography. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 116: 247–301.

The Running of the Crabs

There are many varieties of spider in the world that, while not necessarily uncommon, tend to be little known to the general public owing to their cryptic and retiring nature. As an example, meet the genus Philodromus.

Philodromus cespitum, copyright R. Altenkamp.


Philodromus is the largest genus recognised in the family Philodromidae, commonly referred to as the running crab spiders or small huntsman spiders. About 250 species have been assigned to this genus from various parts of the world (Muster 2009), mostly in the Holarctic region. Like the huntsman spiders of the Sparassidae and the crab spiders of the Thomisidae, philodromids are an example of what old publications often referred to as 'laterigrade' spiders, in which the legs are arranged to extend sideways from the body more than forwards and backwards. They have eight eyes arranged in two recurved rows of four. Philodromids differ from crab spiders in having scopulae (clusters of hairs that can look a bit like little booties) on the leg tarsi, and having secondary eyes that lack a tapetum (reflective layer). They differ from huntsmen in that the junction between the tarsi and metatarsi is restricted to movement in a single plane, rather than the tarsus being able to move freely (Jocqué & Dippenaar-Schoeman 2007). Philodromids do not build a web to capture prey but instead seize prey directly.

The distinction between Philodromus and other genera in the family has historically been imprecise (Muster 2009) which goes some way to explaining the large number of species it has encompassed. In general, though, the eye rows of Philodromus are relatively weakly recurved, and its body form is less slender than that of the genera Tibellus and Thanatus. These may well be primitive features for the family, and a phylogenetic analysis of philodromids by Muster (2009) indicated that at least one group of species historically included in Philodromus (the P. histrio group) may be more closely related to the slender-bodied genera. The great French arachnologist Eugene Simon recognised several species groups in Philodromus, distinguished by features such as eye arrangement and leg spination, but recent authors feel that the status of these groups requires further investigation before we could consider treat?ing them as distinct genera.

Philodromus dispar, copyright Judy Gallagher.


Most species of Philodromus live on vegetation, flattening themselves against stems and foliage to avoid detection. As with other laterigrade spiders, the arrangement of their legs allows for rapid sideways movement, perfect for avoiding predators or turning up where prey do not expect them. At least one species group found in the Mediterranean region (including P. pulchellus and its relatives) differs in being ground-living, with a predilection for salt flats (Muster et al. 2007). Bites to humans from Philodromus appear to be vanishingly rare: a report on such a bite by Coetzee et al. (2017) appears to be the first record of one (the bite was painful, causing swelling and some ulceration, but without long-term effects following treatment). Philodromus species are much more likely to have a net positive value to humans, as they may act as control agents for insect pests among crops and orchards.

REFERENCES

Coetzee, M., A. Dippenaar, J. Frean & R. H. Hunt. 2017. First report of clinical presentation of a bite by a running spider, Philodromus sp. (Araneae: Philodromidae), with recommendations for spider bite management. South African Medical Journal 107 (7): 576–577.

Jocqué, R., & A. S. Dippenaar-Schoeman. 2007. Spider Families of the World. Royal Museum for Central Africa: Tervuren (Belgium).

Muster, C. 2009. Phylogenetic relationships within Philodromidae, with a taxonomic revision of Philodromus subgenus Artanes in the western Palearctic (Arachnida: Araneae). Invertebrate Systematics 23: 135–169.

Muster, C., R. Bosmans & K. Thaler. 2007. The Philodromus pulchellus-group in the Mediterranean: taxonomic revision, phylogenetic analysis and biogeography (Araneae: Philodromidae). Invertebrate Systematics 21: 39–72.

Stilts and Avocets

Visit a healthy wetland in many parts of the world and you may be able to see boldly patterned, lightly built birds with remarkably long legs and bills wading through the shallows. These are the members of the Recurvirostridae, commonly known as the stilts and avocets.

American avocets Recurvirostra americana, from here.


About a dozen species of recurvirostrid are currently recognised, depending on the exact classification scheme in play. They are divided between three genera with the avocets forming the genus Recurvirostra and the stilts divided between Himantopus and Cladorhynchus. The most obvious distinction between the two subgroups is in the shape of the bill: that of stilts is straight but avocets have a distinct upwards curve towards the end of theirs. A fourth genus has often been included in the Recurvirostridae for the ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii, a striking-looking inhabitant of the upland rivers of the Himalayan plateau, but uncertainty about this bird's phylogenetic position has led most recent authors to exclude it from the family.

The recurvirostrids feed mostly on small aquatic invertebrates such as brine shrimp or insect larvae. Their long legs, among the longest relative to body size of any bird, allow them to wade in deeply in search of prey. Stilts actively probe the waters and underlying sediment whereas avocets tend to forage by sweeping their bill through the water side to side. Avocets and the banded stilt Cladorhynchus leucocephalus of Australia prefer brackish waters such as lagoons and estuaries, with the banded stilt congegrating around the great salt lakes of inland Australia. Breeding is conducted by monogamous pairs that share the duty of incubating their simple nest on the ground near water. These nests may be gathered into loose colonies; the banded stilt forms particularly large colonies in which the chicks are herded into communal creches of several hundred.

Pied stilt Himantopus leucocephalus, copyright JJ Harrison.


The majority of recurvirostrids are patterned with black or dark brown and white. The red-necked avocet Recurvirostra novaehollandiae has the head and neck coloured reddish-brown as does the American avocet R. americana during the breeding season. The banded stilt has a broad reddish-brown band across the top of the breast. There is also the black stilt Himantopus novaezelandiae of New Zealand, which is somewhat self-explanatory. Beaks are black in all species; the legs are grey in avocets and red in stilts.

Four geographically distinct species of avocet occupy the modern world: the American avocet in North America, the red-necked avocet in Australia, the pied avocet Recurvirostra avosetta in Eurasia and Africa, and the Andean avocet R. andina in South America. The Andean avocet is a bird of high altitudes, occupying shallow, alkaline lakes in the upper Andes. Cladorhynchus includes only the banded stilt. The most varied taxonomy concerns the genus Himantopus. Historically, all the black-and-white stilts (and sometimes also the black stilt) have been recognised as a single near-cosmopolitan species. In more recent years, the trend has been towards recognition of five or six distinct species in the genus. Most of these species are well separated geographically except for in New Zealand where the black stilt shares its range with the pied stilt Himantopus leucocephalus, a more recent immigrant from Australia. The breeding range of the black stilt is currently restricted to a relatively small area of New Zealand's South Island, and the species is considered endangered due to factors such as habitat alteration and the threat of hybridisation with the more abundant pied stilt*.

*It's worth spending some thought on the role of hybridisation as a conservation risk. Some observers may express concern that regarding hybridisation as a threat per se carries uncomfortable intonations of "racial purity", and that limiting the available gene pool may do more harm than good. After all, it's not as if the black stilt heritage of hybrid individuals is just gone (hybrids between the two species are, I believe, fully fertile and able to produce offspring of their own). The question is, I suppose, do the black stilt genes actually persist in the mixed population? Or does selection and/or drift winnow them out over time? This would be a difficult question to answer, and not without risk to find out.

Banded stilts Cladorhynchus leucocephalus and red-necked avocets Recurvirostra novaehollandiae, copyright Ed Dunens.


Phylogenetically, it is reasonably well established that recurvirostrids form a clade with the ibisbill and oystercatchers. This clade is in turn closely related to the plovers of the Charadriidae; indeed, many recent phylogenies have indicated that the recurvirostrid-oystercatcher clade may even be nested within the plovers as generally recognised. Considering the relatively small number of species in each clade, it might seem reasonable to suggest the recurvirostrids be reduced to a subfamily of the Charadriidae, but bird taxonomists being bird taxonomists, there seems to be more of a push to divide the Charadriidae up instead.

The fossil record of the Recurvirostridae is limited. A handful of species have been assigned to this family from the Eocene, but all are known from limited remains and their position is questionable. Coltonia recurvirostra is known from part of a wing from Utah; it was a relatively large bird, appearing to be more than one-and-a-half times the size of any living recurvirostrid. Fluviatilavis antunesi was described from a femur, humerus and radius from Portugal but was described as exhibiting some primitive features not found in modern recurvirostrids. It is also worth noting that its original description (Harrison 1983) compared it most favourably with the ibisbill, so if that species is not to be regarded as a recurvirostrid, probably neither is Fluviatilavis.

REFERENCE

Harrison, C. J. O. 1983. A new wader, Recurvirostridae (Charadriiformes), from the early Eocene of Portugal. Ciências da Terra 7: 9–16.

Taxocrinus

Below is an example of Taxocrinus, a genus of fossil crinoids known from the later Devonian and earlier Carboniferous of Europe and North America. It is a relatively plesiomorphic representative of the flexible crinoids, one of the major crinoid lineages of the Palaeozoic era.

Taxocrinus colletti, copyright James St. John.


Flexible crinoids are characterised by arms that lack pinnules, the small side-branches found on the arms of most other crinoids. As a result, the preserved arms have a somewhat tentacle-like appearance, and are commonly preserved coiled in over the oral surface of the central cup. In Taxocrinus, the arms were regularly and isotomously bifurcated: that is, they divided between two branches of more or less equal size. The central cup itself in flexible crinoids was (somewhat counter-intuitively) quite inflexible, with the plates of the aboral surface firmly jointed together. The oral surface bore a more flexible covering of small plates, and an anal tube (visible near the midline of the fossil above) directed waste away from the mouth. The stem was round in cross section and lacked lateral cirri (Moore 1978).

Flexible crinoids were around for a very long time but it is rare for them to be found in abundance. As such, they were probably specialised for particular habitats that were either uncommon or less likely to be preserved. It has been suggested that, because their pinnule-less arms would have been poorly suited for filtering particles from strong currents, flexible crinoids may have inhabited calm, low-energy waters (Breimer 1978) (though I do wonder if enlarged tube feet may have partially filled the role of pinnules; is it possible to estimate the size of the tube feet from the preserved skeleton?) Crinoids living in such habitats will often hold the arms in a bowl arrangement so they may capture particles settling from higher in the water column. In the case of the flexible crinoids, moving the arms in and out may have created local water movements to further draw such particles in.

Though Taxocrinus itself would disappear in the mid-Carboniferous, flexible crinoids as a whole would persist to the end of the Permian. In more derived forms, the branching of the arms was often unequal, with the smaller branches effectively replacing the missing pinnules. In the end, though, the specialised flexibles were yet another casualty of the end-Permian cataclysm that so shook the composition of life on this planet.

REFERENCES

Breimer, A. 1978. Autecology. In: Moore, R. C., & C. Teichert (eds) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt T. Echinodermata 2 vol. 1 pp. T331–T343. The Geological Society of America, Inc.: Boulder (Colorado), and The University of Kansas: Lawrence (Kansas).

Moore, R. C. 1978. Flexibilia. In: Moore, R. C., & C. Teichert (eds) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt T. Echinodermata 2 vol. 2 pp. T759–T812. The Geological Society of America, Inc.: Boulder (Colorado), and The University of Kansas: Lawrence (Kansas).

White by Evening in the American Southwest

Though various species of it may be found around the world, the evening primrose family Onagraceae reaches its highest diversity in the south-west of North America. For this post, I'm looking at a genus endemic to this region, Eremothera.

Eremothera boothii, copyright Kerry Woods.


Eremothera is one of several genera of evening primroses newly recognised by Wagner et al. (2007). The species included in this genus had previously been included in the broader genera Oenothera or Camissonia, but these genera were progressively broken down owing to polyphyly and poor definitions. Eremothera species are annual herbs with more or less erect stems. Leaves are arranged on the stem alternately; those near the base are carried on a long petiole of up to six centimetres. The genus is distinguished from its close relatives by having mostly white flowers that open in the evening (in rare cases they my be pink or red, fading as they age). Pollination is by moths when the flowers first open, with small bees visiting the flowers the following morning. The fruit is a long capsule that arises directly from the main stem without a subtending stalk.

Eremothera refracta with flowers and green fruits, copyright Stan Shebs.


Seven species of Eremothera were recognised by Wagner et al. (2007). Eremothera nevadensis is a specialist of clay soil that occupies a relatively small range in Nevada, around Reno. Eremothera refracta is a widespread species in the south-west United States with fruit that are of an even diameter along their length (Hickman 1993). Eremothera chamaenerioides is a self-pollinating derivative of E. refracta with smaller flowers in which the stigma is surrounded and overtopped by the anthers. Eremothera boothii and E. minor (both also widespread) have fruits that are wider at the base than at the tip. In E. minor the inflorescence is held erect; in E. boothii the flowers nod. Two localised species, E. gouldii and E. pygmaea, are self-pollinating derivatives of E. boothii. Eremothera minor is also self-pollinating, and may in some cases even be cleistogamous with pollen being transferred to the stigma without the flower even opening.

REFERENCES

Hickman, J. C. (ed.) 1993. The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California. University of California Press: Berkeley (California).

Wagner, W. L., P. C. Hoch & P. H. Raven. 2007. Revised classification of the Onagraceae. Systematic Botany Monographs 83: 1–240.

Slippers on the Coast

The 'limpet' form is something that has evolved numerous times among gastropods, as various lineages of marine snail converted to a more or less unwhorled shell and low profile. In many cases, the evolution of the limpet form is also associated with high energy environments, the ability to nestle against rocks helping the gastropod maintain its grip against the surge of the waves. In the modern world, the most diverse and familiar lineage of limpets is that including the common limpets of the genus Patella and their relatives, but there also many independent lineages to be found. One of these is the slipper limpets of the genus Crepidula.

Various views of shell of Crepidula onyx, copyright H. Zell.


Slipper limpets get their vernacular name from the shape of their shell, whose more or less oval shape together with a jutting internal horizontal shelf (the septum) at one end gives the overall impression of a carpet slipper. About forty species (including fossils) of Crepidula are currently recognised worldwide. Species recognition has historically been difficult owing to their simple form and tendency to vary according to the environment in which they mature, but Hoagland (1977) identified a number of key distinguishing features such as disposition and shape of the muscle scars, features of the septum, and conformation of the apical beak of the shell. In contrast to the grazing common limpets, slipper limpets are filter feeders using their gill to capture micro-algae from the water column. They are protandric hermaphrodites, beginning their life as males but maturing into females as they grow. Eggs are brooded under the shell when first produced; in some species, the eggs are subsequently released to hatch into planktonic larvae whereas other species produce fewer eggs but retain them until the young have developed to the crawling stage. For instance, two species found on the east coast of North America that are very similar in adult appearance and have been confused historically differ in that Crepidula ustulatulina, found around Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, produces free-living larvae whereas the more northerly C. convexa does not.

Mating stack of Crepidula fornicata, copyright Dendroica cerulea.


The most renowned species of slipper limpet is the northern Atlantic Crepidula fornicata. This species was originally native to the eastern coast of North America but was accidentally imported to Europe in the late 1800s in association with oysters being transported as stock for farming (Blanchard 1997). In the subsequent years, C. fornicata has become increasingly widespread on the shores of Europe, and is often a significant fouling pest for oyster farms. It has also been introduced to even further flung locations such as Japan and Washington State. Crepidula fornicata is famed for its habit of forming high mating stacks with several smaller males living permanently on the dorsal surface of larger females. If the female of a stack dies, the largest male may develop into a female. Not all Crepidula species form such stacks: in some, just two or three individuals may form a temporary cluster when mating.

Historically, Crepidula has been distinguished from other genera in the limpet family Calyptraeidae by their posterior shell apex and flat septum (other calyptraeid genera may have a cone-shaped shell and/or cup-shaped septum). However, a molecular analysis of the family by Collin (2003) found that species of Crepidula sensu Hoagland (1977) did not form a single clade within Calyptraeidae, and the genus' prior members are now divided between at least four genera. While these genera may be distinguishable using features of the soft anatomy, they are almost indistinguishable from the shells alone.

REFERENCES

Blanchard, M. 1997. Spread of the slipper limpet Crepidula fornicata (L. 1758) in Europe. Current state and consequences. Scientia Marina 61 (Suppl. 2): 109–118.

Collin, R. 2003. Phylogenetic relationship among calyptraeid gastropods and their implications for the biogeography of marine speciation. Systematic Biology 52 (5): 618–640.

Hoagland, K. E. 1977. Systematic review of fossil and recent Crepidula and discussion of evolution of the Calyptraeidae. Malacologia 16 (2): 353–420.

The Splanchnotrophidae: Comfy inside a Sea Slug

In previous posts, I've referred to the great significance of the minute crustaceans known as copepods to aquatic ecosystems. At the time, I was referring to free-living members of this group but the copepods also include a wide range of parasitic forms. Some of these parasitic copepods have evolved into forms so derived and bizarre that they are barely recognisable as crustaceans. One example of this is the family Splanchnotrophidae.

Sea slug Janolus fuscus with protruding egg sacs of a splanchnotrophid copepod, probably Ismaila belciki, copyright Michael D. Miller.


Splanchnotrophids are a group of copepods endoparasitic on two orders of shell-less marine gastropods (sea slugs), the Nudibranchia and Sacoglossa. They are characterised by reduced mouthparts and appendages though they retain a distinct pair of claw-like antennae. These antennae seem to be used to hold the copepod in place in their preferred location within the body cavity of their host. Though the exact means of feeding by splanchnotrophids is not certain, their rudimentary mouthparts, combined with a rarity of observations of actual tissue damage in parasitised hosts, indicate that they probably suck nutriment from their host's haemolymph. Females and males live in association within the host, the minute (and slightly more recognisably copepod-y) males holding close to their comparatively gigantic mates. As well as their size, female splanchnotrophids differ from males in the possession of elongate, tubular dorsal outgrowths of the thorax. These are most commonly presumed to function to provide more space for the female's enlarged ovaries, though some have suggested additional functions such as maintaining position within the host, respiration or absorbing nutrients (Anton & Schrödl 2013). The female's tubular egg-sacs extend through an opening in the host's body wall to release eggs into the water column. Usually, these egg-sacs will emerge close to some outgrowth of the host's own body, such as gills or papillae, and may be coiled if relatively long; these measures presumably help protect the egg-sacs from external damage. How the released larvae find and colonise new hosts remains unknown but it is possible the antennules (the smaller second pair of antennae possessed by most crustaceans) are used to locate hosts chemically, with their reduced condition in adults the result of a halt to development once their purpose has been fulfilled.

Female (left) and male Ismaila aliena dissected out from host, from Anton & Schrödl (2013).


Relatively few splanchnotrophids have been recognised to date, maybe about a dozen species divided between five genera. A few other species that had earlier been included in the family on little more grounds than that they were endoparasites of gastropods were excluded by Huys (2001)*. A sixth genus and species Chondrocarpus reticulosus is of uncertain relationships. If correctly associated with the splanchnotrophids, it is of interest in parasitising a different group of sea slugs (the pleurobranchids) and in its massive size (growing to twelve millimetres vs only a few millimetres for females of the other genera), but the only available description is inadequate for its proper characterisation. In some localities, splanchnotrophids have proven to be surprisingly abundant. A once-off survey of potential host species in Oregon found no less than 62% of individuals of one species to be infected (25 other potential host species were completely free of parasites), whereas a longer-term survey off the coast of Chile found an overall infection rate of 13% with some particular host species approaching 100% infection (Schrödl 2002). Host specificity seems to vary within the family: a study by Anton et al. (2018) found that species of the genus Ismaila tended to restrict themselves to a single host species, whereas species of Splanchnotrophus are more catholic and undiscriminating. Nevertheless, a lack of correlation between relationships of splanchnotrophid species and those of their host species suggests that, even in the more discriminating Ismaila, host changes may not have been uncommon.

*As a concise indication of just how sloppy some of the earlier work on 'splanchnotrophids' had been, one misattributed species was re-identified by Huys (2001) as having been based on the detached head of a pelagic amphipod.

The broader relationships of splanchnotrophids within copepods also remain poorly understood. A phylogenetic study by Anton & Schrödl (2013) suggested that Splanchnotrophidae may form a clade with another genus of copepods endoparasitic in gastropods, Briarella, with this clade being in turn derived from ectoparasitic ancestors. However, by the authors' own admission, this study was heavily biased in both taxon and character coverage to the Splanchnotrophidae, and may have been affected by insufficient scrutiny of non-splanchnotrophid taxa. Though derivation of the endoparasitic splanchnotrophids from ectoparasitic ancestors has a definite intuitive appeal, further study is required before we can feel confident about it.

REFERENCES

Anton, R. F., D. Schories, N. G. Wilson, M. Wolf, M. Abad & M. Schrödl. 2018. Host specificity versus plasticity: testing the morphology-based taxonomy of the endoparasitic copepod family Splanchnotrophidae with COI barcoding. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 98 (2): 231–243.

Anton, R. F., & M. Schrödl. 2013. The gastropod-crustacean connection: towards the phylogeny and evolution of the parasitic copepod family Splanchnotrophidae. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 167: 501–530.

Huys, R. 2001. Splanchnotropid systematics: a case of polyphyly and taxonomic myopia. Journal of Crustacean Biology 21 (1): 106–156.

Schrödl, M. 2002. Heavy infestation by endoparasitic copepod crustaceans (Poecilostomatoida: Splanchnotrophidae) in Chilean opisthobranch gastropods, with aspects of splanchnotrophid evolution. Organisms, Diversity & Evolution 2: 19–26.

The Ant-like Beetles

As I've commented before, the world is home to an overwhelming diversity of small brown beetles, most of them (for me, at least) inordinately difficult to distinguish. One group of tiny beetles that is quite recognisable, though, is the ant-like beetles of the genus Anthicus.

Anthicus cervinus, copyright Robert Webster.


Over a hundred species around the world have been attributed to this genus. Few of them grow more than a few millimetres in length. They are elongate with the elytra more or less rounded and often covered in short hair. The legs are relatively long. The prothorax is globular and generally narrower towards the base. The head is inclined and carried on a narrow neck (Ferté-Sénectère 1848). Many species have the elytra contrastingly patterned with bands or spots. As the vernacular name indicates, the overall appearance is reminiscent of a small ant though I'm not sure if this indicates a protective mimicry or is merely coincidence.

Anthicus antherinus, copyright Udo Schmidt.


The natural history of most Anthicus species is poorly known. The greater number of species are saprophages, found in association with rotting vegetation or scavenging on dead insects. One species, Anthicus floralis, is found worldwide as a storage pest, infesting seed and grain stores. One of the larger North American species, A. heroicus, has larvae that attack masses of dobsonfly eggs on midstream boulders (Davidson & Wood 1969). The larvae feed on the eggs from the inside, using them for shelter as well as nutrition, before emerging from the eggs to pupate.

REFERENCES

Davidson, J. A., & F. E. Wood. 1969. Description and biological notes on the larva of Anthicus heroicus Casey (Coleoptera: Anthicidae). Coleopterists Bulletin 23 (1): 5–8.

Ferté-Sénectère, M. F. de la. 1848. Monographie des Anthicus et genres voisins, coléoptères hétéromères de la tribu des trachélides. Sapia: Paris.

The Camisiids: Cryptic Inhabitants of Soil and Wood

Various views of Camisia biverrucata, copyright Pierre Bornand.


The animal in the above pictures is a typical representative of the Camisiidae, a widely distributed family of oribatid mites. Members of this family can be found in soil, on the trunks of trees, or hidden among mosses and lichens. They are slow-moving animals and are often concealed from potential predators by an encrusting layer of dirt and organic debris. Carrying this encrusting layer may be related to a reduction in the offensive chemical-producing glands that are used by many other oribatids for defense (Raspotnig et al. 2008). In members of the genus Camisia, the openings of these glands are completely covered by dirt, but in the genera Platynothrus and Heminothrus the openings still protrude above the encrustation. The recently described Paracamisia osornensis, which does not carry an encrusting layer, retains a large offensive gland (Olszanowski & Norton 2002).

Close to 100 species have been assigned to this family; though found in most parts of the world, camisiids are most diverse in the Northern Hemisphere. One species in particular, Platynothrus peltifer, is almost global in distribution and the range of habitats in which it has been found includes soil, litter, peat and even aquatic habitats (Norton & Behan-Pelletier 2009) When one is as small and metabolically undemanding as these animals are, there may be surprisingly little difference between being out in the air or immersed in water, and even primarily terrestrial oribatids may survive submersion almost indefinitely. Genetic studies of P. peltifer have identified a high level of within-species divergence and it has been calculated on this basis that this species may have survived almost unchanged in external appearance for some 100 million years (Heethoff et al. 2007).

The ubiquitous Platynothrus peltifer, copyright Centre for Biodiversity Genomics.


The Camisiidae are closely related to another oribatid family, the Crotoniidae, that is found in South America and Australasia. One of the more significant differences between the two families is that whereas the camisiids appear to be entirely parthenogenetic, crotoniids reproduce sexually. Recent analyses, both molecular and morphological, indicate that the 'camisiids' are paraphyletic with regard to the crotoniids, leading Colloff & Cameron (2009) to treat the latter as a subfamily, Crotoniinae, of the former. This re-classification has been accepted by other authors though the law of priority requires that the combined family should be known as the Crotoniidae, not Camisiidae. The nested position of the sexual crotoniines within the asexual 'camisiids', with other related oribatid families also being asexual, has led to the suggestion that the crotoniines have somehow re-evolved sexuality. This would be fascinating if true, seemingly violating the usual principle that complex features can't be re-evolved once lost. Personally, I tend to be sceptical of claims like this (see this old post, for instance). I would like to see evidence beyond simple phylogenetic position to indicate if this is a true re-evolution rather than an historical bias towards loss of sexuality giving a misleading image.

REFERENCES

Colloff, M. J., & S. L. Cameron. 2009. Revision of the oribatid mite genus Austronothrus Hammer (Acari: Oribatida): sexual dimorphism and a re-evaluation of the phylogenetic relationships of the family Crotoniidae. Invertebrate Systematics 23: 87–110.

Heethoff, M., K. Domes, M. Laumann, M. Maraun, R. A. Norton & S. Scheu. 2007. High genetic divergences indicate ancient separation of parthenogenetic lineages of the oribatid mite Platynothrus peltifer (Acari, Oribatida). Journal of Evolutionary Biology 20: 392–402.

Norton, R. A., & V. M. Behan-Pelletier. 2009. Suborder Oribatida. In: Krantz, G. W., & D. E. Walter (eds) A Manual of Acarology 3rd ed. pp. 430–564. Texas Tech University Press.

Olszanowski, Z., & R. A. Norton. 2002. Paracamisia osornensis gen. n., sp. n. (Acari: oribatida) from Valdivian forest soil in Chile. Zootaxa 25: 1–15.

Raspotnig, G., E. Stabentheiner, P. Föttinger, M. Schaider, G. Krisper, G. Rechberger & H. J. Leis. 2008. Opisthonotal glands in the Camisiidae (Acari, Oribatida): evidence for a regressive evolutionary trend. Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research 47 (1): 77–87.

Fishing Mice

In a 1950 discussion of the origins of the fauna of South America, the great American palaeontologist G. G. Simpson dismissed the enormous radiation of muroid rodents in that continent as mere "field mice" exhibiting little regional differentiation. George Gaylord Simpson may have been one of the leading thinkers in mid-20th Century evolutionary theory, but in this respect he was just plain wrong. The South American mice and rats include a wide variety of divergent forms, some of them specialised in surprising ways. Consider, for instance, the fishing mice of the Ichthyomyini.

Illustration of Stolzmann's crab-eating mouse Ichthyomys stolzmanni by Joseph Smit.


The Ichthyomyini are a small assemblage of less than twenty species of mice found between Mexico and the north of South America from Peru to French Guiana (Voss 1988). Though some species are known from lower altitudes, the majority are found in alpine habitats in association with fast-flowing mountain streams (albeit in no location are they known to be common). Ichthyomyins seem to show a particular preference for hanging around waterfalls (Barnett 1997) and are not found in association with standing water such as swamps or ponds. They are moderate in size, ranging from ten to twenty centimetres in length excluding the tail. They show a number of adaptations for foraging underwater: the hind feet are partially webbed and have a more or less elongate fringe of stiff hairs that aid in swimming, the tail is furry rather than scaly, the eyes are small, the external ears are reduced in size (in a couple of species they are completely hidden by the fur and in one, Anotomys leander, the external pinnae are missing entirely), and the whiskers are long, strong, and arranged in such a way that they almost look more like the whiskers of a sea lion than of a mouse. The nerves associated with these whiskers are also enlarged and they evidently provide the main means of finding food.

Peruvian fish-eating rat Neusticomys peruviensis, copyright Carlos Boada.


Or, as I should say, finding prey. As far as we know, these mice seem to be entirely carnivorous. Only a couple of examples are known of specimens with plant matter in their stomachs and the significance of those finds remains uncertain. The primary source of food for most species is small invertebrates such as aquatic insects. Where freshwater crabs are available, a number of species show preferences for those. In larger species, the diet may be supplemented to a greater or lesser degree by small vertebrates such as fish or tadpoles. In line with their carnivorous diet, ichthyomyins are also characterised by a shorter, less complicated gut than other mice. Little is known about breeding and nesting habits in ichthyomyins. A specimen of Chibchanomys kept in captivity made tunnels in mossy vegetation (Barnett 1997). The few known specimens of gravid females indicate that litters are small with no more than two foetuses being carried at a time.

Voss (1988) recognised five genera of Ichthyomyini. The largest of these, Neusticomys, includes about half a dozen species that may more closely resemble the ancestral morphology for the group. Their hind feet are narrower than those of other ichthyomyins and the fringe of swimming hairs is shorter (Packer & Lee 2007). Where one species found in Colombia and Ecuador, Neusticomys monticolus, overlaps in range with Anotomys leander, it shows a preference for more sheltered sections of stream banks whereas A. leander is found in more exposed rapids.

Undescribed species of Chibchanomys, copyright Alexander Pari.


In most ichthyomyins, the coat consists of a layer of dense, woolly underfur covered by an overcoat of long guard hairs mixed with glossy, often distally flattened awn hairs. In Anotomys leander, Chibchanomys trichotis, and Neusticomys monticolus, the awn hairs are missing so these species have a dull grayish black appearance overall rather than than the glossy coat of other species. Chibchanomys trichotis retains minute external ear flaps albeit not ones that are visible past the coat; Anotomys leander, as noted above, lacks external ear flaps but does have the positions of the ear openings marked by a prominent white spot. Both these last two species were placed in monotypic genera by Voss (1988), but Barnett (1997) refers to an at-that-point undescribed species of Chibchanomys.

The remaining two genera were recognised by Voss (1988) as including four species apiece. Species of Rheomys, found in the mountains of Central America, have the most extensively webbed hind feet among the ichthyomyins. This is the only genus of fishing mice found in Central America; the other genera are all restricted to South America. The genus Ichthyomys includes the largest species of the group and also the species that feed on the highest proportion of vertebrates. This difference in diet is reflected in their dentition: Ichthyomys species have proportionately larger incisors and smaller molars than other ichthyomyins, with greater emphasis on using the incisors to grasp and slice struggling prey.

Rheomys raptor, from Villalobos-Chaves et al. (2016).


All told, the ichthyomyins are a remarkable radiation. Ecologically, they are close parallels to forms found elsewhere such as water shrews or desmans, but most other semi-aquatic mammals are distinctly larger in size. Even with less than twenty species, the ichthyomyins represent more species than there are of similarly sized semi-aquatic mammals anywhere else in the world. However, as noted above, ichthyomyins are not common anywhere they occur, and factors such as deforestation and climate change could represent a significant threat to their survival. It would be unfortunate if this remarkable radiation was to fade away.

REFERENCES

Barnett, A. A. 1997. The ecology and natural history of a fishing mouse Chibchanomys spec. nov. (Ichthyomyini: Muridae) from the Andes of southern Ecuador. Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde 62: 43–52.

Packer, J. B., & T. E. Lee Jr. 2007. Neusticomys monticolus. Mammalian Species 805: 1–3.

Voss, R. S. 1988. Systematics and ecology of ichthyomyine rodents (Muroidea): patterns of morphological evolution in a small adaptive radiation. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 188 (2): 259–493.

Seriously, What Is This Thing?

So there weren't too many people speculating about the identity of that mysterious figure (hi, Adam!) As it happens, there was a reason I'd put it out there: the reason being, I really don't have any idea what it is either.

Spinita spp., from Kordè in Koren' (2003). 1: S. sanashticgolica, 2: S. cryptosa, 3: S. spinoglobosa.


The figure comes from a Russian book, Атлас ископаемой фауны и флоры палеозоя Республики Бурятия ('Atlas of the Palaeozoic fossil fauna and flora of the Republic of Buryatia'), edited by T. N. Koren' and published in 2003 in Ulan-Udè. Buryatia is a Russian republic in south-eastern Siberia, wrapping around the eastern and southern coasts of Lake Baikal. The fossils shown above come from the Lower Cambrian (the Botomian stage in the Russian system) of the Eastern Sayan Mountains. Going by the appearance of the figures, I presume they're being examined as thin sections, a commonly used method for studying Palaeozoic microfossils. Though as microfossils go, these are definitely on the large side: the specimen figured as 1a is a centimetre long and three millimetres wide. The other specimens are smaller, about half a centimetre in length.

When I saw these figures, I was just mystified. Their describer, K. B. Kordè, regarded them as a new class of 'Nemathelminthes', claiming that 'the first impression that is created from the described material is that they are representatives of the Kinorhyncha or Gastrotricha'. I'm not sure that I would agree with that. I found myself wondering if they were even animals, though I was hard pressed to think what else they might be. Not being familiar with the interpretation of thin sections, the thought did cross my mind to ask how certain can we be that these are even fossils, but I think that may be a bit uncharitable. Kordè also suggested that a break in the apparent cuticle of the S. sanashticgolica specimen about halfway along the flattened side (interpreted as the venter) might be the mouth. If so, that would be very unlike any kinorhynch or gastrotrich I've heard of. Could be a flatworm, I suppose, though Kordè then goes on to read the cluster of spines at one end (as magnified in figure 2b) as marking the anus which would seem to put paid to that! Said spines, or papillae, or whatever, are also supposed to have medial channels that Kordè interprets as nephridia.

All in all, I can't express anything other than confusion about this one. Certainly I haven't been able to find any further commentary on these enigmas; a Google search for Spinita sanashticgolica brings up just one result, an offhand mention in this book which seems to be just referring to it as found in the same formation as another fossil. Confusingly enough, that mention seems to date from 1986, a good seventeen years before Koren' (2003) was even printed: whether that indicates that the latter publication was not actually the first time the description of Spinita saw print, or whether this genus saw time floating around in unpublished communications, I have no idea.

Name the Bug Revived

It's been a very long time since I last did one of these, and I'm not sure if I still have the readership for it, but I'm genuinely interested to know what anyone can make of this (attribution to follow):


Some necessary context: they're fossils, Cambrian in age, I presume being examined in thin section. The specimens numbered 1, 2 and 3 were described as three different species of a single genus. Even if you don't know exactly what it is, let me know what you think it might be...

Edit: Forgot to give an indicator of size. They're about the one-centimetre range in maximum breadth.

The Origins of a Closed Bolete

Boletes are a distinctive group of mushrooms in which the underside of the fruiting body is covered by tubular pores instead of gills. Though boletes are classified in the fungal order Boletales, not all members of this order produce bolete-type fruiting bodies (as exemplified in an earlier post). Consider, for example, the case of Gastrosuillus.

'Gastrosuillus' sp., copyright Danny Miller.


Gastrosuillus was recognised in 1989 for a small group of species found in North America that closely resembled members of the more typical bolete genus Suillus (the slippery jacks) except for their production of secotioid fruiting bodies, in which the pores are distorted and do not form a flattened plane, and may remain covered by an external membrane (secotioid fruiting bodies may be considered an intermediate form between typical mushrooms and the gastroid fruiting bodies of fungi such as puffballs). All Gastrosuillus species were extremely rare, known only from single locations or even single collections. Gastrosuillus suilloides and G. amaranthii were found in California, G. imbellus in Oregon, and G. laricinus in New York State. All four were found on the ground in conifer forest; fruiting bodies of G. suilloides could be buried (Bessette et al. 2000).

From its inception, a close relationship with and possibly even derivation from members of the genus Suillus seems to have been on the cards for Gastrosuillus. It should be noted that Suillus was not the only bolete genus with a secotioid satellite: as Gastrosuillus was to Suillus, so Gastroboletus was to Boletus, and Gastroleccinum was to Leccinum. So it should have come as little surprise when a molecular analysis of Gastrosuillus species by Kretzer & Bruns (1997) found them to be nested within Suillus, nor forming a single clade within that genus. Instead, the western species were well separated from the New York G. laricinus. As a result, Kretzer & Bruns advocated the synonymisation of the two genera.

Typical form of larch bolete Suillus grevillei, copyright Luridiformis.


But the demotions didn't stop there. Not only was Gastrosuillus laricinus nested molecularly within Suillus, it appeared to be nested within a particular species, S. grevillei (conversely, the California species form a distinct lineage that is, so far as we know, entirely secotioid; the Oregon G. imbellus has not been examined molecularly owing to difficulties in extracting DNA from the single known specimen). The sole known location for G. laricinus lies within the range of S. grevillei, with the two species having been found in close proximity, and the indications were that G. laricinus was a very recent derivative of S. grevillei or possibly even a mere growth variant. Again, this is not entirely without precedent. Secotioid variants have been recorded of other mushroom species, and secotioid-like forms of the agaricoid mushroom Lentinus tigrinus have even been shown to be the result of a recessive allele of a single gene. Kretzer & Bruns (1997) therefore suggested that G. laricinus be synonymised entirely with S. grevillei. This action does not appear to have gained universal acceptance (for instance, the two are provisionally treated as distinct by Bessette et al., 2000) but is certainly worthy of consideration.

REFERENCES

Bessette, A. E., W. C. Roody & A. R. Bessette. 2000. North American Boletes: A color guide to the fleshy pored mushrooms. Syracuse University Press.

Kretzer, A., & T. D. Bruns. 1997. Molecular revisitation of the genus Gastrosuillus. Mycologia 89 (4): 586–589.

Cliff Ferns

Historically, the higher classification of ferns has tended to be a bit wobbly. Compared to flowering plants, ferns often offer fewer readily observable features that may offer clues to relationships. As a result, the position of many fern taxa has long been uncertain. One such group is the cliff ferns of the genus Woodsia.

Woodsia scopulina, copyright Jim Morefield.


Cliff ferns, as their name suggests, are commonly found growing on rocks. There are a few dozen species, mostly found in cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere. A single species, Woodsia montevidensis, extends into South America and southern Africa (Rothfels et al. 2012). They have short creeping rhizomes with a covering of scales and leaves bearing a mixture of scales and hairs. The most distinctive feature of the cliff ferns can only be seen on fertile fronds: the sori (spore packets) are covered by an indusium that is attached to the leaf basally relative to the sori. These indusia are commonly composed of an array of scales or filamentous sections, in contrast to the solid indusia of other ferns.

Underside of pinnule of Woodsia plummerae, showing the filamentous indusia, from here.


Historically, Woodsia has been placed in a family Woodsia with a number of superficially similar fern genera such as the bladder ferns of the genus Cystopteris. However, molecular phylogenetic analyses have disputed the monophyly of such a group. Rothfels et al. (2012) divided the 'woodsioid' ferns between no less than six different families with Woodsiaceae in the strict sense limited to the cliff ferns alone. Though some authors have divided the cliff ferns between multiple genera, an analysis of the group by Shao et al. (2015) found it difficult to reliably distinguish such subgroups and recommended recognition of only a single genus. They did, however, recognise three major clades within Woodsia identified by molecular phylogenetic analysis as distinct subgenera. The type subgenus Woodsia is distinctive among ferns in possessing articulated stems; species of this subgenus are widespread in the Palaearctic region. The subgenus Physematium is mostly found in the Americas and is characterised by bicolored scales on the rhizome. The third subgenus, Cheilanthopsis, is found in eastern Asia with the centre of diversity in the Himalayan region. The rhizome scales are concolorous, and the indusia are solid and globose rather than being composed of individual segments. In some cases in this subgenus, the sori are covered by 'false indusia', indusium-like structures that are formed from inrolled leaf margins rather than being independent membranes.

REFERENCES

Rothfels, C. J., M. A. Sundue, L.-Y. Kuo, A. Larsson, M. Kato, E. Schuettpelz & K. M. Pryer. 2012. A revised family-level classification for eupolypod II ferns (Polypodiidae: Polypodiales). Taxon 61 (3): 515–533.

Shao, Y., R. Wei, X. Zhang & Q. Xiang. 2015. Molecular phylogeny of the cliff ferns (Woodsiaceae: Polypodiales) with a proposed infrageneric classification. PLoS One 10 (9): e0136318.

The Solemyoida: A Taste for Sulphur

Atlantic awning clam Solemya velum, copyright Guus Roeselers.


The small bivalves that make up the Solemyoida were long a mystery, ecology-wise. Though they have a long history, potentially going back as far as the Ordovician (Cope 2000), they are not known to have ever been diverse, and only just over fifty species are known from the modern fauna. Living solemyoids are divided between two very distinct families that probably diverged near the origin of the group. The Solemyidae, awning clams, have relatively long shells that gape at each end, no teeth in the dorsal hinge, and tend to have an unusually thick periostracum (the overlying layer of horny proteinaceous matter that covers the outside of the mineral shell). They generally live in burrows buried deep in sediment. The Nucinellidae are a group of minute clams with an average length of about half a centimetre that are mostly found in deep waters, generally not buried quite so deep in the mud as the awning clams. They have a less elongate shell than the Solemyidae that does not gape and simple peg-like teeth in the hinge. What the two families do share is a markedly reduced gut and feeding appendages that initially caused much speculation about what exactly they were feeding on.

Nucinella sp. with foot extended, from Taylor & Glover (2010). Scale bar equals 1 mm.


The answer, as it turns out, was that they were not exactly 'feeding' on much, if anything. Solemyoids have relatively large gills that provide a comfortable living place for sulphur-oxidising bacteria, sheltered from the outside world while the host clam keeps up a continuous flow of water through its burrow from above the sediment surface. In return, the bacteria fix hydrogen sulphide rising from the underlying mud to provide both themselves and their host with nutrients. In this way, solemyoids have largely been able to get by without actively eating for close to 450 million years, achieving something the likes of Jasmuheen can only dream of.

REFERENCE

Cope, J. C. W. 2000. A new look at early bivalve phylogeny. In: Harper, E. M., J. D. Taylor & J. A. Crame (eds) The Evolutionary Biology of the Bivalvia pp. 81–95. The Geological Society: London.

The Ageniellini: Nest Evolution in Spider Wasps

The Pompilidae, commonly known as spider wasps or spider hawks, are a distinctive and often conspicuous group of wasps, well known for their practice of capturing spiders and sealing them paralysed into nest cells to serve as food for their developing larvae. Though spider hawks come in a wide range of sizes and colours, I can say from experience that they are often a challenging group of animals to work with taxonomically. Their superficial diversity often masks a certain structural sameness that makes it hard to develop a reliable system for the family. Nevertheless, one subgroup of the pompilids that has long been recognised as distinct is the subject of today's post, the Ageniellini.

Female Ageniella arcuata carrying a lynx spider, copyright Edward Trammel.


Agniellins are generally smaller spider wasps whose distinguishing features include a more or less constricted base to the metasoma, forming a petiole. Females have a collection of relatively long, forward-directed setae on the prementum, a sclerite on the underside of the head that forms the rear margin of the mouthparts (you could think of it as the wasp's 'chin'). As befits their smaller size, they provision their nests with smaller and medium-sized spiders. As well as paralysing the spider with their sting in the usual way, ageniellins will also often remove its legs before sealing it into a cell, though Barthélémy & Pitts (2012) observed that this might not be done with small spiders. The Ageniellini have been further divided between two subtribes, the Ageniellina and Auplopodina. In Ageniellina, the premental setae are relatively fine and the end of the metasomal dorsum (the pygidium) in females is rounded and hairy. In Auplopodina, the premental setae are further modified into strong, thick bristles and the female pygidium is more or less flattened and smooth. However, the aformentioned characters of Ageniellina are primitive and shared with non-ageniellin spider wasps. A phylogenetic analysis of the Ageniellini by Shimizu et al. (2010) reinforced the suggestion that 'Ageniellina' might be paraphyletic with regard to the monophyletic Auplopodina.

Auplopus carbonarius, copyright Fritz Geller-Grimm.


Ageniellini are of particular interest among spider wasps for the variety of nesting behaviours they exhibit, which were reviewed in detail by Evans & Shimizu (1996). The primitive nesting behaviour for pompilids, shared by species of 'Ageniellina', is to dig nest cells in holes in the ground. 'Ageniellina' construct short holes from pre-existing openings in the soil such as caves, crevices or the burrows of animals. The holes are closed by patting down soil using the end of the metasoma. The origin of the Auplopodina, however, saw a seemingly small innovation that was to have significant consequences: the evolution of the ability to carry a small amount of water in the crop. Initially, this allowed the wasps to nest in firmer ground than was previously possible, using water to soften the soil before digging. Many Auplopodina species still nest in this fashion. They could also carry balls of mud under the head using the basket of premental bristles, using the mud to close up holes. Eventually, they started using mud to build barrel-shaped nest cells above ground, bypassing the need to dig, and/or closing up suitable pre-existing cavities such as hollow plant stems or abandoned cells from other wasps. The most basic mud cells are still vulnerable to damage from rain and water so are built in sheltered locations such as attached to plant rootlets protruding from overhanging banks. However, some Auplopodina species have learnt to cover the outside of the cell with a coating of resin to provide water resistance and so are able to build in more exposed places such as underneath plant branches or leaves. Species of one genus, Poecilagenia, are kleptoparasites, breaking into the nests of other pompilids and closing them back up after depositing their own eggs inside.

Macromerella honesta females on a communal nest, from Barthélémy & Pitts (2012).


The greatest advance in nesting behaviour known from a handful of Auplopodina species is the appearance of communal behaviour, potentially derived from multiple factors. The need for suitable sheltered sites for nest-building places a premium on location, increasing the likelihood of intra-specific encounters. The ability to break down and re-purpose pre-existing nest cells rather than building entirely from scratch makes it worthwhile for females to linger around their own place of hatching. In one eastern Asian species, Machaerothrix tsushimensis, dominance behaviour has been observed around nests with one female largely monopolising cell construction and provisioning while other females remain largely inactive, only constructing their own cells when the dominant female is elsewhere. In other communal Auplopodina species, females will share in the construction and guarding of nest cells.

True eusocial behaviour as found in vespid wasps and bees is unknown in pompilids. It has been suggested that their practice of provisioning brood cells only at the time of the construction, without providing subsequent meals, may be a hindrance to sociability as there is little incentive for females to provide for the larvae of other individuals. Nevertheless, the Ageniellini demonstrate that basic communality is not beyond the abilities of spider wasps.

REFERENCES

Barthélémy, C., & J. Pitts. 2012. Observations on the nesting behavior of two agenielline spider wasps (Hymenoptera, Pompilidae) in Hong Kong, China: Macromerella honesta (Smith) and an Auplopus species. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 28: 13–35.

Evans, H. E., & A. Shimizu. 1996. The evolution of nest building and communal nesting in Ageniellini (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Pompilidae). Journal of Natural History 30 (11): 1633–1648.

Shimizu, A., M. Wasbauer & Y. Takami. 2010. Phylogeny and the evolution of nesting behaviour in the tribe Ageniellini (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Pompilidae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 160: 88–117.

Ants in Bright Velvet

A paper that I've been intermittently working on for a while now finally saw publication last week. Authored by myself, Mark Murphy, Yvette Hitchen and Denis Brothers, the paper describes four new species of velvet ant from here in Western Australia.

Female Aglaotilla chalcea, photographed by yours truly.


Velvet ants are not actually ants but a distinct group of typically hairy wasps forming the family Mutillidae. They are strongly sexually dimorphic: females are wingless like ants but males have fully developed wings. They develop as kleptoparasites in the nests of other wasps, with the velvet ant larva feeding on the prey left to provision the host and/or on the host larva itself. Taxonomically, velvet ants are perhaps one of the more difficult wasp groups to work with. The high sexual dimorphism means that it is often impossible to match males with females unless one is lucky enough to catch them in the act of mating, and the mesosoma of females is highly sclerotised and fused with many of the characters useful for identifying other wasp groups no longer visible. The taxonomy of Australian velvet ants is particularly uncertain, almost to comical levels. A large number of species (possibly numbering in the hundreds) remain undescribed, and many of those species that have been described are yet not readily identifiable. No extensive survey of the Australian fauna has appeared since 1898 and most Australian species have been placed in a single genus Ephutomorpha. This genus was established by French entomologist Ernest André in 1902 with a definition that can basically be summarised as "Ugh, I can't even right now": it was explicitly intended as a dumping ground for Australian velvet ants that André was unable to sort more appropriately at the time. A vague promise to get onto it later never eventuated. Even at its time of establishment, Ephutomorpha included taxa that had already been designated as type species for genus names Bothriomutilla and Eurymutilla that should have taken precedence.

A few years ago, I was engaged in identifying wasp specimens collected by Mark Murphy as part of his research into pollinator ecology in the Western Australian wheatbelt. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, the Wheatbelt refers to a band of land inland from Perth. Most of the wheatbelt is rolling, semi-arid terrain that has been cleared for the growth of the eponymous wheat, with the indigenous forest largely reduced to isolated stands and reserves. Mark was studying the diversity of pollinator wasps in these remnant stands, most of which are dominated by wandoo Eucalyptus wandoo. As an example of the difficulties I was referring to above, I was able to recognise over two dozen morphospecies of velvet ants among specimens collected by Mark, only a couple of which I was able to even tentatively connect to known species. The specimens which formed the basis of the new publication came from a particular one of Mark's study methods, nest traps. Mark would leave wooden blocks into which holes had been drilled out in the field for a number of months, over which time they would hopefully be colonised by nesting wasps and bees (Mark was visiting traps once a month to check for nests). The holes were lined with paper tubes and if Mark found one that contained a nest, he would slide out the tube and take it back to the lab to be reared to maturity. Emerging wasps and bees were identified to species both by morphological examination and via the extraction of DNA for fingerprinting. Mark also found that he reared a number of parasitoids and kleptoparasites that were treated in the same way.

The male of Aglaotilla chalcea, also by yours truly.


I realised that this gave us an excellent opportunity regarding the mutillids, of which four identifiable species had emerged from Mark's nest samples. Because of Mark's rearing experiments, we had host data for all four species. Because of the use of DNA fingerprinting, we were able to identify both males and females of three of the four species (the fourth was recorded from a single nest that only provided us with female specimens). And at least two of the species appeared to be completely new to science. It didn't hurt that they were also all very attractive animals with brilliant metallic colours. So I prepared a manuscript describing all four species with myself, Mark and Yvette (who had done the DNA sequencing for the specimens) as authors and submitted it to the journal Zootaxa for consideration.

It was rejected.

That, as it turned out, was a good thing. One of the original reviewers was Denis Brothers of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, one of the world's leading authorities on velvet ants. Denis agreed that, while the paper couldn't stand as originally submitted, there was a definite value in what we were presenting. So he offered to help us with the composition. As well as correcting some misunderstandings I was guilty of regarding mutillid morphology (see my earlier comment on the difficulty of identifying features of the female mesosoma), Denis was able to confirm that all four of our species was actually new. He also informed us that they could be placed in a group of species that he had identified as part of as-yet unpublished research on Australian velvet ants and suggested that we establish a new genus for this group. This new genus was named Aglaotilla by Brothers (2018). Denis also added a new section to our manuscript summarising the recorded host data for Australian mutillids.

Aglaotilla species are mostly metallic in coloration, predominantly blue, green or purple (describing the colours of metallic wasps can be a challenge because the exact shade observed depends a lot on the incident lighting). One of our species, A. micra, has the mesosoma reddish with a purple gloss whereas an earlier described species A. discolor has the mesosoma entirely red. Females often have prominent spots or bands of clustered white hairs on the metasoma. Depending on the species, the colour pattern of the sexes may be similar or distinct. One of our new species, A. lathronymphos, has a species name that means 'secretly married' because without the DNA fingerprinting we would have had no reason to associate the bright blue males with the reddish-purple females. Females lack the rake-like spines on the fore legs and flattened plate at the end of the metasoma found in many other female mutillids. This almost certainly relates to their life cycle. Female velvet ants parasitising ground-nesting hosts use their fore legs to dig into the host nest and the terminal plate to tap down the ground after closing it back up. Aglaotilla females, where known, parasitise hosts that nest above ground in holes in trees and so do not need adaptations for digging. Three of the species we described, A. chalcea, A. lathronymphos and A. micra, were reared from the nests of crabronid wasps belonging to the genus Pison. The fourth species, A. schadophaga, was reared from the nests of resin bees. Aglaotilla species are very unusual among velvet ants in that more than one larva may grow to maturity in a single host nest cell; in all other mutillids for which host data is available, only a single individual will ever emerge from a single host.

A likely live female of Aglaotilla in search of a suitable host nest, copyright Mark A. Newton.


The Australian mutillid fauna includes a number of enticing taxa that deserve further examination: the strikingly patterned Australotilla species and the weird ant-associated Ponerotilla are just a couple of examples. Not to mention the hordes of new species that don't even have names yet. I have been pleased to make some contribution to this much-neglected family.

REFERENCES

André, E. 1902 Hymenoptera. Fam. Mutillidae. Genera Insectorum 11: 1–77, 3 pls.

Brothers, D. J. 2018. Aglaotilla, a new genus of Australian Mutillidae (Hymenoptera) with metallic coloration. Zootaxa 4415 (2): 357–368.

Taylor, C. K., M. V. Murphy, Y. Hitchen & D. J. Brothers. 2019. Four new species of Australian velvet ants (Hymenoptera: Mutillidae, Aglaotilla) reared from bee and wasp nests, with a review of Australian mutillid host records. Zootaxa 4609 (2): 201–224.

The Trechodini


The above figure, from Uéno (1990), shows Trechodes satoi, a fairly typical representative of the carabid ground beetle tribe Trechodini. Members of this tribe are found in many parts of the world, though they are absent from the Nearctic region and were unknown from northern Asia prior to the description of Eotrechodes larisae from the Russian Far East by Uéno et al. (1995). The greatest diversity of Trechodini is on the southern continents and most authors have accordingly assumed a Gondwanan origin for the lineage.

The Trechodini are a subgroup of the subfamily Trechinae (in the restricted sense; sometimes this grouping is reduced to a tribe in which case Trechodina is treated as a subtribe thereof). Trechines are a distinctive group of relatively small ground beetles, features of which include a head with well-developed frontal furrows extending from the front of the head to behind the eye, and two pairs of supra-orbital setae. Trechodini differ from other trechines in distinctive male genitalia in which the ejaculatory duct of the aedeagus is entirely exposed dorsally, the median lobe is open above and gutter-like, and there is no basal bulb. They also usually have three obtuse teeth near the base of the mandible though the South African genus Plocamotrechus is missing one of these teeth in the left mandible (Moore 1972).

Habitus of Canarobius oromii, from Machado (1992).


Despite being widespread, the distribution of Trechodini is patchy. They are generally restricted to damp habitats such as alongside streams and rivers. Among Australian species, Moore (1972) noted that the genera Trechodes and Paratrechodes were uniformly fully flighted whereas Trechobembix and Cyphotrechodes were often brachypterous. He suggested that this was connected to the last two genera being found in more stable habitats alongside standing water. A number of species in the tribe have moved into subterranean habitats such as caves and have reduced wings and eyes. In two genera found in lava caves on the Canary Islands, Canarobius and Spelaeovulcania, no trace of the eyes remains (Machado 1992). Considering the little-studied nature of such habitats around the world, it is possible that other trechodins remain to be discovered.
REFERENCES

Machado, A. 1992. Monografía de los Carábidos de las Islas Canarias (Insecta, Coleoptera). Instituto de Estudios Canarios: La Laguna.

Moore, B. P. 1972. A revision of the Australian Trechinae (Coleoptera: Carabidae). Australian Journal of Zoology, Supplementary Series 18: 1–61.

Uéno, S. 1990. A new Trechodes (Coleoptera, Trechinae) from near the northwestern corner of Thailand. Elytra 18 (1): 31–34.

Uéno, S., G. S. Lafer & Y. N. Sundukov. 1995. Discovery of a new trechodine (Coleoptera, Trechinae) in the Russian Far East. Elytra 23 (1): 109–117.

Metavononoides: Retreating from the Coast

I've commented before on the taxonomic issues bedevilling the study of South American harvestmen, particularly members of the diverse family Cosmetidae. Recent years have seen researchers make gradual but steady progress towards untangling these multifarious snarls by more firmly establishing the identities of this family's many genera.

Metavononoides guttulosus photographed by P. H. Martins, from Kury & Medrano (2018).


The genus Metavononoides was established by Roewer in 1928 for two species from south-eastern Brazil. As with other Roewerian genera, its definition was not exactly robust, being based on a combination of tarsal segment count together with the presence of a pair of large spines on the dorsal scutum. The genus was later re-defined by Kury (2003) who used it for a group of species found in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest region around Rio de Janeiro. Members of this group shared a number of distinctive features including the presence of a distinctive U-shaped marking (later dubbed a 'lyre mask' or 'lyra')on the scutum. A number of species previously placed in other genera were transferred to Metavononoides, and the next few years saw the description of a couple more species in the genus. And then Paecilaema happened.

The genus Paecilaema was first established by C. L. Koch in 1839 but a poor description of its type species P. u-flavum lead to confusion about its identity. Over time, Paecilaema became associated with a large number of species over a range stretching from Mexico to Brazil (as an aside, it doesn't help matters that Paecilaema has been one of those names that taxonomists have found themselves chronically uncertain how to spell). When Kury & Medrano (2018) recently set out to determine the exact identity of Paecilaema by determining that of its type, they fixed P. u-flavum as a species that was common around Rio de Janeiro and that corresponded to one of the species included by Kury (2003) in Metavononoides. As a result, many of the species shifted by Kury (2003) into Metavononoides were shifted once again into Paecilaema. Many of the species assigned to Paecilaema from outside the Atlantic Forest Region remain unrevised but will almost certainly prove to require re-classification.

Metavononoides barbacenensis photographed by P. H. Martins, from Kury & Medrano (2018).


Metavononoides was not outright synonymised with Paecilaema, though. Among the group of species possessing the aforementioned lyra on the scutum, Kury & Medrano (2018) identified two distinct subgroups. In one, corresponding to Paecilaema, the lyra is made up of two components. Part of the lyra is composed of light coloration on the plane of the scutum itself while another part is raised granules. In some species, these granules are particularly concentrated along the margins of the lyra (you can see an example on this on Flickr, photographed by Mario Jorge Martins; though labelled Metavononoides, this individual is now identifiable as Paecilaema u-flavum). In the second subgroup, corresponding to Metavononoides, the differentiated coloration on the plane of the scutum is absent and the lyra is composed solely of raised granules. Not only are the two genera morphologically distinct, they are also more or less geographically distinct. Whereas Paecilaema is found in the moist broadleaf forests closer to the coast, Metavononoides is now restricted to species largely found in the grasslands and shrublands further inland, corresponding to the Cerrado region. Though more depauperate of species than it was before, the identity of Metavononoides is certainly firmer.

REFERENCES

Kury, A. B. 2003. Annotated catalogue of the Laniatores of the New World (Arachida, Opiliones). Revista Ibérica de Aracnología, special monographic volume 1: 1–337.

Kury, A. B., & M. Medrano. 2018. A whiter shade of pale: anchoring the name Paecilaema C. L. Koch, 1839 onto a neotype (Opiliones, Cosmetidae). Zootaxa 4521 (2): 191–219.

Roewer, C. F. 1928. Weitere Weberknechte II. II. Ergänzung der: "Weberknechte der Erde", 1923. Abhandlungen der Naturwissenschaftlichen Verein zu Bremen 26 (3): 527–632, 1 pl.