Giant African Millipedes are back!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Up until a few years ago, there was never any shortage of an amazing arthropod, known as the Giant African Millipede, around here. They are an absolutely breathtaking bug! Imagine a roly poly type of creature and add about 6-10 more inches of length and about 200-250 more legs! African millipedes (Archispirostreptus gigas) hold the title for the longest millipedes in the world. They are capable of reaching a length of 15.2 inches! They are sought after, not only for their size, but for their incredibly docile personality. They’re so cute and fun to watch! They make wonderful display animals because they spend most of their time above ground feeding and resting. They are voracious eaters and are often seen munching away at their food. They are a favorite among visitors. Volunteers enjoy handling them and giving our guests an up close and personal look. Unfortunately, we haven’t had them around here for a couple of years. The USDA halted the importation of these millipedes for a few reasons. You would only be able to acquire them if you had the appropriate permit, which we do, but finding a supplier was a huge challenge. After about two years missing them, we are happy to welcome them back!

One fast critter.
A Giant Centipede
Creative Commons License photo credit: graftedno1 

Millipedes are often confused with centipedes, another long, leggy arthropod. It is very important to know the difference because centipedes can be dangerous. The differences aren’t very subtle. Centipedes are morphologically similar; they have a head with one pair of antennae and a trunk made up of many segments. The major difference is in the legs. Centipedes (centi=100; pede=legs) have one pair of legs per body segment and the legs seem to originate from the sides of the body. Their legs are longer, thicker, and more muscular, allowing them to move very quickly. Their first pair of legs are modified and have become a pair of claws that are capable of injecting venom. All of these characteristics make them efficient predators that feed on anything from tiny insects to small mammals, depending on the size of the centipede of course. A very large centipede can harm a human with its potent venom. Small ones are not a threat. Like most arthropods, centipedes are shy and non-aggressive, but it’s important to know the difference so you don’t mistake one for a harmless millipede and try to handle it. Another feature that might give them away, if it’s difficult to see the legs, is a pair of appendages on their last segment. They resemble another set of antennae, possibly a defense mechanism to throw predators off of which side their head and poison claws are on. Millipedes don’t have these.

Millipedes are a diverse group of arthropods, ranging in size from 5 mm to 10 inches or more, like our giant African millipedes. Unlike centipedes, most eat decomposing organic matter. Their body segments are thinner and more numerous and each one bears 2 pairs of small legs. Although millipede means 1000 legs, the record is 375 pairs, or 750 legs! The legs originate from the bottom of the body so they cannot be seen from the top, like centipede’s legs. They are very slow moving. Their defense mechanisms are simple. First, they curl their bodies into a spiral to protect their legs. They can also secrete a chemical from pores along the sides of their bodies. This chemical varies from species to species, but it is meant to deter, gross out, or harm a would-be predator. Most of these chemicals are not harmful to people but will stain skin and clothes.  Once a millipede grows accustomed to being handled, they will not produce such secretions very often.

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Our new Millipedes
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 

We hope to have our new batch of African millipedes around for a long time. This is highly probable considering that they are very easy to care for and they can live about 5 to 7 years as adults. If you would like to see these incredible millipedes on display, come on by! Unlike some of our shy residents, these are always visible to the public! You can always keep an eye out for their smaller native cousins as well, they’re just as interesting to watch.

Until next time, happy bug watching!


Adventures Among Ants

Ants are endlessly fascinating.  They seem so HUMAN in the way they bustle around, cooperating in all things whether building great metropolises, hauling food, overcoming enemies or taking care of their queen and their baby sisters.  They epitomize industry and selfless devotion to the cause – their colony.  Of course as children we may have squished dozens of these little workers, but we have also watched their activities in wonder, marveling to see so many of our own behaviors reflected in their activities.

Dagger-Jawed Army Ants
©Mark W. Moffett/Minden

With 12,000 species world-wide, ants are the most diverse and widespread of the social insects, which include termites and some wasps and bees.  Ants are found on every continent and in every habitat, but are especially successful in the tropics.  Everywhere they are abundant and in many habitats are the dominant organisms, in terms of individuals far outnumbering all other animals.  They have few enemies and many have long-lasting, stable colonies.  Individual ants are remarkably long-lived, as insects go, with queens living as long as 13 to 15 years or so, and some workers surviving 4-7 years.  Unlike other social insects such as termites or honeybees, which are quite specialized, ants have many different ways of life.  Some have mutually beneficial relationships with plants or other insects.  Although a few ants are household pests, and some may cause agricultural or other damage, many are beneficial in terms of controlling pest populations, cleaning up wastes, and aerating the soil.

All ants are social; there are no solitary species.  Some are tiny, less than 1/16 of an inch long, while some tropical species are over an inch in length.  Depending on the species, ant colonies may be made up of only a few individuals, while others number in the millions.  In this and other ways, ant societies appear to parallel human societies.  Some are simple hunter-gatherers, with little specialization among workers, while others have huge and sophisticated societies with highly specialized tasks divided among different “castes.”  Driver ants in Africa and army ants in South America are ruthless predators, moving in huge numbers from temporary bivouac to bivouac in search of prey.  Any of us who read “Leinigin versus the ants” when we were in school can still remember the terror inspired by the image of a huge river of driver ants overrunning everything in its path.  Leafcutter ants also have huge colonies, but theirs are sedentary and underground, sometimes lasting more than 20 years.  Leafcutters are farmers, chewing up fresh leaves and fertilizing them with their saliva and feces to provide a rich substrate for the fungus they cultivate as food for the colony.  Harvester ants in dry grasslands stockpile seeds in underground storage areas.  Other ants are ranchers, herding and protecting groups of tiny, honey-dew producing insects such as scale and aphids.  Desert-dwelling honeypot ants use their own sisters as “cisterns” to store honeydew.  Formica ants in boreal forests make huge mounds of pine and spruce needles, which serve to regulate temperature and humidity.  Some ants do no work themselves, instead robbing pupae from neighboring ant nests, and then forcing the captured ants to work as slaves.

Dr. Mark Moffett
Photo by Frank J. Sulloway

Mark Moffett, renowned National Geographic photographer and explorer, has made a career out of his fascination with ants, and will be at the museum to talk about his favorite organisms on Wednesday, September 15.  An enthusiastic speaker with – needless to say – wonderful photographs – Mark will regale his audience with tales of warfare, industry, and cooperation.  He encourages all ages to attend!

Don’t miss Mark’s distinguished lecture at HMNS:
Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions
Mark Moffett, Ph.D.
Wednesday, September 15, 6:30 p.m.

Purchase your tickets in advance here.

Check out Moffett on Colbert in May 2010:


Insect Insight: Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

Well, it’s officially summer in Houston and we are literally buzzing with insect activity. Some species are off to a slow start due to the harsh winter, but they are sure to catch up soon. I love the summer! I can definitely tolerate it being hotter than all get out,  a lot better than the cold and I love to see the outdoors come to life. Millions of little creatures scurrying here and there doing their jobs to keep our environment working the way it should. How can you not appreciate that?

One insect you may be lucky enough to run into is the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper. Although I’m not terribly clear on the role these funny little guys play, it may just be to entertain people like me! These grasshoppers are commonly referred to as the clowns of the insect world. They are large, colorful, extremely clumsy, and just plain funny to look at!

Lubber grasshopper
Creative Commons License photo credit: JoelDeluxe

There are several species of Lubber grasshoppers. Most of them are found in South America, but luckily we have a few species here in North America. They are among the largest grasshoppers found in the United States. The term “lubber” refers to stout and clumsy individuals. You may have heard the term landlubber before, which means a clumsy or inexperienced sailor. This name fits them quite well. Most lubber grasshoppers are horrible jumpers, cannot fly, and are pretty slow at walking. You would think that this would put them at a disadvantage, but they have enough chemical and physical defenses to put off a large majority of predators that would threaten them!

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Clowns! Eastern Lubbers
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

The Easter Lubber or Romalea guttatta is probably the most well known grasshopper in the Southeastern United States and is definitely the largest! They can be called the clowns of the insect world due to their coloration. They usually have a combination of yellow, red and black and their colors can vary. They have these colors for a reason. They are known as aposematic or warning colors. This coloration can also be seen on animals such as coral snakes, poison dart frogs, bees, wasps, ladybugs, monarch butterflies, etc. This is a way of warning predators to stay away, or get more than they bargained for. This can mean poison, venom, a bad taste or other unpleasant consequences.

The bodies of Eastern Lubbers do contain toxic chemicals that have been known to cause death in certain bird species and cause small mammals like opossums to wretch violently and feel sick for quite some time after. Of course there are some animals that are tolerant of their poison.

If their coloration does not work, they have an arsenal of other defenses. They will lift their wings, displaying their bright red color. This is often followed by a loud hissing noise as they force a bubbly frothy liquid from their spiracles (breathing holes). This substance contains some semi-toxic chemicals which are irritants. They can also regurgitate plant material that has been recently eaten and digested. This liquid is brown in color and also contains some semi-toxic compounds from the insect’s crop. It is often referred to as tobacco spit and many grasshoppers are able to do this. Wow, if  an insect was doing all that to me, I would probably freak out! I have been working with Eastern Lubbers for years and have never ever seen such a thing. They must not find me very threatening!

Juvenile Eastern Lubber
Creative Commons License photo credit: vladeb a nymph

If you’re wondering where to find these beauties, well, your guess is as good as mine! They prefer moist, densely wooded areas, but as they mature, they will disperse and can be found in almost any suitable habitat. I have collected them several times out at Bear Creek Park. Sometimes they will disperse into gardens and become a bit of a pest. They will eat a wide variety of wild plants but are fond of amaryllis and related plants in gardens.  However, despite their size, they have a very small appetite, so the numbers would have to be great to cause a problem.

The nymphs tend to be gregarious and they look quite different from the adults so they can often be mistaken for a different species all together. They are all black with a narrow yellow, red, or orange stripe running from their head to their abdomen. If you happen to run into these grasshoppers, take some time to observe them. We are so lucky to have such an amazing insect native to our little part of the world.

In the mean time you can stop by our Entomology Hall to see them on display. I’m fortunate enough to be fully stocked up with plenty of adults and nymphs to last me through the summer! Until next time, happy grasshopper watching!

Photo From You:Insect Identification

Photo submitted by Alex

Last week we got an interesting photo from a man named Alex in Guanajuato, Mexico. At first glance it looks like a stem with green thorns and some really weird, spiky, alien-looking bugs. The “green thorns” are actually insects that often get dismissed as, well, green thorns! These little guys are called treehoppers and they are everywhere, constantly being overlooked because of their excellent camouflage. They belong to the order Homoptera, which is notorious for containing almost all of the worst plant pests, including everyone’s favorite, the aphid! This order also includes interesting, non-pest insects like the cicada and the masters of disguise, treehoppers and leafhoppers. Most entomologists today lump the order Homoptera with Hemiptera, or true bugs such as stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, and assassin bugs. I, however, think they’re different enough to have their own group.

So, as I said, most treehoppers are not considered pests except for a small handful, including this little guy, the Keeled Treehopper (Antiathe expansa). They are known to attack plants in the family Solanaceae – especially tomatoes, eggplants and chile peppers. Alex found these guys all over his chile plant! In large enough numbers, they can seriously injure and even kill these plants. The problem is that, unlike more efficient insects like butterflies, beetles and flies, the young nymphs and adults eat the exact same thing. They use a sharp beak to penetrate the tissues of plants and suck the sap. All homopterans feed this way and that’s why so many of them cause damage to plants. All of this sap eating causes these insects to excrete a sugary liquid called honeydew which ants go crazy for! The ants will “milk” the honeydew from the homopteran and in return for the yummy snack, protect them from other predators. For example, ants who farm aphids for honeydew will keep the hungry ladybugs at bay to protect their precious nectar. For this reason, ants are very often associated with homopterans.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Dvorak319
treehopper being farmed by ants

So, what are the little spiky, weird orange guys? You guessed it, the nymphs! Very often, treehopper nymphs will look very different from the adults, but as time goes by, with every molt, they will lose their spines and start to resemble the green thorn-like adults. Treehoppers come in a wide array of fascinating and even downright bizarre shapes and appearances. Those found in the tropics are a bit larger and sport vibrant colors and odd protuberances unlike any other insects. Next time you are out and about, look a little more closely, and you’re sure to spot them!

Remember, if you find an odd looking bug and would like to know what it is, snap a picture and send it to us at blogadmin@hmns.org. Happy bug watching!