Southern Arizona: A Bug Geek’s Paradise!

tarantula
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Tarantula

Last week, I attended what is probably the best conference ever!! Well, that is if you are interested in wildlife, especially invertebrates.  The Invertebrates in Education and Conservation conference is a small gathering of people who are involved in invertebrates in some way. Most of the attendees are employed by insect zoos and butterfly houses all over the country, some are teachers, some are doctors, and some, like all of us, just plain love bugs!

The conference is held in a small town called Rio Rico which is located about an hour south of Tucson and right above the Mexican border. Located right smack dab in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, this quaint little town is perfect for spotting some spectacular wildlife; some of which can only be found in that particular habitat. The insects and arachnids are amazing, but there are also plenty of desert-dwelling mammals, reptiles, and birds to make anyone’s day!

arizona-mountains
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Arizona Mountains

The conference is full of activities: workshops, field trips, paper presentations, and lets not forget the social aspect! Bug people really know how to party! But seriously, there is so much invaluable information that I get from talking to the other conference participants. I can always learn ways to improve every aspect of our facility and that’s why this conference is so important.

chrysina
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Chrysina beetle

I was able to go on a few collecting trips as well as purchase some critters that I was not able to catch myself. I came back with some great new bugs that you will soon be able to see on display! 

I caught some gorgeous beetles including cactus longhorn beetles (Moneilema gigas), fig beetles (Cotinis mutabilis), and jewel scarabs (Chrysina sp.).  Cactus longhorn beetles are robust black beetles with very long antennae, which are characteristic of longhorn beetles. They can be found during the cooler hours of the day feeding on Cholla. This is a cactus with extremely tough sharp spines, so collecting these beetles can be a bit of a challenge. They are harmless, but somewhat resemble another black beetle called a darkling beetle. These beetles secrete a foul-smelling liquid to deter predators, so resembling them along with hiding in the sharp spines of the cholla helps to keep the longhorn beetles safe.

Fig beetles are also known as Green June Beetles and can be found here in Texas. They are, however, very abundant and easy to catch in the desert. They are active during the day and fly around, buzzing very loudly, from plant to plant. Very often, people think that a bumble bee or something similar is headed for them until the beetle lands, showing off its beautiful emerald green coloration. They love to eat over-ripe, soft fruits such as figs and peaches, hence the name!

Chrysina, or Jewel beetles are a magnificent find. There are 3 species common to the area: gloriosa, lecontei, and beyeri. They are all beautiful, but a little harder to find then the fig beetles because they are active at night.

cholla
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Cholla Plant

I was also on the look out for katydids of course (my favorite!)  I brought back 1 very small nymph which I will not be able to identify until it matures. I’m very anxious to see what species it is! I was also able to get some various desert katydids, all belonging to the sub-family tettigoniinae. This sub-family is comprised of predaceous katydids. Some are active predators that will hunt and kill their prey and some are scavengers, feeding on eggs and freshly dead invertebrates. They all require plant material in their diets as well.  Out of the 6 I brought back, 2 are male sooty-winged katydids (Capnobotes fuliginosus), 2 I have not been able to identify, and 2 are a pair of Haldeman’s shieldback katydids (Pediodects haldemani). I am especially excited about these two because I actually have a male and female that I would love to breed.

Blog 018
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Haldeman’s Shieldback

As you can see, this species has kind of a diabolical look to it, and since predatory katydids are known to inflict a painful bite when handled, I will be careful with this one!

It was not all fun and games for me. I went there to present a paper. I actually presented on our blog! I love to talk and write about bugs to anyone who will listen or read and it has been well received!

So, hopefully you bug geeks out there will continue to read and put Southern Arizona on your list of places to visit, you won’t regret it! If you get there, be sure to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI). They are the ones who organize and host this wonderful gathering and they rely on our support. Well, until next time, happy bug watching!

Home Sweet Oil Platform

Beyond Petroleum
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

We all breathed a sign of relief this weekend as Gustav spared the Houston area.  We hope that the hurricanes backed up for landing on our continent follow his example and fizzle out before causing as much harm as we have seen in the past century.  Katrina and Rita caused untold damage from which we are still struggling to recover.

The Gulf of Mexico normally produces about 1.5 million barrels a day of U.S. crude: 2% of global oil production and about a quarter of our domestic output. Many damaged platforms and oil rigs in the Gulf were sunk or put adrift after Katrina and Rita.  

This appears alarming at first,  and of course, oli platform cost us millions of dollars to replace – to say nothing of the production lost.  But the story is not all dark.  Our guest blogger,  Lindsey Goodier from the Oil and Gas Investor tells us more…

I learned something new yesterday – did you know that oil platforms are home to thousands of underwater creatures?

reef fish & soft coral
Creative Commons License photo credit: jon hanson

The protection provided by the platforms attracts a variety of fish and the structures become home to corals, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Over the past 20 years, over 200 platforms that are no longer used have attracted many sea creatures. The conglomeration of sea creatures at these oil platforms has served as a learning center for marine life observation.

Especially in the Gulf of Mexico, the habitat the platforms create for fish is of value to fishermen. Since the GOM is a flat plain, comprised of mud, clay and sand with very little natural rock bottom and reef habitat, the platforms are one of the few places that habitats can form. Without oil platforms, fish and other marine life would be far more dispersed, making commercial fishing, recreational fishing and diving more difficult.

As observed and documented by the Minerals Management Service’s (MMS) diving scientists, invertebrates and plants attach to petroleum platforms within weeks of their placement in the marine environment. Within a year, the platform can be completely covered with plants and sessile invertebrates, attracting mobile invertebrates and fish species, and forming a highly complex food chain.

Now, I won’t be so naive as to ignore the fact that oil spills do occur. Yes, living under an oil platform can be a risky way of life. But the benefits of community living for these creatures seems to be greater than the risk of an actual spill. And the enjoyment that they bring to humans who can observe communities of marine life is the greatest benefit of all.

Lindsay Goodier is the Online Editor for OilandGasInvestor.com; check out her blog, Oil Rules.

Feeling energized?
Read about the Minerals Managment Service’s announcement about Sperm Whales.
See what Lindsay Goodier had to say about our Wiess Energy Hall.
Michael Phelps and solar power: what’s the connection?

Summer Encounters – Brazos Bend State Park

Oak tree

Welcoming Oak Tree

Last summer I was introduced to Brazos Bend State Park. I found many amazing animals living amongst the tall swamp reeds and old oak trees. Recently, I spent a weekend down there camping with my family. I’d like to share some of the beautiful animals we encountered on this visit.

Now, like many people, I’m not particularly fond of certain small, creepy-crawlies, including my least favorite: ticks! Unfortunately (and much to my dismay) I was feasted upon by one tiny tick. However, when I was given an opportunity to watch a spider feast upon its own meal, I didn’t feel the same distress. Near our campsite, there were plenty of enormous spiders for us to observe. I was astounded by the size and beauty of the Golden Silk Spider, Nephila clavipes, often called the Banana Spider.

Golden Silk Spider

Golden Silk Spider

She is relatively harmless to humans, but has an impressive web and can take down dragonflies. This species are also a cannibalistic species, preying upon their own kind. The males live on the backside of the web from the female, risking their lives to mate when the time is right. I witnessed a large female dining on a smaller female early one morning. Apparently, it is not such a good idea to build your web directly in front of a larger, hungrier silk spider! If you look closely at the photo to the right, you may be able to see the much smaller male sitting a couple of inches to the left of the female.

As a side note, I learned that another spider, the Brazilian Wandering Spider, Phoneutria nigriventer, is also often called a Banana Spider. This spider can be fatal to humans and should not be taken lightly.

Another favorite invertebrate that I was able to find at Brazos Bend State Park is the firefly (not to be confused with the excellent, but short TV series Firefly), also known as lightning bugs. Last summer was the first time I had ever seen them and I was still very excited when I saw them again this summer. I also managed to catch one and study it up close, watching as the abdomen slowly glowed on and off. These beetles use their bioluminescence to communicate with each other. Each species of firefly has their own, distinct pattern they flash to attract a mate. The male flashes his pattern while flying around, hoping to find a female responding to his light with her own light show. However, some females will mimic the pattern of another species in order to catch their dinner!

Lightning Bug

Lightning Bug

While walking around Elm lake, you can’t help but notice all of the beautiful water birds. They share the lake with the alligators, seemingly unaware of the dark eyes resting at the edge of the water’s surface. During the summer, you can easily spot pairs of white ibises, egrets & herons, common moorhens, black-bellied whistling ducks, and on occasion you may spot an osprey or wood stork. Below, I’ve posted a photo of a Green Heron, Butorides virescens, looking for his lunch amongst all of the duckweed. Green Herons typically hunt small aquatic animals including invertebrates, small fish, & frogs. It has been known to “bait” for fish, dropping a small item on the surface of the water and waiting to catch the fish attracted to the lure.

Green Heron

Green Heron

The last animal I want to bring up from my encounters at Brazos Bend State Park is the Nine-Banded Armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus. We were hiking on a path near the George Observatory while we waited to buy tickets to look through the telescopes later that evening. My well-trained ears told me there was an animal moving about in the underbrush nearby. I turned to look and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my first armadillo! The novelty of this new mammal had me snapping pictures left and right, spending a good 20 minutes observing its search for food.

Nine Banded Armadillo

Nine-Banded Armadillo

Eventually, my dogs noticed this new creature and started barking. By this time, the armadillo had meandered right near the path and upon being frightened by the dogs, he did an about-face and nearly ran straight into my friend’s legs! He eventually found his way back to the denser foliage and continued foraging for lunch. After this first encounter, we later came across 4 more juveniles, these were much quicker to run away from us than the first adult we observed.

The nine-banded armadillo may be opportunistic, eating whatever food they come across, but mostly they eat a wide variety of invertebrates: caterpillars, scarab beetles, grubs, termites, & worms. They will also eat carrion and occasionally crustaceans, fruit, reptiles & amphibians. Armadillos are excellent diggers but have poor vision. When frightened, they may jump straight into the air!

Armadillos are capable of crossing water in two interesting ways. In order to get around the problem of their heavy armor, the armadillo can hold its breath and simply walk across the bottom of a body of water. However, they are able to swim by inflating their stomach to offer some bouyancy. Nine-banded armadillos have identical quadruplets around March, the young staying with the mother for several months.

If you would like to see more photos from Brazos Bend State Park, please visit the BBSP Flickr group webpage. You can also find a wide variety of photos from HMNS at their Flickr group page as well. I am still working on updating my own Flickr page with Museum-related photos, but in the meantime, enjoy this one last photo of the largest alligator I’ve seen at Brazos Bend. I was standing directly above him on a dock at Hale lake. My best guess at his length: 12-14 feet long!

Large Alligator

American Alligator

Bug Geeks

Report from the yearly gathering of bug geeks…

I recently got back from the annual “Bugs in Bondage” conference held in southern Arizona.  The actual name is the more politically correct “Invertebrates in Education and Conservation,” recently updated from the original “Invertebrates in Captivity” – thus the humorous nickname.  But for those of us who have attended for many years (this was the conference’s 15th consecutive year), the nickname will always come first to mind. 

This is a great conference.  Who goes?  It’s a fairly small group, about 125-150 people, including representatives from most of the US facilities that display live insects and/or butterflies, as well as those who supply insects and butterflies to our facilities.  Several international attendees often participate as well – especially from Canada and Mexico but also from as far away as Scotland, Costa Rica, Singapore, and Malaysia. 

Hosted by the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI), it’s a week of workshops, collecting field trips, formal and informal presentations and roundtable discussions – with a strong social aspect as well.  The “Insect Trivia” contest is one of my favorite rituals; the photography contest is always fun, too; and of course, nothing can beat the final banquet.  Outside the meeting room, several vendors set up their wares – whether live arthropods, insect books, toys, and jewelry or collecting equipment.  As an example, BioQuip has a large display and also helps to sponsor the conference.

It may seem crazy to meet in southern Arizona in the middle of the summer, but the time (late July/early August) was chosen for a reason.  Although it’s hot and sunny during the day, this is “monsoon season” in the Sonoran desert, a time when – most days – clouds build up late in the afternoon, followed by dramatic lightning storms that are accompanied by brief but torrential rains. 

Shortly after nightfall, it is usually clear again (the stars are great there in the desert skies).  Because of all the rain at this season, the desert is teeming with plant and insect life.  It’s a great time to find cactus longhorn beetles, giant centipedes, vinegaroons, sunburst diving beetles, jewel beetles, and much more.  Some participants go blacklighting almost every night, choosing a spot off the beaten path and setting up a white sheet with UV and mercury vapor lamps to draw in flying insects.  I’ve seen sheets completely covered with moths, including some large and spectacular ones, along with tons of beetles, adult ant lions and owl flies, and much more.  

This year, a former colleague and I led a workshop on “plant identification for entomologists.”  One of my favorite workshops in the past was one on “cooking with bugs” – we made a number of dishes using different insects and then served them at the icebreaker that night!  The talks I most enjoyed this year included one on leaf cutter ants, another on a monitoring program for the endangered burying beetle, and one on how to keep and display bumblebees

The other attendees are fun, unique people brimming with knowledge and experience – along with some “newbies” who are there to learn the ropes.  We all come away from the conference full of new ideas for displays, new arthropod possibilities, and a sense of community.  It’s not often you can be in a room of over 100 people where every one is a major insect enthusiast (aka bug geek)! 

Are you a bug geek? Learn more:
What butterfly are you most likely to see in the wild?
Could you raise a tiny baby mantis?
Discover the Black Swallowtail.