April 22, 2014

This site has moved to a new one (http://microgastrinae.myspecies.info/)

Finally I am ready to move the contents of this blog (and many other things, including tons of new information on parasitoid wasps that I did not have time to share) to a new site. It can be accessed here: http://microgastrinae.myspecies.info/ 

The new site is not a blog but has a more flexible arrangement where new data can be accessed, explored and shared easily, and has many more features that we are still exploring. I write "we" because I am doing that new site altogether with Dr. Darren Ward (from Landcare Research, New Zeland... yes, the same researcher that led the paper on "the Hobbit wasps"). And hopefully more researchers would be interested to join!

We are using the Scratchpads platform (details on what Scratchpads is and what it can do were posted on this blog a while ago, and can be read here). We are still learning, and have not had the time yet to add everything we have prepared. But is coming bit by bit, and I encourage the reader to visit the new site, browse it and send us any feedback to make it better.

This new endeavour will be exclusively devoted to Microgastrinae parasitoid wasps, and their caterpillar hosts. Most of the contents of this blog will migrate to the new site, others will be edited and expanded in scope. In the meantime I will keep this blog online. But eventually it will disappear from the cyberspace...

We are learning with a new "toy", and it may take a few more weeks before the new site is fully set up. But we are trying our best to move it all as smooth and fast as possible.

Thank you very much for visiting us here, and we really hope you will follow us to the new site: http://microgastrinae.myspecies.info/

March 22, 2014

Following up with some previous topics

I have not been able to post anything here in a while, mostly because lack of time due to some research projects that needed to be finished. Most of those projects relate to what this blog is all about, and thus today I will be writing about three of them that are, somehow, related.

Two weeks ago I had a paper published in the Biodiversity Data Journal about potential conservation of Canadian parasitoid wasps by COSEWIC (The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). This, of course, is a long shot, and there is no guarantee whatsoever that COSEWIC would list any of the species discussed there as candidates for some protection status. Still, that is one of my dearest dreams (perhaps naively?); as a researcher on parasitoid wasps I would LOVE to see someday that our small and often overlooked "friends" are given some attention -and hopefully some protection!

While I was preparing the information for that paper (which included distribution maps in Canada and illustrations for all 16 species included there, see examples below), I had the great opportunity of exchanging emails with Gergely Varkonyi (Finland) and Mark Shaw (Scotland). They both have great experience with the pioneering efforts of (trying to) protecting parasitoid wasps. Gergely was one of the lead authors of the Hymenoptera chapter of the 2010 Red List of Finnish Species, and as such he became (unknown to him) a source of inspiration for me. As for Mark, he has been one of my  mentors for the past few years, and I read his papers routinely. Mark has written some seminal papers on the topic of conservation of parasitoid wasps, and I strongly recommend the reading of his 2001 paper "The Neglect of Parasitic Hymenoptera in Insect Conservation Strategies: The British Fauna as a Prime Example" and his 2006 paper "Habitat considerations for parasitic wasps (Hymenoptera)". While I cannot blame Gergely and Mark if my efforts to emulate them fail here in Canada, I do hope that following into their footsteps would some day bring certain degree of recognition and protection to parasitoid wasps in this side of the Atlantic. At least I will keep pushing! [I have written about these topics in this blog a couple of times before].

Distribution of Pseudapanteles gouleti, a Canadian endemic, in Ontario.
Pseudapanteles gouleti, one of the species with great potential to be considered by COSEWIC.

Lathrapanteles heleios, another species with great potential to be considered by COSEWIC.

Another paper I had published recently in ZooKeys was about a great team-work study of parasitoid wasps of Costa Rica. This manuscript is not for the faint of heart: it deals with 205 species (186 of them new), with more than 300 illustrations and spread over 565 pages. But is yet another example of "Turbotaxonomy". Hopefully soon I will have time to write more about the challenges that such kind of work presents for a taxonomist, but also -and most importantly- about the possibilities that those efforts provide to describe and better comprehend the amazing diversity of species worldwide...

In the meantime, I was very pleased to discover that this paper became some sort of news in many places, including being featured by the National Geographic Daily News, the smart blog "Strange Behaviors" (which used the suggestive title of "The Biological Warfare of Very Small Wasps" to refer to our paper), and even the main newspaper of Costa Rica (link in Spanish).

Curiously enough, last year National Geographic (NG) actually covered the story of a very amazing parasitoid wasp named after Tinkerbell, which was described by John Huber, a good friend and colleague of mine here in the Canadian National Collection of Insects (CNC). [I would like to think that there must be some kind of "secret link" between the NG and the CNC... it could even be used for a nice title of a new TV show, something like "NG-CNC, the CSI of insect discovery!" One can only dream :) But, in all seriousness, I hope that NG will continue to value the work on parasitoid wasps -and other incredible and amazing creatures of our planet].

My last surprise of the month was to find (at last!) some mention to our new species described from New Zealand, the ones that we affectionately call "The Hobbit Wasps". I had hoped that the news of these "cool wasps" would go viral and become a world phenomenon (and, who knows? perhaps even Peter Jackson would ask me to sign him an autograph!). But, disappointingly enough, the news on those wasps never became as big of an issue as I had expected (and, seriously now, my main hope was simpler and less pompous: gaining some support for more research on the New Zealand fauna of parasitoid wasps).

But then, when everything seemed lost (pretty much as in many moments of The Lord of the Rings movies) I found that our paper was actually covered by some media. Admittedly, CryptoVille is a blog that defines itself as dealing with "Bigfoot, Aliens, Mysterious Creatures, and more!", not the traditional outlet than an entomologist would look for his research to be featured and discussed. Still, I was surprised that the author presented the result of our research in a mostly accurate and fair way -and, in fact, I wrote to thank him for his post. And you know what? There are many followers of CryptoVille, MANY MORE than those following this blog that I write. So, of anything, I felt humbled and schooled.

Sometimes the results of our work can reach the most unexpected audiences in the most unexpected ways. As a scientist, I deeply respect this, and I tip my cap to anyone that is willing to promote the appreciation (and protection) of our natural world.

January 23, 2014

The potential of the Biodiversity Data Journal

For the past few months a new and promising journal has been part of the family of journals under the umbrella of Pensoft Publishers. In the meantime other journals have been added to Pensoft portfolio and, beyond of this publisher, there are dozens of new journals being added every year. So what is news here?

Well, the Biodiversity Data Journal (BDJ) is not exactly your regular biodiversity/taxonomic journal. For one, it does not have upper or lower limit on the size of papers to be published there (more on that below). Another novelty is the online review system, the consolidation of all reviews in one single document (online), and other technical tricks that allow for a faster process of publication. When I write fast I mean much FASTER than a regular journal. There are other interesting features and capabilities (some already functional, others to be added in the near future) that make this journal very attractive. The reader is strongly recommended to check the Editorial that introduced the journal four months ago.

Personally, there are three things that specially attract me. First, the fact that there is no lower limit on the data to be published allows for new distribution records, new biological information, and similar data (stored in many natural history collections) to be published now in a much expedite way. Usually taxonomist would wait for a big monograph or review to add that kind of information. But, as it is well known, such big papers may take years (if not decades) to be prepared. And, in the meantime, the data is seating in the collections, unused, loosing value, and even risking to be lost (if, heaven forbids, the taxonomist dies before finishing his/her review). The BDJ can now help to solve at least part of this bottleneck.

The second thing that I like is the possibility of post-publication review of the papers (although I still have not seen any paper being reviewed that way, but hopefully it will happen soon). This will allow for the community to weight into the published papers, which will certainly help to improve the accuracy and quality of what has been published. We are still in the infancy of this kind of approach, but I can see the merits of this, and I am a strong supporter of the idea.

October 24, 2013

Concerning Hobbits... and Microgastrinae wasps

Today the journal Zootaxa publishes a paper about a new genus of parasitoid wasps only found in New Zealand. The article is open access and can be freely accessed here. It is the second paper of a series on the New Zealand fauna of Microgastrinae wasps, as result of collaborations started in 2011 by Darren Ward and me. Darren is an expert on wasps and ants (among other topics) but, most importantly, he is a scientist with Landcare Research, Auckland, where the largest collection of insects of New Zealand is housed. Thanks to his work, and the work done by other researchers before him, we can now study the fascinating world of parasitoid wasps inhabiting that extraordinary country.

The new genus was named "Shireplitis". The ending "plitis" refers to the superficial similarity of its species with another genus of parasitoid waps, Paroplitis, which is found in Europe, North America, and northern areas of Vietnam and Philippines. The first part of the name "Shire" refers to The Shire, the region exclusively inhabited by Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional universe setting of Middle-earth. And then, five of the new species found in the genus, which are also described in the paper, are named after the hobbits Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. A sixth new species is named after Tolkien himself.

Meet the new six species of Shireplitis parasitoid wasps, from New Zealand. The black line in the middle represents 1 millimiter, every wasp species is roughly 2 mm long.

It is not uncommon for scientist to name new species using funny, famous, and/or interesting names. For example, there are species named after Darth Vader, Tinkerbell, Greek Gods, Lady Gaga, and anything in between. Several websites have compiled many of those names, my favourite site being the one maintained by Doug Yanega (University of California, Riverside). His list even includes a section exclusively devoted to names used for characters and creatures from Tolkien!

In our case, we used Tolkien-related names for two main reasons. First, which goes without saying, is because we are fans of Tolkien works. In my personal case, I consider myself a die hard fan of The Lord of the Ring movies, which I usually watch 2-3 times per year (in the way real fans do it: watching the three movies one right after the other, in a 12 hours or so marathon). [By the way: I cannot wait until the three DVDs of The Hobbit movies become available at some point in 2015... at that time I will try an "Iron Man Tolkien Movies Marathon"!].

The second reason is more related to the scientific content of the paper itself, although still carries a strong metaphorical meaning. The new genus is endemic (i.e., exclusive) of New Zealand (where a replicate of the Shire exists); and its six new species are rather short and stout (as text-book hobbits are supposed to be!). All the species have been found in different mountain ranges in New Zealand (mostly on the South Island), meaning that they are truly unique. Last but not least, the species of Shireplitis are morphologically rather similar to Paroplitis, in spite of the huge separation in the geographical distribution of both genera. We think that is due to the similar ecological conditions those wasps species find when looking for its prey (caterpillars), which have made them to look alike in spite they are not closely related. This is a nice example of convergent evolution, and a fascinating testimony of how life evolves under similarly yet slightly different conditions!

So, what is next? Darren and I still have 80-100 new species of microgastrine wasps from New Zealand to describe, which we hope to do within the next few years... We will likely name some species in more conventional ways. But we will certainly have plenty of room to link more names of the Tollkien universe with the scientific universe!

I can surely think of having a few more new wasp species named after the remaining members of the Fellowship of the Ring. And beyond that the new characters of the new Hobbit movies. The sky is the limit... Well, not really, the actual limit is the biodiversity richness -i.e. the number of species- of New Zealand that remains undescribed. But, fortunately, there are still plenty of new species waiting to be discovered.

Next time you watch one of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings movies, when you look at the beautiful scenery shown as background, think that those mountains hold much more than elf or orcs... they are harbouring an amazing diversity of life, including our new friends, the Shireplitis parasitoid wasps!

October 12, 2013

A wonderful Bug Day

On September 7, I had the opportunity to participate as a volunteer in a "Bug Day", in the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. It was jointly sponsored by the Entomological Society of Ontario and the Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club, and brilliantly organized by Sophie Cardinal, a bee researcher from the Canadian National Collection of Insects (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada). The interested person can find more details of what happened that day and some photos here.

It was indeed a celebration of insects and Nature, with around one thousand participants attending and enjoying the many "attractions" that were prepared by the organizers. Tables were set up to showcase insect collections in drawers, living insects in cages, a fish tank with aquatic insects, cockroach races, nature walks (where collecting and later mounting of insects was taught), entomology-related crafts and face-painting, use of microscopes, exhibition of specimens used in actual biological control projects in Canada, and many more things. 

Among those tables there was one devoted to "Rearing Caterpillars", led by Chris Schmidt, a researcher on Lepidoptera working for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Chris had brought a number of caterpillars collected around Ottawa, including a few that could be touched by kids and adults. Over the four hours that the event ran, we talked to many persons interested in caterpillars and other aspects of Nature. We also enjoyed their faces when they examined some glass jars and tried to find larvae mimicking thin branches or bird droppings. It is this capacity to be surprised, while enjoying the new knowledge acquired, what makes so beautiful the study of the natural world. Especially for the small kids!

Chris Schmidt enjoying his talk with a family interested in caterpillars 
(Photo by Sophie Cardinal). 
I was fortunate to be there helping Chris, because I ended learning lots of things from his vast knowledge of local caterpillars -well, to be honest, his expertise goes way beyond local Lepidoptera. And it was also great to exchange from our different perspectives rearing caterpillars (Chris does it to get the adult moths and butterflies, while I do that to get their braconid parasitoid wasps). Two different worlds that nevertheless are deeply linked.

And, of course, I could not resist to bring some additional information... about those parasitoids. I printed a few images of parasitized caterpillars, and also wrote a small brochure on how to rear them -with the hope of attracting someone to this often-ignored task. It was great to find a few persons interested in such activities. At the end of the day I ran out of pictures and most of my brochures! 

Some images of caterpillars parasitized by microgastrine wasps 
(Images taken from Google Images).

Among people that impressed me the most were a couple of school teachers -both promised me that next spring they would try to get some students interested in rearing parasitoids from caterpillars... Hopefully I hear from then soon!

There was also a small kid who seemed to know very well the parasitoid wasps, and nicely explained to me the whole process of parasitism and emergence of the wasp larva from the caterpillar host ("How do you know that?", I asked him in awe, and he replied with ease "I found it in Wikipedia!". It was a wonderful experience). 
A simple explanation of what can be found when rearing caterpillars, part of the 
brochure on rearing caterpillars and parasitoids prepared for the Bug Day.
(Some images from Google Images, others taken by the author). 
And then there was another biologist, Alexander MacDonald, Manager of Protected Areas for Nature Canada. He was obviously very knowledgeable and interested, and got really excited with the idea of rearing parasitoids. We have kept corresponding since then, and I am delighted to see that collaborations can materialize in the most unexpected ways. 

At the end, this Bug Day was a great experience not only for those attending the event, but also for the volunteers. I do look forward to repeat the celebration the next year. And I certainly look forward to get involved with more citizens of Ottawa interested in rearing caterpillars parasitoids!

September 26, 2013

The sounds emited by microgastrine wasps

From 2002 to 2005 I worked as an entomologist for a natural history museum in Cuba, and as part of that I was lucky to participate in a number of field expeditions to many special places of the island. Among the colleagues I shared time with during those expeditions, a significant number devoted themselves to the study of sounds emitted by all kinds of animals -mostly birds, amphibians, and bats. The use of advanced technology to record those sounds, and the "scientific paraphernalia" (=equipment) surrounding those efforts made those  researchers the absolute mega-stars of the expeditions. Local guides and farmers would die for a chance to try the microphones, listen to the songs recorded, see the sinusoid waves in the computer screens... in comparison, my entomological net was of not interest whatsoever. Who cares about those minuscule parasitoid wasps? They were not only small and of rather dull coloration, but on top of that they could not even emit any interesting sound! 

I confess I was a bit jealous because of this. But there was nothing that could be done, so I continued setting up my (boring) Malaise traps, my (boring) yellow pan traps, and doing my (boring) sweeping to collect those (boring) parasitoid wasps. Oh well...

More than eight years later, I suddenly found myself enjoying those memories while reading an interesting paper published in 2013 in PLOS ONE. The title attracted me from the very beginning: Characterization and generation of male courtship song in Cotesia congregata (Hymenoptera: Braconidae). So, there were actually sounds emitted by small parasitoid wasps! Courtship songs! And I could even find the familiar sound waves in the paper, just like those of a showy bird or a charismatic frog. Wow!

One of the figures of the PLOS ONE paper mentioned. The caption of the original figure actually reads: "Figure 1. Oscillograph of typical male courtship song of Cotesia congregata with a buzz followed by boings.(A) Complete song. (B) Expanded selection of initial buzz. (C) Expanded selection of four boings illustrating the initial high amplitude component followed by a lower amplitude terminal buzz and short gap.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062051.g001"

What is more, the paper included among its Supporting Information one audio-recording and two high-speed videos of the courtship song of a male of Cotesia congregata. This was for me mind-boggling, and listening and watching to that small wasp while "singing" was certainly a thing of beauty... But I may be a bit biased here, of course. I only wish my former colleagues were now near me, to be able to tell them: Take THAT! :)

But, beyond funny memories, it made me look for more information. Parasitoid wasps have been long known to produce sounds. The earliest paper in the scientific literature I could find was from 40 years ago, and it dealt with an ichneumonid wasp (Vinson S.B. 1972: Courtship behavior and evidence of a sex pheromone in the parasitoid Campoletis sonorensis (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae). Environ Entomol 1: 409–414). 

The earliest paper that specifically referred to sounds emitted by a microgastrine wasp was published 20 years ago (Field S.A. Keller M.A. 1993: Courtship and intersexual signaling in the parasitic wasp Cotesia rubecula (Hymenoptera: Braconidae). J Insect Behav 6: 737–750. doi: 10.1007/BF01201673). After that, there have been a handful of papers (mostly but not exclusively using the genus Cotesia as a model) published. The last one from PLOS ONE is the icing on the cake, but hopefully more studies on the topic will follow. Sounds in these wasps are mainly related to mating. The dynamic of sound transmission, and its effects on the behaviour of both male and female wasps, is nothing short of remarkable.

It is evident that I am way behind in the knowledge of this topic. Sometimes we, taxonomists, focus on some aspects of "our" group/species, and forget to look around and gather tons of useful information and data that are already available in other fields of study (Ecology, Behaviour, Physiology, Chemistry, etc). They are not necessarily published in taxonomic journals, but are nevertheless of capital importance.

If anything, I learned that I should make more efforts to read about those approaches -and hopefully use that information more often. And I confirmed, once again, the sad feeling that I know barely nothing about microgastrine wasps. 

Hopefully now I will pay more attention to the sound of the parasitoid wasps...

August 27, 2013

About Scratchpads and related websites

Since I started this blog, my main motivation has been to share information about braconid wasps parasitizing caterpillars (mainly the subfamily Microgastrinae). At the time, it seemed to be the easiest and simplest way to post new photos, host data, and other comments on the group of wasps I work with.  

But I never anticipated to continue blogging for too long... To start with, I do not consider myself a blogger, much less an expert in social media. And there are clear limitations to what can be accomplished with a blog. Furthermore, I do not have a mental disposition to keep writing periodically, but instead I post things whenever I have time -and that is the same to say on an irregular basis...

Then, a few months ago a colleague and friend in Belgium, Yves Braet, contacted me to start a collaboration studying microgastrines from French Guiana. And he mentioned Scratchpads, a free tool to create, publish and contribute to biodiversity knowledge online. I strongly recommend anyone interested in sharing info on species (biodiversity, taxonomy, ecology, etc) to visit Scratchpads and see what it has to offer. It is a nice (and free!) resource to get one started on one's personal group. You will find really neat sites created on various groups -and it is amazing how much can be done.

The only problem is that you have to spend time learning how to create your own website devoted to a taxonomic group. There is a learning curve that requires some effort and time from the interested researcher... and time is the most precious commodity these days.

However, I keep thinking on that, and in the future I may just migrate all contents from this blog to a site within Scratchpads. The main motivation being that information would be presented in a much better and useful way than in this blog. So, the days of this blog may be counted...

Actually, I already went and started a site called New World Microgastrinae. I just uploaded a few photos and wrote three paragrpahs, kind of a test of what could be done. But, since doing that, I have not been able to work more on that site, and it may take awhile before something useful comes from that. Or not, one never knows how things may develop.

Either way, I still hope to find a solution that would allow me to share the information in the easiest and most practical way (Am I dreaming in colors?). Perhaps the reader knows of other possibilities like Scratchpads. If so, please let me know. I am still open to explore different avenues to present the data that I have. Thanks!

August 8, 2013

The genus Iconella in the New World

Yesterday I was happy to see a paper I co-authored to come out in Zookeys. It is a review of the genus Iconella in the New World. The paper can be freely downloaded here.

Iconella canadensis, a new species described from North America (Canada).

The main reason I am happy to see that paper out is not for the paper per se -nor I am writing this post "to promote" the reading of that manuscript. What I am interested to mention here is the integrative approach that we used in that work:

1- Extensive use of illustrations to show morphological characters.
2- Extensive use of parasitoid biology (host data).
3- Extensive use of molecular data (DNA barcoding).
4- Morphological study of species -i.e. "traditional taxonomy".
5- Use (and illustration) of geographic distribution of species.
6- Generation of descriptions via an automated system (Lucid software). 

July 3, 2013

Internet resources about Microgastrinae. Part VI

This is the sixth part of a series of posts discussing available, free, Internet resources on microgastrine wasps (Braconidae). The interested reader can retrieve the complete series by searching for the Tag "Internet Resources" within this blog.

The site featured today, with the logo of the Hymenoptera Institute, is maintained by Dr. Michael Sharkey, University of Kentucky. It contains lots of information, mainly on Braconidae, although there are also many things beyond that family (and even beyond Hymenoptera) that will be of interest to the reader. 

Of particular interest to this blog are the pages devoted to "Research Projects". The different projects showcased there illustrate the breadth of the work being done by Mike and his students/colleagues. 

One can find, for example, information about inventories being done in mega-diverse countries such as Colombia and Thailand (for Thailand, it is possible to read the whole series of TIGER newsletters, a publication that covered a project sampling and studying the diversity of Hymenoptera in a series of Thai National Parks. Those newsletter make for a very interesting and instructive reading!). 

There are details about the Hymenoptera Tree of Life, a project that has been going on for many years. And one can also find brief presentations of present and former students/collaborators of Mike. I always find interesting this kind of information, because allows anyone to know more about people and their research interests.

For those interested in Braconidae in general, there are Delta keys (and data matrices) for the whole family, as well as for some of the "pet groups" of Mike -namely Agathidinae. Although the major emphasis is on agathidines, there is much more than that. Most of the information is free to access and download, which is one of the reasons why the website is featured and recommended here.

June 24, 2013

More pictures of Canadian species of Microgastrinae

For the past two months I have been really busy finishing a large paper on Apanteles from Mesoamerica -which will be mentioned in a future post here. During that time I have received invaluable help from many people, and without them I would not be able to finish the job, not even close. Two of the most helpful among my long list of "guardian angels" have been Caroline Boudreault and Henri Goulet from the CNC -well, to be honest, they have supported me for over seven years...

Caroline and Henri have been taking hundreds of photos for the paper mentioned before. As a "byproduct" of their work, we have ended with some new pictures of species previously described from Canada. In this post I share color photos for three of those species, to be continued in future posts with more species.

The three species of today were described and partially illustrated in a 2010 Zookeys paper, but the pictures shown below are new and provide more morphological details. Altogether with the images from Zookeys -which can also be freely accessed and downloaded- we now have a much better documentation of those species... hopefully more Canadian microgastrines will follow this trend.

Apanteles huberi Fernández-Triana, 2010. This species will be the focus of an additional post, due to the fact that it is very close to Apanteles fumiferanae Viereck, 1912 -which has already been featured in this blog. Both species show are very similar morphologically, and their DNA barcodes are also remarkably close. Stay tuned for more details on why they are different...

Apanteles huberi, lateral view. Photo taken by Caroline Boudreault and Henri Goulet (CNC).