Four new species from 2020

In spite of Covid-19, last year saw the description of several hundred new species of plants and animals. The image above (click to zoom) shows four of them.

Top left: The Yoknapatawpha darter, Etheostoma faulkneri (male shown above female) is found only in the Yocona River of Mississippi. It was recently distinguished from the closely related Etheostoma raneyi found in nearby rivers.

Top right: Dendropsophus bilobatus (image credit M. Ferrão, J. Moravec, J. Hanken, A.P. Lima) is a small Bolivian tree frog distinguished by the shape of its vocal sac and its characteristic mating call.

Bottom left: Platylestes kirani (male only shown; image credit Rison Thumboor) is a damselfly from the coastal wetlands of Kerala, South India.

Bottom right: The northern Western Ghats vine snake, Ahaetulla borealis (image credit Geoish) is a tree snake from the Western Ghats of India. It was declared to be a species in its own right after a subdivision of Ahaetulla nasuta.

More Wellcome winners

The Wellcome Image Awards have announced more winners. Alfred Anwander (MPI-CBS) produced this view of nerve fibre wiring in the brain of a young healthy adult:

I also liked this Swallowtail butterfly head (Macroscopic Solutions):

All images used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND). Click images to zoom and/or read more about these lovely pictures, and check out the other 2016 winners.

Firefly watch!

A firefly at night (photo: “Emmanuelm”)

The Museum of Science, Boston has an interesting citizen science project running – their Firefly Watch. Anybody can register and add observations of fireflies in their local area.

The project has been running since 2008, and has accumulated over 30,000 observations so far (mostly from the US – see map above), which are available online. The graph below shows the result of fitting a family of Gaussian “bell curves” to the data. Observed firefly numbers peaked around June 23 each year (day 174 when it’s not a leap year), with a slight increase in the height of the peak over time. There seems to be no significant change to the timing of the peak.

Visiting Vanuatu

Recently I took my own advice and visited the island nation of Vanuatu. I had a great time! Since the islands are volcanic and surrounded by coral reefs, the beach sand ranges from pure white to basaltic black, with an intermediate grey-brown in some cases, like the beach in my photo above.

Vanuatu has a range of interesting wildlife (though no native land mammals other than bats). Birds of Vanuatu include the Vanuatu kingfisher (Todiramphus farquhari, above), which I did not see. There are 120 other bird species, including visiting seabirds. Butterflies of Vanuatu (of which I saw many) include the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and several subspecies of the Canopus Swallowtail (Papilio fuscus, below).

Underwater, Vanuatu provides wonderful opportunities to see marine life while diving or snorkelling. The Flickr photographs below are by Diane Brook (click images to zoom):


Animal Architects by J.L. Gould and C.G. Gould: a book review

Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould

The 2007 book Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould explores structures built by animals – nests, cocoons, spiderwebs, beaver dams, and the like.

The hexagonal tubes of a wasp nest

This is an extremely interesting topic, and so I read this book with great interest. Animal Architects is very readable, and provides good information on spiders and insects – especially social insects like wasps, ants, bees, and termites. There is also an extensive discussion of how birds build nests and bowers.

The mud nest of the American cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)

I found the discussion of bird nests particularly interesting – especially the way in which construction style was linked to taxonomy (p. 181).

The male Great Bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis) of northern Australia builds and decorates an elaborate bower (which has no practical utility, but exists only to attract females)

The authors are based in Princeton, New Jersey, but there is a surprisingly large number of references to Australian wildlife (about a dozen mentions). Perhaps this reflects the interesting range of birds and insects living in Australia. Well-known animal architects like the beaver help to round out the overall story.

Beavers survive the winter in lodges like this

However, four things annoyed me about this book. First, there are readings for each chapter, but no specific endnotes. Second, there seemed to be considerable speculation, as to the cognitive mechanisms that might be involved, without any actual evidence being cited. Third, there was no reference to simulation studies. In many cases, the only way to tell whether simple programmed rules can generate observed behaviour is to program the rules and try it out. The results can be surprising at times (for example, bacteria can home in on chemical concentration gradients, in spite of not being able to sense the direction of such gradients, and not being able to steer). And fourth, some statements seemed rather debatable. For example, many biologists would disagree with the claim that “the [wasp] builder needs to know where she is in the overall structure under construction, and what needs to be built there” (p. 88) – arguing instead for stigmergy as the key mechanism. There is also the rather odd statement that “human speech has fewer than three dozen consonants” (p. 273). In fact, there are more than this just in Hindi, and far more in the IPA.

See here and here for other reviews of the book.

Animal Architects by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould: 3 stars

Endless Forms Most Beautiful: a book review

Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean B. Carroll (2005)

I recently read, somewhat belatedly, Endless Forms Most Beautiful by evolutionary developmental biology pioneer Sean B. Carroll (the title derives from a line in On the Origin of Species: “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”).

This well-written book provides an excellent explanation for how a toolkit of genes like the Hox genes (see image below) control embryonic development in animals. The discovery of these genes shows that fruit flies, starfish, and people are more closely related than was once believed.

These genes work by producing proteins which in turn control the expression of other genes, in what is effectively a kind of computer program that can be visualised (and Endless Forms Most Beautiful contains several lovely colour plates which confirm this).

Photo: Caitlin Sedwick (from this paper)

The book includes chapters on the Cambrian explosion, melanic forms (such as black panthers), and the formation of spots on butterfly wings:

Carroll concludes with a plea for teaching more evolutionary biology in schools. Personally, I think a greater priority would be an increased emphasis on teaching ecology, given the serious consequences which human activities (even well-meaning ones) can have for the planet. However, that quibble does not stop me from recommending this book to anyone who has not read it yet.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean B. Carroll: 3½ stars

Drosophila melanogaster: the legendary “fruit fly”

Drosophila melanogaster, the vinegar fly or “fruit fly” (photo above by André Karwath), has been enormously important as a model organism in genetics and neuroscience, partly because it is so easy to raise in the laboratory (photo below by “Masur”).

Drosophila genes such as fruitless, rutabaga, and white have been enormously important within biology, and provides a modern repository of information on such genes. The Hox genes, first found in Drosophila (see below), form part of the complex machinery of embryonic development, which allows protein synthesis to be controlled in both time and space.

Jonathan Weiner’s 1999 book Time, Love, Memory is one of a number of books which explain how valuable this little insect has been.

A new moth for 2014

A new moth, Sympistis forbesi, was reported earlier this year by Brigette Zacharczenko, David Wagner, and Mary Jane Hatfield (thanks also to them for the photos above). The moth feeds on horse gentian plants in the woodlands of eastern North America.

Reports like this are a reminder of the unexplored species diversity that exists, not only in distant and exotic locations, but in our own back yards.