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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: entomology (14)

Beetle back from the dead

Author
by Ken Walker
Publish date
15 October 2014
Comments
Comments (2)

Ken is our Senior Curator of Entomology.

On Monday last week, live images of an attractive Australian lady beetle popped up on the BowerBird citizen science website photographed west of Portland, Victoria. The photographer recorded seeing more than 50 beetle specimens in a small swampy area.

beetle Micraspis flavovittata ladybird beetle photographed in October 2014.
Image: Reiner Richter
Source: CC BY 3.0 AU
 

There is a wonderful CSIRO lady beetle website with a gallery of images for all known extant Australian species, however we were unable to match the photo to any in this gallery. So we sent the BowerBird images to the Canberra scientist who created the website. His initial reaction was to doubt the veracity of the locality data as he claimed this was not an Australian species. I reconfirmed the Australian locality with the photographer so we began to wonder if this was an invasive species.

The images were then forwarded to the world lady beetle expert at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. We received news on Friday night from Roger at the NHM that this is a species "back from the dead". A species not seen or recorded for more than a 50 year period is considered to be extinct. There are only 4 known specimens of this species in collections (2 at the NHM and 2 at Museum Victoria) - the last specimen was collected in 1940!

Micraspis flavovittata Micraspis flavovittata beetle
Image: Reiner Richter
Source: CC BY 3.0 AU
 

This is indeed an Australian species, Micraspis flavovittata (Crotch, 1874). I remember we once had an exhibition at the museum called Extinction is forever…. and so it is, until someone finds it again! The only known localities of this species were Narbethong and Kallista so the Portland location is well west of these previous records.

Many people contend that the best citizen science projects are those in collaboration with professional scientists. Personally, I love the serendipity of citizen science discovery alone.

Links:

BowerBird

Ribbed Case Moth

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
4 October 2013
Comments
Comments (4)

Working at a museum can extend the joys of ‘show and tell’ far beyond its usual primary school lifespan. Recently I brought in a photograph of a cluster of pupal cases for the entomologists to identify. I’m used to seeing the Saunders' Case Moth with its portable log-cabin shelter hanging from fences and walls, but I hadn’t seen these smaller and plumper silk cases before.

Ribbed Case Moth pupae on tree Cluster of Ribbed Case Moth pupae on a tree trunk.
Image: Kate C
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Entomology collection manager Catriona McPhee identified the critters in about half a second. “Hyalarcta nigrescens, Ribbed Case Moth, family Psychidae.”  (We love it when the entos do that.) I’m told that this species is not uncommon, but the local density of the cases here is unusual.

This cluster of over 60 cases was on the trunk of a lone, spindly eucalypt surrounded by asphalt on Smith Street, Fitzroy. It’s intriguing to think how this population got there in the first place because the females of the species are flightless. When they’re done with metamorphosis, they simply remain where they are and release a cloud of pheromones to draw in the winged males. They never leave their cases, depositing their eggs inside. The caterpillars hatch and wander off in search of leaves to eat and soon build their own cases.

So, if we assume these cases belong to one cohort of siblings, how did their mother get to the tree when it is many metres from other food plants? My money’s on a spot of hitch-hiking; I reckon she was on the tree when it was planted, and perhaps there’s a healthy population at the tree nursery.

Tree growing on city street The cluster of case moths were on the trunk of this small, isolated tree.
Image: Kate C
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The isolation of the tree might explain why there are so many pupae here. While case moths are mobile and can haul their homes a considerable distance, in this concrete jungle they didn’t have anywhere else to go. They were stuck on the island. So the poor little tree got hammered but it means we have this array of beautifully-built nomadic shelters to admire.

I went past the tree again a couple of weeks later to find a frenzy of emergence. The females were staying put, of course, but many of the cases bore the equivalent of a vacancy sign: a rumpled, shed skin (pupal exuvia) at the end. A couple of the male moths – black, hairy, with glassy bluish wings - were still clinging to their former homes. I think I'll go back and take some of the female cases and try to rear any eggs inside... and give the poor tree a break from a third generation of relentless leaf-eaters!

Ribbed Case Moth pupae on tree A couple of weeks later, the Ribbed Case Moth males were emerging from their cases - you can see a blue-black winged adult at the bottom of this cluster.
Image: Kate C
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Links:

Ribbed Case Moth on Bowerbird

Life cycle of the Ribbed Case Moth (Coffs Harbour Butterfly House)

More on the Monarch

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
20 March 2013
Comments
Comments (3)

The Wanderer Butterfly, or Monarch, is probably the most recognisable butterfly in the world. It populates children's books and is the classical species used to illustrate insect life cycles. The Children's Museum at Melbourne Museum has housed enormous replicas of the Wanderer caterpillar, pupa and adult for the last 13 years.

Butterfly models in museum The giant butterfly, pupa and caterpillar in the Children's Gallery at Melbourne Museum.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Wanderer caterpillars feed on plants known as milkweeds. In Australia these include plants introduced from Africa and South America, such as Asclepias and Gomphocarpus. One of the most common is the Swan Plant (Gomphocarpus fruticosa), which may have been accidentally introduced as part of the regular trade between Australia and South Africa, or deliberately introduced for the 'silk cotton' to assist in hat making. This species is considered a noxious weed in some parts of Australia, and its abundance has been dramatically reduced by weed control programs, leading to a concurrent reduction in Wanderer populations around Melbourne.

Caterpillars feeding Caterpillars feeding on the Swan Palnt, Gomphocarpus fruticosa.
Source: Patrick Honan
 

Milkweeds contain poisons called cardiac glycosides which are absorbed by the caterpillars and used for their own defences. These poisons affect the hearts of vertebrates such as birds, inducing vomiting at half the lethal dose. Wanderers advertise the fact that they are poisonous to eat with contrasting patterns of yellow and black in the caterpillar, and orange and black in the adult. The chemicals are concentrated in the tips of the wings of adults, so any bird venturing a taste will cop a full dose and leave the butterfly alone.

Wing of butterfly. The warning colours on the hindwing of a Wanderer Butterfly. The black spot is the 'sex gland' of a male.
Source: Patrick Honan
 

The caterpillars themselves also become victims of their own food plants. Studies in the USA show that up to 30 per cent of very young caterpillars become glued to the leaves of milkweeds by latex in the sticky sap. And when its first bite ingests an unusually high quantity of cardiac glycosides, a newly-hatched caterpillar may become seized for ten minutes or more in a state of catalepsis before recovering.

Caterpillar feeding A late-instar caterpillar addressing the milky sap of Asclepias rotundifolia.
Source: Patrick Honan
 

Despite this, some birds such as Pied Currawongs (Strepera graculina) and Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes (Coracina novaehollandiae) seem to be able to feed on Wanderers with impunity. The caterpillars are also attacked by a tachinid fly (Winthemia neowinthemoides), whose larvae feed on caterpillars from the inside, slowly killing them. In some areas, particularly coastal NSW and Queensland, these parasites account for 80-100 per cent of Wanderer larvae.

mating butterflies A male Wanderer overpowers the female (left) before flying off together and resting for several hours whilst mating (right).
Source: Patrick Honan
 

Mating by Wanderer Butterflies can be an aggressive experience. Males patrol patches of host plants, awaiting females. When females appear they are chased with great vigour by the males, often spiralling high into the air. Eventually the male may overpower her with the assistance of pheromones that cause her wing muscles to seize, forcing her to the ground where he mates with her. In Australia, breeding may occur year-round in the northern parts of the Wanderers' range, but in southern areas thousands of adults cluster together in trees after mating to see out the cooler months. Although not as spectacular as the roosting sites in North America that host many millions of butterflies, these clusters around Sydney and Adelaide are a memorable sight.

Female Wanderer Butterfly Female Wanderer resting during the day.
Source: Patrick Honan
 

Flight of the Butterflies 3D opens at IMAX Melbourne Museum on 21 March. 

Patrick's first post: Monarch or Wanderer butterfly

 

References

Orr, A. & Kitching, R., 2010, The Butterflies of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 296pp.

Oyeyele, S.O & Zalucki, M.P., 1990, Cardiac glycosides and oviposition by Danaus plexippus on Asclepias fruticosa in south-east Queensland (Australia), with notes on the effect of plant nitrogen content, Ecological Entomology, 15:177–185.

Parsons, W.T. & Cuthbertson, E.G., 2001, Noxious Weeds of Australia, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, 698pp

Zalucki, M.P. & Brower, L.P., 1992, Survival of first instar larvae of Danaus plexippus (Lepidoptera: Danainae) in relation to cardiac glycoside and latex content of Asclepias humistrata (Asclepiadaceae), Chemoecology, 3(2):81-93

Junior entomologists get the bug

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
18 March 2013
Comments
Comments (1)

Chauliognathus lugubris. The Plague Soldier Beetle. This wee beast accounts for hundreds of insect identification requests we receive at the Discovery Centre during the summer. At this time of year these little pollinators descend from the crowns of flowering trees to indulge in seething masses of mating activity triggered by hot weather.

This frenzied 'coupling' activity rarely goes unnoticed, especially because of the numbers in which the beetles congregate– we often get calls from people describing masses of these little cigar-shaped critters with their distinctive orange collars in their gardens; regular readers will have read our earlier post about Plague Soldier Beetles.

Last week, however, it seems this beast and its plaguing behaviour caught the attention of the Rainbow Lorikeet class at Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten in Richmond. The Lorikeets' teacher Adam contacted us with an identification request, accompanied by some photographs and observations of the insects in question from the students, some of which I’ll share below:

  Grace from Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten holds the 'mystery beetle' for a photo Grace from Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten holds the 'mystery beetle' for a photo
Image: Adam Shrivell
Source: Adam Shrivell
 

It has 3 legs and 3 legs (from Sylvie). They have two antennae (coming) out of their head (from Andrew and Hugo) 

A great start for young eyes – these are key characteristics of insects that separate them from other arthropods

I think it's a stink bug (from Ralph) and I think it's a beetle (From Taj) 

These are also good observations. Like the animals we call 'stink bugs', they can emit an unpleasant liquid as a defence mechanism.

I think it's a grass hopper (from Harry) 

Harry isn’t quite right here, but the plague behaviour is similar to locusts, so still a good observation.

It's a beetle and he flies away and he has the mummy and the daddy and the baby and the dog (from Jed) 

Apart from the bit about the dog, Jed is also on the money.

I think they only come out once a year in summer (from Grace) 

Grace has also hit the nail on the head – clearly we have some budding entomologists here!

They carry each other (from Lucas) 

In a manner of speaking, yes they do – but we may leave this to Lucas's guardians to explain further if required.

Alexander, Lucas and Grace gathering a specimen Alexander, Lucas and Grace gathering a specimen
Image: Adam Shrivell
Source: Adam Shrivell
 

As seasoned respondents to enquiries of all types from the public, we thought the Rainbow Lorikeets were particularly clever in separating their observations into 'what we think' and 'what we know' – in doing so, they were more than half-way there with their identification by the time it reached us. This, along with the photos, made our entomologist’s job quite easy in providing the identification as Plague Soldier Beetles.

Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten's Rainbow Lorikeets, with teacher Adam Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten's Rainbow Lorikeets, with teacher Adam
Image: Adam Shrivell
Source: Adam Shrivell
 

Well done Rainbow Lorikeets, we in the Discovery Centre are impressed with your entomology skills!

John Abbot’s Lepidoptera

Author
by Hayley
Publish date
8 March 2013
Comments
Comments (1)

The MV Library holds an important collection of 18th and 19th century scientific literature. Many of these books began as working tools for early museum curators studying the local fauna. Now, they form part of our rare book collection and are prized for their beauty and rarity.

The library's collection has an interesting history, forming from the amalgamation of two specialist collections from the National Museum of Victoria and Science Museum. Books have been purchased since the earliest days of the National Museum of Victoria, when the first director, Frederick McCoy, acquired important titles such as the entomological works of Maria Sybilla Merian.

While the library collection at MV is relatively small, it is also surprisingly unique. Library staff are currently working to identify titles unique to Australian libraries, a project which has exposed some real gems in the collection, such as John Abbot’s The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (1797).

Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ Tab V, ‘American Brimstone Butterfly’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Abbot left his native England in 1773 for the colony of Virginia in North America, in order to procure specimens and make drawings of the local insects. Following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, Abbot moved to Georgia, where he spent the rest of his life recording the local insects and birds.

Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ Tab XLIX, ‘Corn Emperor Moth’ via the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Although he was a prolific natural history artist and well regarded in his lifetime, Abbot is not as well remembered as some of his contemporaries, who included famous naturalists such as John James Audubon. While he is thought to have created four to five thousand watercolours, most of them were unpublished or uncredited during his lifetime.

The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia includes 104 hand-coloured plates by John Harris, after original artwork by John Abbot. It's an important early work to depict North American butterflies and moths, and has been appreciated by scientists and collectors alike for its accuracy as well as its beauty. The introduction was written by James Edward Smith, a founder of The Linnean Society of London.

While it is exciting to encounter rare material in our collection, it is also nice to be able to share it. Luckily, the work has been digitised and is now freely accessible through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, so have a browse online or download your own copy of this rare work!

References

Gilbert, P. & Hamilton, C., Entomology: A Guide to Information Sources, London & New York: Mansell, 1990.

Gilbert, P., John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies and Other Wonders, London: Merrell Holberton and Natural History Museum, 1998.

Job, Frank, “The Library of Museum Victoria” in Rasmussen, C. (ed.), A Museum for the People: A History of Museum Victoria and its Predecessors, 1854-2000, Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2001.

Rogers-Price, Vivian & Griffin, William W., "John Abbot: Pioneer-Naturalist of Georgia," Magazine Antiques (October 1983): 768-75.

Wanderer or Monarch butterfly

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
8 March 2013
Comments
Comments (7)

The Wanderer Butterfly is known overseas as the Monarch Butterfly, so named for being the King, or Queen, of butterflies. In North America they are also known as King Billies, after William of Orange. The Australian name of Wanderer comes from its remarkable habit of long distance migration. The scientific name Danaus plexippus was bestowed by Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy and inventor of the scientific naming system.

Adult female Wanderer Butterfly Adult female Wanderer Butterfly
Source: Patrick Honan
 

Although not a native to Australia, the Wanderer may not exactly be introduced in the usual sense. Wanderer Butterflies most likely arrived in Australia across the Coral Sea from Vanuatu or New Caledonia, carried by three cyclones in early 1870. This was part of a major expansion in distribution across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from North America in the late 1800s, probably due to a combination of environmental factors, human movement and natural expansion.

Wanderer butterfly feeding An adult Wanderer Butterfly feeding on Cat's Whiskers (Orthopsiphon aristatus).
Source: Patrick Honan
 

The first recorded observations from Australia were made in February 1871 in Queensland, followed by the first record from Melbourne in April 1872. It is possible that Wanderers had been making the journey to Australia since time immemorial, but only after Europeans established their food plants here could Wanderers establish.

Wanderer caterpillar The distinctive fleshy 'filaments' behind the head of the caterpillar are used as sensory organs.
Source: Patrick Honan
 

Wanderers have been seen at sea up to 500km from land and occasionally settle on passing ships. This is not unusual – with favourable winds, Australian butterflies such as Common Eggflies often end up in New Zealand. Wanderers have a cruising speed of about 30km per hour with bursts of up to 50km per hour when alarmed.

Wanderer Butterfly pupa. The wings of the adult can be seen through the walls of a Wanderer Butterfly pupa.
Source: Patrick Honan
 

In North America, Wanderers undertake a famous annual migration from Canada and northern USA down to Mexico and California, and then back again. The populations overwintering in the Oyamel Fir Forests of Mexico roost at densities of 10 million butterflies per hectare. Because the length of time required for the migration exceeds that of an adult Wanderer's life span, those arriving back in Canada are the descendents of those that left the year before.

Map of butterfly migration Map of the North American migration of the Monarch or Wanderer butterfly that occurs each year in autumn.
Source: Via the Frost Lab, Queen's University Department of Psychology
 

The secrets of the Wanderer migration in North America weren't fully revealed until the 1970s. Canadian Dr Fred Urquhart was fascinated as a child by the question of where all the Wanderers disappeared to during winter, and he and his team of volunteers took nearly 40 years to discover the answer. Professor Urquhart died in 2002 but his life-long search is the subject of the new film Flight of the Butterflies 3D. In Australia, Dr Courtenay Smithers from the Australian Museum began tagging Wanderer Butterflies in the 1970s using many volunteers from the broader community. His studies revealed that overwintering populations around Sydney and Adelaide move into Melbourne and surrounds during summer. This research continues, with many questions still to be answered. In certain years, for example, populations appear to overwinter in some parts of Victoria, such as Phillip Island and the Western Districts, without needing to move interstate, but more data is needed to confirm these observations.

Flight of the Butterflies 3D opens at IMAX Melbourne Museum on 21 March. 

Patrick's next post on these butterflies: More on the Monarch

References:

Clake, A.R. & Zalucki, M.P., 2004. Monarchs in Australia: On the Winds of A Storm? Biological Invasions, 6:123-127

McCubbin, C., 1970, Australian Butterflies, Thomas Nelson Ltd, Melbourne, 206pp.

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