Patrick

DISPLAYING POSTS BY: Patrick (19)

Patrick

Patrick Honan has sent spiders into space and helped bring the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect back from the brink of extinction. Now as Manager of Live Exhibits, he oversees all the living things on display at the museum, from tall trees to tiny ants.

How cute is that?

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by Patrick
Publish date
19 October 2015
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Melbourne Museum recently participated in the global #Cuteoff on Twitter, where researchers from around the world posted photos of their supposedly ‘cute’ study animals. Given that many of these posts featured snails, turtles, spiders, squid and sea sponges, it begs the question whether cuteness is in the eye of the beholder.

Whipbird chick This baby Whipbird (Psophodes olivaceus) from the Forest Gallery is small, fluffy and vulnerable – in other words quite cute.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

Konrad Lorenz, the pioneering ethologist, first dissected cuteness in the 1940s with the concept of Kindchenschema (‘baby schema’), identifying that juvenile, or paedomorphic, traits are the key. From an evolutionary point of view, paedomorphic traits are a significant advantage to very young individuals, as they push the buttons of adult humans, encouraging their nurturing side. Cuteness in humans can be further broken down as the sum of certain traits (tiny chin and nose, chubby cheeks, large eyes and rosy complexion), where each element is a cumulative index of cuteness. When these features are enhanced in photos of adult subjects in scientific experiments, observers see the subjects as progressively cuter and report increasingly pleasurable and caring emotions.

Tawny Frogmouth Blinky, one of the Forest Gallery’s Tawny Frogmouths (Podargus strigoides). Blinky has large, wide-set eyes and a disproportionately large head, making him definitively cute.
Image: Chloe Miller
Source: Museum Victoria

The propensity to nurture cuteness is also applied by humans to other animal species with the same traits. Animals that have a flat face, short nose, large ears and large, expressive, wide-set forward-facing eyes are too irresistible to refuse. And the more exaggerated these features, the more appealing they are, as demonstrated by the Hello Kitty phenomenon and kawaii culture in Japan. A number of theories suggest many breeds of cats and dogs have been selectively bred to emphasise these characters, and this appears to be easier than you might think.

Silver Fox The Silver Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Image: Zefram
Source: Creative Commons: CC-BY-SA-3.0

In 50 years of experiments in the Soviet Union, scientist Dimitri Belyaev domesticated the Silver or Siberian Fox, a silver morph of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes). By choosing the tamest offspring from each litter, i.e. individuals that were less likely to flee or more likely to whimper and sniff and lick the handler, Belyaev also inadvertently selected the retention of paedomorphic traits. After 40 generations the foxes had larger, floppy ears, shorter or curly tails, and shorter snouts.

Pobblebonk The large, toad-like Pobblebonk (Limnodynastes dumerilii) upping its cuteness index by adopting a tap dancer’s stance.
Image: Melvin Nathan
Source: Museum Victoria

Animals that are not otherwise cute can, in certain situations, enhance their cuteness factor by adopting human attitudes or being associated with familiar human objects.

Alpine Blue-tongue Lizard The comportment of Beth, an otherwise cranky Alpine Blue-tongue Lizard (Tiliqua nigrolutea), can be significantly softened and her cuteness improved when wrapped in a towel.
Image: Chloe Miller
Source: Museum Victoria

Healthy juvenile traits also play a role in cuteness – clear eyes, smooth skin, a pink glow (i.e. sufficient blood circulation) and bilateral symmetry. However, a helpless baby animal obviously in recovery from an illness or injury does sometimes press additional buttons.

Mountain Dragon The Mountain Dragon Falcor (Rankinia diemensis). Although not particularly cute on his own, the bandage raises Falcor’s cuteness factor several fold.
Image: Melvin Nathan
Source: Museum Victoria

Animals that can clearly look after themselves fail to evoke the cute response. Venomous animals, such as spiders and snakes, for example, or spiky or heavily armoured animals, require no nurturing from us. Animals with fewer than four legs, such as worms, or animals with more than four legs, such as centipedes, also elicit no empathy.

Prickly Katydid The antithesis of cuteness. The Prickly Katydid (Phricta spinosa) is laden with spikes and other armour, and well able to look after itself.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan

Charities and wildlife groups latched on to the cute factor many years ago. For an endangered species, being cute is definitely an evolutionary advantage these days. A baby panda or harp seal will always get more attention and funding than an endangered snail or spider. According to Canadian ecologist Ernie Small, this is skewing the world’s conservation efforts (and biodiversity in general in the long run) towards the cute and fluffy. It’s reflected in the dollars spent on saving endangered species – highest for the charismatic megafauna and lowest for reptiles, invertebrates and plants, with the number of paedomorphic traits directly proportional to the dollars spent. Ernie Small goes as far as listing the features that will boost a conservation project.

Mitchell's Hopping Mice The cute-as-hell Mitchell’s Hopping Mice (Notomys mitchelli) behaving cutely. This species is listed as ‘Near Threatened’ in Victoria.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

So it’s no wonder all researchers want their study animals to be the cutest. Perhaps social scientist Paris Hilton said it best: “The only rule is don’t be boring and be cute wherever you go. Life is too short to blend in”.

The mighty mite, part II

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by Patrick
Publish date
15 June 2015
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Mites form relationships with a great variety of other animals, ranging from neutral partnerships (commensalisms) to obligate co-dependencies (mutualisms). In the second category, female carrion beetles (such as Nicrophorus species) carry mites under their wings. They release the mites onto carrion before laying their eggs; the mites move out and feed on flies’ eggs, the maggots of which would compete with the carrion beetle larvae for food.

 
spider with mites Hundreds of small grey laelapid mites (looking like grey dots) living in the cracks and crevices of a Sydney Funnelweb (Atrax robustus). Because of the (usually illegal) trade in tarantulas for the pet industry, Australian mites have been discovered on African tarantulas in Britain.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Many mites hitchhike to new feeding grounds in a type of commensalism known as phoresy. Depending on the habitat and lifestyle of the host, some groups of animals are common vessels for phoretic mites, particularly burrowing animals such as certain passalid beetles, funnelwebs and trapdoor spiders.
 
Mites on a beetle Mites on the underside of a passalid beetle. The mites are clustered in locations where the beetle cannot reach and dislodge them, such as between the front legs. Each passalid beetle may have 500 or more mites and other animals living on it.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Lots of mites are parasitic, a very one-sided relationship which involves sucking the blood of their prey. It is often difficult to find an insect or spider in the bush that is mite-free. Heavy infestations of mites are usually a host’s secondary problem—the primary problem (whether it’s infection, lack of food or extreme environments) makes them more vulnerable to mite attack. This relationship is an ancient: last year scientists discovered a mite in 50-million-year-old Baltic amber, still attached to its ant host.
 
mites on a grasshopper Heavy infestation of parasitic mites on the thorax of a Prickly Katydid (Phricta spinosa)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Live Exhibits staff at Melbourne Museum regularly venture into the bush to collect invertebrates for breeding and display. We try to avoid mite-infected insects, partly because it’s an indication of an unhealthy specimen, and partly because mites brought into a captive environment can quickly breed out of control and overwhelm their hosts. Mites also regularly stow away in bedding, food or enclosure substrate.
 
beetle with mites Acarid mites living on a captive-bred female Rhinoceros Beetle (Xylotrupes ulysses). Several thousand mites were living on the underside of this beetle, originating from dry dog food fed to the beetle larvae.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Varroa Mite (Varroa destructor), is the biggest threat to the Australian honeybee industry, the last Varroa-free bastion in the world. Conversely, other mites help control introduced weeds in Australia, such as the Broom Gall Mite (Aceria genistae) that feeds on English Broom (Cystisus scoparius).
 
mites on wasp larva Hundreds of female parasitic mites feeding on a European Wasp larva (Vespula germanica) in a laboratory culture. Each mite holds hundreds of eggs.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Try as you may, there’s no escaping mites. To paraphrase the nursery rhyme:

Big mites have little mites
Upon their backs to bite em
And little mites have lesser mites
And so, ad infinitum.

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The mighty mite part I

The mighty mite part I

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
10 June 2015
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You may not realise it, but tiny mites are ubiquitous—about 50,000 species of mites have been described around the world, with an estimated half a million species yet to be described. They range in size from eriophyid mites at 125 micrometres in length, to velvet mites, the giants of the mite world, at 20mm long.

Red furry mite A Red Velvet Mite (Trombidiidae) from Victoria’s Alpine National Park.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

They live in every terrestrial and aquatic habitat in the world, in your house and even on your body. About three quarters of humans have Eyelash Mites (Demodex species) living in their hair follicles and sebaceous pores around the eyelids, eyebrows and nose. Mites also live in the ears of our pets and all over our farm animals. We eat mites regularly, either raw or cooked with our vegetables, in quantities deemed acceptable by food regulators.

Red mite on leaf An erythraeid mite from Rowville, Victoria. These mites are commonly found wandering on eucalypts in bushland around Melbourne.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

About 250 species of mites can affect human health, the most pervasive being the House Dust Mite (Dermatophagoides species) which feeds on dander (dead skin flakes). Its poo is the dust we ultimately breathe in. About 10% of people are allergic to this dust, and the average bed may be home to up to 10 million mites. Other mite species are also responsible for scabies and a great range of itches (grain itch, grocer’s itch, copra itch, straw itch, and so on).

But mites aren’t all bad by any means; in fact if it weren’t for them most ecosystems would collapse. They create and maintain soil, and many plant species support ‘mite houses’ (called domatia) on their leaves, providing homes for resident mites that in return keep the leaves clean. While good mites help the plants, the Two-spotted Mite (Tetranychus urticae) attacks and can destroy hundreds of different crops cultivated by humans, and is controlled in glasshouses around the world by the Predatory Mite (Phytoseiulus persimilis).

webbing on plant Two-spotted Mites (Tetranychus urticae) on an indoor plant. The webbing is produced by this species when their populations are high, to protect themselves and their eggs.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Californian Mite (Paratarsotomus macropalpis) has recently overtaken the Australian Tiger Beetle (Megacephala australis) as the fastest animal on earth, at least in proportion to body size. Humans can run up to 10 bodylengths per second (BLS), the Cheetah up to 20 BLS and the previous record holder, the Tiger Beetle, can move at 171 BLS across the salt flats in north west Victoria. The Californian Mite moves at 322 BLS, the equivalent of a human being running at more than 2,000km per hour.

Mite under a log A trombidiid mite living under a log in wet rainforest at Wilsons Promontory, Victoria.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Mites are also the strongest animals on earth, again in proportion to size. The Tropical Moss Mite (Archegozetes longisetosus), which occurs in Australia and elsewhere, has holding forces in its claws equivalent to 1180 times its own weight, compared to the usual example of ants (50-100 times their own weight) and Rhinoceros Beetles (850 times). That’s the equivalent of an adult human male with a holding force of 90 tonnes.

The life cycles of mites are often quite bizarre. In one group of mites (Adactylidium species), the males die before or just after they are born, and the females are born pregnant and eat their own mothers alive from the inside out. Others live on or in a number of hosts, their body shape and number of legs varying throughout their lives.

Harvestman with red mite A red mite (Leptus species) piggybacking on a Harvestman (Opiliones) in the rainforests of Far North Queensland.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The word ‘mite’ originates from Old English, meaning ‘very small animal’. Mites are remarkably diverse in habitat and life cycle, easily the largest group of arachnids on earth. Although sometimes troublesome, we are dependent upon them in so many different ways, and if they weren’t so small they might take their rightful place in our psyche as some of the world’s most amazing animals. 

Predator vs predator

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by Patrick
Publish date
9 February 2015
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Museum Victoria Bioscans and other biodiversity surveys tend to focus on the bigger and more spectacular Victorian animals, such as Gippsland Water Dragons and Wedge-tailed Eagles, but some of the most interesting stories come from the little creatures. 

Spider wasp nest A partially opened nest of a spider wasp (Fabriogenia sp.). The spider prey in two of the cells have been replaced with wasp pupae.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

One such highlight of the recent Gippsland Lakes Bioscan was a mud nest of a spider wasp (Fabriogenia sp.). The nest comprised six cells, each built to house a Mountain Huntsman (Isopeda montana). The cells are made from dried mud, probably mixed with eucalyptus resin to harden them. The female wasp takes about one day to construct each cell, then heads off to find a live huntsman and undertakes a life-or-death battle. Upon seeing an approaching spider wasp, a huntsman’s behaviour—excuse the anthropomorphism—is best described as a ‘mad panic’.

black wasp Adult female spider wasp, Fabriogenia sp.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The wasp is swift and deadly accurate, stinging the huntsman to immobilise it, then removing each of its legs at the first joint. She carries the spider back to her nest, lays an egg on its defenceless body, then seals it in. The egg hatches into a fat wasp grub, feeding on the internal juices of the spider until nothing but a shrivelled husk remains. The grub then forms a pupa and eventually emerges from its cell as an adult wasp, ready to continue the cycle.

Huntsman spider with no legs A dismembered huntsman removed from the mud nest. The pedipalps remain intact and the fangs are in working order.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 
 
Most members of this wasp family, the Pompilidae, leave the spider intact and paralyse it permanently. In this case, not only does the wasp cut off its prey’s legs, but the venom seems to immobilise the huntsman only temporarily and the spider wakes up after the cell is sealed. 

 

On a personal note, having handled spiders for more than 30 years and never being bitten, one of the spiders latched on to my finger while I was examining the nest. Like most huntsman bites there were no symptoms other than a sharp nip, and given its situation I couldn’t really blame it.

Spider wasp, spider, and spider-wasp mimicking beetle Left: Another member of the Pompilidae, the Zebra Spider Wasp (Turneromyia sp.) battles a huntsman on a gum tree in Royal Park, Melbourne. | Right: Wasp-mimicking Beetle (Trogodendron fasciculatum), also photographed in Royal Park, Melbourne.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Patrick Honan
 

And as a side note, spider wasps are ferocious enough to have their own mimics. The Wasp-mimicking Beetle (Trogodendron fasciculatum) looks roughly like a spider wasp, with its black and white body and orange antennae, but its behaviour is almost identical. Moving rapidly over tree trunks with twitching antennae it would, at least, be safe from roaming huntsmans.

The bountiful Mallee

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
17 December 2014
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In Bugs Alive! you can see almost 50 displays of live invertebrates. Most of them from either tropical or arid parts of Australia, illustrating the adaptations needed for living in extreme environments.

Blue butterfly and bee fly resting on grass stems Sleeping beauties, clothed in condensation in the early hours of the morning. | Left: Common Grass Blue (Zizina labradus) Right: A bee fly (Family Bombyliidae)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So each year, when the weather conditions are right, we head out to the Mallee to boost our stocks of insects and spiders. The best time to visit is on a hot, humid night—which happened last week—just before or just after a thunderstorm. Like most desert species, Mallee insects wait months for the rain and then emerge from the spinifex in their thousands.

Two people in arid landscape Chloe Miller and Maik Fiedel searching through typical Mallee habitat.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

At night the desert resonates with the songs of katydids, the loudest of which come from Robust Fan-winged Katydids (Psacadonotus robustus). Unfortunately the fat abdomen of this dun-coloured species is often host to the larvae of tachinid flies (family Tachinidae). These parasites feed on the internal organs before emerging from the katydid which dies soon afterwards.

Brown katydid grasshopper A male Robust Fan-winged Katydid (Psacadonotus robustus).
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Most katydid species are surprisingly colourful, sporting bright greens, blues and reds.

Three katydid grasshoppers Left: Female Striped Polichne (Polichne argentata); Centre: The undescribed ‘Mystery Hump-backed Katydid’ (Elephantodea species); Right: The unfortunately-named Victorian Sluggish Katydid (Hemisaga lanceolata).
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

One of our prime targets is Mitchell’s Cockroach (Polyzosteria mitchelli) which we breed at Melbourne Museum off-display, perhaps the most beautiful cockroach in Australia. With its golden markings and eggshell-blue legs, this species is one of more than 500 native cockroaches that are rarely seen by the average Australian but which are extremely important in native ecosystems. They shouldn’t be confused with the five or so introduced cockroach species that infest our houses–native cockroaches are happy in the bush and almost never come inside.

colourful cockroach A female Mitchell’s Cockroach (Polyzosteria mitchelli)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The desert seems to wake up after a rainstorm, with unexpected species such as snails and damselflies making an appearance.

Damselfly and group of snails Left: A female Metallic Ringtail damselfly (Austrolestes cingulatus). Right: Tiny desert snails (Microxeromagma lowei) living under bark.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

Wolf spiders are the dominant ground species, their emerald eyes shining in the torchlight. This male wolf spider (below) was seen halfway down a burrow and was difficult to distract until we discovered the source of his interest—a large female wolf spider at the bottom of the burrow.

Wolf spider and burrow Left: A male wolf spider (LycosaRight: Close-up of the male.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Little Desert, Big Desert, Sunset Country and Hattah-Kulkyne each have their own distinct habitats and faunas, just a few hours’ drive from Melbourne.

Landscape with blue sky The endless sky and flat horizon of the Mallee region.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Bugs within bugs, part 2

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
7 May 2014
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Like any group of animals (or people), populations of bugs are susceptible to disease, pathogens and parasites. At Live Exhibits we keep our populations free from parasites, but sometimes new bugs from the wild turn out to be Trojan horses filled with unwanted guests.

Tachinid fly pupae Tachinid fly pupae, newly emerged from the abdomen of a Rainforest Mantid (Heirodula majuscula), collected from Cairns, North Queensland. These flies are always fatal to the mantid.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The parasites not only kill the bugs themselves, but could get into captive populations and cause havoc. Most of them are easily controlled once identified, and occasionally we can even operate to remove the parasite and allow the host to lead a long and fruitful life.

parasitic wasp larva A parasitic wasp larva being successfully removed from the abdomen of a living Olive-green Katydid (Austrosalomona falcata) collected from the wild.
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

But often this is not so successful and the first sign of something wrong is the presence of two different species within an enclosure rather than just one. When you get to recognise the signs of parasitism, it’s often difficult to find individual insects in the wild that are not parasitised.

tachinid fly larva A tachinid fly larva emerges from a wild-caught Robust Fan-winged Katydid (Psacadonotus robustus). The only indication of infection was the abnormally large abdomen of the male katydid.
Image: Melvin Patinathan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

One of the most insidious is the Gordian worm, named after the Gordian knot of mythology. These are long, hair-like worms up to half a metre long which begin their lives in freshwater streams attacking aquatic insects. When the aquatic host, such as a dragonfly or mayfly nymph emerges into adulthood, it leaves the stream and is caught and eaten by a spider, cricket or beetle. The worm grows within its new host, filling up the entire body cavity until the host is 95 per cent Gordian worm.

Gordian worm emerging A Gordian worm emerging from an Olive-green Katydid (Austrosalomona falcata).
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Minibeast Wildlife
 

When fully fed, the worm causes its host to become thirsty to encourage it to seek out water where the worm emerges and continues its life cycle, laying more than 10 million eggs. Earlier this year Live Exhibits staff collected eight huntsmans near Cape Tribulation, North Queensland, five of which produced Gordian worms over the next few weeks.

 

Video: A newly emerged Gordian worm and its host, Beregama cordata, from the #liveexhibits takeover of the Museum Victoria Instagram account.
Source: Patrick Honan/Museum Victoria

The relationship between parasites and their hosts is an evolutionary arms race – as hosts come up with more effective defences, the parasites evolve techniques such as behavioural modification to overcome them. This fascinatingly gruesome relationship can be the stuff of nightmares; inspiration for everything from zombies to the film Alien, proving that science is stranger than science fiction.

This is the second in pair of posts about parasites. Don't miss Bugs within bugs, part 1

References:

Askew, R.R., 1971, Parasitic Insects, American Elsevier, USA, 316pp

CSIRO, 1990, Insects of Australia, Volume 1 & 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1137pp

Gauld, I.D., 1984, An Introduction to the Ichneumonidae of Australia, British Museum (Natural History), UK, 413pp

Matthews, E.G. & Kitching, R.L., 1984, Insect Ecology (second edition), University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 211pp

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