An elegant Eocene fly

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USA: Colorado, Garfield, Hwy 139, Douglas Pass.

Here is one of the more elegantly preserved specimens among the collection of Green River Formation fossil insects that I am photographing. It is obviously a fly (order Diptera), but I don’t agree with the preliminary identification of “Mosquito?” as indicated on its label. Rather, I think it is one of the fungus gnats—also members of the suborder Nematocera and, thus, closely related to mosquitos (family Culicidae), but with distinctly elongate coxae (bases of the legs) and lacking the elongated proboscis that mosquitos use for sucking blood. It’s hard to decide between Mycetophilidae (fungus gnats sensu stricto) or Sciaridae (dark-winged fungus gnats), which differ in whether the eyes meet above the antennae (Sciaridae) or not (Mycetophilidae). However, Borrer & White (1970) mention that species of the former are generally less than 5 mm in length, while the latter range from 5–10 mm. This specimen measures 4.15 mm from the front of the head to the tip of the abdomen, so  maybe that is evidence supporting Sciaridae (although perhaps there were smaller mycetophilids 50 mya than today).

Here is a view of the whole fossil, measuring approximately 50 mm on each side:

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REFERENCE:

Borrer, D. J. & R. W. White. 1970. A Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico. Houghton Miffton Company, Boston, 404 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Beautiful box of Buprestidae

I’ve been working on identifying Buprestidae accumulated from a variety of sources over the past year—mostly exchanges and gifts, before beginning the processing specimens collected during this past season. Once identified, and combined with specimens gleaned from material submitted by other collectors for identification (I generally only retain examples of species that are poorly represented in my collection or specimens that represent and will serve as vouchers for significant new distributional records), they make for a very pretty box of Buprestidae! It’s kind of nice to keep them collected together like this for a little while, but I’ll soon incorporate them into the main collection where they will more securely protected and to free up the temporary box now containing them for new material as it moves through the process of labeling and identification. (Incidentally, I think I might like to do a series a posts over this winter covering my version of the specimen curation process).

There are some very cool Buprestidae in this box—88 species in all, that originated from a remarkable variety of locations across the U.S., Mexico/Central America, and South America. Do you see any species of particular interest?

236 specimens representing 88 species of Buprestidae

236 specimens representing 88 species of Buprestidae

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Beetle, orthop or something else?

I had such helpful participation with my first fossil ID request that I thought I would go to the well again. This one is not so enigmatic as the first—it is clearly an insect, but it’s the only insect fossil among the batch that I haven’t settled on at least an order-level identification. Again, this is one of a set of 20 fossils loaned to me by a local collector for photographs and possible identifications, all coming from the Green River Formation in Colorado and dating back to the early to mid-Eocene (45–50 mya).

USA: Colorado, Rio Blanco Co., Parachute Creek Member. Body length = 11.05 mm.

USA: Colorado, Rio Blanco Co., Parachute Creek Member. Body length = 11.05 mm.

The label for this fossil indicates “Planthopper; Homoptera; Fulgoridae”; however, the short, robust legs and overall gestalt do not look right for either a planthopper or really any of the other hemipteran groups. What I see is an indistinct (mandibulate?) head, a distinct and well-developed pronotum, mes0- and metathoracic segments that are not nearly as heavily sclerotized as the pronotum but also lacking any sign of wings, a distinctly segmented abdomen with 9 or 10 segments, and short robust legs. I’m thinking an apterous/brachypterous coleopteran (Staphylinidae?) or a wingless member of one of the orthopteroid orders (although size alone excludes many of the latter—at more than 11 mm in length it is too large for something like Zoraptera). At first I thought the extension near the apex of the abdomen was a cercus, but I now think this is part of the piece of debris over the abdomen as there is no evidence of a cercus on the left side—another knock against something orthopteroid. Still, the lack of any trace of elytra—however shortened—keeps me from fully endorsing Coleoptera. Okay, so what do you guys think?

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

The gloriously dichromatic Dasymutilla gloriosa

I have a small collection of velvet ants (family Mutillidae) that I’ve accumulated over the years—not through active collection but more as bycatch from my beetle hunting operations. Velvet ants are, of course, not ants at all, but wasps, and as such the females are—like their winged relatives—quite capable of delivering a painful sting if mishandled. They also tend to be seen running rather frenetically across the ground, making them difficult to guide into a collection vial or grab with forceps. You’ve gotta really want ’em if you want to collect them. Still, even though I don’t study them I find them interesting enough to pick up on occasion, and with most groups outside of my area of focus the hope is that eventually they will end up in the hands of somebody who actively studies the group. Such is now the case with my mutillid collection, which will be shipped this week to another collector specializing in the group. In return I will be filling some holes in European representation of my collection of Cerambycidae.

Dasymutilla gloriosa, female | Brewster Co., Texas

Dasymutilla gloriosa, female | Brewster Co., Texas

Without question, the most interesting mutillid species that I’ve encountered is Dasymutilla gloriosa. All mutillids are sexually dimorphic, as only the males are winged, but most also tend to be sexually dichromatic to a greater or lesser degree. No species I am aware of takes this to the same level as D. gloriosa! The males (photo below) are rather typically colored compared to other species in the genus, but the females (photo above) are densely covered with long, strikingly white hairs. While this would seem to make them quite conspicuous, the true effect is the exact opposite as they easily confused with fuzzy plant seed. For this reason they are commonly called thistledown velvet ants. I encountered the female in west Texas in 2003 while walking a mountain trail and at first thought it was the fuzzy seed of a creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) being blown by the wind—except there was no wind! It took me a little while looking closely at it before I could figure out what it actually was. This is the only female of this species that I’ve seen in the wild, and I’ll be a little sad to see it sent to another location.

Dasymutilla gloriosa, male | Riverside Co., California

Dasymutilla gloriosa, male | Riverside Co., California

The male also is the only one I’ve encountered—or at least taken the trouble to collect. I would have never suspected this male, which I collected in southern California in 1991, was the same species as the female that I collected many years later. My thanks to Kevin Williams, who provided the identifications for both of these specimens.

Also called the ''thistledown velvet ant''

Also called the ”thistledown velvet ant”

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Spider, insect or something else?

I recently received a batch of fossil insects from a local fossil collector, who is hoping that I and other local entomologists will be able to provide some level of identification beyond just “insect.” All are from the Green River Formation, a lake bed shale deposit dating back to the early to mid-Eocene epoch (45–50 mya). Most major insect orders and families were established and undergoing rapid diversification by this time, and as a result most of the fossils are clearly identifiable at least to order or even family. There is one fossil, however, that has got me stumped. The label that came with the fossil indicates “Spider (?)”, and while at first glance this is the first thing that comes to mind, the more I look at it the more I become convinced that it represents something else. What, however, I do not know.

The fossil is a cast and mold from a split rock, so two views of the fossil are available. I’ve photographed them to try to get a better look at the details and still can’t come to a decision (I’ve even considered a small crustacean or even a plant part). Perhaps somebody who reads this might have an idea?

Colorado: Garfield, Hwy 139, Douglas Pass. Maximum diameter = 22.5 mm.

Colorado: Garfield, Hwy 139, Douglas Pass. Maximum diameter = 22.5 mm.

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Mirror half of same fossil.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Dainty, delicate, little fairies

Adela caeruleella | Wayne Co., Missouri

Ever since I saw Chris Grinter’s beautiful photographs, I have wanted to see (and possibly photograph) the tiny little moths known as fairy moths (family Adelidae, formerly considered a subfamily of Incurvariidae). These dainty, delicate, little moths are characterized by their unusually long antennae—especially the males, which can have their antennae up to three times the length of the forewings. This past April I got my wish as my father and I hiked the Shut-ins Trail at Sam A. Baker State Park in Missouri’s southeastern Ozark Highlands.

Females have the antennae ”only” twice as long as the forewings…

Chris was fortunate to see a number of individuals representing at least two species, presumably all males (based on the extraordinary length of their antennae) that were engaged in some rather interesting territorial behaviors. I, on the other hand, saw only this single individual (presumably a female) who seemed content enough to calmly nectar the golden Alexander, Zizia aurea (Apiaceae), flowers on which I found it. This was fine by me, as the dense woodland setting where I saw it wasn’t very conducive to photographing the moth. I wanted a clean, bright background to highlight the moths dark metallic luster, so I snipped the flower (carefully!) on which the moth was nectaring and held it up to the small patch of bright blue sky visible from the trail to take these photos.

…and the basal half distinctly thickened.

I presume this individual represents the species Adela caerueleella based on comparison with online photos. According to Powell (1969) this species is widespread across the eastern U.S. and has been recorded on flowers of American bittersweet, Celastrus scandens (Celastraceae). Microleps.org notes the species is most frequently found along deciduous forest trails and shows a preference for flowers of black snakeroot, Sanicula marilandica (Apiaceae). My late April observation is consistent with the April and May activity period noted by Powell (1969) and late May period for central Illinois noted by Microleps.org.

REFERENCE:

Powell, J. A. 1969. A synopsis of Nearctic adelid moths, with descriptions of new species (Incurvariidae). Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 23:211–240.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Friday Editor’s Tip: Lose the formatting!

As Managing Editor of The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, I have the privilege of guiding manuscripts through the entire publication process—from submission and review through acceptance and preparation for final printing. It’s gratifying to see the results of a researcher’s efforts come to fruition, and it is also a good time to be an editor—due in no small part to the plethora of digital tools we have at our disposal. Knowing the amount of effort required to be an editor in today’s environment, I can’t imagine fulfilling the role in pre-computer days when manuscripts were prepared on a typewriter, submitted as hard copy, mailed to reviewers, collated upon their return (after interpreting hand-scribbled reviewer notations), and mailed back to authors for retyping. My heartiest congratulations to and respect for anyone who served as an editor in those days!

One of the holdovers from those days is the use of double-spaced text and numbered lines in draft manuscripts. This was necessary back then to provide space for reviewer comments and facilitate quick reference to specific portions of the manuscript. Of course, most journals today utilize fully electronic processes for submitting and reviewing manuscripts, and in some cases (including The Pan-Pacific Entomologist) a hard copy version of the manuscript may never be produced until the journal itself is issued. While the ability of reviewers to directly insert comments and suggested edits into an electronic version of the manuscript obviates the need to include line spacing and numbers, some authors still find themselves in the habit of preparing their manuscripts with such format. A bigger issue, however, brought on by the change from manual to electronic manuscript preparation is the temptation by some authors to overly “format” their manuscripts. Modern word processing programs (e.g., Microsoft Word) make it easier than ever to give documents visual appeal when printed, and most authors thus find themselves wanting to apply at least some formatting to their manuscripts. Indeed, some even go so far as to format their manuscript so that it closely resembles the printed journal! The problem is that most printers utilize file conversion software that automatically applies formatting according to a journal’s style sheet. Formatting commands used by word processing programs often interfere with those used by file conversion software, thus, to avoid conflicts any formatting applied to a draft manuscript must be stripped out prior to file conversion. The more of this that is done by the author prior to submission, the less potential for errors during printing. Unfortunately, just as secretaries don’t often make very good scientists, many scientists wouldn’t make good secretaries and find the prospect of “cleaning” an overly formatted manuscript more intimidating than it really is. Accordingly, I offer here this little “cheat sheet” for those who would like help in making sure their manuscript is clean prior to submission. These tips assume the use of Microsoft Word (since its file formats are acceptable for submission to The Pan-Pacific Entomologist), but a similar process should be possible with most other word processing programs.

Step 1. Select the entire document by pressing “Ctrl+A”.

Step 2. Click on “Home” in the menu ribbon and open the “Paragraph” dialogue box.

Step 3. Click on the “Indents and Spacing” tab. Set all of the commands as shown in the figure below.

Step 4. Click on the “Line and Page Breaks” tab. Set all of the commands as shown in the figure below and click “OK”.

Step 5. Open the “Font” dialogue box (also under “Home” in the menu ribbon). Set all of the commands as shown in the figure below and click “OK”.

Step 6. Click on “Page Layout” in the menu ribbon and open the “Page Setup” dialogue box.

Step 7. Click on the “Margins” tab. Set all of the commands as shown in the figure below and click “OK”.

Voila! Your manuscript is free of all extraneous formatting commands and is ready for submission (assuming its contents are complete and well written). If there are portions of text that simply must be formatted (e.g., italics for scientific names) those can be reapplied. Of course, my best advice is to ensure the manuscript contains the above settings before it is even started. This not only ensures that formatting is limited to text that must be formatted, but also that the author will not need to spend additional time stripping out unneeded formatting during the preparation of final files for printing.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Book Announcement: Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) of Northeastern North America

It’s not often that I anticipate the release of a book as much as I have with the soon-to-be-released Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) of Northeastern North America. Fortunately, the wait is now almost over—Morgan Jackson, author of Biodiversity in Focus and co-author of the book, has just announced its planned released in early 2013. Even better, he has provided a sneak peak at its contents that is as smartly designed as the book itself.

Obviously, as a serious student of the family Buprestidae, this book would make it into my bookshelf no matter what, and I plan to do a more detailed review of the book once I have a copy permanently in my hands. However, I can tell you that I am already very impressed with the design of the book and the quality of the product. I was fortunate to meet up with Morgan at last month’s Entomological Society of America meetings in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Morgan kindly allowed me to leaf through the carefully guarded copy he had with him (it was difficult handing it back to him). The Prezi preview for the book covers some of the more important features that will set this book apart from other field guides, but worthy of special mention are: 1) the minimum/maximum size silhouette figure in the upper left-hand corner of each species treatment—a tremendously useful feature, 2) inclusion of the both the author and date of the original description of the species (to keep us more taxonomically inclined happy), 3) super high quality dorsal and lateral habitus photographs and of additional key features to aid in identification, 4) geographical range maps coded to show both presumed and recorded ranges, and 5) keys to all treated species, richly augmented with high quality photographs.

There is another reason I am so excited about this book, and that is the authors chose my photograph of Buprestis rufipes (red-legged buprestis), one of North America’s most striking jewel beetle species, to grace the cover of the book. I also provided specimens of a number of uncommonly encountered species which were used for the photographs in their respective species treatments.

Quite remarkably, this book will be available at NO COST—including free shipping anywhere! As a consequence, the book will not be available from commercial book and literature sources. You can request your copy by emailing your mailing address to Morgan at morgandjackson@gmail.com. I don’t know how many copies of the book are being printed, but I have a feeling that supplies will not last long, and in the coming years one will have to beg/borrow/steal from a kindly old colleague to get a copy (you can have my copy when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers!).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012