Hilarious spider mating display!

I love Twitter!  Since I joined, I’ve learned some truly amazing things and generally reveled in pure bug geekery with my fellow insect bloggers/enthusiasts.  I’m tuned into bug news in a way I’ve never been before! I’m going to start occasionally posting some of the best things I come across on my blog so that I can share the love with you all.  Like several other entomologist bloggers, one of my favorite things I saw this week was this video of the peacock spider by entomologist Jürgen Otto.  It starts off a little slow, but it is absolutely worth watching at least the first four minutes.  Really, you won’t regret it because this is THE most hilarious mating dance I’ve ever seen! Behold:

Now I’m not normally one for using text abbreviations in blog posts, but OMG!  I laugh so hard every time I see this!  The spider is exceptionally beautiful, but this is also one of the most interesting behaviors I’ve seen in an invertebrate, making it one impressive little spider.  Plus, you can’t help but love something that looks so much like the aliens in Space Invaders.  :)

The movie’s creator also has some great photos on Flickr.  So cool…  Isn’t the natural world amazing?

Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

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Friday 5: 5 Fantastic Insect Horror Movies

I am a huge wuss when it comes to watching horror movies.  I am jumpy in general (this might be the result of spending my early childhood in a place that has rattlesnakes in the gazillions, my current city!) so movies where things jump out really bother me.  Movies where things move in creepy ways are incredibly disturbing to me.  That scene from The Exorcist (I saw the director’s cut) where the girl crab-walks down the stairs?  Eeek!  And those horrible torture movies that are popular at the moment (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Saw series, etc) worm their way into my brain and stick there so I can’t think of anything else for weeks.  I really hate those movies…  However, I adore cheesy, low-budget, B-movie horror movies.  And guess which group of animals is frequently featured in these gems?  Insects!  Thus I can combine my passion for insects with my craving for bad horror movies on a reasonably regular basis.

Over the years I’ve seen dozens of insect horror movies, but there are a few that I absolutely adore.  Some are brilliant examples of classic horror films, but the others are so cheesy I laugh hysterically all the way through them no matter how many times I see them.  So, without further ado, I present my top 5 insect horror movies:

The Fly

IMDB Rating: 7.0. Image from IMDB.com.

5. The Fly. Now many of you will be familiar with the modern version of The Fly, the one with Jeff Goldblum and Gina Davis that was released in 1986, or maybe The Fly II with Eric Stoltz.  These are both fine insect horror films.  However, if I’m going to watch The Fly, I prefer the 1956 Vincent Price version.  Vincent Price was a brilliant horror actor and really makes this movie work.  You probably all know the story: a scientist develops a teleportation device and tests it on himself.  However, he didn’t know there was a fly in the machine with him when he turned it on.  The result: the scientist’s body comes out the other side with the fly head on top!  Vincent Price’s character is a the brother of the doomed scientist and attempts to help the scientist’s wife cope with her husband’s disfiguration.  The movie is actually good, with skilled actors and a a touching plot.  The end of this movie is fabulous, but I’m not going to ruin it!  You’ll just have to watch it yourself.

Mansquito

IMDB Rating: 3.1. Image from IMDB.com.

4.  Mansquito / Mosquito Man. This is a Sci-Fi Channel exclusive, and if you know anything about made-for-Sci-Fi Channel movies, you know how terrible this movie really is!  The plot is decent enough.  Once again, we have a scientist, this time a woman who is testing some new compound she’s developed on prisoners.  However, an explosion in the lab as the prisoner is about to be injected has disastrous effects!  Both the convict and the scientist begin to transform into giant mosquitoes.  And if that isn’t enough to make you want to run out and watch this tonight, let me just say that the “love” scene between mostly transformed convict and partly transformed scientist is about the most hilariously bad scene ever created for a movie.  This movie definitely falls into the so bad it’s good category, but it made me laugh.  A lot.  Hence its appearance on my list.

Skeeter

IMDB Rating: 2.8. Image from IMDB.com.

3.  Skeeter. This movie follows a standard plot in insect horror movies: pollution caused by man irradiates or otherwise mutates the insects in an area (usually a remote area) and turns them into giants.  Apart from the fact that an insect this big would collapse under its own weight, I really love this particular plot.  I believe Skeeter takes place in a small town in Nevada, a town that has an illegal toxic waste dump conveniently located in a damp cave or mine shaft with a lot of water.  The mosquitoes become gigantic, about the size of a basketball, and go on a killing rampage through the area around the town.  Add to this a love story between a lawman and a woman from the town and you’ve got yourself one fabulous so bad it’s good insect horror movie!

Them

IMDB Rating: 7.4. Image from IMDB.com.

2.  Them! Okay, okay.  I know I should put Them! first for several reasons.  First, this movie is surprisingly detailed and correct when it comes to the science. You can actually learn something about ants watching this movie!  Second, the story is fabulous – atomic testing in New Mexico creates a hoard of ant giants that terrorize the humans who created them.  Third, this is probably THE most classic insect horror movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  Them! is a truly brilliant movie and makes for great commentary on the consequences of the nuclear age.  If I were going to recommend a good insect horror movie to someone, this would be it.  However, I just can’t put this movie above my all-time favorite insect horror movie…

Empire of the Ants

IMDB Rating: 3.2. Image from IMDB.com.

1.  Empire of the Ants.  This movie is pure B-movie greatness!  There’s a ton of bad, overly dramatic acting.  The story is completely ludicrous.  The beginning of the movie is supposed to put the plot into context – we humans are destroying the planet, consequences be damned – but the narration is so over the top it’s impossible to take the movie seriously.  Once again, we have giant ants created due to toxic waste.  Once again, the giant ants are terrorizing people, this time a group of potential investors who are visiting a bogus land-development project headed by the scamming Joan Collins.  They have to fight off the ants to save their lives, only to get into worse and worse situations with fewer and fewer people as they go along.  The movie oozes more cheese than a big pile of nachos!  But I think it’s absolutely hilarious to watch.  Plus, the ants in this movie are actually pretty cool for the most part.  I can’t be sure, but I believe they filmed some scenes through an ant farm-like enclosure (or superimposed film of ants in such an enclosure) so that the ants crawling on the buildings and the docks look much more realistic than they do in most insect horror movies.  Still, the big showdown between the ants and the survivors at the end is so shockingly bad it can make you forget about the more redeeming qualities of this movie.  I was recently very excited (perhaps too excited!) to discover that it had been released on DVD, so you might actually be able to get your hands on a copy of this gem of an insect horror movie.  I highly recommend it.

So that’s my list.  Anyone want to share their favorite insect horror movie?  If so, leave a comment below!  I’d love to discover a new movie or two to watch!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Hellgrammites

We had an insect trading session in the class I’m TAing this semester, so everyone brought in extra insects they had in their collections to trade for things they didn’t have.  I’m going to discuss some of my observations about the trading session in an upcoming post (I was fascinated!) but today I’m g0ing to focus on the specimen I was most excited about: a live hellgrammite.

Hellgrammites are the larvae of the insect known as the dobsonfly and they are fabulous (or at least I think so).  In their adult form, dobsonflies are pretty gnarly looking.  Males tend to have long, intimidating mouthparts:

Dobsonfly male

Dobsonfly male. Awesome photo by Jessica Lawrence, available at http://bugguide.net/node/view/ 419853/bgimage

Though the mouthparts look scary, they’re really pretty wimpy.  The males of most species can only inflict a minor pinch because the mouthparts are so large they can’t get any leverage on them.  But these giant mouthparts do have a purpose – and, as in most cases where insects have supersized body parts, it all comes down to sex.  Female dobsonflies size up potential mates according to the size of his mouthparts, and in the world of the dobsonfly, bigger is definitely better!  The males with the biggest mouthparts are the sexiest, most desirable males, so some dobsonflies have evolved truly massive ones.

So a male with giant mouthparts mates with a female with more reasonably sized mouthparts to produce eggs.  Those eggs then hatch and these crawl out:

Hellgrammite (Corydalus cornutus)

Hellgrammite!

Now I love hellgrammites and find them completely fascinating.  I am always thrilled to find these in the streams I work in and I can spend hours watching them.  Even so, I’ll be the first to admit that these are some truly vile looking larvae.  They’ve got big, strong mandibles they use to rip apart their prey and they are formidable predators.  They’ve got a pair of hooks on each of two fleshy prolegs on the back end (more about these in a moment) that stick to your fingers or clothes like burrs.  They’re big larvae too.  The hellgrammite in the photo is nearly 3 inches long!  And then there are the long, spindly gills sticking off the sides of the abdomen that give them an alien look.  These do nothing to diminish their threatening appearance and I think it makes them look like big, aquatic centipedes.

But those hooks and gills are also part of why I love hellgrammites.  If you’ve kept up with my blog, you know that my research broadly involves respiratory behaviors of aquatic insects.  Judging from the adaptations hellgrammites display and the habitats they live in, they need a lot of oxygen to survive.  That’s where the hooks and the gills come in: they both help the hellgrammite get as much oxygen from the water as possible.

Let’s consider the hooks for a moment.  If you’re an aquatic animal that requires a lot of oxygen, there is a specific type of water that is best suited to your needs: cold, turbulent, fast flowing streams or rivers.  That’s exactly where you’ll find hellgrammites, clinging to rocks right out in the areas of the strongest flow in cool or cold streams.  However, a giant three-inch long larva, even a flat one like a hellgrammite, is going to have a hard time holding onto the rocks when there’s water slamming into it constantly.  So, they’ve got these:

hellgrammite hooks

Prolegs and paired hooks at the posterior end of a hellgrammite.

Those little hooks grab a hold of the rock so that they aren’t ripped off the substrate and washed downstream.  Hellgrammites are also usually found under big rocks in these fast flowing streams, so the currents they experience are weaker than those on the upper surface of the rock.  Those little hooks aren’t always enough to keep a large hellgrammite in place if they venture out onto the top of the rock.

Hellgrammites are highly adapted for collecting oxygen from the water as well.  If you recall from my post on aquatic insect respiration, insects living in turbulent, cold water maximize their opportunities to collect oxygen from the water.  If they expand their exoskeleton into gills, their surface area increases and they can absorb as much of that relatively abundant oxygen as possible.  Hellgrammites have a lot of extra surface area in their gills.  The feathery looking gills sticking off the sides are rather immobile and simply increase the surface area.  The other set of gills, the puffy dandelion fluff looking ones, have muscles attached to them.  When a hellgrammite become oxygen stressed, it can wave those gills around through the water:

Waving the gills around is a form of ventilation and allows the hellgrammite to extract as much oxygen from the water as possible, especially under less than ideal situations.  The gill movements stir the water around the hellgrammite, pushing deoxygenated water away from the body and bringing oxygen-rich water into contact with the gills so that it may be absorbed.  Behavioral ventilation of this sort is common in aquatic insects and gill movements like this have been recorded in several species, especially within the mayflies.  Still, I can’t help but marvel at just how beautiful the hellgrammite gill movements are!  I hadn’t ever seen this behavior before I noticed it in the insect trading session and I was amazed.  I found it shocking that something that ugly could also have such a stunning characteristic.  It was almost hypnotic watching the hellgrammite pulsing its gills and I could have watched it for hours.

But then I was snapped right out of my gill-inspired reverie when the hellgrammite started to swim around the jar:

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find this sort of abdomen flicking, backwards swimming kinda creepy.  Crayfish do it too and it’s just bizarre.  Doesn’t that look like rather inefficient way to maneuver around your environment?  I can’t easily come up with a reason why this sort of swimming would have developed, though I’m sure there’s a good explanation.

Yep.  Hellgrammites are appalling to look at, but they are amazing in so many ways that I have to love them anyway!  I hope I’ve given you at least a little taste of my appreciation for these monsters of streams and rivers.  I’ll probably describe my plan for making a horror movie called “Hellgrammite!” at some point in the future.  I am sure you are all eagerly looking forward to hearing all about it.  It’s going to be fantastic!  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

The Sound of Summer

cicadaHere in southern Arizona, we have a lot of cicadas.  Evidence of their presence comes in two forms: 1) the husks remaining after they’ve crawled up onto a tree and burst out of their nymphal exoskeleton and become adults and 2) their loud sounds.  My sister and I used to collect the shells as kids.  Well, we did until my sister picked up one that still had the nymph inside.  It promptly grabbed ahold of her finger and terrified her.  I think she was maybe 4 or 5 at the time, but I doubt she’s picked up a cicada shell since, just in case there’s a surprise lurking inside.  I have no hangups of this sort, so I still collect them when I am lucky enough to see them.  I haven’t seen any for a few years now (honestly I haven’t been looking), but they always make me happy when I do.

cacadaThe sound is hard to ignore though.  I have a very sharp sense of hearing and the droning buzz of these insects is LOUD.  Sometimes it really starts to drive me nuts, but most of the time it provides a sort of loud white noise soundtrack to the summer.  I’ve actually come to associate this sound with summers in Arizona.

Maybe I’m noticing them more than I have in the past or perhaps there are cicadas closer to my house than usual, but they’ve seemed particularly loud recently.  A few mornings ago they were so loud they woke me up!  They were in the tree in front of my house, so the sound had to float through the open window, the living room, and a hallway to get to my bedroom.  Like I said – really loud!  So, I decided to record them.  The video below isn’t much in the way of a visual experience.  In fact, it’s a recording of a palo verde tree, one in which there was a cicada, so completely uninteresting.  I only present this in video form because I don’t have the upgrade necessary for me to insert sound files into my blog.  But listen to the sound on the video.  The noise was created by only two cicadas!  Two!!  They were making an incredible racket outside the front window while my husband and I were eating dinner, so I just had to capture it.

Without further ado, the sound of an Arizona summer.  For the most authentic experience, turn your speakers all the way up before hitting the play button!

I think it’s amazing that an insect a little over an inch long is able to make this sort of noise.  I can hear them over the evaporative cooler in my house, the traffic on the busy street nearby, and all of the comings and goings of my neighbors.  They’re impressively loud.  And thankfully they aren’t as active at night as they are during the day or I’d never get any sleep.

At some point in the future, I’ll cover how and why cicadas make these sounds.  Cicadas are pretty amazing animals (and gorgeous to boot!), so they’re definitely worthy of a more complete post.  For now, just sit back and enjoy the sound I hear all summer.  To get a better picture of the experience, envision sitting on a group of sharp little rocks under a stubby little tree with a handful of what are technically “leaves” (if you can call something a leaf when it’s a half inch long and an eighth of an inch wide).  Imagine the sun blazing around you at about 110 degrees (F) and the air sucks the moisture out of your skin.  Then layer on the ear-splitting sound of the cicadas screaming.  Ah, summer in Arizona.  Gotta love it!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Bugs in the Movies: Miniscule

This past week has been crazy busy and I’ve barely had time to think, let alone write in my blog.  Sorry it’s been so long since I last posted something!  I really love working on my blog, so I find it sad when I can’t do it as often as I’d like.  Rather than launching into the subject of giant water bug parental care or going over how to ID the dragonflies I saw at Sweetwater Wetland as planned, I’m going with a lighter post today.  Grab some popcorn and settle in – it’s movie time!

If you’ve perused my links, you might have noticed the link to Miniscule, maybe even wondered what it is.  Miniscule is far and away my favorite source of entomologically-themed animated movies!  The movies are short, on the order of 5 minutes long, but they are brilliant.  The French team that creates the movies, about one a month, combines fantastic macro video of natural settings and 3-D animations of insects and other creepy crawlies.  The videos are silent films and rely entirely on their visuals to convey their stories, but they are reasonably accurate in their entomological details.  They are also darned cute.  So, without further ado, I present my favorite of the Miniscule movies so far – a film about a snail with dreams of greatness!

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Text copyright © 2009 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com