Category Archives: Termitophiles

The Gift

I got a wonderful little gift from Rick Hoebeke at the University of Georgia today of several Reticulitermes associated aleocharines, including Trichopsenius, Xenistusa and Anacyptus.

Xenistusa is a new genus for my collection and I’m super excited to put it and the rest of the specimens under the microscope later.

Many thanks, Rick!


Taro’s live a perpetual entomological existence.

My mom sent me this mural on a school wall, somewhere in Japan.

001 (4)_blog

Yuu clearly has a shady dad that she enjoys hanging out with; Yuika likes new dresses, but unfortunately is vomiting all over this new one form too many strawberry daiquiri; Takemi has no artistic skills what so ever, but none of us expect much from him; Yuuta enjoys soccer with his leg-less brother; Mako can double-fist any cone; Mayo has diva written all over her, but a pair of legs would really help with the dancing in singing and dancing.

But wait, what is this, Taro draws a ladybug?! Whaaaat?! Parents, if you think a name has no bearing on a childs future as a poor entomologist, think again. He’ll eventually turn to smaller insects people care even less about, don’t worry there folks.

On another note, I’ve updated my website to include a local (near Lawrence, KS) Trichopsenius sp. A beetle that lives with Reticulitermes termites. This one is post-extraction, not bad. I’m going to try this on a more mushy-mushy (no pun intended, for those that get it) physogastric Xenistusa and see how I fare.

I’m also super into ~90’s feminist punk/electro pop, spawns of the Riot Grrrl movement. Here’s Le Tigre, a Bikini Kill offshoot.

First termitophile of 2013

I checked out the weather Friday evening and Saturday was forecast to be excellent weather, in the high 70s. Couldn’t resist, I woke up at 5 AM on Saturday and headed 2 hours south of Lawrence to a favorite inquiline spot.

I’ve introduced some collecting from here previously.

It was a little early still in the season, but the social insects were out and so were their guests. This time I brought home the Philotermes species that occurs here along with its hosts and observed its behavior. Conclusion, a damn lot of grooming.

Philotermes sp. in typical abdomen-over-body look.

Philotermes sp. in typical abdomen-over-body look.

A worker termite checks out Philotermes.

A worker termite checks out Philotermes.

Who likes ant-guests? I like ant-guests!!

As a reader of my blog, you’re probably already aware of symbioses with social insect. What does this mean? Well, social insects (think ants, termites, bees, etc.), just like our societies, can become infested with freeloaders – basically, pests – we have rats and ants have beetles that also scavenge on leftovers.

Some object, but I think that drawing analogies between economics and evolutionary theory can be a fun and insightful exercise, so here I go: In economics, there is this idea that the number of loopholes (e.g. number of ways to cheat your taxes) in a system increases with complexity.

In other words, the more complex the social system, the more ways to cheat the system. This phenomenon seems to be mirrored in the societies of social insects – the more complex the sociality, the more ways, and therefore, the diversity of  freeloaders in the nest increases. (If you haven’t already, please check out Joe and my blog post over at Scientific American.)

Once you’ve decoded the social system of your host(s), it’s a pretty easy ride: air-conditioned accommodation, an extreme concentration of energy, and protection from enemies. But scientists have been struggling to figure out just how you get to a point where you are truly integrated in the host’s societies.

Rove beetles have left all other insects in the dust when it comes to symbiosis with social insects. In particular, the Aleocharinae and Pselaphinae stand out as “evolutionary success stories.” Interestingly, the two groups couldn’t look more different. Aleocharinae are elongate and flimsy (my specialty), while the Pselaphinae are compactly formed tanks of a beetle (Joe’s specialty). This might mean two things: 1) the Aleocharinae retain abdominal flexibility which can allow for gross morphological redesign in contrast to the Pselaphinae, which seem to have given up that option; 2) the Pselaphinae are tanks, their tough, and a few attacks from a host aren’t going to be detrimental – a stark contrast to a flimsy Aleocharinae.

Myrmecoid (hey, that's the name of the blog!) Aleocharinae: independent examples of drastic abdominal modification.

Myrmecoid (hey, that’s the name of the blog!) Aleocharinae: independent examples of drastic abdominal modification.

What does that mean? Well, it seems that Pselaphinae, although they’ve given up the ability to drastically rearrange their abdominal morphology as an adaptive strategy for living with social insect colonies, have bought themselves a different entry pass into the nests of ants and termites. Again, Pselaphinae are tough. As long as they can withstand a few attacks here and there, given some time in the nest, adaptations present or not, you’ll start to pick up host colony odors.

Nest-mate recognition in social insects appear to depend heavily on “colony odors” in the form of unique cuticular hydrocarbon profiles. These hydrocarbons, like all compounds, express some amount of volatility ~ kinda like smelling like Indian food after you’ve left the place. You take this a step further and you can imagine the evolution of structures and/or behaviors that optimize ability to pick up host colony smells, and become, for all intents and purposes, invisible to those around you. Toughness, in evolutionary time might prove to be one of a few options for entering into social insect symbiosis.

Blah, blah, blah; sorry, I know that was long up to now, but I really wanted to set the stage so that YOU, the reader, can truly appreciate the videos that follow.

Why? Well I’ll let this quote from a Senegalese conservationist, Baba Dioum give it to you straight.

In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.

And I hope that we can preserve these evolutionary miracles for the future – because they are so awesome!

The following videos were taken and sent to me by my friend, colleague and developmental/evolutionary biologist extraordinaire Joseph Parker at Columbia U., which got us discussing their amazingness and we couldn’t resist sharing. Videos today concern two stars form the Pselaphinae: Harmophorus and Batraxis. The two genera are both faculitative symbionts, although Batraxis seems to have inched a little closer to an obligation to its myrmecophilous way of life. In addition, Batraxis seems to be “invisible” to their host ant while Harmophorus is not entirely so – possibly corroborating my previous statement.

Harmophorus with its usual host (above). The ants are aware of Harmophorus‘ presence and attack here and there, but thanks to the beetle’s hard exterior and compact body, very little, if not any damage seems to have been inflicted.

Batraxis and its natural host (above). Notice that the ants don’t even seem to realize their presence.

Look what happens when we switch the host ants between Batraxis and Harmophorus. While Batraxis (above) walks around unmolested by their novel host, Harmophorus (bottom) is being absolutely pummeled. Although, again, thanks to the Harmophorus‘ robust nature, seems to be OK despite the many bites and stings.

For Joe and I, this was a p-scientific way of demonstrating the possibility of an ecological transitional series from free-living to social insect symbiosis. Can’t you imagine a beetle like Harmophorus, beginning to demonstrate a propensity to live with ants, → evolving some better strategies for colonial integration (e.g. Batraxis), → until “perfecting” the art as the clavigerines have.

Difficult to test, definitely. We’ll need observational, phylogenetic and experimental data in order to begin to weave a supported story. But, the evolutionary magnificent these organisms display! I would gladly give my life studying them, even if it means merely discovering the corner pieces to a puzzle for which its dimensions remain a mystery.

New Pub. ~ It’s OPEN ACCESS!

I want to introduce a new publication that I co-authored with colleagues at the Kyushu University in Japan.

Neotermitosocius bolivianus Kanao et al. 2012

Neotermitosocius bolivianus Kanao et al. 2012

Coptotermocola clavicornis Kanao et al. 2012

Coptotermocola clavicornis Kanao et al. 2012

In this pub., we describe two new genera of aleocharine rove beetles in the exclusively termite-symbiotic lineage, tribe Termitohospitini. I really dig this study because it was a truly collaborative effort.

I originally sorted the termitohospitines in the University of Kansas entomological collections, three years ago when I first started my graduate studies, as part of a larger effort to place the lineage in the aleocharine tree of life. In the process, I discovered a new genus but never really did anything with it. When I found out that Taisuke (first author) was working on this group, primarily in Asia, I quickly sent him this material and matured into a great publication.

Members of Termitohospitini all live exclusively within the nests of termites. They are tear-drop shaped (shaped sort of like a horseshoe crab); this body plan has evolved many times among residents of ant and termite societies, and are thought to serve a defensive function, protecting vulnerable appendages under their expanded dorsal body surfaces. The Bolivian new genus that we discovered from the KU collections are peculiar in that they look rather “normal.” Keep your eyes peeled for these beasts next time you venture into a termite colony. They’re sure to be scuttling to safety.

Save science at the Field Museum

The Field Museum has been feeling the economy for some time, but now the president is proposing to scale back research at the Field in order to survive the economic downfall of the institution.

Please, please consider signing this petition and please, please consider spreading the word.

Hunting for Hetaerius II

Still flipping sandstone slabs that hug the ground. We were finding the appropriate Camponotus sp. but no sign of Hetaerius yet.

On the flip-side, Taro finds more Reticulitermes guests.

Trichopsenius sp. is a limuloid (tear-drop shaped) termitophile. They are able to mimic host odors and remain undetected.

Trichopsenius is an early diverging lineage of aleocharine rove beetles, and lack the abdominal defensive gland, which is a synapomorphy for all higher aleocharines. The tribe that this genus is a type for, has the hind coxa fused to the metasternum, and the trochanter articulates directly with the body. I don’t quite understand the functional significance of this morphological modification, but possible allowing more compact lateral swinging motions of the hind legs. This may be adaptive for termitophiles (the tribe is entirely termitophilous) for maintaining a low profile while scavenging the nest.

Interestingly, all lower aleocharines that are obligatory inquilines, are always termitophiles. Termites are a slightly older lineage compared to ants. Could this pattern signify a larger temporal evolutionary phenomenon?