Termites. Termites. Termites.

By S.C. Lougheed

For Ontarions, the word “termite” conjures up a negative image of ravenous insects that cause immense and costly damage to human-made wooden structures because of their propensity to eat dead wood and indeed any material that is cellulose-based (Evans 2011). The beast that we know in Ontario is the eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes), a species native to the eastern USA that has been introduced multiple times into Ontario (Scaduto et al. 2012) – probably first in 1938 (Urquhart 1953).

Figure 1. A particularly impressive cathedral termite (Nasutitermes triodiae) mound estimated to be over 50 years old and over 4 metres tall (Queen’s University Biology alumnus Cam Hudson, provides some idea of scale ).
Figure 1. A particularly impressive cathedral termite (Nasutitermes triodiae) mound estimated to be over 50 years old and over 4 metres tall (Queen’s University Biology alumnus Cam Hudson, provides some idea of scale ).

In other parts of the world, like the savannahs of African savannahs, the pampas of Argentina, or tropical and subtropical Australia, some termite species present another face – that of exquisite natural engineers who create magnificent and sometimes immense structures of cellulose, mud and saliva (Figure 1). These termite mounds afford many benefits to the termite colony including protection from predators and buffering from sometimes extreme environments where they are found. In the Box below I present some basic information on evolutionary affinities and diversity.

Figure 2. A field of magnetic termite mounds in Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia.
Figure 2. A field of magnetic termite mounds in Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia.

One of my favourite examples of beautifully-adapted insect architecture is the mound of the magnetic termite, Amitermes meridionalis, found in Northern Australia. Magnetic termites build their wedge-shaped mounds on seasonal flood plains that are saturated during the wet season (precluding subterranean abodes) and baked in the intense tropical sun in the dry season – an extreme environment indeed! The photo in Figure 2 shows that the mounds are all oriented in the same direction – north-south. The unique shape and orientation mean that one side is shaded and cool as the sun rises and sets, but also that when the sun is at its zenith, only the very top of the wedge receives direct sunlight. Termite mounds can be incredibly important to other organisms. Hollows within them can provide shelter for animals like goannas (monitor lizards), quolls (small marsupials), and snakes. For some species termites form a significant part of their diet (e.g. bilbies – small arid-land omnivorous marsupial) and termite mounds thus a rich foraging ground. Finally termite mounds play a significant role in enriching and cycling of nutrients, with local effects persisting decades after a colony has disappeared.

References

  1. Evans, T.A. 2011. Invasive termites, pp. 519-562. In D.E. Bignell, Y. Roisin, & N. Lo Eds., Biology of Termites: A Modern Synthesis. Springer, Dordrecht, the Netherlands.
  2. Scaduto D.A., S.R. Garner, E.L. Leach & G.J. Thompson. 2012. Genetic evidence for multiple invasions of the eastern subterranean termite into Canada. Environ. Entomol. 41: 1680-168.
  3. Urquhart, F.A. 1953. The introduction of the termite into Ontario. Can. Entomol. 85: 292-293.

Box. There are over 3000 named species of termites (also called “white-ants”), although undoubtedly there remain many others to be discovered (Krishna et al. 2013). Much of this species richness is centred in the tropics and subtropics, where termites play a major role in ecosystems as detritivores. Originally placed within their own order (Isoptera), recent molecular evidence suggests that termites are most closely allied to cockroaches with suggestions that Isoptera be subsumed within the cockroach order Blattodea (Inward et al. 2007). Termites are eusocial insects where different castes perform different roles within the colony. This phenomenon of eusociality has arisen multiple times both in insects (e.g. Hymenoptera – bees and wasps), in crustaceans (alpheid snapping shrimp), and in mammals (naked mole rats, Heterocephalus glaber).

References

Inward, D., G. Beccaloni & P. Eggleton. 2007. Death of an order: A comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study confirms that termites are eusocial cockroaches. Biol. Lett. 3: 331-335.

Krishna, K, D.A. Grimaldi, V. Krishna & M.S. Engel. 2013. Treatise on the Isoptera of the world. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist.  377: 1–2704.

A brief digression on parrots.

by Stephen C. Lougheed

The parrots comprise a large order (Psittaciformes) of birds with a mainly pantropical distribution, although some species do inhabit temperate regions in the Southern Hemisphere as well (e.g. the burrowing parrot, Cyanoliseus patagonus, of southern South America). Number of species reported varies but generally is on the order of 340 to 370 distributed across between 78 and 86 genera (Rowley and Collar 1997). Characteristics of parrots will be familiar to most: robust, curved bill, strong legs with zygodactylous feet (two toes forward, two toes facing backward). Many are brightly-coloured although some, like the sulfur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) are mostly white, while others, like the flightless Kakapo (Strigops habroptila) of New Zealand, have muted and cryptic plumage patterns to avoid predators.

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Northern rosella taken in Litchfield National Park. Click on thumbnail for larger image.

In my still unfolding peregrinations in Australia I have already seen 10 species of parrot including this lovely northern rosella (photo by Cam Hudson – see his blog  - from some distance – but still showing some of the vibrant colours).

My list thus far includes:

  • Red tailed black-cockatoo, Calyptorhynchus banksii

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    Gallah taken just outside Nitmiluk National Park. Click on thumbnail for larger image.
  • Yellow tailed black-cockatoo, Calyptorhynchus funereus
  • Gallah, Eolophus roseicapilla
  • Little corella, Cacatua sanguinea
  • Sulfur-crested cockatoo, Cacatua galerita
  • Rainbow lorikeet, Trichoglossus haematodus
  • Red-shoulder parrot, Diopsittaca nobilis
  • Eastern rosella, Platycercus eximius (see photo)
  • Hooded parrot, Psephotus dissimilis
  • Northern rosella, Platycercus venustus

Carolina_parakeet_JJ_AudubonUnfortunately, at least 80 species of parrot are classified as vulnerable or endangered (IUCN 2013) due to a mixture of habitat loss, collection for the pet trade, and persecution because some are considered agricultural pests (Collar 2007) with some already extinct. Indeed, the only psittacid of Eastern North America went extinct in the early 20th Century. The Carolina parakeet (Cacatua galerita) once ranged from southern New York, south to the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as Nebraska (Snyder 2004). The Carolina parakeet was a lovely species, with bright yellow head, orange face, green body and pale bill (see John James Audubon’s rendering here). One can imagine that, before European settlement (and ensuing loss of the Eastern deciduous forest, persecution because it foraged on orchards, and hunting for the millinery trade – nothing like a stuffed parakeet on your hat I guess – see Saikku, 1990), very occasionally one might even have seen a northern vagrant parakeet in Canada.

References

  1. Collar, N.J. 2007. Globally threatened parrots: criteria, characteristics and cures. International Zoo Yearbook 37: 21–35.
  2. IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 22 January 2014.
  3. Rowley, I. and N.J. Collar. 1997. Order PSITTACIFORMES. In Handbook of the Birds of the World – Volume 4. Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal eds.) Lynx Edicions
  4. Saikku, M. 1990. The extinction of the Carolina parakeet. Environmental History Review 14: 1-18.
  5. Snyder, N.F.R. 2004. The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ.

Frog diversity at the University of Sydney Tropical Ecology Research Facility near Darwin.

By Stephen C. Lougheed

I am travelling in Australia funded, in part, by The J. Allen Keast Field Biology International Exchange Fund. Allen, born and raised in Australia, was a long-time professor in Biology at Queen’s and an enduring presence at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). The Fund, as its name implies, facilitates exchanges between Australian and Canadian scientists. As Director of QUBS my hope on this sojourn is to visit a number of facilities and bring back some ideas for our own station on how to enrich the research, teaching and outreach.

I am currently at the University of Sydney Tropical Ecology Research Facility situated about an hour outside of Darwin in the Northern Territory and just outside of Fogg Dam Conservation Area – about halfway between the Tropic of Capricorn and the equator. Most of the work done here is herpetological with a major focus on understanding and countering the negative consequences of the massive cane toad invasion in Australia. Indeed my host (aside from the Facility Director Rick Shine and Manager Dr. Greg Brown who kindly made this visit possible), Cam Hudson, who is both a Queen’s University alumnus and an ex-student of mine, is doing his doctorate on cane toads here.

The surrounding woodlands here are diverse, although having spent time in similar Neotropical and Afrotropical habitats, I can say that there always seems to something familiar like the squawking of parrots (e.g. here red-tailed black-cockatoos, lorikeets or rosellas) or omnipresent cooing of doves of various kinds. The annual rainfall here is markedly seasonal (mean annual rainfall 1729.7 mm) with most rain falling between November and March. We are firmly in the grip of the rainy season as there have been daily deluges since I arrived. Mean maximum annual temperature is 32 degree C although the daily minimum temperature seldom dips below 15 degrees C.

In the mornings I have been taking time to walk along the local roads and trails bird-watching (well really anything watching), in afternoons working on manuscripts, letters and emails, and in the evenings doing some ‘herping’ especially looking for frogs that are now actively chorusing and breeding. In three nights of not particularly intensive searching we have assembled a handsome list of 15 species – a rogues gallery of which I present here (note that 9 of them are in the massive genus Litoria!):

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To put this into perspective on QUBS lands we have documented only 9 anuran species (Chorus frog, Spring peeper, Grey treefrog, American bullfrog, Green frog, Pickerel frog, Leopard frog, Wood frog, American toad), and this list expands to ten if we consider all of Eastern Ontario (to include the Mink frog). Thus in three nights we have assembled a list comprised of 50% more frog species within a single small region.

In February I will be traveling to Cairns in the northeast hoping to spend some time in Daintree National Park – again a very productive, biodiverse, and humid area of Australia.

Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis, on Queen’s University Biological Station Properties

Post by Paul R. Martin, Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON Canada

Figure 1. Sean Thomas Martin, standing over the small creek on the Bonwill Tract where he captured the Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis.
Figure 1. Sean Thomas Martin, standing over the small creek on the Bonwill Tract where he captured the Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis.

The Pygmy Grasshoppers (Tetrigidae) are a large family of grasshoppers (>1000 species worldwide), also referred to as groundhoppers or grouse locusts (Preston-Mafham 1990). The family is poorly known and less commonly seen than many other grasshoppers — most species are cryptically coloured (brown, gray or black) and many species have expanded pronotums (the upper part of the back, just behind the head) that resemble leaves, stones or twigs (Preston-Mafham 1990). Only 9 species of pygmy grasshopper are known from Canada, and these are either placed in the family Tetrigidae, or partially split into the families Tetrigidae and Batrachideidae (Vickery and Kevan 1985). All 9 species are small (usually less than 2 cm long), brown, gray or black (never green), and have pronounced eyes and long pronotums that extend backwards, often ending in a point (Vickery and Keven 1985). Only one species has been described from the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS), the Ornate Ground Locust, Tetrix ornatus (Paiero and Conboy 2010). Here I describe the occurrence of another species on QUBS properties, the Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis.

On 28 April 2013, Sean Thomas Martin (age 5) spotted and caught a female Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper from above a narrow creek that led into the north end of Telephone Bay (Lake Opinicon), just east of the Bedford Road (Bonwill Tract) (Fig. 1). The grasshopper was caught immediately above the stream — Sean Thomas told me that it had been “laying eggs in the water,” but I could not verify this (he had already caught it). No other grasshoppers were seen that day. We collected, photographed, and later released the insect (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. The female Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis from the QUBS properties, April 28, 2013. Note the extended pronotum (the light brown "shield" on the back, extending from behind the head almost to the anus) and the black and brown colouration typical of pygmy grasshoppers.
Figure 2. The female Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper, Tettigidea lateralis from the QUBS properties, April 28, 2013. Note the extended pronotum (the light brown “shield” on the back, extending from behind the head almost to the anus) and the black and brown colouration typical of pygmy grasshoppers.

Among the pygmy grasshoppers in Canada, our grasshopper can be identified to the two species in the Batrachideidae group by the 16 or more segments of the antennae (Fig. 2a) and the groove on the upper edge of the femor (the largest part of the back leg; Fig. 2b). The Black-sided Pygmy Grasshopper is separated from the similar Armored Pygmy Grasshopper, T. armata, by the blunt shape of the pronotum where it reaches the head that lacks a pronounced point (Fig. 2b; Vickery and Kevan 1985).

Black-sided Pygmy Grasshoppers are widespread in southern Ontario and Québec and overwinter as adults (Vickery and Kevan 1985). Adults emerge early in spring (as early as 2 April in Québec) and can occupy a diversity of habitats, from dry sandy ridges to wet areas beside water (Vickery and Kevan 1985). Little is known of the species’ natural history, although it has been described from Manitoba to Nova Scotia, south to Central America (Vickery and Kevan 1985; Capinera et al. 2004). While this species has not previously been documented on QUBS properties, Black-sided Pygmy-Grasshoppers are likely overlooked by most observers over the age of 5.

Literature cited

Capinera, J. L., R. D. Scott, and T. J. Walker. 2004. Field guide to grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets of the United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Paiero, S. A., and M. A. Conboy 2010. List of Orthopteroides at Queen’s University Biological Station. http://www.queensu.ca/qubs/resources/specieslists/orthopteroids.html

Preston-Mafham, K. 1990. Grasshoppers and Mantids of the World. Blandford Publishers, London, UK.

Vickery, V. R., and K. M. Kevan. 1985. The insects and arachnids of Canada. Part 14. The grasshoppers, crickets, and related insects of Canada and adjacent regions. Agriculture Canada, Ottawa, ON, Canada.

Climate change impacts on frogs of Eastern Ontario.

by Stephen C. Lougheed

Leopard frog male.
Leopard frog male. Click on image to make larger. Photo by S.C. Lougheed.

Global climate change is anticipated to impact the natural world in myriad ways potentially causing shifting geographical ranges, and local or even global extinctions of species (Parmesan 2006, 2007). One possible manifestation of climate change is altered breeding or flowering phenology (e.g. Beebee 1995, Dunn and Winkler 1999, Chmielewski and Rötzer 2001, Kearney et al. 2010). My recently graduated M.Sc. student and QUBS alumna, Samantha Klaus, and I used historical “citizen science” data from the Natural Heritage Information Centre of Ontario and the Ontario Herpetofaunal Summary Atlas (http://nhic.mnr.gov.on.ca) to test whether there have been detectable shifts in the breeding phenology of Eastern Ontario frogs (Klaus & Lougheed 2013). We quantified both the timing of spring emergence and key aspects of the calling phenology of eight anuran species in southeastern Ontario, Canada, using an approximately 40-year data set. The leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens) was the only species out of eight considered that we found to emerge significantly earlier, by an estimated 22 days over the considered 4-decade span. Both L. pipiens and American toads (Anaxyrus americanus) seem to have advanced onset of calling significantly earlier by an estimated 37.2 and 19.2 days, respectively. Wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) showed a trend towards earlier emergence by 19 days (although marginally insignificant in statistical analyses), whereas we detected no shifts in emergence phenology for the remaining five species. We also evaluated long-term climatic trends in Eastern Ontario based on data from three weather stations within our study area for 1970–2010. We found marked and significant increases in spring and summer average maximum temperatures. For example, mean maximum monthly March increased by approximately 0.07°C per annum for a total of 2.8°C over four decades. We also found evidence for changes to precipitation patterns. For example, there has been a significant decrease in average total precipitation in March (approximately 0.71 mm per annum, 2.84 cm total diminution over 40 years) and a significant increase for the summer month of June (0.89 mm per annum, for a 3.56 cm total over four decades). These observations are borne out anecdotally by the dismally wet June that we have had in 2013.

Amplecting American toads. Click on image to make larger. Photo by S.C. Lougheed.
Amplecting American toads. Click on image to make larger. Photo by S.C. Lougheed.

Our study illustrates that temperate zones such as ours are not isolated from the impacts of global climate change, and indeed shows that Eastern Ontario has already experienced marked shifts in local climate that are impacting local diversity in profound ways.

Literature cited.

  • Beebee, T.J.C. 1995. Amphibian breeding and climate. Nature 374: 219–220.
  • Chmielewski, F.M., & T. Rötzer. 2001. Response of tree phenology to climate change across Europe. Agric. For. Meteorol. 108: 101–112.
  • Dunn, P.O., & D.W. Winkler. 1999. Climate change has affected the breeding date of tree swallows throughout North America. Proc. Roy. Soc. B 266: 2487–2490.
  • Kearney, M.R., N.J. Briscoe, D. J. Karoly, W. P. Porter, M. Norgate, & P. Sunnucks. 2010. Early emergence in a butterfly causally linked to anthropogenic warming. Biol. Lett. 6: 674–677.
  • Klaus, S.P. & S.C. Lougheed. 2013. Changes in breeding phenology of eastern Ontario frogs over four decades. Ecol. Evol. 3.4 http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ece3.501
  • Parmesan, C. 2006. Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 37: 637–669.
  • Parmesan, C. 2007. Influences of species, latitudes and methodologies on estimates of phenological response to global warming. Glob. Change Biol. 13: 1860–1872.

The Best Year for Butterflies..Ever!

Posted by Mark Conboy

Though the butterfly season is not yet entirely over, it’s certainly not too early to declare 2012 one of the best years ever for observing butterflies in Ontario. Though most of the excitement was to be found in southwestern Ontario, we here in eastern Ontario were not without some great butterflying of our own.

Common Buckeye. Photo by Brian Penney.

At QUBS, like in much of the province’s south, the excitement came in the form of several waves of “invading” migratory species starting with red admirals (Vanessa atalanta), American ladies (V. virginiensis), painted ladies (V. cardui), question marks (Polygonia interrogationis) and common buckeyes (Junonia coenia) at record early dates and in unprecedented numbers during the March heat wave. Though red admirals, American ladies and question marks occur good numbers during most years, painted ladies and common buckeyes are rather rare species at QUBS. During this initial invasion we also had two grey hairstreaks (Strymon melinus) in a remote part of the Pangman Tract. Grey hairstreaks are yet another rare species at the station having been recorded on only a few occasions.

A second wave of migrants arrived a few weeks later. This second invasion had most of the above mentioned species plus mourning cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa), little yellows (Eurema lisa; rare at QUBS) and unusually high numbers of early season clouded (Colias philodice) and orange (C. eurytheme) sulphurs. In just the last few weeks even more invaders have arrived. Recently fiery skippers (Hylephila phyleus), at least one sachem (Atalopedes campestris) and two white-M hairstreaks (Parrhasius m-album) have reached the Kingston Region but none have yet been found at QUBS. In other parts of southern Ontario funereal duskywings (Erynnis funeralis), cloudless sulphurs (Phoebis sennae), dainty sulphurs (Nathalis iole), American snouts (Libytheana carinent) and variegated fritillaries (Euptoieta claudi) have all been recorded in greater abundance than usual.

Gian swallowtail. Photo by Mark Conboy.

In addition to migrants this has been a notable year for breeding giant swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes). Giant swallowtails have are now a common component of our butterfly fauna, but this is a fairly new species QUBS. The expansion of giant swallowtails out of southwestern Ontario and into our area started in 2008 when there were a few recorded along Opinicon Road; in 2009 there were about a dozen observations throughout QUBS lands; in 2010 they had become a little more common and more regularly encountered. By the spring of 2011 giant swallowtails were all of a sudden very common, especially on the Pangman and Hughson Tracts where we also found our first caterpillars. This spring, they were more abundant than ever; it was not unusual to count up to 20 adults on a single outing. By mid-summer the number of adults had decreased so that only a few were being daily, but caterpillars were abundant and widespread on northern prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) along field edges in sunny patches of forest. The large caterpillars which look like big droppings, smell like citrus and display a range of intriguing anti-predator behaviours when disturbed have caught the attention of many non-biologists too. I’ve had over a dozen inquiries about the “huge strange worms” from local residents and cottagers.

Another species of formerly southern butterfly may be found breeding at QUBS in the coming years. Wild indigo duskywings (Erynnis baptisiae) have recently arrived along the Lake Ontario shoreline near Bath and in Prince Edward County. We haven’t found any for certain yet at QUBS but several patches of one of this species’ larval food plants, crown-vetch (Securigera varia), are found on the roadsides near the station and could potentially support a small population of this drab little skipper. Identification of this species is rather complicated because it is virtually identical to columbine duskywing (E. lucilius), a very common species at QUBS. These two species are not reliably told apart in the field except when you can see what plant the females are ovipositing on (baptisiae on crown-vetch, lucilius on red columbine [Aquilegia canadensis]) With some careful observations and a little luck we may yet add wild indigo duskywing to our station list which presently stands at 79 species.

Northern Widows at QUBS

Posted by Mark Conboy

Photo is by Philina English.

Eastern Ontario has its fair share of interesting and charismatic spiders. There are the argiopes (Argiope spp.), whose webs are decorated with an ultraviolet-reflective stabilimentum, presumably to attract insect prey; there are the enormous and parentally-minded pisaurids (Dolomedes and Pisaurina spp.) which carry their eggs with them in a bundle of silk to keep them safe from predators and parasitoids; there are also the beautifully marked jumping spiders (Salticidae) whose leaps propel them many times their own body length, and for safety sake always tether themselves with a string of silk. But among the most exciting spiders in our region is the highly venous and exceeding beautiful northern widow (Latrodectus variolus). I’ve found not one, but two northern widows at Queen’s University Biological Station this year; perhaps the first year this species has ever been documented there.

The northern widow is a close relative of the better known and often maligned black widow (L. mactans). Black widows are typically confined to the southern United States and their distribution does not normally include Canada. Occasionally black widows (and other charismatic subtropical invertebrates) arrive in Canada on shipments of produce from the southern states but probably do not survive long outside of buildings. Northern widows however are native, though they seem to be fairly rare throughout most of Eastern Ontario. In southwestern Ontario they are a little more common, with several large localized populations. Throughout much of their range though they are patchily distributed and not often encountered. Many people are not even aware of their existence in the province.

The first of the two females at QUBS was found below a black light at Ironwood Cottage on QUBS Point. She had constructed a nest and egg sac under a cinder block. She preyed on a mixture of insects attracted to the black light including June beetles (Phyllophaga spp.) and medium-sized moths. The second female was underneath a flat rock on a rock barren at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre. The only prey item found in this female’s web were parts of a Pennsylvania woodroach (Parcoblatta pennsylvanica). This female also had an egg sac.

According to most sources northern widows can produce painful and potentially dangerous bites, but apparently no fatalities have been reported from the bite of this species, at least in Ontario. Widows in general are retiring spiders that typically only bite humans during accidental interactions. Their neurotoxic venom can cause pain and breathing difficulties and in the case of the black widow, can be fatal to young children or the infirmed. Northern widow bites should be taken seriously and a physician should be seen if you are unlucky enough to be bitten by one.

Next summer year I’ll be on the lookout for more northern widows across the rock barrens and inside the various abandoned buildings at QUBS. It’s impossible to say if we’ve always had a small and cryptic population of this species that’s just gone unnoticed, or if northern widows have only recently arrived here. The presence of eggs sacs clearly shows that whatever the history of widows at QUBS was, there is currently a reproductive population.

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