insects

Short Course: Biodiversity of True Bugs (Hemiptera: Heteroptera) 26–29 Oct 2017 at LKCNHM

Our museum’s bug scientist, Dr. Hwang Wei Song will be conducting a short course on True Bugs with international bug specialists at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum this October.

Dates: 26–29 Oct 2017 (Thu–Sun)
Venue: Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, NUS
Limited to 15 participants

Instructors:
Dr. HWANG, Wei Song (National University of Singapore)
Dr. TRAN, Anh Duc (Vietnam National University, Hanoi)
Dr. WEIRAUCH, Christiane (University of California, Riverside)

REGISTRATION DETAILS

WHY? True Bugs (>42,000 species) include plant and nuisance pests, beneficial insects, medically important disease vectors, and have astounding morphological and ecological diversity. True Bugs are COOL!

WHERE & WHEN? An intensive 4 full-day Short Course in Singapore, National University of Singapore, on 26–29 October 2017 (Thu–Sun).

WHAT? Learn about True Bug biodiversity through a series of lectures, lab sessions, and a field trip. Participants will gain a broad familiarization of the various groups of True Bugs from this training course.

WHO? Undergraduate/graduate students, researchers, and naturalists.

Application: The course is limited to 15 participants. No registration fee, but participants are responsible for their own travel, accommodation, and meals (except final day dinner).

Limited number of travel stipends are available for participants from outside Singapore (up to USD$400 per person). Stipends are given on an award basis.

Application deadline: 22 September 2017

Register by sending a cover letter and your CV to: nhmevents@nus.edu.sg.
Your cover letter should explain how this course can benefit your current professional training, academic or otherwise. Successful applicants will be notified by email.

An Eye-Popping Discovery in Southeast Asian Assassin Bug Biodiversity

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Physoderes fuliginosa (left), dorsal view; with Physoderes minime (right). Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

Two pop culture characters, Popeye the Sailor and Mini-Me from the Austin Powers comedy movie series, are now linked in eternity in circumstances most unusual – having assassin bugs named after them.

Paraphysoderes popeye and Physoderes minime are two new assassin bug species that were named by LKCNHM Museum Officer Dr. Hwang Wei Song, together with Prof. Christiane Weirauch from the University of California, Riverside, in a recently published European Journal of Taxonomy research article.

The quirky names were given to describe the odd morphology of the bugs — Paraphysoderes popeye has enlarged fore-arms, similar to its namesake, while Physoderes minime looks like a miniature version of a larger known species — Physoderes fuliginosa.

“These names popped up naturally as perfect descriptors of how they look,” said Dr. Hwang, the lead author of the paper.

These two pop-culturally referenced names are among the 15 new assassin bug species named in the monographic piece of work published last week. Not only did the paper reveal the species richness found in the eastern hemisphere, spanning from Madagascar to the Fiji Islands, it also introduced a revised classification of these assassin bugs that more accurately reflects the rich diversity.

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Paraphysoderes popeye, dorsal view. Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

Decade-long Quest

The task of clarifying and sorting out the taxonomy of this group of tiny, “rather unassuming-looking” assassin bugs known as physoderines, has been a long and arduous journey, starting 10 years ago in 2007, when Dr. Hwang began his PhD studies.

It required the consolidation of over 900 assassin bug specimens from various natural history museums across the world for side-by-side comparisons, visiting museums to check on type specimens, and a detailed computational analysis of their characteristics to determine their evolutionary relationships.

The fact that all 15 new species were discovered from specimens in natural history museum collections highlights the value and relevance of such historical collections to better understand our natural environment.

“These physoderine assassin bugs are miniscule, no bigger than a fingernail, well camouflaged in their natural habitat among vegetation and rotting logs, and extremely difficult to find in the wild,” said Dr. Hwang.

“It would have required my entire lifetime, and probably more, to be able to amass the same number of individuals to study, across such varied landscapes, from the foothills of the Western Ghats in India, across the whole of Southeast Asia, to the tip of Papua New Guinea and beyond.”

Dr. Hwang credits the strong support extended to him by the natural history museum curators and the helpful information shared among assassin bug researchers worldwide in helping to solve the many “taxonomic mysteries and riddles” peppered within this group.

Previously, Madagascar was regarded as an exceptional place for physoderine assassin bugs as they have radiated on the island similar to how lemur diversity flourished there, while the rest of the eastern hemisphere was regarded as rather uneventful. The new study shows that much of the diversity in Southeast Asia is still awaiting discovery, with Borneo and Papua New Guinea islands being hotspots for more species yet known.

To wrap the story up, Dr. Hwang did finally get to come face to face with a live physoderine assassin bug when he encountered Physoderes minime during field work in the Philippines late last year, on top of a dormant volcano.

“It was just hanging around on the base of a tree beside the forest trail, on a rather dreary late afternoon,” he said.

But to him, the thrill of the find was indescribable.

“I will never forget that moment.”

Original paper: Hwang, W.S., Weirauch, C. 2017. Uncovering hidden biodiversity: phylogeny and taxonomy of Physoderinae (Reduviidae, Heteroptera), with emphasis on Physoderes Westwood in the Oriental and Australasian regions. European Journal of Taxonomy 341: 1–118.

Visiting Scientist Feature: Ms. Emily Hartop

A while back, we hosted Ms. Emily Hartop from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA), who was here to examine recently collected fly specimens.

Ms. Hartop is an entomologist well versed in phorid flies from the genus Megaselia, a large group consisting of around 1,400 known species. Flies from this genus are known to be difficult to identify, as the differences between the various species are subtle.

How do scientists like Ms. Hartop identify and differentiate between the various species then? Well, mainly by examining their…genitalia. Ms. Hartop examines the flies under the microscope, focusing mostly on their genitalia, and draws sketches of what she sees.

“It’s (sketching fly genitalia) what people know me for,” she said.

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Ms. Hartop at her work station in LKCNHM’s research lab. Photo by Clarisse Tan.

During her visit here, Ms. Hartop examined around 2,000 specimens of phorid flies from the genus Megaselia, as well as other genera. The specimens were pre-sorted into various groups based on genetic analysis.

Also, back in Los Angeles, NHMLA launched an initiative called Biodiversity Science: City and Nature (BioSCAN), with the aim to discover the biodiversity in Los Angeles. Under this initiative, Malaise traps were set up in the back yards of citizens living all over the city, and the insects collected were sorted and identified.

After three months of collection, the researchers, which included Ms. Hartop, suspected that they found thirty new species of the genus Megaselia, which was later found to be true. The findings came as a pleasant surprise for the researchers, who did not expect to find so many new species in a large, urbanised city. The findings were later reported in a research paper (click here to read).

Ms. Hartop was also in discussion about holding a BioSCAN project here in Singapore, so keep your eyes peeled! Maybe in time to come, you will see Malaise traps pop up around your neighbourhood!

Visiting Scientist Feature: Mr. Zachary Emberts

Imagine yourself in a life-threatening situation just like in the film ‘127 Hours’: where amputating your trapped limb is the only way to survive. Will you choose to do so?

Just like how Mr. Aron Ralston (whose incident was the subject of the film) chose to remove his arm, certain insects also possess the ability to lose their limbs in order to escape predators – a behaviour known as autotomy.

Autotomy in insects is a topic that greatly intrigues Mr. Zachary Emberts, who is currently working on his PhD dissertation at the University of Florida, Gainesville (co-advised at Miller lab and St. Mary lab).

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Mr. Emberts at his work station in the LKCNHM research lab.

His study subject is the family of leaf-footed bugs (Coreidae, Heteroptera), where limb loss is known to occur but the hind legs of males are also sometimes enlarged for male-male competition for females.

These additional functions of the hind leg sets up an interesting scenario of whether to lose the leg to escape predation at the cost of not being able to compete successfully for a mate thereafter.

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Dorsal view of a male leaf-footed bug, Mictis longicornis. Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

 

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Lateral view of a male leaf-footed bug, Mictis longicornis. Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

We hosted Mr. Emberts during his research visit to the museum last week. During his one week visit, he collected around 100 sweet potato bugs (Physomerus grossipes), along with other leaf-footed bugs, for his experiment (for reference, an earlier study conducted by Mr. Emberts and other researchers).

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Male sweet potato bug, Physomerus grossipes. Photo by Hwang Wei Song.

His research visit here has been very helpful in discerning the evolutionary pattern of limb loss among the leaf-footed bugs and he was delighted with his fruitful findings.

We had a great time hosting Mr. Emberts, and wish him all the best for his research!