Category Archives: Insects & Spiders

Garden Insect Photography with Collection Imager Geoff Thompson

by Geoff Thompson, Queensland Museum Collection Imager 

What does a museum micro-photographer do when locked down?

He builds a modification for his flash diffuser and heads out into the garden to photograph small creatures, with his own camera and macro lens.

After editing and adjusting, only a few images are worth sharing. Queensland Museum entomologists have identified these as far as is possible. Often it is impossible to identify an insect from a photograph. Entomologists may need to see features from many angles and sometimes at high magnification on a specimen, to be sure of an identification. The trouble is photographers rarely manage to catch the insect as well as photograph it.

Yellow Shouldered Ladybird - Apolinus lividigaster
Yellow Shouldered Ladybird, Apolinus lividigaster, an aphid feeder. © Geoff Thompson
Blowfly, Lucilia sp. on grass seed head, Brisbane, Queensland Australia
A blowfly, Lucilia sp.resting on a grass seed head. © Geoff Thompson
cryptine ichneumonid wasp_sml
A parasitic wasp, Family Ichneumonidae, subfamily Cryptinae. Resting on a leaf. © Geoff Thompson
Polyrhachis rufifemur_sml
A lovely golden spiny ant, Polyrhachis rufifemur, crawling on the underside of a Lemon Myrtle leaf, Backhousia citriodora. © Geoff Thompson
Bromocoris souefi_sml
A Pentatomid bug, Bromocoris souefi (Distant), on the bark of Elaeocarpus reticulatus (Blueberry Ash). © Geoff Thompson

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To find out more visit our website here or if you have a specific question about wildlife around your home submit it via ‘Ask an Expert.’

Let’s not forget the “little things”

By Dr Mike Rix (Principal Curator, Arachnida, and Research Fellow)

Most of us are all too familiar with the plights of large and charismatic species such as the tiger, black rhinoceros, giant panda and polar bear. Their iconic status and magnificence are synonymous with the international conservation movement, as their continued existence on planet Earth remains so dependent on the concerted efforts of citizens and governments.

In Australia, our emphasis on threatened species is likewise focused around vertebrate animals and plants with the highest of public profiles: mammals like koalas, bilbies and Leadbeater’s possums, birds like night parrots and cassowaries, and plants like the Wollemi pine. These species are undoubtedly deserving of our affection and conservation, and play an important role in shaping the Australian public’s environmental consciousness.

But threatened species come in all shapes and sizes, and conservation biologists are slowly, but surely, adding more and more invertebrate animals to our national and state threatened species lists. This is not just an esoteric exercise – insects, spiders, snails, crustaceans and other invertebrates are crucial to the functioning of all terrestrial ecosystems, and we are realising all too quickly (and possibly far too late) that they are not immune to the devastating impacts of the Anthropocene – impacts like land clearing, climate change, pollution and the gradual destruction of the natural world.

The recent devastating fires during Australia’s 2019/20 ‘Black Summer’ took a distressing human and environmental toll. On Kangaroo Island, intense fires ripped through large swathes of the island, exacting damage which was shocking even by Australia’s harsh fire standards. Unsurprisingly, iconic species such as the Kangaroo Island dunnart, glossy black cockatoo, southern emu wren and southern brown bandicoot were all front of mind – and rightly so – as vast swathes of their habitat were reduced to ash. But Kangaroo Island is also home to a remarkable invertebrate fauna, with large numbers of species found nowhere else, and many with significant evolutionary connections to other parts of southern Australia, and even to other continents.

One such species is the Kangaroo Island assassin spider (Zephyrarchaea austini), newly discovered in 2010, and described by myself and other museum scientists in 2012. Assassin spiders or ‘pelican spiders’ are remarkable for myriad reasons, not least their evolutionary antiquity (dating back to the Jurassic), their unusual pelican-like appearance, and their Gondwanan distribution as relicts from a time when southern Africa, Madagascar and mainland Australia were connected. Assassin spiders also live in complex understorey food webs, where they are important predators of other spiders. The Kangaroo Island species is known only from the Western River Wilderness Protection Area, in the north-west of the island. The spider itself is extremely small, extremely rare, extremely fussy in its choice of habitat, and it has an extremely limited ability to move around the landscape. These characteristics make it (and indeed all assassin spiders) inherently susceptible to fire, and during the 2019/2020 fire on Kangaroo Island, its entire known habitat was wiped out.

Concern was raised at the time for its continued survival, and that concern has not dissipated in the months since the fire. Preliminary surveys suggest the impacts on the Western River region were particularly severe, and no assassin spiders have been seen despite a number of preliminary searches. Its continued existence remains unlikely at best, with further detailed survey work required, both in the short and the long terms.

The case of the Kangaroo Island assassin spider is an important example of how threats to the natural world can impact biodiversity across the taxonomic spectrum, not just those species which are large, obvious or iconic. We are yet to scientifically document the majority of the Australian invertebrate fauna, and research museums like the Queensland Museum have a vital role to play in this respect.

Most importantly, we must all remember that small and seemingly insignificant spiders, insects and other invertebrates provide ecosystem services which are far more substantial than their size would suggest; they are, as one of the world’s most famous biologists Edward O. Wilson so famously stated, “the little things that run the world.”

We will continue to search for the Kangaroo Island assassin spider, and in the meantime, let us not forget the “little things” this International Endangered Species Day.

Female-Zephyrarchaea-austini,-lateral-view,-legs-removed

Preserved female specimen of the Kangaroo Island assassin spider (Zephyrarchaea austini), lateral view, with legs removed. This is the only known photograph of this extremely rare species. Image by M. Rix.

Zephyrarchaea_robinsi_W.A

Live male Zephyrarchaea robinsi, lateral view. This species, which is closely related to the Kangaroo Island assassin spider, is known only from the Stirling Range in Western Australia, where it too was impacted by devastating fires during the summer of 2019/20. Image by M. Harvey.

What happens to all the butterflies in winter?

By Dr Chris Burwell, Senior Curator of Insects at Queensland Museum

This year has seen a bumper summer and autumn for butterflies in Queensland with a great diversity of species and huge numbers of some species on the wing. They have provided a bright distraction from the anxious times in which we have been living during the current health pandemic.

As we head towards winter there has been a noticeable decline in butterfly numbers; but where have they gone? Unfortunately, most adult butterflies are short-lived, surviving from weeks to a few months, so many have been dying off throughout summer and autumn. The drop in numbers that we are now seeing is because there are far fewer freshly emerged butterflies to replace those that are dying off. Many of the butterflies that are still out and about are nearing the end of their lives and looking worse for wear with tears and rips in their wings. Some are so ragged that it seems amazing that they can still fly.

Varied Eggfly Gold Creek Reservoir May 2020 DSCN2199
Even this late in autumn a few butterflies are still emerging like this fresh and pristine female Varied Eggfly, Hympolinas bolina.

As the days become shorter and temperatures drop, butterfly breeding is grinding to a halt, especially in subtropical Queensland. In warmer tropical Queensland, some butterflies can breed throughout the year but others curb their reproduction during the dry season when plant growth is low. So how do butterflies survive through the colder, drier winter months in southern Queensland? Different butterfly species have different strategies. A few, such as Blue Tiger, Tirumala hamata, and Common Crow, Euploea corinna, butterflies pass the winter as adults, many individuals aggregating in sheltered locations along creeks and gullies.

Most butterfly species, however, sit out the winter or dry season as immatures, either as eggs, mature larvae or pupae. This strategy is referred to as diapause, where development is stopped until conditions become favourable. When temperatures rise the following spring and rainfall increases the eggs hatch, the mature caterpillars begin to feed, and adult butterflies emerge from the pupae.

Varied Eggfly Gold Creek Reservoir May 2020 DSCN2234
The vast majority of adult butterflies, like this male Varied Eggfly, Hypolimnas bolina, will succumb as the days become cooler but some adults of this species manage to survive through winter.

As winter approaches, most adult butterflies have been on the wing for some times and are beginning to show signs of wear and tear. This Meadow Argus, Junonia villida, has a ripped hindwing and this Lemon Migrant, Catopsilia pomona is looking ragged.

Meadow Argus Gold Creek Reservoir May 2020 DSCN2209
Meadow Argus, Junonia villida
Lemon Migrant Gold Creek Reservoir May 2020 DSCN2204
Lemon Migrant, Catopsilia pomona

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To find out more visit our website here or if you have a specific question about ants or any other wildlife around your home submit it via ‘Ask an Expert.’

Are these nocturnal raiders infiltrating your garden?

By Dr Chris Burwell, Senior Curator of Insects at Queensland Museum

Queensland Museum entomologist Dr Chris Burwell delves into the nocturnal raiders that are infiltrating gardens in south-east Queensland right now – fruit piercing moths.

My fellow curator Patrick Couper recently photographed some nocturnal raiders feeding on his carambola fruit. They weren’t the usual fruit bats or possums. They were moths, fruit piercing moths.

Most adult moths have a tightly coiled proboscis beneath their heads which acts like a drinking straw. They can uncoil this proboscis and use it to suck up liquids, usually nectar from flowers. The tip of the proboscis of a fruit-piercing moths is different that of other moths; it is hardened, has a sharp point and is armed with teeth. Fruit-piercing moths thrust the tip of the proboscis through the skin of ripe or ripening fruit and suck up the juices. A wide variety of fruits are on the menu including carambola, fig, guava, kiwifruit, mango, stonefruit, persimmon and ripening papaya. They can even tap the juices of fruit with thick skins like bananas, lychees and citrus fruits.

The most common fruit-piercing moths are species of Eudocima. They are large, stout moths with camouflage-brown forewings and brightly coloured orange hindwings. Despite their attractive appearance they are pests of the fruit industry. The flesh can become bruised or dry where the moths have been feeding. Microorganisms can enter though the moths’ puncture wounds causing the fruit to rot. Other moth species are attracted to the handiwork of fruit-piercing moths. They take advantage of the access holes drilled by the fruit-piercers to feed on juices or the fermenting fruit.

If you have fruiting trees in your garden try venturing out at night with a strong torch and you might catch a fruit-piercing moth in the act.

IMG_1639
Image credit: Patrick Couper

Two fruit-piercing moths (Eudocima fullonia) sucking the juice of a carambola fruit.

IMG_1644
Image credit: Patrick Couper

Other moths, like this Serrodes campana on the left, take advantage of the handiwork of fruit-piercing moths like Eudocima fullonia on the right, feeding at their puncture wounds.

IMG_1650
Image credit: Patrick Couper

Another free-loader, a specimen of Ophiusa disjungens feeding at the puncture wound made by a fruit-piercing moth.

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To find out more visit our website here or if you have a specific question about ants or any other wildlife around your home submit it via ‘Ask an Expert.’ #DiscoveryQM

 

How many different species of ants do you think live in your backyard?

By Dr Chris Burwell, Senior Curator of Insects at Queensland Museum

Pheidole_QM8_PS2438
A close up of a small worker of a species of Pheidole.

Small yellow ones that raid your kitchen, bigger black ones that crawl over your plants, even bigger metallic green ones that sting when you go barefoot in the garden. Three species, five species, ten species?

The answer will probably be more than you think, depending on where you call home.

If you live in a high rise apartment then it won’t be many, but if you have a backyard or a nature strip it could be lots. My house in the western suburbs of Brisbane has both, and lots of trees, bushes and leaf litter, which is great habitat for a wide variety of ants.

With many of us now working from home this is a great chance to explore your own surroundings and see how many ants are also working inside and outside your homes.

After two weeks I’ve already found 45 species. Many are very small and inconspicuous but there’s a way to coax them out that you could try too. Prepare them a picnic lunch!

Ant lunch treats.DSCN2002
A plate of tasty treats that the ants will love, sugary jam and honey, and oily peanut butter.

All you need are some small squares of card or thick paper smeared with a something tasty; sweet jam or honey, oily peanut butter or tinned tuna. Scatter them around on the ground, and somewhere your pets can’t get to them. All you need to do next is wait, it won’t take long, the ants will soon arrive. Be careful though, some of your lunch guests might sting, so it’s better to look and not touch.

To find out more visit our website here or if you have a specific question about ants or any other wildlife around your home submit it via ‘Ask an Expert.’

 

Entomologist Dr Chris Burwell’s Musings on Butterflies

By Dr Chris Burwell, Senior Curator of Insects at Queensland Museum

Have you noticed butterflies everywhere for the last couples of months?

There has been a great variety of different species and well as exceptional numbers of a few species. Fast-flying, yellowish-green Lemon Migrants and more leisurely, black and pale-blue spotted Blue Tigers have been especially common.

The recent weather has been ideal for butterfly breeding. Drought conditions throughout spring and summer were followed by a very wet February. Plants flourished after the drought breaking rains and this was great for butterflies whose caterpillars munch on fresh leaves.

Butterflies Gold Creek Reservoir Mar 2020 DSCN1786
Image by Dr Chris Burwell
Blue Tiger Gold Creek Reservoir Mar 2020 DSCN1907
Image by Dr Chris Burwell

When fully grown the caterpillars transformed into pupae and eventually emerged as butterflies – lots of butterflies. Every year butterflies are more common in the warm and wet months of the year, but this year has been exceptional.

Why so many more butterflies this year?

I have a theory. Not only did the rain favour more butterflies, but so did the drought. At the end of the drought butterfly numbers were low, but the same was true for their parasites and predators. Growing up is a very risky business for butterflies; the eggs and caterpillars are parasitised by wasps and flies and eaten by all manner of insects, spiders and birds. When the drought broke the butterflies got the jump on their natural enemies and many more caterpillars survived to turn in beautiful butterflies.

Do you have a butterfly photo of video to share? Or have a question about what types of butterflies are in your yard? Contact the team at the Discovery Centre to find out.

Stunning new spiders jump into our hearts

Queensland Museum scientists have discovered five new jumping spider species.

Have you ever seen a more adorable spider? These cute and colourful jumping spiders are changing the reputation of arachnids around the world.

Queensland Museum arachnologist, Dr Barbara Baehr, along with colleagues Joseph Schubert from Monash University, and Dr Danilo Harms from University of Hamburg recently described the new Australian species which feature vibrant colours and perform fascinating dance rituals.

Four of the five new species are from Queensland with one from New South Wales. At only a few millimetres in size, they can be difficult to spot, despite their stunning colours.

The New Species
Jotus albimanus – White-handed Brushed Jumping Spider
Found:
New England National Park, New South Wales

Jotus fortiniae (Picture above left, image by Robert Whyte)
Found:
Cape York Peninsula, Quinkan Country, Queensland

Jotus karllagerfeldi –  Karl Lagerfeld’s Jumping Spider (picture above right, image by Mark Newton)
Found:
Lake Broadwater via Dalby, Queensland

Jotus moonensis – Mount Moon Brushed Jumping Spider
Found:
Mount Moon, Queensland

Jotus newtoni – Mark Newton’s Brushed Jumping Spider
Found:
Lake Broadwater via Dalby, Queensland

Dance like your mate is watching
The spiders are known as Brushed Jumping Spiders due to the elaborate mating dance of the males, which involves a brush of long and often colourful setae on their legs (like butterflies).

Joseph Schubert said the colour patterns in the males are species-specific and range from black and white combinations to extremely colourful morphs featuring iridescent turquoise and orange patterns.

J. fortiniae 4 (Robert Whyte)
Jotus fortiniae (image by Robert Whyte)

“The males perform unique dance rituals with their brilliantly decorated first pair of legs to attract females,” Mr Schubert said. “These five new species are close relatives of the Australian peacock spiders which also perform courtship dances for females. This courtship behaviour makes them a crowd favourite and has popularised jumping spiders worldwide.”

Karl Lagerfeld’s Jumping Spider
In true fashion style, the scientists paid homage to the late fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld, by naming a spider in his honour. Dr Danilo Harms, said the Karl Lagerfeld spider had a distinct look that was reminiscent of the late fashion designer.

Jotus karllagerfeldi is a black and white spider which we looked at and instantly thought of Karl Lagerfeld and his signature look, as the spider has large black eyes, which reminded us of sunglasses and its black and white front legs were reminiscent of Lagerfeld’s kent collar,” he said.

J. karllagerfeldi (Mark Newton) 2
Jotus karllagerfeldiKarl Lagerfeld’s Jumping Spider (image by Mark Newton)

Learn more at the Discovery Centre
Are you curious about an unidentified spider you’ve found in your backyard? Ask one of our experts here or visit the Discovery Centre on Level 4 to meet museum experts, ask questions and view exciting displays.

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