Monday, September 6, 2010

Field Photos: Fishing Spider in Nyssa Swamp

The fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus as found in a Nyssa swamp near Tallahassee, Florida.

Snapshots taken about a month ago.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Alfred Russel Wallace, a Conspicuous Caterpillar and David Bowie

Prior to yesterday morning I had never contemplated the linkages between rock’n roller David Bowie and the co-founder of Natural Selection Alfred Russel Wallace. It turns-out that these famous Brits hold at least two things in common; the first and most obvious of which is the already mentioned fact that both Wallace and Bowie were born in the U.K. The second linkage between the two, as strange as this may sound, is caterpillars!

Yes, caterpillars!

The Bowie-Wallace-caterpillar connection became apparent to me yesterday morning as I was heading off to work. While stepping outside in route to the car, I noticed a rather strange looking creature attached to the exterior of the door frame (no, it wasn’t David Bowie!). In trying to figure-out what the creature was, my brain struggled to match its distinctive shape, color and pattern to familiar morphological templates filed away in the dark recesses of my memory. Then it hit me! Although the overall proportions of the beastie seemed diminutive in comparison to the model held in my head, its overall appearance reminded me of something from my adolescence back in the late 1980s – it reminded me of a mullet!

For those with a functional fashion sense (or a selective memory), Wikipedia defines a “mullet” as a “hairstyle that is short at the front and sides, and long in the back. Often ridiculed as a lowbrow and unappealing hairstyle, the mullet began to appear in popular media in the 1960s and 1970s but did not become generally well-known until the early 1980s.”

The tiny creature (which fortunately turned-out to be a caterpillar, not an outdated and free-living hairstyle) looked exactly like a mouse-sized mullet! In fact, it looked like a miniaturized version of the very mullet sported by David Bowie just a few decades ago.

Check it out:

As evidenced by the images shown above, both Bowie and the caterpillar exhibited a conspicuous, yet strangely similar, appearance. It’s this conspicuous appearance that brings us to Alfred Wallace; because, Wallace knew a thing or two about conspicuous caterpillars.

In 1889 Alfred Wallace published a book titled, “Darwinism: an Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with Some of its Applications.” In this work, Wallace expanded on one of his theories - a theory that he had previously presented to Charles Darwin and to members of the Entomological Society of London - the evolutionary phenomena now known as ‘aposematism.’

Aposematism refers to signaling adaptations exhibited by prey species that serve to dissuade would be predators from attacking. In other words, aposematic species are those organisms that intimidate, scare, or warn predators of their ‘unprofitability’ as potential prey items. Aposematic species are considered ‘unprofitable’ because in addition to the signaling adaptation, they also bear an underlying secondary defensive mechanism. For example, a coral snake could be considered an aposematic species because in addition to its secondary defense mechanism (a venomous bite), it also warns predators of this lethal capacity through the use of visual cues; in this case, warning coloration via strongly contrasting yellow, red and black colored bands along the length of its body.

Speaking to warning displays, Wallace wrote, “…instead of serving to conceal the animals that posses them or as recognition marks to their associates, they are developed for the express purpose of rendering the species conspicuous. The reason of this is that the animals in question are either possessors of some deadly weapons, as stings or poison fangs, or they are uneatable, and are thus so disagreeable to the usual enemies of their kind that they are never attacked when their peculiar powers or properties are known.” (Chapter IX of Alfred Wallace’s 1889 book; my emphasis added)

As an alternative to Wallace’s quoted learned avoidance of prey due to ‘known’ risks (learned through prior bad/unprofitable encounters), predators could also facilitate the evolution of conspicuous prey by practicing dietary conservatism. By simply avoiding prey items that look weird or unusual, predators could thin populations of normal looking individuals, thereby contributing to a reproductive boom for the remaining strange-looking conspecifics. In the case of a predator of caterpillars, for example, by eating ‘normal’ hairless caterpillars a predator could open the door for a surge in ‘strange-looking’ caterpillars - like those caterpillars that flaunt mullets.

In fact, Wallace frequently used conspicuous caterpillars as examples in explaining the phenomena of warning signaling - caterpillars not dissimilar to the venomous Megalopyge opercularis found on the frame of my door yesterday morning.
Megalopyge opercularis, the asp caterpillar, is the larval form of the southern flannel mouth. Its range extends from the southern United States through tropical South America. Though its retro hairstyle may look cute and harmless, it packs a painful punch. The ‘hairs’ of the asp moth aren’t really even hairs at all; they’re actually bundles of venom injecting spikes! The spikes are the caterpillar’s secondary defensive mechanism, and its conspicuousness serves as its primary defense – it sends a warning signal to predators.

Looking strange can sometimes be advantageous - just ask David Bowie!

Wallace, A. R. 1889. Darwinism: an Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with Some of its Applications. London: MacMillan.

Lee, et al. (2010). Can dietary conservatism explain the primary evolution of aposematism? Animal Behaviour, 79 (1), 63-74 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.10.004