Arizona prologue

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A cholla cactus near my hotel in Benson, AZ.

Yesterday I departed the grey, cold, and rainy northeast for the sunny southwestern U.S. My destination is the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS; owned by the American Museum of Natural History), where I will be staying for the next 6 weeks under the intern/volunteer program. There will be plenty to keep me busy, but I hope to post here weekly with various cool plants, herps, bugs, birds, and whatever else I may come across. In the meantime, here are a few things I found along the journey.

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Female tropical house cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus, from Tucson, AZ. Also known as the banded or decorated cricket – easy to see why! Note her very short wings.

 

Scenery flying over Arizona and in Tucson was pretty spectacular for someone who’s never really experienced the southwest before. All sorts of odd trees and cacti along the roads, and desert scrub/mountainous landscapes – quite different from the typical woods and fields of the northeast! I didn’t get much of a chance to look around in Tucson, but while waiting at the Greyhound bus station, I heard some Gryllodes sigillatus calling under rocks. This is a common pantropical cricket species that associates with humans and is increasingly used as a food source for pets like lizards. I flipped a few stones and came up with two females.

The hotel grounds in Benson looked cool from Google maps, but yielded rather sparse pickings for bugs. There were a few conspicuous harvester ant nests on the ground, as well as some mantid oothecae and bagworm cases attached to trees and bushes, but that was about it. I did manage to scare up two baby Psoloessa from dry grass, and I picked up a drab moth near the hotel lights. A lone Gryllus was chirping under some rocks, but he stopped calling once I approached and that was that. I was followed around by some cactus wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus, graciously determined by Max Kirsch), and saw some cool cacti. I’m sure I’ll see lots more at the research station!

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Some sort of a bagworm case in Benson, perhaps Oiketicus sp.

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Harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus (det. J. Trager)

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Psoloessa nymph, found in dry grass at the hotel. I only saw about 4 of these little guys and they were extremely hard to distinguish from the bits of dry plant matter my feet kicked up as I walked – plus they were stupendous jumpers!

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Morning sunrise in Benson.

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What’s that in my spinach?

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A speck on the spinach leaf…

One morning as I was preparing my lunch before school, I noticed something attached to a spinach leaf. It looked like a small tan rounded egg of some sort. Closer inspection revealed something very funny–an aphid mummy! These are the hollowed out exoskeletons of aphids, created by the larva of a parasite that had devoured the aphid’s internal organs. I was familiar with aphid mummies, having seen them many a time on aphid-infested plants outdoors, but to find one on a piece of spinach from the market was worth a good laugh. I tossed it in a vial and headed off to school.

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Aphid mummy on spinach. The only locality information I have is from the packaging, which simply stated “Product of USA”. So this aphid and its associated parasite could be from almost anywhere in the country.

Later that day I decided to get a few shots of the aphid mummy. As I was photographing it I noticed that there was no hole in it, and there was a suspicious-looking dark area inside. What if, despite all odds, there was still life inside? I decided to keep it on the off chance that the parasite might still be inside. Turns out I didn’t have long to wait. The very next day I was excited to spot a 2-mm long wasp walking around in the container. As expected, the aphid mummy now had a large circular hole cut in it where the wasp had emerged. I photographed the wasp and posted it to BugGuide, where Ross Hill quickly determined it as a member of the subfamily Aphidiinae (Hymenoptera: Braconidae), which specialize in parasitizing aphids.

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The resulting aphidiine wasp.

Never doubt that insects are all around us, even in your food!

A Mantid and its Tormentor

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Omomantis zebrata

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Lifting the wing reveals the wasp hiding inside.

A few nights ago in Chitengo Camp, I caught a beautiful praying mantid Omomantis zebrata. A gorgeous species normally found in bushes and trees in savanna habitats, it is also attracted to lights. I photographed him, and then decided to lift up his wings to check for any coloration, as many mantids and grasshoppers have wild colors on their hind wings. I opened up his wings and was at first disappointed; they were mostly clear, with a slight pinkish tinge. But then I noticed a small dark object hunched in a fold of the right wing. It clearly was not a part of the mantid, and closer examination showed it to be a female parasitoid wasp in the family Torymidae! This animal parasitizes the egg cases (oothecae) of mantids. Many have developed elaborate ways of locating these oothecae, and this individual was a hitchhiker. When the mantid found a mate, the wasp would have jumped ship to the female mantid, and then parasitized the female mantid’s eggs as she laid them. A pretty sorry state of affairs for the mantid, but a very clever method of reproduction for the wasp, and also a reminder to always take a second look at everything.

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Torymid wasp, parasitoid of mantid oothecae.