Thursday, June 23, 2011

Celebrate Pollinator Appreciation Week

Celebrate Pollinator Appreciation Week

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Insect lovers unite! We’re in the midst of National Pollinator week, which was established by the U.S. Senate in 2007 in response to dramatic declines in pollinator populations. Over the past five years, Pollinator Week has become an international celebration of the bees, butterflies, moths, flies—and even noninsect pollinators, such as birds and bats—that make life as we know it possible.

In recognition of Pollinator Week, I checked in with Michelle Duennes, a Ph.D. student in Sydney Cameron’s lab in the U of I Department of Entomology. Duennes, who is working with others to coordinate Pollinator Week events around town and on campus, supplied the following report.

While they go generally unnoticed in our daily lives, pollinators are integral to human agriculture. Many flowering plants would not produce fruit were it not for pollinators. For instance, the cacao tree could not produce those delicious beans that are processed and turned into the chocolate we all know and love were it not for the tiny flies that pollinate them. Without the hard work of commercial honey bee hives, we would be without many other favorite foods including apples, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, kiwis, melons and squash. We would even have to go without cotton. The USDA estimates that bee pollination is responsible for nearly $15 billion in crop value. [Photo by author: a bumble bee on foxglove beardtongue.]

Over the past few years, many studies have reported significant declines in insect pollinators. This year the Cameron lab at the U of I published a three-year study reporting declines of up to 96% in four native species of bumble bees, which are important wild and commercial pollinators. This study also found higher rates of infection by a fungus called Nosema and lower genetic diversity in the declining populations. While these factors cannot yet be considered the ultimate cause of astounding declines in bumble bees, they are currently the subject of further investigation at the U of I. Another important study of bee and fly pollinators in Britain and the Netherlands in 2006 also found evidence of long term declines among these species, as well as the plants they pollinate, which illustrates how essential the bond is between plant and pollinator.

Of course, many people have heard of the recent precipitous declines in commercial honey bee populations in the U.S., which have been attributed to “Colony Collapse Disorder.” While scientists are still uncertain about the cause, many different factors have been implicated in this complex phenomenon. They include viruses, a fungus, mites, the stress of overcrowded beeyards, and the pollination of large crops with low nutritional value.

The organized celebration of National Pollinator Week in Champaign-Urbana will take place on Sunday, June 26, with Pollinator Discovery Day. Discover Day events will include a guided nature walk and a photography workshop, both of which will be conducted at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. In addition, a number of other activities will take place at the U of I Pollinatarium, the first freestanding science center in the nation devoted to flowering plants and their pollinators. Among them will be a bee identification workshop and an evening performance by The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra.

Further details about National Pollinator Week and Pollinator Discovery Day can be at

Thursday, June 09, 2011

INHS scientist and colleague describe giant new crayfish species

INHS scientist and colleague describe giant new crayfish species

Real Audio : MP3 download

Last year, Illinois Natural History Survey scientist Chris Taylor and his colleague Guenter Schuster of Eastern Kentucky University did something no one else had done since 1884. They described a new species of crayfish in the genus Barbicambarus, which, up until that point, had included only the single species described 126 years before.

Now, you may be thinking, a new species of crayfish, what’s the big deal? Let me tell you. The crayfish Taylor and Schuster described, Barbicambarus simmonsi, is a whopper—at least for a crayfish. In contrast to most of its relatives, which are only a few inches long, this one can stretch eight inches from the tip of its claws to the tip of its tail. Rest one on a dollar bill and it will hang off in every direction. [The new species, Barbicambarus simmonsi (left) is more than twice the size of a typical crayfish found in the same creek. Photo and caption by L. Brian Stauffer.]

Aside from being big, the new species is distinguished by the fact that its antennae are covered with hair-like bristles, or “setae.” Of the more than 600 species of crayfish known from around the world, only the two members of Babicambarus possess bristly antennae, and nrobody knows yet what function the setae serve. The appearance of its antennae accounts, in part, for the common name Taylor and Schuster have proposed for the new species, “Tennessee bottlebrush crayfish.” The “Tennessee” in that name refers to the river drainage in which it occurs, and that’s another fascinating aspect of the story.

The Tennessee bottlebrush was discovered in Shoal Creek, which originates in south central Tennessee and flows into northern Alabama, where it empties into the Tennessee River. In a funny kind of twist, that drainage is one of the last places in the U. S. where biologists would expect to find a large new species of stream creature. That’s because it contains such a rich assemblage of aquatic organisms—especially fish, mussels and crayfish—and it is so accessible that it has been surveyed extensively over the past century and a half.

Taylor and Shuster were motivated to go to Shoal Creek looking for a large crayfish with hairy antennae by photographs of one a colleague forwarded them in summer 2009. At about the same time, they also learned such a creature had been collected by Jeffrey W. Simmons, an aquatic biologist with the Tennessee Valley Authority (which is why the scientific name, “simmonsi,” honors him.)

They arrived at Shoal Creek on October 12, 2009, accompanied by two other biologists. They searched hard for two hours at their first survey site but found nothing unusual, and were ready to move on when they decided to flip one last, large, flat boulder. Beneath it they found a crayfish twice the size of any others they had found that day, with hairy antennae—exactly what they were looking for.

Until they had specimens in hand, Taylor and Schuster had worked on the assumption that the big crayfish in Shoal Creek were the same species described back in 1884, Barbicambarus cornutus. Cornutus had been found only in the drainage of Kentucky’s Green River, 130 miles away, but might easily have been transported to Shoal Creek, perhaps by an angler.

In the lab, though, Schuster found that the creature they collected differed significantly in certain important physical characteristics, and Taylor’s analysis of the DNA of the new crayfish provided further confirmation they were the first scientists to describe it.

An extensive search of crayfish collections turned up no previous specimens of Tennessee bottlebrush crayfish that had been overlooked or mislabeled, and further collecting expeditions in the area where it was first found have yielded only a handful of more specimens, so it is presumed to be rare.

But still, it was right there, waiting to be discovered.

Chris Taylor hopes the discovery of the Tennessee bottlebrush crayfish will help awaken people to the need for continuing biological investigation within the United States, and inspire them to support it. Beyond that, he hopes it will encourage people to spend time exploring streams themselves. In his words, “You never know what you might find.”

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Accidental wetlands a boon for wildlife

Accidental wetlands a boon for wildlife

Real Audio : MP3 download

When people contemplate the Illinois landscape as it might have been prior to the advent of industrial agriculture and urban development, their thoughts naturally turn to prairie—after all, we live in the Prairie State. But as the planting delays and basement flooding of this spring remind us, many low spots in east central Illinois were once wetlands of one sort or another. And when our drainage systems fail, or we disrupt them on purpose, wetlands of one sort or another are quick to come back.

If you drive the mile of Curtis Road between Staley and Rising in southwest Champaign you can see what I mean. The farm fields there have drained poorly in recent years, so wet Aprils, like the ones in 2009 and this year leave widespread, shallow pools that persist for weeks after the rains end.

For the farmer who’s hoping to grow corn there, I imagine those pools are, in restrained terms, objects of great resentment. But for wildlife and wildlife watchers, they are something else. (Indeed, some people who post on the local birders listserv jokingly designate the area the “Curtis Road National Wildlife Refuge.”)

Among the more unusual birds those pools have attracted are black-necked stilts, whose uniquely long, pinkish-red legs lift their bodies above the shallow water as they forage for food. A pair of stilts even bred and raised four chicks near Curtis Road in 2009. [Photos by author taken at locations mentioned in text: Black-necked stilts, pectoral sandpiper, white-faced ibis.]

Of course, birds that are just passing through constitute the great majority of those observed at temporary “wetlands,” beginning with ducks and geese in late winter and continuing with more than a dozen species of waders and shorebirds into early summer.

Get this. A pectoral sandpiper that stops to feed in Champaign County during spring migration likely began its journey in South America, and will continue on from here to the arctic tundra of far northern Canada, Alaska or even Siberia. And what does it take to get that bird to layover here? Just a small part of a field that stays flooded long enough for insect larvae to develop, a temporary, unintended fragment of the historical landscape.

An undrained field behind the UI’s dairy barns on South Lincoln Avenue in Urbana demonstrates the same principle on an even smaller scale. There, earlier this month, another birder and I discovered more than 50 solitary sandpipers feeding in a wet area no larger than a couple of city lots. And on the day following, a friend’s daughter discovered at the same place a true rarity for Illinois, a white-faced ibis, while her father was scanning the sandpiper flock through his binoculars.

While I privilege here these unintended wetlands, it’s not because I prefer them to the natural areas where wetlands are being preserved or restored, it’s just that they are nearer where I live and work, so easier to visit often.

I’ve also enjoyed recent trips to the Urbana Park District’s marsh restoration at Weaver Park, and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District’s Stidham Marsh at Lake of the Woods. And that’s not to mention wetland restoration projects elsewhere in the county. Perhaps a column surveying area wetland projects is called for.