Thursday, February 25, 2010

Prehistoric insects theme for 27th annual Insect Fear Film Festival at U of I

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The theme of this year’s Insect Fear Film Festival may be prehistoric insects, but you can rest assured you won’t learn anything about insects, prehistoric or otherwise, in the evening’s feature films, which depict people doing battle with monster-sized scorpions (not insects) and killer trilobites (not insects and long extinct).

In that light, the members of the UI Entomology Graduate Student Association I checked in with recently thought listeners might be interested to take a quick trip back through time, for a more realistic glimpse of where today’s insects come from.

Rob Mitchell, Laura Steele, Scott Shreve and Nils Cordes collaborated on this report.

[Rob M.] Insects are everywhere, and so common we barely give them a second thought when they aren’t intruding in our homes. Few people would guess that these diminutive critters have been dominating the planet since before the dinosaurs. Together with other animals like crabs, scorpions, and centipedes, insects have been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years, and they were the first pioneers to crawl onto land and fly in the air. Scientists call this group of hard-bodied animals “arthropods,” and over the eons they have taken some amazing forms, from familiar but dog-sized dragonflies to shuffling, spiny creatures whose true shapes are only the vaguest hints of fossils.

[Laura] Some insects that occur today may seem enormous, such as the giant walking sticks that reach 13 inches in length. But such creatures pale in comparison to their ancient relatives. Approximately 300 million years ago there lived a dragonfly-like insect called Meganeura, whose wingspan measured close to 30 inches. [Among the fossils on display at the IFFF will be this beautifully preserved fossil dragonfly from the Cretaceous Period of Brazil. Photo by Sam W. Heads.] Like dragonflies of today, Meganeura were predatory, and they may have even fed on small amphibians. What enabled some prehistoric insects to grow to such large sizes? Scientists think it was likely the higher levels of oxygen present in the atmosphere during that time period.

[Scott] Fossil evidence suggests that the first insects likely appeared late in the Silurian geological period, about 425 million years ago. These earliest insects probably looked most like the silverfish and springtails we see today. Insects didn’t have any wings and couldn’t fly until about 390 million years ago. Some of the first flying insects, similar in appearance to mayflies and dragonflies, had what look like a third pair of smaller wings in addition to the four wings we see today. These were called “paranotal lobes,” and they couldn’t flap or move like the normal wings.

[Nils] But even before the earliest insects, there lived a highly diverse, widely dispersed class of related creatures that must be seen to be believed, the trilobites. While trilobites were not insects at all, they were very similar to them in appearance. [Ph.D. student Scott Shreve displays a trilobite fossil from the UI Department of Entomology teaching collection that will be on display at the IFFF.] Like insects, they had a rigid outer shell and had to molt several times to grow. Trilobites had three lengthwise body segments, or lobes, which gave them their name: Tri-lob-ite. They lived under water but came in all shapes and sizes. The smallest trilobite was less than a millimeter in size, but the biggest one grew to be over two feet long. Many had hundreds of impressive-looking spikes on their backs.

While trilobites became extinct about 250 million years ago, they can still be found in the form of fossils today. Fossils of trilobites are common in the Northern U.S., and Mazon Creek, near Morris, Illinois, is a great place to start looking.

Or just come to the Insect Fear Film Festival on Saturday, where fossils of trilobites and a variety of prehistoric insects will be on display. The festival will take place at the Foellinger Auditorium on the UI campus, with festivities beginning at 6:00 p.m. and films beginning at 7:00. Further details are available on the Web at

Thursday, February 18, 2010

UI sustainability initiative update and invitation to "Advancing the Illinois Sustainability Vision" conference

UI sustainability initiative update

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What is a sustainable society? According to the simple, most widely circulated definition, it’s one that meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. How do societies achieve sustainability? That’s more complicated. But the sustainability initiative at the University of Illinois is intended to position our campus as a local partner and global leader in helping societies meet such a standard.

Two structures were put in place in 2008 to bring focus and leadership to this initiative. The Sustainability Council, now chaired by Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter, was formed to provide strategic direction and oversight for sustainability efforts on campus. The Office of Sustainability was established to provide leadership for campus sustainability efforts and enhance communication and coordination across the entire campus.

Since 2008, Richard Warner, who is Director of the Office of Sustainability, and Barbara Minsker, a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Associate Provost Fellow, have collaborated with students, faculty, campus leaders, and members of the community to generate a vision of how Illinois can become a world leader in sustainability. Included in this vision are all aspects of the University’s work: education, research, engagement and operations.

Of the visioning process Warner noted, “Students, faculty, staff and members of our communities brought to the table an enormous amount of expertise, creativity and enthusiasm. We can’t say enough about how much we appreciate their active participation.”

The document articulating a vision for sustainability at Illinois was completed in November 2009. It addresses the issue of sustainability as a response to two “grand challenges,” which are “1) to maintain or restore natural ecosystem function while providing essential human services; and 2) to sustainably raise the quality of life for the world’s poor to acceptable levels.”

(If the reason for the U of I’s interest in the quality of human life around the world isn’t immediately clear to you, contemplate a future in which ever greater numbers of the poor, who account for most of the world’s population, achieve a higher standard of living without significant changes in transportation systems, power generation, manufacturing, and the like.)

The vision for sustainability at Illinois focuses on the fact that our campus possesses a unique combination of strengths in food, water, and energy systems, as well as the cutting edge information technology to measure, predict, and manage the complex interconnections among the various aspects of sustainability.

In more concrete terms, that means the U of I is a great place for people to work out answers to questions such as, “How can critical ecosystem functions be provided while maintaining or improving agricultural productivity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions?” And, “What cultural, cognitive, and institutional factors have prevented individuals and organizations from making sustainable decisions in the past?” In addressing these questions, Barbara Minsker points out, “our primary contribution to sustainability will ultimately be our students, since they are the future leaders who will need to address these grand challenges.”

You can learn more about the sustainability initiative at the U of I, including how you might participate, by attending all or part of a one-day conference on campus tomorrow, Friday, February 19.. “Advancing the Illinois Sustainability Vision” will take place in the Illini Union, beginning at 8:30 a.m. More information about the conference is available through the University of Illinois Office of Sustainability Web site:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Desire for local, organic food leads to Common Ground Food Co-op

Desire for local, organic food leads to Common Ground Food Co-op

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Food is often a subject of conversation at my house because my family takes great pleasure in cooking and eating. Lately that conversation has centered on where our food comes from, thanks in part to our viewing of the 2009 film Food, Inc. This documentary describes how consolidation in the food industry has diminished the control American farmers exercise over the way they operate, and filled grocery stores with food products of questionable value.

I’ve also been revisiting recent books by Michael Pollan on the difficulty of eating well in a world dominated by industrial food production—The Omnivore’s Dilemma(2006), In Defense of Food (2008) and Food Rules (2009). I come away from Pollan’s writing with a renewed sense of why it’s important to seek out good food, by which I mean food that’s enjoyable to eat and produced with regard for the health of people and the environment.

The thing is, neither I, nor my spouse--who, to give credit where credit is due, does most of our shopping--want to make choosing what to buy and eat its own occupation. (Except maybe on Saturday mornings when the Market at the Square in Urbana is running.)

How much of our decision making can we hand over to someone else? I recently put this question to Jacqueline Hannah, who is the general manager of the Common Ground Food Co-op in Urbana.

I was happy to be reminded that my values align well with the values of the Co-op, which according to its mission, “promotes local and organic production, fosters conscious consumerism, and builds community.” This means as long as Hannah and her buyers do their work conscientiously, they’re doing much of the work I don’t want to bother with—but not all.

Hannah pointed out that even with the adoption of a formal policy on how to make buying decisions, which is in now the works, the people who decide what the Coop will stock face questions for which there are no black and white answers, just as consumers do. Take produce, for example, where foods that are both local and organic are not always available. Is the organic apple trucked in from the west coast preferable to the local apple that’s grown with the use of pesticides?

And what is “local,” anyway? Hannah noted that some other food coops define it as food that comes from within their state. Common Ground is leaning toward a definition based on mileage, since it would be unreasonable to prefer food from farther away in southern Illinois over food from closer by in Indiana just because the food from Indiana would cross a state line in transit.

If you haven’t been in to Common Ground you might be surprised at just how much local food is available there, even at this time of year. There are some things that keep well, of course, such as jams and honey. But there is also local produce, including spinach and carrots from Blue Moon Farms, and there are dairy products from Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury. The Co-op also carries meat from local farms and a wide range of bulk foods that allow consumers to buy only as much they need without a lot of wasteful packaging.

If you are interested in actually meeting some of the people who produce food locally, February offers a couple of wonderful opportunities.


Friday, February 12, noon-1:00 p.m. at the University YMCA. Wes Jarrell, interim director of the Environmental Change Institute will talk about how Prairie Fruit Farms, which he and his wife own, is working to become a model for others interested in small-scale diversified farming systems and building a vibrant local food system in central Illinois.

Friday, February 24, 5:30-7:00 p.m. at the Urbana Civic Center. Wide-ranging presentation on locally produced foods sponsored by Champaign County Net. Panelists include: Lisa Bralts, Urbana Farmers Market; Jacqueline Hannah, Common Ground Food Co-op; Dianne Moore, Moore’s Family Farm; Wes Jarrell, Prairie Fruits Farm; Thad Morrow, Bacaro Restaurant; Zach Grant, UI Sustainable Student Farm; Dawn Aubrey, UI Dining Facilities; Erin Harper, Engineers without Borders low-income community garden. This event is free and open to the public, but RSVP is requested, as space is limited. Call 531-2969 or e-mail


On the Web

Illinois Farm Direct Farmer to Consumer Directory. Farm Direct helps you find fresh, locally grown food by connecting you directly with Illinois farmers. A search tool that provides contact information about producers when you specify an area and product.

Transition Champaign County has a group for people interested in "efficient, sustainable production of food that can be consumed locally."

Friday, February 05, 2010

Nine-banded armadillos expanding horizons in Illinois

Nine-banded armadillos expanding horizons in Illinois

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At this time of year I sometimes wonder what could have possessed some of our distant African ancestors to migrate north far enough to experience the harshness of winter. What were they thinking? And why didn’t they go right back to where the weather was warm year-round at the first opportunity?

It strikes me that the same thought might occur to some nine-banded armadillo in the future. You may think of armadillos as creatures of southern states, and the fact is they crossed the Rio Grande into Texas only as recently as 1850. But armadillos are today expanding their range farther north than ever before, settling in states—including Illinois—where winters are severe enough to really test their limits.

2002 Joyce Hofman, a biologist who recently retired from Illinois Natural History Survey, established a database of armadillo sightings in the Prairie State. She was prompted to do so by the gift of a road-killed armadillo that had been picked up in southern Illinois by a colleague and in part by a scientific article that anticipated armadillo expansion into the state. [Photo: An armadillo digs with its head down in leaf litter. Inset shows the face of an armadillo. By Michael Jeffords.]

Hofman has included in the database sightings going back as far as 1990. By September 2009 she had collected reports of at least 194 armadillos in Illinois, 90 percent of them from after the year 2000. Most of the armadillo observations have come from the part of the state west and south of Effingham, with the greatest concentrations in the counties along the Mississippi River.

How do armadillos get to Illinois? They have been observed as stowaways in rail cars and on barges, so it is likely some of them are transported here that way. Others may simply walk across bridges over the rivers bordering the state on their own. It is less likely but possible that others swim here, perhaps using islands to break up the journey.

Here are some things you might be interested to know about our quirky new neighbors.

Armadillos are surprisingly fast for such ungainly looking creatures, and they can dig into the ground quickly if there’s not an existing burrow nearby for escape. When startled, armadillos sometimes jump straight into the air. This defensive strategy may confuse predators, but it’s not a good response when the approaching threat is a fast-moving vehicle.

Armadillos don’t float naturally, so they cross small bodies of water by walking across the bottom, like divers wearing weights. When they must swim, they can make themselves buoyant by gulping air to partially inflate their intestines.

Armadillos typically give birth to identical quadruplets every year, and they can delay pregnancy at the earliest stages to ensure that young will not be born until weather conditions are favorable.

And of course, armadillos are the only North American mammals that grow their own armor.

The northward expansion of armadillos will eventually be stopped by cold. They can tolerate subfreezing temperatures by hunkering into a burrow for a period of days. But as their energy stores are depleted they must seek out food, insects and other small creatures they find by digging in the earth. Where the ground stays frozen for too many days in a row during winter, armadillos are unable to dig for food and can’t survive.

If you see an armadillo in Illinois, you can help add to the store of information about them by sending an e-mail with the time, date, and location of your sighting to Joyce Hofman via