Common Wisdom About Monarch Genetics Likely Wrong

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Concern Emerges Over Impact of GM Crops on Non-target Insect Predators

Pardosa pseudoannulata, the Pond Wolf Spider

Pardosa pseudoannulata, the Pond Wolf Spider

Concerns about the effect of certain genetically modified (GM) crops have been discussed widely in the butterfly and moth research community, especially the impact of Bt-enhanced crop strains that kill plant herbivores.  A recent paper from Chinese researchers writing in BMC Biotechnology suggests this concern extends even to the predators of insects that feed on GM Bt crops.

At issue is the role of the wolf spider Pardosa pseudoannulata, one of the dominant predators in South China, which plays a crucial role in the rice agroecosystem.  Among its prey items is the brown leafhopper, Nilaparvata lugens, a serious rice pest.  A transgenic variety of rice modified to express Cry1Ab protein from Bacillus thuringiensis, Shanyou 63, is widely planted in China; it acts to inhibit the formation of the planthopper cuticle, apparently by interfering with creating the exoskeleton component chitin.

What the scientists from Hunan University found was that even wolf spiders that fed on brown planthoppers that had been exposed to the transgenic rice suffered significant developmental delays most likely linked to uptake of Cry1AB inhibiting the spiders’ cuticle formation.  And that of course leads to speculation about just how far Cry1AB can travel in the food web of the rice agroecosystem and beyond, and what unintended consequences it might have for non-target species.

Read the full paper here.



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Job Opportunity: Grassland Butterfly Research Technician (North Dakota)

Field technician to assist in data collection on a grassland butterfly research project (40hrs/week). The study objectives include developing abundance and occupancy estimates for grassland dependent butterflies in the Northern Great Plains. Data collection will include butterfly surveying and identification, plant composition, and plant structure. The field season will range from the end of May to beginning of August depending on field conditions (~5/29-8/15). Research sites are located throughout North Dakota and a small portion of South Dakota. Housing will be provided for the duration of the field season.

For the full announcement, see

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Cercyonis pegala agawamensis: Salt Marsh Wood Nymph

In 2014, Matthew Arey and Alex Grkovich described a new subspecies of Wood Nymph that occurs in the salt marshes in New England (type locality in Essex Co., MA).  The rest of the eastern coastline hasn’t been surveyed for this critter yet, to my knowledge, so it’s possible that diligent observers in Delmarva could add this taxon to the region’s fauna.


The attached paper describes some morphological differences from better known taxa, but the big distinctions between the newly described Salt Marsh Wood Nymph and other Common Wood Nymph variants in New England are some very odd behavioral characteristics.  We all know Common Wood Nymph from inland grasslands by its “bobbing” flight, as if on a yo-yo string that jerks it up and down in tall grass.  The new subspecies, agawamensis, is characterized as having a direct, level flight instead; according to the authors, this butterfly is semi-communal, and spooking one of the butterflies sets the whole cluster/group in motion (a trait they seem to share with some tropical satyrids).  Also unique to Salt Marsh Wood Nymph is the fact that it is an avid nectar feeder — it’s a rare sight indeed to find Common Wood Nymph on flowers, but apparently Salt Marsh regularly visits flowers.  The timing of the brood is also somewhat offset from the flights of congeners.

Read the full paper here for more info: Arey & Grkovich 2014. Cercyonis pegala agawamensis (Satyridae): A new butterfly subspecies from the coastal salt marshes of the northeastern United States of America

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Clemson scientists unraveling astonishing complexities of the butterfly proboscis

Editor’s Note:  I missed this fascinating piece on butterfly proboscis research out of Clemson U earlier this year.  Here’s the university press piece:

The proboscises of butterflies are able to curl up into a compact package. Image Credit: Peter Adler Lab / Clemson University

Jim Melvin, College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; Public Service and Agriculture, August 23, 2016

CLEMSON, South Carolina — A pair of Clemson University scientists has spent the past decade exploring the unique intricacies of a naturally engineered feeding tube that butterflies and other insects have been refining for 200 million years.

Although the insects have a rather large head start, the scientists are doing their best to catch up by successively unveiling an array of discoveries that are shaping the way biologists, materials scientists and engineers understand the mechanisms of one of nature’s most multifarious body parts. This ever-increasing fount of knowledge is expected to eventually lead to manufactured devices that could revolutionize medical procedures and other yet-to-be-conceived applications.

Since 2007, entomologist Peter Adler and engineer Kostya Kornev have blended their diverse skill sets to study the proboscises of butterflies, moths and other varieties of fluid-feeding insects that use these flexible mouthparts to acquire food from sources as diverse as nectar, soil, dung and carrion.

Biologists once believed that the proboscis (pronounced pro-BOSS-ciss) was a simple tube that drew up liquids like a straw. But Adler, Kornev and their students and associates, including Clemson research specialist Charles Beard, have worked incessantly to reveal that the proboscis is an astonishingly complex marvel of nature, as proficient as it is diverse. Recent advancements in their research have further quickened the pace of their explorations.

“We have been able to show that the proboscis is actually many times more sophisticated than a straw,” said Adler, a professor of entomology at Clemson University. “Instead, it is a self-cleaning microfluidic system made up of two C-shaped fibers that unite to form a food canal that is laden with pores, sensors, internal muscles and other tissues. And depending on the species, it is often covered with shingles, spines or bumps. The proboscis is able to acquire sticky fluids that potentially contain bacteria, yet remain squeaky clean and uninfected in the process. How is this accomplished? The surface of this tiny tube contains a mosaic of hydrophilic (water-loving) and hydrophobic (water-repellant) properties that enable the insects to drink and self-clean almost simultaneously. This paradoxical juggling act is essential to their survival.”

The unconventional marriage of Adler’s expertise in entomology and biology and Kornev’s mastery of materials science and engineering has benefitted both parties and significantly enhanced the research. Adler has spent his career studying how living organisms adapt, behave and evolve in ways that engineers might not even consider. In complementary fashion, Kornev has the knowledge of materials science and physical principles and the know-how to operate highly sophisticated equipment not often employed by biologists.

“Every time we open a new door, we find five more doors behind it,” said Kornev, a professor of materials science and engineering at Clemson. “But our projects are driven by scientific curiosity and passion about both the engineering and biology. The proboscis is unique in the sense that it is fibrous and, at the same time, a sensor-driven delivery system for fluid intake. So looking at how these fibers are assembled is a big challenge that can help engineers design a variety of fluidic devices — medical and otherwise — that are tiny, flexible and durable. It is exciting to imagine what the future might hold, but for now we are doing our best just to learn as much as we can about the proboscis.”

The proboscis is attached to the insect’s head, where a pump helps power the slew of sponge-like mechanisms that draw up fluids. Many proboscises are less than an inch long, but some reach 14 inches, dwarfing the length of the insect’s entire body. However, all insect proboscises are miniature in terms of diameter — about 15 times thicker than a human hair — which makes them difficult to study without the use of sophisticated equipment, such as electron microscopes and micro-CT scanners.

But Adler and Kornev routinely use this high-tech equipment — both at Clemson and at a pair of national laboratories — to examine proboscises in excruciatingly intimate detail. Because of this, their understanding of the proboscis places them at the top of the scientific community.


This is the tip of vampire moth proboscis that was taken with a confocal microscope. Image Credit: Courtesy of Matthew S. Lehnert Lab

“We want to get to the heart and soul of how proboscises work, and we’ve recently come to understand a lot of the processes that occur at the micro- and nano-levels,” said Adler, who first became fascinated with the workings and diversity of proboscises when he was a graduate student at Penn State in the 1970s. “I would characterize our advances as quite significant because they provide new models for fluid uptake not just in butterflies and moths but in any insect that has sucking mouth parts, including insect pests that damage crops. There are more than one million known species of insects in the world and potentially as many as 10 million species overall, most of which have yet to be discovered. About 50 percent of all these species suck fluids, so the diversity is almost overwhelming.”

“But this is how science works,” added Kornev, who supervises materials science and engineering Ph.D students Luke Sande and Chengqi Zhang. “Life is too short to cover everything. So what we do instead is take on the most challenging paradoxes that drive the development of the bigger picture.”


Matthew S. Lehnert, a research scientist at Kent State University, did post-doctoral work at Clemson University. Among the butterfly species he is studying is the Atala butterfly shown here. Image Credit: Courtesy of Matthew S. Lehnert Lab

During their 10-year collaboration, the entomologist and the engineer have been assisted by several dozen scientists, research assistants, postdocs, graduate students and college and high school students at Adler’s lab at the Cherry Farm Insectaries and at Kornev’s lab at Sirrine Hall. Adler described them as “ambassadors not just for Clemson University, but for science and nature. Once they’ve spent time at Clemson, whether it’s for a single summer or several years, all these people then go out in the world and influence others in very positive and beneficial ways.”

One such ambassador is Matthew S. Lehnert, who joined Adler and Kornev’s team in 2010 as a postdoctoral scholar after receiving his Ph.D at the University of Florida. Lehnert is now a research scientist and assistant professor at Kent State University at Stark in North Canton, Ohio, and he plans to devote most of his career to an ongoing study of the proboscis. Lehnert is a co-investigator — along with Adler and Kornev — of a three-year, $626,800 National Science Foundation grant that has just begun its final year. This grant is one of several that has fueled the projects since 2007. More grants are certain to come that will continue to give wings to the research.

“I think I was a bit naïve when I started working at Clemson, thinking that the proboscis is a pretty simple thing. Now I know that it is a very complex device loaded with microstructures that all play different roles in the feeding process,” said Lehnert, adding that his students at Kent State seem as passionate about the research as he is.

“Because of this cool collaboration between biologists and engineers, we know so much more than we did just two years ago. It’s been exciting to constantly find new and unexpected things. It really is incredible what these proboscises are capable of doing, and the more we can learn about them, the more we will benefit down the road. The possibilities seem limitless.”

[Related YouTube video:]


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number IOS 1354956. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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PA Butterfly Atlas 2017

David Wright has just released the 2017 Butterfly Atlas for Pennsylvania (# 16, if you’re keeping count), which includes a listing of new county records for the 2016 season.  Here’s the PDF in the LepLog library.



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What is the Birthplace for Most North American Monarch Butterflies?

Hint:  It isn’t, and appears never to have been, the Midwestern breadbasket.  Throwing a real wrench in the prevailing notion that “saving” the Monarch in the US prairie belt is somehow tied to the species’ — or the migration’s — survival.  The proportions of Monarchs from various parts of North America that make it to Mexico overwinter hasn’t changed much.

See below for the full story and links to the paper and university release.


University of Guelph researchers have pinpointed the North American birthplaces of migratory monarch butterflies that overwinter in Mexico, vital information that will help conserve the dwindling species.

The researchers analyzed “chemical fingerprints” in the wings of butterflies collected as far back as the mid-1970s to learn where monarchs migrate within North America each autumn.

The largest percentage of monarchs migrated to Mexico from the American Midwest, but the biologists were surprised to find that the insects’ origins were spread fairly evenly throughout Canada and the United States.

“We expected the vast majority of monarch butterflies to be found in the Midwestern states,” said Tyler Flockhart, lead author and Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at U of G.

“However, just 38 per cent come from that part of the U.S.A. If we just focus conservation activities on this area, this research shows we will be missing a large number of butterflies born elsewhere in North America.”

This is the first detailed look at where overwintering monarch butterflies are born over multiple years, he said.

Monarch numbers have dropped significantly in recent years, likely due partly to the eradication of milkweed, which began in the mid-1990s. Monarchs feed on milkweed and lay their eggs on the plants.

Analyzing more than 1,000 samples, the research team looked at chemical isotope signatures showing where the butterflies were born in the previous summer and fall.

They found that 12 per cent of the insects were born in the northwestern U.S. and Canadian Prairies, 17 per cent in the north-central States and Ontario, 15 per cent in the northeastern U.S. and the Maritimes, 11 per cent in the south-central U.S. and eight per cent in the southeastern States.

“We didn’t see the decline in the proportion of monarchs we expected in the breadbasket of the U.S. — the Midwestern states — due to the loss of milkweed, but that could be because monarch numbers dropped across North America,” said Flockhart.

Co-author and integrative biology professor Ryan Norris said the study shows monarch conservation efforts must begin immediately throughout North America. He called for better collection and analysis of butterflies in their Mexican overwintering grounds to monitor the effects of conservation efforts.

“We’re facing a growing crisis of species extinction, not just with monarchs,” said Norris, co-author of the new paper. “While the Midwest U.S.A. is top-priority, effective conservation of monarchs will require initiatives to restore and conserve habitats across the species range, which means there must be coordinated international initiatives.”

The Guelph researchers worked with collaborators at Western University in London, Ont., the University of Georgia, Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Environment Canada and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Most of the older monarch samples were collected by Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College, who has studied the butterflies for more than 50 years.

The study was published this month in Global Change Biology.

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Guelph. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. D. T. Tyler Flockhart, Lincoln P. Brower, M. Isabel Ramirez, Keith A. Hobson, Leonard I. Wassenaar, Sonia Altizer, D. Ryan Norris. Regional climate on the breeding grounds predicts variation in the natal origin of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico over 38 years. Global Change Biology, 2017; DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13589
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