Friday, November 30, 2012

A new idea to test

Ptocadica bifasciata on Passiflora auriculata
 As I began measuring cyanide gas in more and more Passiflora, I began to notice a correlation: flea beetles seem more abundant on Passiflora with a reduced amount of cyanide.  The two species of beetles shown here are among the most abundant, and you can see the holes in the leaves left by the feeding beetles below.  The beetle on the right feeds on Passiflora auriculata, a plant with variable, but usually reduced, amounts of cyanide, and the P. oerstedii shown below makes none (that I can measure).  Other heavily attacked Passiflora include P. lobata and P. vitifolia, two other species with reduced or no cyanide.  The species with a lot of cyanide (P. ambigua, P. menispermifolia, P. biflora, P. costaricensis, P. pittieri) usually have fewer flea beetles.  (Sorry to throw so many latin names out there, but these plants don't have common English names).
Parchicola D.F. 1 on P. oerstedii, ate holes in leaves, and now seems to be drinking from the extraflora nectar.

Most, if not all, of the flea beetles species have the ability to eat cyanogenic Passiflora, but it remains possible that they survive better (or prefer) food with reduced amounts of cyanide.  One way to test this idea in a more controlled way is to choose a single, variable species such as P. auriculata, and then compare cyanide production in plants with and without flea beetle feeding holes.  I would predict that plants with many holes have low levels of cyanide, and that plants with few holes average more.  To carry out this plan I found 20 auriculata plants in the successional plots at La Selva, a site where I can easily see the plants.  Of these, 7 plants were extensively holed by flea beetles and 13 had few holes or none.  I then measured HCN production by grinding one leaf plucked from each plant.  Result: all seven of the flea-beetle-infested plants had cyanide levels below 0.1 μM/g (micromoles per gram of leaf weight), while the plants without flea beetles ranged up to 0.6 μM/g, six times as much!  Although these results tend in the direction of my prediction, they are not conclusive because the results depend on only four plants with high levels of cyanide.  I therefore went to another site where I could sample auriculata, and did a similar test on 10 plants.  In this set I found one flea-beetle-infested plant with high levels of cyanide (0.6 μM/g), and an even more cyanogenic plant (1.1 μM/g)with no beetles.  These results tell me that things are more complicated than a simple correlation between cyanide and presence of flea beetles, and that I need to dig in a little deeper to understand what is going on.  For example, the beetle holes in the two sites may have been caused by different beetle species, with Parchicola being more common at the second site.
Cebus capucinus at La Selva

Fortunately all my work is being supervised by troops of monkeys, including the White-faced Capuchin seen here!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Distractions of field work

Polybia species?
Now that I have a working lab protocol to measure cyanide, and have at least a rough idea of which species produce cyanide and which don't, I want to turn more attention to observing the flea beetles.  To accomplish this I have been hiking over to the successional plots, five experimental areas that are deliberately chopped to the ground on a five-year rotation, and allowed to recover naturally.  This repeated treatment provides good habitat for passionflower vines near ground level, and is one area where I can usually find flea beetles.  But, it can take a while to get there.
Lirometopum coronatum katydid on Passiflora auriculata
Ptocadica bifasciata on Passiflora auriculata
 The first photo shows the kind of distractions that happen every time I step out the door.  It shows a wasp colony (genus Polybia?) with 1-200 members, I expect with the queen (queens?) in the huddles.  A few workers seem busy building  new nest carton.  When I checked back a couple of hours later the carton was much more enclosed.  You can click on the photo to enlarge and see the wasps in detail.

The second photo shows a very bizarre katydid-like insect (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae), with a rounded green cricket-like body, long antennae, and a strangely flattened head.  It took me a while to figure out what I was looking at.  The flat face is covered with light colored nodules and the jaws are black, giving the appearance of a crinkled, folded leaf with holes in it!  Only when it moved did I see what it was.  Apparently this species is carnivorous.

Monomacra violacea on Passiflora auriculata
When I finally arrived at the successional plots I did find some flea beetles to observe.  In fact I found one leaf of P. auriculata with three genera on it!  To the right is Ptocadica bifasciata, one of the larger species about 3 mm long.  I also saw Monomacra violacea, the shiny blue flea beetle, and Parchicola d.f. 2, the yellow-legged yellow flea beetle (not shown here).

I also saw 2 tiny orange flea beetles with black legs sitting on Passiflora vitifolia.  At first I thought it might be another species to add to my study, but after looking I couldn't find any sign that the beetles were feeding.  I suspect they were just sitting on the plant.  Later another large flea beetle landed near a P. auriculata, but it too showed no signs of feeding on Passiflora.  So far, in all my work here at La Selva, I have consistently found the same set of flea beetles.  The only exception is I haven't recently seen the "fat yellow" Ptocadica species nor the Dysonycha decemlineata species.  But no new species have cropped up.

unknown flea beetle (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Alticini)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Working at La Selva

Cabina #3, researcher housing
I chose to work at the La Selva Biological Station partly because of the great scientific facilities there.  The cement trail system (see photo) provides safe and easy access to the different habitats, even allowing travel by bicycle.  Dangerous snakes such as the fer-de-lance are easily seen and avoided.  Trail-side plants such as Passiflora vines are protected because traffic is restricted to the walkway and does not spread out into the forest (by hikers avoiding muddy spots).  The station also provides comfortable although modest accommodations, and an excellent meal service.  Perhaps the best feature of all is the excellent scientific and logistical support that the station staff provides.  If I need something for the lab (for example a macro-photography set-up), or some scientific help with a question (for example, identifying Passiflora arbelaezii), I get immediate assistance.  This makes my work much more effective and allows me to make progress more rapidly.  Many of the facilities at La Selva have been funded by a special program at the US National Science Foundation, designed to support Field Stations and Marine Laboratories.  This program evaluates field stations on their scientific value and potential, and awards improvement grants for upgrading buildings, labs, and equipment.  By any measure, La Selva has been one of the most successful field stations in the world.  My 1978 PhD dissertation in the La Selva library has #21 on it, but there are well over 400 others listed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Beautiful caterpillar

I just had to share a photo of this beautiful caterpillar, which I found on Passiflora arbelaezii.  I collected a pair of them a few days ago and they are growing fast.  I think it is a Dryas julia larva but will confirm when it ecloses from the pupa in a couple of weeks.  Dryas is related to Heliconius.  These larvae release very little or no cyanide gas when feeding on this highly toxic plant.  My measurements indicate that the leaves contain 3-7 micromoles of HCN per gram of leaf tissue, making it one of the more toxic species of Passiflora.

I measure HCN gas using a meter (yellow device in rear of photo) designed for emergency responders entering buildings with hazardous materials.  To use the meter effectively I had to deprogram all the built-in alarms, including physically removing the vibration alarm.  The built-in alarms were programmed go off at 4.7 part per million (ppm) cyanide gas (low alarm indicating danger) and at 10 ppm indicating extreme danger (get out!).  A square centimeter of crushed P. arbelaezii leaf is enough to set off the high alarm right away, but this caterpillar, even when rapidly feeding, usually releases no measurable amount.   The apparatus includes a special pump (yellow device center photo) which moves 5 milliliters of gas each second.  The ppm reading, along with the known volume of the glass flask enclosing the sample enbles me to calculate the micromoles of HCN gas contained in the flask.  The flask in the photo contains a Heliconius hecale larva feeding on P. arbelaezii.  The larva consumed the toxic plant with no difficulty.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

New plant; first flea beetle record

Since I worked here in the 1970', researchers have named a new species of Passionflower Vine, Passiflora arbelaezii. Although I remember seeing it then, I was not sure it was a Passionflower.  Most Passionflowers have long, unbranched tendrils, filaments that grab the surrounding vegetation and by coiling, pull the plants higher up above the ground.  P. arbelaezii has thin, short tendrils that are branched into three smaller filaments, and these may even be sub-branched into three sets of three.  These tiny tendrils cling to almost anything, enabling this plant to climb up tree trunks as long as the surface is rough.  In the photo is my first record of a flea beetle using this plant species, in this case Monomacra chontalensis.  Although this is one of the less common species of flea beetle at La Selva, it makes sense that it was found on P. arbelaezii.  It's preferred host species is Passiflora biflora, the species that is physically most similar (and probably most closely related) to P. arbelaezii.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Blame this guy? gal? for our coming to La Selva

On the right is a Black-legged Yellow Flea Beetle, also known as Parchicola D.F. 1. This is a provisional name, needing further work by taxonomists such as David Furth of the Smithsonian National Museum (that's where the "D.F. 1" comes from). If questions about relationships with other beetles are resolved, and someone makes the effort to give the species a formal name, then our beetle will gain an official scientific Latin binomial name. This is important because among the million or so insect species, it is hard to store knowledge and information about any one unless there is an official unique name that everyone can use. There is a lot to learn about this and most other species of flea beetles. This one is unusual (lucky?) in that we are studying the live beetle in its natural habitat. Notice its rich yellow-orange color that shines in the light, and the lovely green leaf where it is having its picture taken. We still don't know for sure what its larvae look like, and really know very little still about its life cycle and other habits. But most flea beetles are known from sweep samples collected more or less at random, preserved in collections, and then sorted and identified as dried specimens. They turn a dull brown and most definitely lose the "twinkle in the eye" that you can see in the picture. The main reason I want to come to La Selva and spend six months is to see what I can find out about these attractive little creatures. See which plants they eat. See what their eggs, larvae and pupae look like. Take lots of pictures so everyone else can see also. And, as I said in the introductory paragraph, try to figure out why there are the same number of flea beetles as butterflies using the same set of plants.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

To start with...isn't science wonderful!

Kim and I got to La Selva a little over 2 weeks ago, and we are now definitely settled in. Time for me to start a blog! After the somewhat painful process of setting up the photos (I miss my old PC software, photoshop and 11-view), I am ready to start posting things about my research here. So here goes... To start with, I have a slightly dated web site (copy and paste into your web browser without the quotes): "" that has background information and a summary of what I have found out so far under the link that starts with "Passionflower Vines...". If you can find them (hint: look in the little leaf icons on the third web page), I also have several hypotheses about the production of cyanide gas that I have already proven wrong! In only two weeks! Isn't science wonderful! Now I need better hypotheses.