Brown Food Web Friday–millipede ecstasy

July 4, 2008

I spend much of my scientific life crawling around in the forest litter, studying the microbes, the microbivores, and their predators that teem in this fantastic world beneath our feet. One of my favorite litter critters is the millipede. What’s not to like? They carry around in their guts a poorly explored plethora of microbial symbionts that help them digest old dead leaves. It’s hard to see a millipede and not think of a commuter train that runs on biofuels with the help of its passengers.

The other reason to love millipedes is that, because they are slow moving litter fermentation tanks, millipedes are sitting ducks (at the risk of mixing our taxonomic metaphors). If there were to be any new generations of millipedes, the ones that were somehow defended would have to leave more offspring. In fact, National Academy member Tom Eisner has done a bang-up job discovering the many ways (from spines, to crunchy exoskeletons, to cyanide and other poisons) that millipedes have evolved to make sure this train stays on the track.

And where nature produces toxins, there are always intelligent-ish animals waiting to get high…


The latest Tangled Bank is up

January 31, 2007

Cecropia at forest edge, Barro Colorado Island, Panama

Check out this week’s compendium of the best blogging in science and medicine, hosted by the always cheeky ouroboros.

The tangled bank, of course, is a reference to EEB’s own Chucky D, perfectly capturing his experiences in the tropical forest:

  “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.”

What a tropical forest looks like

January 28, 2007

From Debby Cotter Kaspari's Drawing the Motmot

Unlike, say, prairies or deserts where the light is often spectacular–think “Dances with Wolves”(….alright, don’t think too hard)–tropical forests are hard to capture with a camera. There is just so much stuff all dimly illuminated (only about 5% of the photons reach the forest floor) , save for the screeching light flecks that penetrate like laserbeams through ephemeral holes in the canopy. This is why the artist working with her pen and ink can often capture what the artist working with her digital camera cannot.

This image comes from Zeladoniac’s fantastic Drawing the Motmot. Keep yer eye out on this blog because apparently she has more like this somewhere. While you wait you can  browse through her eclectic postings on fossils, birds, natural illustration, and hair design.

Brown Food Web Friday–in praise of litter ants

January 26, 2007



How’re y’all doing this fine Friday? I’m slogging through a cold once thought vanquished. Now seems intent on hanging over me like a stale chain mail party dress. Bleah.

    In today’s BFWF we contemplate one of the great biological systems on earth–the litter ant nest. Litter ants live on the forest floor in small hollow twigs, empty acorns, or even between leaves. The whole colony may consist of only 100 or so ants, just enough to cover the tip of your pinky. This small size allows litter ants to be incredibly abundant: in a tropical rainforest there may be 5-10 species living together in a meter square plot. Yes, I will admit it, litter ants changed my life.

Every scientist has the occasional “aha!” moment. Mine came sitting on my butt on the forest floor at La Selva, cracking twigs with Margaret Byrne, a graduate student at the University of Florida at the time. I was in the middle of a PhD project happily placing bits of seed and bird poop across the forest floor to see what ants arrived, who consumed what, and if they preferred some bits of habitat and climate more than others. I only saw the ants when they emerged from the leaf litter to crawl on my baits, but that was fine. I was getting my data, and every night at the microscope I would empty my vials and see the biodiversity.

Margaret was collecting litter ant colonies for her research and she offered to show me how. Turns out, it wasn’t hard. Read the rest of this entry »

Brown Food Web Friday–great green globs

January 19, 2007

The author on BCI, bathed in salineSeptember found me on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, tromping daily down the Fairchild trail to harvest some experiments. BCI is in the middle of Lake Gatun, a forested valley flooded during the creation of the Panama canal. BCI is thus a former hilltop, isolated by water.

Now, trails at BCI are of two kinds–those that follow ridge tops and catch what little breeze exists 30 m below a forested canopy (good), and those that cut across the topography, allowing you to get a good sense of how hilly this place once was (not so good). The best one can say about the cross country trails is that they clean out your pores and are every bit as effective as a rubber suit in sheddng a few pounds of unwanted water (see left).

Fairchild is a cross-country trail . Also it was the rainy season, meaning that the trails were actually little gushing rivulets. Also, many of you have already discerned that Barro Colorado means “red clay”: very slippery, clingy, red clay. Finally, there are the black palms that strew their 4 meter long fronds–covered with 5 cm needle sharp spikes– on this muddy, nightmarish, stairmaster trail from hell.


About halfway up one of the most wretched stretches on Fairchild was a newly fallen palm trunk suspended half a meter off the ground. It required a bit of finesse, as it was surrounded by aforementioned needle sharp spikes and required one to balance on one leg on a 45 degree pitch while swinging a mud-clogged boot to the other side. Needless to say, I really looked forward to this log every morning.

Over the course of the week, however, I noticed it began to, well, ooze. And drip. Slowly. Somehow, it just seemed to add to the ambience and became a signature memory of this field trip.


Turns out these kind of jelly-like secretions are not all that uncommon in tropical forests where the brown food web is as busy taking wood, leaves, and tapirs apart as the trees and tapirs are at putting themselves together. I sent the latter two photos (not the first one) to Betsy Arnold, a tropical mycologist at the University of Arizona, who replied:

Photo is very cool. From here, looks like a canker-causing pathogen in the early stages of attack. Those pathogens are likely fungal (most likely Asco or Basid) or fungus-like (could be Phytophthora). Early symptoms, as for sudden oak death disease in CA, can include bleeding wounds.

From this we can tentatively conclude that said palm may have fallen in part because it was being dismantled from the inside by a beastie from one of two kingdoms whose niches are approximately the same: Kill palms and convert their biomass into new Ascomycetes, Basidiomycetes, and/or Phytophthora spores. The fact that they do it in such a colorful way is just gravy on the biscuit.


Post script:

In the process of adding linky goodness, Google suggested this one:


Ever the empiricist, I googled “ax murderer”.
And no, eBay ain’t trafficking in them. Yet.

Brown Food Web Friday–Basiceros, the dirty ant

January 5, 2007

Basiceros manni from Jack Longino's Ants of Costa Rica pagesOne of the great things about grubbing around in the litter of a tropical forest are all the odd ways, one finds, that creatures make a living. Taking the lemons (in a world that is, literally, rotting all around you) and making lemonade.

This is Basiceros manni (larger photo here), a slow moving predator that lives in tiny colonies of about 20 or so, nesting in soggy twigs and bits of rotten wood. Although it will eat a variety of insects in the lab, in the field it’s developed quite a taste for snails. Which suits its general habit quite nicely, as this thing pokes along at a snails pace and, if disturbed will curl up into a ball, armadillo like. A very crusty armadillo.

You see, Basiceros‘s is covered with long modified spoon shaped hairs (see below) that, are great at gathering dirt, and up-close hairs resembling a frazzled feather that are dandy at holding the dirt close to the body. As a consequence, a nice young female leaving the nest (remember, ants are female collectives that only produce males for the sperm) will, over time, grow to resemble a clod of dirt (albeit one a fairly charming one).

We used to think Basiceros was rare. Now we know to be patient, look carefully, and wait for the aroma of escargot.

Holldobler and Wilson 1986, Zoomorphology 106: 12-20

Way the heck up there

December 16, 2006

I am a ecologist who spends quite a bit of time groveling in the litter of tropical forests looking for arthropods. Its a rare occasion that I find myself in the tropical canopy, which is usually just a much appreciated source of shade, and, of course, the leaves that fall and feed the decomposer, or brown, food web.

So it was on a recent trip to Peru I had the pleasure of working with Steve Yanoviak and Robert Dudley on various projects that required climbing into canopy of the Amazon forest, about 30 m above where I usually sit. It was, as one would imagine, a helluva lot of fun. As folks rarely get the chance to get a bird’s eye view of the tropical forest, check out this panorama.

Steve Yanoviak and Robert Dudley at the ACT canopy walkway along the Rio Napo, Peru.
Dr’s Yanoviak and Dudley in the canopy of the Amazon forest.