The Case of the Mysterious Mesosa Longicorn Beetle

Entomology Today

A white-clouded longicorn (Mesosa nebulosa) with all of its tiny hairs (pubescence) intact. Photo by Szczepan Ziarko.
By Bekka Brodie

It was a beautiful, sleek, black beetle with long antennae. Immediately, I knew it was different than any other longicorn beetle I had seen, but its identity eluded me.

Bekka Brodie

Solving mysteries may be “elementary” for Sherlock Holmes, but for entomologists, trying to identify an unknown insect requires more than careful examination of trace evidence to reveal information about a mystery insect — especially when there are more than 400,000 different species of beetle worldwide! Identification requires a systematics key, careful examination of the beetle’s habitat, and a review of the scientific literature. And in this case, a team of entomologists from all over the world.

I discovered the mystery beetle while trapping deep in a sub-Mediterranean forest of the Iron Gates Natural Park in Southwest Romania. I had been checking traps for…

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Beetle Trapping Expedition

It was a beautiful, hot, Spring morning, and 3 out of shape committed scientists set out to bait and trap beetles in a mountainous and rugged sub-Mediterranean area of Romania.  Enthusiastic, we were carrying 50 traps, anxious to see what surprises will wait for us in those 50 cups over the next several weeks. We wanted to survey threatened and endangered longicorn beetles that live in the unique habitats that make up the Iron Gates Natural Park (IGNP) but we would have been excited to find even the most common of them all!  This was a brand new territory for us and one that has never been systematically surveyed. We were looking for one beetle in particular, the endangered European Maple Longicorn Beetle (Ropalopus ungaricus), but found more then we ever expected!

Pheromone Factory Line
The “Pheromone Factory Line”, here Gabriel Vanau, Viorel Popescu and I are tying multiple generic pheromone lures together in preparation for deployment in the field. The pheromone lures were provided by David Wakarchuck at Synergy Semiochemicals.  (Yes, we are wearing socks!  The lab is inside someones home… so, no shoes allowed! Next time I will be prepared and bring/wear slippers.) .
Hanging flight intercept traps and recording habitat data.
The pheromone lures are used in combination with flight intercept traps (above) provided by Joseph A. Francese at USDA APHIS.  …Here’s how it works, the pheromones are chemical compounds that transmit a seductive message to the beetles (i.e. “happy hour” or “ladies night”) and attracts members of the same species (often the opposite sex) to the trap location.  The responding beetle flies toward the pheromone message in search of a mate, bumps into the panel, and slides into the white cup below (trapped!).

The pheromones we are using are generic (many species of longicorn beetle produce the same or very similar pheromones) and we hope that they will attract a variety of beetle species (Hanks and Miller 2013, Wickham 2014). The pheromones and traps will help shed light on the diversity and community of beetle species, which is critical since the deciduous forests in Romania are among the last remaining habitat in the European Union suitable for the survival and persistence of a variety of endangered species and because knowledge about them is relatively scarce.  Additionally, the pheromones we are using have yet to be tested in Europe. So, what we find in the trap cups will be a great big surprise (like Christmas morning… but for insect nerds)!

We walked over 3 kilometres setting up traps, up steep mountains and through open fields. The elevation in Eselnita Valley increased from just under 200 meters above sea level to almost 500 meters in less than 1 km!  Within this landscape, there is a temperature inversion causing the Beech trees (which prefer a colder climate and usually grow at higher altitudes) to grow near the valley bottom (200-300 meters), where the river maintains a cooler microclimate.  The higher we climbed, the warmer it got, the Beech trees disappeared and were replaced by Oak trees.  In the open fields (Mala Valley) it is sunny, hot, and full of wildlife, including wild boar, deer, snakes (vipers!), and insects (lots of ticks!).

Vipera_ammodytes ammodytes_VGavril
Baby corn viper posing for the camera, Vipera ammodytes, IGNP, RO [Photo: Viorel Gavril]
Danube Delta,UNESCO,Biosphere Reservation,traditional food,people,landscape,food Danube delta,carp traditional,sturgeons
Danube Delta, UNESCO, Biosphere Reservation [Photo: unknown]
While setting up our traps in Mala Valley, we just about walked into a barbed wire… and looked like we trespassed on someone’s land!  We had to be careful about setting up our traps because we didn’t know if our presence would be welcome, and didn’t know how serious people are about trespassing.  Carefully, we proceeded onto the property in hopes that we would be permitted access to continue our work… And we were greeted with kindness!  We met an old couple, Ion and Veta Jianu, who not only welcomed us, but they gave us coffee and homemade cheese (which became my staple food for the next several weeks), and also gave us permission to trap beetles on their land.  (In fact, Ion greeted me by hand-kissing without making eye contact, which I learned is a traditional way for a gentleman to greet a lady in Eastern Europe!)  Throughout the field season, I would continue to meet Ion every day (no hand-kissing since). Ion spoke no English, but he patiently waited while I strung together a few Romanian words (thanks iPhone data and Google translate!), and we made conversation for hours at a time.  We chatted about the beetles captured, the trees and plants I came across in the woods, our families, and the weather (always up to date with weather conditions in the area, as well as in the town where my in-laws were babysitting my son, at the other end of the country).  I would often bring leaves from trees where I was catching beetles and Ion would teach me the Romanian name of the tree and its traditional use (scythe handle, cane, etc.).  …So, as it turned out, on the other side of that barbed wire was a very good friend!

Ion Jianu
Ion Jianu waiting for us to finish our work for the day (Mala Valley, Eselnita, RO)

There are many vulnerable, threatened, and poorly understood beetles in the IGNF.  (I will post stories about many of them in the future.)  However, there is one beetle in particular that we were interested in finding, the endangered European Maple Longicorn Beetle, Ropalopus ungaricus.  This beetle has an endangered IUCN status due to severe destruction Ropalopus_ungaricus_copyright_Petr_Zabranskyof mixed forest habitat for intensive agriculture and urbanization, and because of deficient forest management, and most importantly, the abandonment of traditional land uses (fewer people like Ion and Veta). The Maple Longicorn develops in living and dying Maple trees (Acer spp.) with a preference for pollarded or open trees. Pollarding is a form of traditional forest management in Central and Eastern Europe used to produce more branches and foliage for use as animal feed or firewood. Pollarding also has a side effect of increasing the amount of light that enters the tree canopy, as well as its undergrowth, allowing for optimal conditions Maple Longicorn.

A "wolf beetle" overpowering a longicorn beetle, Hungary, Gerence Highlands. [Photo: Sig]
A “wolf beetle” overpowering a longicorn beetle, Hungary, Gerence Highlands. [Photo: Sig]
Over the next month and a half we checked the traps daily.  We wanted to ensure that none of the beetles were harmed… especially the Maple Longicorn beetle.  We were worried about them getting harmed because we caught more then just beetles responding to pheromones for romance (a mate), we also caught beetles looking for a meal!  We caught hundreds of checker beetles (Clerus mutillarius) daily (about 10-20 per trap)!  The Romanian people I spoke to called these beetles ‘gândacul lup’, or wolf beetles, because they’re amazing hunters and eat everything!    So, we had to check the traps daily to reduce the number of Longicorn beetles that would have been on the “wolves” menu.

After an entire month and a half of hiking 1.5 kilometers of rugged terrain daily, we decided to wrap up the project and take down the traps.  The pheromones were quickly depleting from the heat and we hadn’t caught any new beetles species in a week.  And, although we hadn’t found our target beetle, the endangered Maple Longicorn Beetle (Ropalopus ungaricus), we still had plenty of data for a great story!  (As it turns out it’s so elusive that even the Grigori Antipa Natural History Museum in Bucharest, RO, does not have one in their vast collections).  However, (and quite ironically) on the very last day we captured a similar species of Maple Longicorn beetle (Ropalopus insubricus), a cousin of our target beetle (and featured on the header this post).  So, we are getting closer!  We will be back in August to scope out better habitat to trap for the elusive Maple Longicorn Beetle.

Overall, we managed to collect 40 different species of Longicorn beetles and of those approximately 10 are rare, vulnerable, and threatened beetles.  One species of beetle was unidentified, possibly a new species or invasive species??  Many beetles were captured in specific habitats within our trapping areas or at different times of the day.  I will write more detail about the beetles, their identification, habitat, and behaviour in future posts… So, please stay tuned or “follow” this blog.

In the mean time, for more details on the project, please visit my new page “RO Beetle Project“!

Removing traps from the Eselnita Valley with Akis and Laurentiu Rozylowicz.
Removing traps from the Eselnita Valley with Alexandru Gavrilidis Athanasios (AKA “Akis”) and Laurentiu Rozylowicz [Photo: Laurentiu Rozylowicz).
The spot where the Maple Longicorn Beetle "should be" in the collection at the Antipa...
The blue arrow shows the empty location for the Maple Longicorn Beetle in the collection at the Grigori Antipa Natural History Museum, Bucharest, RO

Citations:

Hanks LM and Millar JG (2013) Field bioassays of cerambycid pheromones reveal widespread parsimony of pheromone structures, enhancement by host plant volatiles, and antagonism by components from heterospecifics. Chemoecology 23:21-44.

Wickham JD, Harrison RD, Lu W, Guo Z, Millar J, Hanks LM, and Chen Y (2014) Generic lures attract cerambycid beetles in a tropical montane rain forest in southern China. Journal of Economic Entomology 107(1):259-267.

Featured imageRopalopus insubricus 

Stink Bugs and Steeples

Clink! Clink, clink, clank!  An insect was colliding with the ceiling light! My son, Tavi, and I were stoked!  Our first insect since moving to Romania!  We couldn’t wait to catch it!  We knocked it down and grabbed it before it could fly away… but instead of finding a “new-to-us” native Romanian specimen adapted to flying in mid-February, we found a painfully ordinary grey stink bug (Order Hemiptera: Family Pentomatidae).  (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)

Still, it reminded us of a beautiful stink bug, Graphosoma italicum or Minstrul Bug, that we collected on a trip to Cocoş Monastery, back in April.  At the time we were visiting Viorel’s family for the Easter Holiday and traveling to monasteries and churches.  (One of our favorite Romanian past times.)

Stink Bug or M Bug
Stink Bug or Minstul Bug (Family Pentomatidae) The bright colours protects them from being eaten by predators, it a warning they taste bad.  (Photo: Ionuts Simion)

The Minstrul Bug is pretty common throughout Europe but to our North American eyes it was remarkably exotic!  The bug has beautiful red and black longitudinal strips and on the ventral side (bottom side) was red with black polka dots.  We learned there are two very similar species that can be found in Europe; G. lineatum, which has orange legs and is found in southern Italy, Sardinia, North Africa and the Near East.  While G. italicum (our bug) has black legs, and is distributed more towards the center and north of Europe (Ribes et al., 2008; Dusoulier and Lupoli, 2006).

Here you can see the red ventral side with black dots and black legs.
Here you can see the red ventral side with black dots and black legs.  (Photo: Ionuts Simion)

We found our bug in the meadow surrounding the monastery on a warm and sunny day.  The entire scenery and monastery was a sight to behold… And, while I’m not religious, I can’t help but enjoy the beautiful architecture and ancient history of these places of worship.

The Cocoş Monastery is located in Tulcea County, Dobrogea, Romania.  It was founded by three monks traveling to Athos Mountain in 1833.  When they arrived to the area, it was so beautiful they decided to end their travel and build a monastery.  The legend says that the Monastery was named after the sound of a rooster and a bell board that could be heard all  the way from the top of the hill, (cocoş= rooster).

Red cross marks the location of Cocos
Red cross marks the location of Cocos Monastery, Tulcea, Dobrogea, RO.
Cocos Monastery and surrounding area.
Cocos Monastery and surrounding area from the top of the hill from which it was named.  (On this day we did not see or hear any roosters or bell boards.)
Cocos church within the Monastery.
Cocos church within the Monastery.  (Photo: Ionuts Simion)

Thousands of pilgrims visit to Cocoş to bow their heads and pray to the relics of four martyrs/saints (dating back to 303-304) that rest at the Monastery: Zotic, Atal, Kamasie and Filip.  I couldn’t find much information (in English) on these saints, except that their remains were found by pure accident. A huge rain storm in 1971 uncovered the dome of their crypt which was located on Niculitel Commune Road.  Maybe some of my Romanian readers will help provide some information on the saints located in Cocoş, the spiritual centre of Dobrogea? (…Otherwise we will have to wait for my Romanian language skills to improve and that could be a long wait.)

Inside the Monastery's Church. It was crowded with pilgrims and the inside was remarkable!
Inside the Monastery’s Church. It was crowded with pilgrims and the inside was remarkable!  (Photo: Ionuts Simion)
The relics of the four saints... which the pilgrims lined up to kiss.
The relics of the four saints… which the pilgrims lined up to kiss.  (Photo: Ionuts Simion)

Romania is made up of 5 of the 10 biogeographic regions of mainland Europe.  The county of Dobrogea represents the only steppic region in all of the European Union (1%).  It is characterized by it’s low-lying plains and undulating hills, with an average height of 200-300 meters (Sundseth, 2009).  A great portion of the area along the Danube is included in Natura 2000 because it maintains it’s natural hydrology, hosting important areas of natural floodplain ecosystems. It is a unique area home to many small rodents, birds (up to 20,000 during migration!), no less than 8 rare bat species, and numerous insects.  Throughout our day trip Cocoş Monastery, we discovered many of these insects, including beetles (Longicorn, Dung, Flower Chafer), flies (Bee fly, Robber fly), butterflies and lots of rather large holes everywhere… which turned out to house tarantulas!

Macin Mountains
The image illustrates the Steppes, within the area of Macin Mountains, a small mountain chain- 20Km long and 500m (at it’s two peaks)-behind the Danube Delta.  Prime location for typical Steppic plants and animals.
Tavi looking for insects.
Tavi looking for insects!  He found a pretty cool looking ground beetle at the base of this tree. You can kinda see it (a little blur on the left of the trunk) running away.

Citations:

Dusoulier & Lupoli, 2006. Synopsis des Pentatomoidea de France, Nouvelle Revue d’Entomologie 23(1) : 11-44.

Ribes, J., S. Pagola-Carte, I. Zabalequi. 2008. On some Palaerarctic Carpocorini (Hemiptera: Petatomatidae: Pentatominae). Heteropterous Revista de Entomologia. 8(2): 155-169.

Simion, I. [Photos] 2014. Cocoş Monastery and Minstrul Bug.

Sundseth, K. 2009. Natura 2000 in the Steppic Region. European Commission Environment Directorate General.  Retrieved February 16, 2015 at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/info/pubs/docs/biogeos/Steppic.pdf

 

The Romanian Tarantula

Romanian tarantula, Lycosa singoriensis (Lexmann 1770)
Romanian tarantula, Lycosa singoriensis (Lexmann 1770)

The Romanian tarantula, Lycosa singoriensis (Lexmann 1770), is actually not a tarantula at all!  It’s a wolf spider! In Romania, and in most parts of Europe, the members of the family Lycosidae are commonly called tarantulas. This species is the largest spider in Romania.

For the last couple weeks my family and I have been visiting relatives in Romania.  While we’ve been here, my son (Tavi) and I have made it our mission to capture the Romanian Tarantula. It all started when we were visiting the Celic-Dere Monastery (black water in Turkish) in northern Dobrogea (or Dobrudja), Romania and found numerous large holes in the ground surrounded by a “spidery” silk. The holes were about the size of a Toonie (about 1 inch in diameter) and approximately 30 cm deep (measured with a stick). So, we just had to investigate.

Gallery entrance of the Romanian tarantula
Gallery entrance of the Romanian tarantula

After talking with the locals, it was explained to us that the best way to capture one of these spiders was to “fish” for it.  More specifically, we needed to use a skinny candlestick with the wax removed down to the last centimeter.  (So, basically 1 cm of wax and the end of a string.)  We immediately set out for our “fishing” trip…

 

Unfortunately, we had no success. After further questioning the local people, it was suggested we smoke it out… and still no success.  (One of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” plans.)  Finally, plan C, to simply dig it out.

Tavi, Gigi (my father-in-law), Sile (neighbor) and I digging for the Romanian tarantula
Tavi, Gigi (my father-in-law), Sile (neighbor) and I digging for the Romanian tarantula

And… success at last!

Success!  Tavi and I with a female Romanian tarantula and egg sack.
Success! Tavi and I with a female Romanian tarantula and egg sack.

The Romanian “tarantula” is found in central and eastern Europe.  In Romania the species appear to be quite common but are classified as critically endangered in the Czech Republic and on the current IUCN Red List other parts of Europe (Frank 2000). The spider spends most of its time in the gallery it digs in the ground.  The adult spiders are nocturnal and hunt mainly for insects but have been known to eat small lizards (locals, personal communication).

The species size and lifespan various according to their sex, males are smaller (approximately 19-25 mm) living one year and the females larger (approximately 25-30 mm) but live for two years (Iosob 2009). The spiders have an oval shaped cephalothorax and abdomen that are brown and black on the dorsal side. Their ventral side is black.

Female Romanian tarantula with egg sack.
Female Romanian tarantula with egg sack.
Egg sack
Egg sack
Black ventral side of the spider.
Black ventral side of the spider.

In late summer and early fall males court the females by performing a nuptial dance just outside the gallery entrance. When the male approaches the female he begins to swagger, his leg hair lifts and descends alternately while vibrating (Prisecaru et al. 2010). The nuptial dance varies in time but copulation takes place for up to 1-2 hours (Prisecaru et al. 2010). Shortly after mating the male dies, leaving only juveniles and females to overwinter.

As is common in the spring, we caught an adult female with an egg sack, and as Tavi pointed out, “she is a very good Mama!”  When we first dug her out of the ground she was separated from her egg sack, but when we put them together in a jar, she attached herself to them immediately. It has been reported that if the female looses her egg sack she will look for it with perseverance and even accept another spiders egg sack or a sham (Iosob 2009). Once the eggs hatch, females protect their spiderlings by carrying them on her abdomen and cephalothorax (about 4 days) until they deplete their vitelline reserves and complete their first moult (Prisecaru et al. 2010).

The name tarantula is derived from a common wolf spider (genus Lycosa) from Apulia, Italy. The folklore during the 11th century suggests that a person bit by the “tarantula” will undergo a hysterical behavior, called tarantism; that appears like violent convulsions. The only prescribed cure for tarantism was frenzied dancing; now known as the traditional Tarantella.

 

Romania has without a doubt, some of the last untouched and preserved eco-systems among the European Union countries. (In fact, taxonomists can hardly keep up with identifying new species [Cogãlniceanu 2007].)While in most parts of Europe many plant and animal species are threatened or endangered, they can be found thriving in Romania (species like bears, wolves, tortoises, cormorants)… at least for now. It is crucial that we learn more about these species while they are still common (including the Romanian tarantula), and help them remain common in the face of growing threats such as economic development, overexplotation, or poaching. (You can read about some research and conservation work here and here.)

Tavi and I enjoyed exploring Romania, especially capturing and learning about the Romanian tarantula! No spiders were injured during our escapade. At night, we safely returned our spider (and her egg sack) back to where they were dug up collected. We suggest you all visit and, as Tavi likes to say, “find the Mania in Romania!”

This post is featured on the Entomological Society of Canada blog: escsccblog.com

 

Citations:

Alin, Iosob G. Lycosa singoriensis sau Tarantula romaneasca.” Cunoaste natura si animalele din Romania!Blogspot, October 2010. Web. Accessed 01 May 2014. http://zoologysp.blogspot.ro/2009/05/lycosa-singoriensis-sau-tarantula.html

Cogãlniceanu, D., Ruşti D., and Manoleli, D. (2007) Romanian taxonomy in crisis-present status and future development. Travaux du Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. L:517-526

Frank, V. (2010) Spiders (Araneae) on the red lists of European countries. EkolÓgia (Bratislava) 19: 23-28

Prisecaru, M., A. Iosob, O. T. Cristea. 2010. Observations regarding the growth in captivity of the wolf-spider species Lycosa singoriensis (Laxmann, 1770). Studii şi Cercetări: Biologie, Universitatea ”Vasile Alecsandri” din Bacău, 19: 33-38.