Monday, January 26, 2015

The Bed Bug’s Piercing Penis (A Guest Post)

By Rachael Pahl

Sex is a dangerous, but necessary, part of life. Across the animal kingdom, there are a multitude of things that can go wrong. You could be injured in a fight by someone who wants to steal your mate, or maybe your partner eats you because you’re taking too long. Either way, nature must have a pretty good reason for the traumatizing effects of sex.

A male bed bug traumatically inseminates a female. Image by
Rickard Ignell at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
posted at Wikimedia Commons.
Bed bugs have a particularly risky way of having sex. When a male bed bug wants to mate, he will pierce the female’s abdomen with his penis (called a lanceolate) and release sperm directly into her body cavity. Talk about forceful! This mode of reproduction in bed bugs is known as traumatic insemination; aptly named.

With what seems like a horrific way of reproducing, it’s hard to imagine that there are any benefits for the female. I’m sure you can come up with a plethora of things that could go wrong: infection, damage of major organs, bleeding, even death. Researchers Ted Morrow and Göran Arnqvist with Uppsala University in Sweden, argue that the female has a counter-adaptation to this antagonistic strategy. The area of the abdomen that the male pierces has been modified into a pocket lined with specialized tissues to prevent serious damage to the female. This area is termed the spermalege. Edward and Göran hypothesized that sex is not harmful to the female if the spermalege is punctured, but can be dangerous if any other area is pierced. They also hypothesized that more mating occurrences and improper punctures would reduce the lifespan of the female.

To test their hypotheses, Edward and Göran observed the number of times a female was inseminated and where she was pierced (on the spermalege or somewhere else). They had two set-ups to observe mating rate: (1) a female was placed with four males where lots of mating would take place and (2) a female was placed with four males, three of which had their penis glued to their abdomen so that they could not mate. These two set-ups allowed the researchers to observe the differences in female life span between those who had a high mating rate and those who had a low mating rate. Then, the researchers wanted to see where the female was being pierced and how that affected her life span. In addition to traumatic insemination by male bed bugs, the researchers used a pin to pierce the spermalege or an area outside the spermalege and then compared the damage.

The study produced two big results. First, females who mated more had a shorter lifespan than those who mated less. This was because the sperm and other fluids deposited caused an immune response as they were seen as foreign objects; too much of these foreign substances can have negative effects on the organism. Second, females that were pierced through the spermalege lived longer than those who were pierced outside the spermalege, suggesting that the spermalege functions to reduce damage and/or infection during insemination.

So what are the benefits of traumatic insemination and how does the spermalege reduce the costs to the female? Well, there is a lot of paternal ambiguity in the animal kingdom. The direct deposition of sperm into the abdomen may ensure paternity by getting the sperm as close to the ovaries as possible before another male bed bug can mate with her. This method also reduces courtship time and avoids female resistance, meaning that other males may not have the chance to steal the female away. The spermalege protects females from traumatic insemination by localizing damage to one area that can easily repair itself. Since the spermalege is lined with cuticle, it prevents the leakage of blood and sperm from the wound. The spermalege may also function to prevent entry of pathogens into the bloodstream. In the end, this traumatic insemination is no more dangerous than any other kind of sex, however painful and horrible it sounds. It may even be less risky if done correctly.

For more information, check out:

Morrow, E., & Arnqvist, G. (2003). Costly traumatic insemination and a female counter-adaptation in bed bugs Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270 (1531), 2377-2381 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2003.2514

Monday, January 19, 2015

Why You Can’t Hibernate the Winter Away

You open your eyes, slap the alarm, and pull the covers a little tighter around your shoulders. It’s still dark outside and you dread the moment that you step out from under the warm comforter and the cold sucks your breath out. Can’t you just hibernate and sleep the winter away?

A dormouse in his snuggly hibernation state.
Image by Krysztof Dreszer at Wikimedia.
Actually, no. Hibernation and sleep are two completely different physiological processes (shown by studies of brain function). And chances are, you don’t have the physiological bits needed to hibernate safely.

Hibernation has more to do with energy and body temperature than it does with sleep. Hibernation is defined as a process in which an animal allows its body temperature to approximate the environmental temperature for several days or longer. It is a strategy that some animals use during periods of food shortage to conserve the energy that would normally be used to generate body heat. When food is scarce in the winter, the animal will lower its metabolism (the burning of food molecules to create energy and heat), which will result in the animal having less energy (and entering a sleep-like state) and less heat (until the body approaches the environmental temperature). So really, hibernation is the reduction of metabolism when food is scarce. Lack of activity and cold body temperatures are just the by-products.

Almost all species that hibernate are small mammals, including some hamsters, dormice, jumping mice, ground squirrels, marmots, woodchucks, bats, marsupials and monotremes. Bears, common examples of hibernating species, are actually debated by scientists as to whether they should even be considered hibernators due to the fact that their metabolisms and body temperatures do not decline as much as those of other hibernating species. The only bird species known to hibernate is the poorwill.

Each hibernating species has a specific range of body temperatures that their body can endure. Their first line of defense is to find a hibernaculum (a chamber or cavity in which to hibernate that is more insulated than the exposed environment). If the hibernaculum becomes so cold that the animal’s body temperature drops below its minimum endured range, it will either increase its metabolism slightly to raise its body temperature or it will arouse (wake up). Arousal is the process of increasing metabolic heat production to near-normal levels. All hibernating species seem to undergo multiple periods of temporary arousals during hibernation and scientists are still unsure why. Increasing the metabolism and body temperature from lower levels is an energetically costly process (similar to how your car uses more gas to accelerate than to maintain a higher speed). In most hibernating species, the process of increasing the metabolism uses a specialized tissue called brown fat.

Fat cells come in two main types: white fat and brown fat. White fat, the squishy stuff that we constantly try to diet and exercise away, is filled with lipids (fats) that we store to generate energy in the future. Brown fat cells also contains lipids, but they are specialized to break them down faster. Brown fat is found in newborn mammals and adult hibernators and is commonly located on the upper back, neck, chest and belly (like a vest) and around major arteries. Brown fat cells have lots of mitochondria (the metabolic parts of the cell that break down food molecules like lipids to generate energy). Brown fat mitochondria is specialized in that they have a protein called uncoupling protein 1 that causes them to generate heat rather than energy when they break down lipids. When the body becomes stressed, it releases norepinephrine, a stress hormone, which causes brown fat cells to increase the rate at which they break down lipids to generate heat. This heat warms the major arteries and increases blood flow, which then distributes the heat throughout the body.

A PET scan shows brown fat in a human.
Image by Hellerhoff at Wikimedia.
Although humans are born with a fair amount of brown fat, we lose it as we age. More specifically, it converts to white fat. We used to think that we lost it completely, but in recent years we have learned that some lean adults maintain a few pockets of brown fat in their necks and chests that obese people are more likely to lose. Researchers are currently exploring if and how we can convert some of our adult white fat to brown fat in order to increase our metabolisms and potentially combat obesity and diabetes.

So for now, we can’t hibernate the winter away. But continuing research into hibernating animals may hold an important secret to our own health.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Collective Personality and Our Environment

We are all familiar with the concept of the personality of an individual. We are less familiar with group- or collective personalities (although most teachers can tell you at length about the personalities of each of their classes). The concept is the same: whereas an individual personality relates to an individual’s consistent behaviors across time and contexts, a collective personality relates to a group’s consistent behaviors across time and contexts. Collective personalities can be strongly influenced by the composition and size of the animal group, but also by the environment.

A social spider web by Harvey Barrison at Wikimedia Commons.

This week at Accumulating Glitches I talk about how the environment influences group personalities in social spiders. Check it out here.

And to learn more, check this out:

Modlmeier, A., Forrester, N., & Pruitt, J. (2014). Habitat structure helps guide the emergence of colony-level personality in social spiders Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 68 (12), 1965-1972 DOI: 10.1007/s00265-014-1802-z

Monday, January 5, 2015

Caught in My Web: Ants as a Liquid, Beautiful Bees, Ant Zombies, Tumbling Spiders and More Insect Oddities

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia.
For this edition of Caught in My Web, we explore all kinds of creepy crawly weirdness.

1. Ant colonies have the amazing property of being able to act both as a solid and as a liquid. IFL Science! and the New York Times highlight how the physics of ants can inspire the production of self-healing structures.

2. From Wired: This fly species invades ant brains… then pop their heads off!

3. This Moroccan spider tumbles away from danger, likely crippling the predator with laughter:

4. National Geographic shares some of the most beautiful images of bees that you will ever see.

5. This TED insect playlist includes 11 talks on everything from firefly love to robotic insects.