Thursday, May 21, 2020

My own, very personal response to the virus threat:

My own, very personal response to the virus threat:

ACE2 is an integral membrane protein that appears to be the host-cell receptor for SARS-CoV-2

In the beginning of this pandemic, My friend Tom McDonald (physiology professor U of A) mentioned some research data from China that referred to increased vulnerability of lung tissue after treatment with Losartan-class blockers. The rational was that hypertension treatment with angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor blockers, to which SARS-CoV-2 binds, might in the long-run increase the number of those receptors (often the case with receptor blockers). As the virus binds to those (increased in numbers) loci, lung tissue may be more vulnerable
. Recently, another theory, was that Losartan may block enough receptors to actually protect the tissue from the virus - may prevent organ failure on a wide range in C19 patients and thus.was considered among possible treatment options.
But most patients who died were hypertensive and receiving treatment.
So the thinking now goes back to the earlier idea : "Two recent studies, however, have poked holes in this hypothesis (that losartan could be used to treat C19 patients). In the first study, researchers raised the possibility that antihypertensives, including losartan, could actually induce the body to make more ACE2, increasing the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to bind to and infiltrate cells. In the second study, Italian researchers found that three-quarters of patients with COVID-19 who died had hypertension. Antihypertensive treatment may have been the reason for their increased susceptibility."
Anyway, Tom's very first mentioning of the possible connection made me look more closely into my own treatment with Losartan. It is the only drug I was taking and I did never like doing so. So in early March, I started a running regiment - twice a day 1 to 2 miles - I have lots of time on my hands after all art shows were cancelled! I monitored my BP and weight and after both began decreasing I started going off Losartan in small steps. Surprisingly, my BP was not at all correlated to the drug dose, but very much to body weight. I went from 170 pounds to 155 without fasting, and my BP is in a healthy normal range now.
The conflicting theories about Losartan show how very difficult and intertwined physiological processes and the reaction to drugs really are, and why it is often so difficult for the scientific community to make easily understood yes-or-no statements. Sadly, this opens up the discussion for loud-mouthed science deniers. As a physiologist myself, I am in a position to at least make somewhat educated decisions for my own health. Whatever the outcome of the Losartan studies concerning the virus will eventually be (I expect a difference between long-term chronic use and short, high dose treatment) I feel much healthier and fitter than in a decade. So thanks to my friend's push

Friday, October 4, 2019

Sept./Oct.Insect Programs in Maricopa, Gila and Santa Cruz County

Over the last 3 weeks I was invited to present programs about insects by the Butterfly Association of Maricopa County, held at the Glendale water Ranch, Oracle State Park and the Native Plant Society of Santa Cruz County (held at the Fire Station in Sonoita). All 3 audiences were very responsive and interested in my PowerPoint Presentation. While folks were inside listening to my talk, the lights outside were attracting local bugs to my sheet set up.

Glendale, photo Marceline Vanderwater
In all cases we ran the lights only from sunset to about 8 or 9 PM . There were interesting and very obvious differences, some surprised me. As I was busy answering questions and showing off the most popular bugs, I had little time to concentrate on small stuff or take many photos

Longhorn Beetle Plionoma suturalis
The Glendale black lighting spot was in the middle of the park, and I'm eternally grateful to my friend Kc Smith that he logged his heavy generator all the way in there. We were close to water but in the middle of thick mesquite trees. So we got lots of biomass in form of green stinkbugs and Bruchines (Bean and Pea Weevils) that came from the mesquite pods. all moths were tiny. We got a few Caddisflies as to be expected close to water. I was surprised to see a good number of the Cerambycid Plionoma at our lights. I have never seen them night active and attracted to lights before. I think they were Plionoma suturalis, though they were on the small, stout side for that species. I collected one specimen but it got lost in the shuffle of the take down.  The image above is from my files.

The old farmhouse in Oracle State Park was a lovely setting in the middle of a park at higher elevation with mixed Oak Mesquite habitat. At my arrival in the late afternoon I noticed that it seemed very dry and there were very few blooming perennials. Andrew Meeds had been searching for day-active  insects and found only a few. Numbers were really low. 

Agonoscelis puberula (African Cluster Bug)
Several people found and asked about African Cluster Bugs, so those invasives (harmless it seems) were common and obvious
Rhinoceros Beetle Xyloryctes thestalus
The evening  was a little windy and cool. At the lights we did not get a lot, But a number of Rhinoceros Beetles impressed and delighted. A single large, grey Epicauta sp Blister Beetle indicated that there would have been more if we had waited longer.

The Fire Station of Sonoita is surrounded by roiling grasslands that looked very dry, even the Desert Broom bushes that should be blooming by now, looked sad and straw-colored instead of juicy green. I loved watching a little herd of Pronghorns near by, but did not expect a lot from the black lights
And most of the attending people had not expected to stay far beyond 8 pm, so this was probably my shortest black lighting session ever.  And yet, it turned out surprisingly interesting

Megacyllene antennata, Oncideres rhodosticta (Mesquite Girdler), Scudderia mexicana (Mexican Bush Katydid) Stagmomantis sp. male, Curculio, Greater Anglewing Katydid, White-lined Sphinx, Lichen Moth, Noctuid, Spurthroat Grasshoppers, Oxygrylius ruginasus (Scarab Beetle)

Surprisingly no Digonthophagus  gazella at all. In other years at this time they covered the walls and the ground around lights in Sonoita. It seems that all invasive spp reach a peak and eventually crash.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

September Storms 2019

We had started to call this summer a non-soon because there was nearly no rain. I cannot remember that  the tough Creosote bushes ever turned that rust-colored.  Yet the ground is still covered by dead, yellow cheat grass - a remnant of an unusually wet early winter. But that was so long ago!

Mid September a number of Hurricanes and tropical storms  approached  Mexico from the Pacific, and some of those cells sent their pressure disturbances far into the Sonoran Desert. So it did not only finally rain, we even saw some spouts dip down from the heavy clouds: small, short lived tornadoes. One was visible from our house to the west, but while less than a mile from us 3 inches of rain came down in less than 5 min, we had blue skies, no wind, and only a few sprinkles at that time. Eventually we did get some nice precipitation and we weren't sad that the tornadoes missed us. Still found a leak in the roof though - at the seam of the patio roof.

One early morning after the rain,  Leaf-cutter Ants, Acromyrmex versicolor started their mating flights. Winged males and females left the colonies and flew to one of their traditional meeting points. A huge column of dancers rose next to a  tree in our driveway.  The cloud of ants wavered  in the wind. It would nearly disappear at times but always reorganize. Walking the dogs, we ran into many flying ants still on their way to join the party. 

While I was watching, the column move right over my head - they like an elevated focal point. But mated pairs, or rather females with several suitors clinging to them, keep sinking to the ground, or down on my head as long as I kept standing there. so keeping some distance is highly recommended.

Swarming ants and termites draw predators. we are far from the next water, but Saddle-backs and Gliders (Dragonflies) are cruising the desert.

Cliff Swallows are sporadic visitors to our area, but during the days after the storm they were constantly shooting through the partly blue sky. In the evening hundreds of them fell into a neighbors tree to roost. It's quite far from our house but their chirping was loud enough to bring me outside to find out what the noise was.
We have not seen as many Night Hawks as usual this summer, although their purring could be heard all night at the south end of our property. Now they don't just stream across our house at sunset to get to the Santa Cruz River, but glide and flap in wide curves and zigzags among the saguaros, obviously hunting.

Tiny Western Pipistrelles somewhat resemble in size and flight pattern a large dark butterfly, maybe a Pipevine Swallowtail though they move more swiftly. We see them all summer long at sunset, but at the moment they seem especially common and active. Probably working on the fat reserves that have to last through the winter. These are much smaller than the nectar bats that will show up when it's fully dark to raid our hummingbird feeders. A third of their size?.

Following smaller predators come fiercer ones. Large insects, but also lizards and small birds are prey of the Shrike. Around our bird feeding area, mobs of smaller birds but also the local Mockingbird keep the masked killers away. But for a couple of weeks  I've now hear the nasal, loud shrieking.

The sun setting opposite dark storm clouds brings out the brilliant colors of the desert. I drove through Saguaro National Park West - sadly it's not a loop-drive anymore because the connection to Picture Rocks Rd seems permanently closed. Still, the tour inspired a watercolor painting

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Kira steals from the Hawk Family

Our dog walks are never boring.  This afternoon we had just left the house when heavy wing beats lifted a large dark bird out of the wash that crosses out front yard. Another one followed. The white base of the tail characterized them as Harris' Hawks. The did not want to leave and landed shoulder high in the next Palo Verde. So they had prey on the ground.

Problem: Kira was on their side of the wash and drawn straight to the smell of a fresh kill. And she was not listening. The wash is deeply eroded and arm-thich Ironwood roots run along the bottom. Still, Bilbo and I slithered down the bank to get Kira. She did not look pleased, having just pulled up a delectable loop of bunny intestine.

The young hawks were still watching, not much more than 2 arm lengths from me. I was thinking that they are the apprentice falconer's birds. Easy to imagine.
Then a loud angry noise from the next tree - between a snarl and a growl, not bird-like at all: the older hawks were also still close by. Kira gave up her prize and jumped down into the wash to us. Bilbo sniffed her breath and looked accusingly up at me - where was his bunny gut? 
We went for our walk into the state-land, chased lizards and grashoppers as usual but somewhat halfheartedly it seemed.

Returning, I did not want to disturb the hawks again if they had returned. So instead of cutting through the front-yard we continued along the dirt road to our driveway. But the adult hawks were now sitting on  telephone post and wire.   Sleek and dark and unblinking. Eyeing us with the inscrutable glare of a sphinx.

The young hawks were still eating their dinner though. Again they flew up shortly, but returned right away after I took a photo. Not much left.

This is how it may have started - an adult female is bringing a young Jack Rabbit for her family. I'm amazed how much this relatively small hawk can carry. Not my own photo

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Dead Beetles and Caring People

A Facebook friend's collection of Dynastes grantii
Over the last days I saw several comments on our Facebook group from concerned folks who questioned collectors of beetles who showed a well-curated series of Dynastes grantii. Today I got an e mail from a concerned lady who is finding dead Rhinoceros Beetles in Prescott Valley.

I am very glad that people do care! Even if their target for now are mostly those charismatic big Scarab Beetles. It is hopefully a sign that they will also worry, and get active, to help shape the greater environmental picture.
But in the SW US Arthropods Group that I administer on Facebook, I also had to explain why I think the collector of some Hercules Beetles from 2017 was not harming the environment or the species or ethical standards by taking these 9 male beetles.
Since it took some effort to answer this and because it keeps coming up, here is what I wrote:

I think many people do not consider how most insects propagate. There is no parental care - there cannot be because the short-lived adults are not around when the larvae hatch in January/February to start their multi-year growth period as larvae. So each female lays from 30 to 90 eggs at least, some of which will actually survive to adulthood. If a female dies before her time, before she is done depositing her eggs, some more of her neighbor have room to survive. Males probably sire even more offspring - the few that actually get a chance to mate with a female in a competitive mating situation. If some are collected, again, more chances for the remaining ones. These are not humans or elephants with great investment in the individual. Also, if 90 come to a given light with a limited radius, thousands must be in the hinterland. What destroys insect populations is not a collector. It's habitat destruction and maybe some really strong light (border patrol? ) that drain the area night after night of millions of bugs, If they are collected or not, those usually die at the lights.
To be clear, I'm no collector and I only see reasons to collect (personally) if scientific questions are behind it. But that's just me. I know that humans by their very existence are detrimental to great numbers of other species. But I also know that most people do not care one bit about insects and think the more are destroyed, the better. If Neal Mower's pretty collection gets a couple of kids interested enough to be protective instead of habitually destructive, I think his efforts are well validated .
Edit or delete this

and here is the e mail about the Rhinoceros Beetles from Prescott Valley:
Good morning,
I saw your article on rhinoceros beetles and it was the most informative one I found. Recently there has been an event near my house in Prescott Valley where we have seen hundreds of female beetles crawling around during the day. I have not been able to find a reason why this is happening due to there not being a lot of information on these little guys. We found a lot of them tipped over yesterday and spent some time flipping them. This morning we discovered most of them dead. I was hoping you might have some further explanations for the behaviour. I have attached a photo of one we found this morning. We have spent the morning trying to learn as much about them as possible but have been unable to find more info. Thanks for taking the time to read this, I hope you have a wonderful day!
Jessie D.
And my lengthy answer:
I am glad that you care, Jessica! But there is not a lot that you, or anyone, can do.
      These scarab beetles spend most of their lifespan as grubs feeding on rotting wood, somewhere in the Coronado forest around Prescott. Then they pupate, later the young beetle emerges from the pupa, and then it waits for the monsoon to begin to emerge from its pupal chamber. Now it has wings and will use them first to find a mate and then, if she is female, to find a suitable place with great mulch for her eggs. She seems to prefere rotting mountain ash logs over all other mulch.. There is a theory that she will first play it safe and lay most of her eggs close to where she herself was born, and then, much lighter after depositing most of her load,  strike out to carry the last eggs further out to maybe give the last offspring new opportunities in less crowded areas. This is just a theory, but possible. We find older females often far from the normal distribution areas.  Of course, the end of this journey for the female is death. As adults, most scarabs live only for a couple of weeks to a couple of months and the males die earlier than the females.  Now the reason that you find so many wandering around in the morning is that they most likely came to lights at night. They usually orient by the moon and artificial lights drag them off course. That uses up resources and there is probably no food where they land (they feed on sugary substances)  The reason that they die (if pesticide use can be excluded) may be that they are old and at the end of their natural life. The specimen in your photo has its feet broken off. That can happen ante-mortem in old beetles. Old, weak beetles also will not bury themselves during the day as fresh vigorous ones would do, so you find them crawling around in the morning.
         So you really cannot help them individually at this point. Hopefully they had a chance to lay their eggs in a suitable place before they landed at the lights. And you can assume that there are many more where they came from that will take care of the continuation of their species. If you can convince home and business owners in Prescott Valley to use lights with little UV component (yellow or some led lights are good)and no Mercury Vapor, you may be able to reduce the draw on the beetle population and spar the home owners some of the dead beetles that clutter their porches
Again, thank you for caring!
Margarethe Brummermann 
Dead Mesquite Twig Girdlers in 2008 at the BP stop north of Tubac. Not swept into a pile, the carpet was at least 500 squarefeet

And maybe we all can help by influencing those in power by writing to them and through our votes to consider the problem of habitat disruption through high power lights. For years, we have seen the impact of the light canons that the border patrol was using every night at their control points on I 19 and Hhw 83. The stinking carpet of dead beetles at those light was so bad that the officers kept asking traveling entomologists for help. We could only say: Switch off those light canons'  In the end it was cost efficient new technology, not our advice that changed the mercury vapor lights to LED lights, but now dead beetles are no great problem anymore. I can only hope that all the recent border protection activity will not result in an illuminated corridor all the way along the southern border. That would have a disruptive effect on more than just beetles and could have dire ecological consequences. 

So let your representatives know that you care!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Carabidae from the Portal Coleoptera Course

Carabus auronitens, like the ones that I found in Kurler Busch, the forest behind our house in Germany
From earliest insect systematics classes at the University of Bochum, Germany, I had a special fascination for Carabid Beetles. In English, they are unimaginatively called Ground Beetles, but the German name Laufkaefer does a little more justice to these fast, fierce hunters. In Germany the genus Carabus dazzled with some rather large metallic, colorful species. 

Here in AZ, that genus is represented by only 2 species which are large and impressive, but comparatively dull in color.  During the course, I looked for them at Barfoot Park but this time, they were only found by some friends who really specialized on carabids and searched at night.

Calosoma scrutator
In Arizona the genus Calosoma with its several subgenera is much more prevalent than Carabus and at least one member also makes up for the lackluster appearance of the other large US Carabids. During the course, we saw surprisingly few, and mostly black species in a desert wash along Foothills Rd. I did not even photograph any. 

In the desert, we also had the largest diversity of Cicindelinae (Tiger Beetles), as shown above, not a lot. 

We also looked for the recently described   Cicindelidia melissa  that seems to be limited to the road to Barfoot Park, but we did not see any of those.

Scaphinotus petersi corvus from Rustler Park
Around Barfoot and Rustler I also found a few Cychrini under logs in moist places. With long heads and mouth-parts, they are adapted feed on snails. So in Arizona, their food source is limited to the high elevations of the Sky islands and they do not move away from those confined areas. I believe that they are flightless. Speciation  is beginning. 

Scaphinotus petersi grahami from Mount Graham
Currently the populations on Mount Graham, the Chiricahuas, the Huaschucas, the Sta. Ritas and the Catalinas are considered subspecies.
All those larger Carabids in the subfamily Carabinae are sought after by collectors. This time, to me they were mere by-catch. I was much more interested in the plethora of smaller species. I like the colorful Lebiini that are colorful day-active flower visitors but still oblige by coming to lights at night.

I also searched for Wendy Moore's Paussines that she had introduced in a very interesting talk during the course. I had found some at Pena Blanca Canyon and also in the Huachucas, but it would have been interesting to see them running up and down oak trees in the Chiricahuas. No such luck. We found Brachinus spp. along the creeks and at our lights, but none of these great, dangerous looking beetles.

This time I was after all those dark Harpalinae that are (to me) quite hard to identify all the way to the species. Luckily, I have an agreement with Peter Messer who has spent endless hours familiarizing himself with characters like single hairs on palps and groves on tiny foreheads. He lives in the eastern US, but as usual, the most interesting diversity is found here in AZ.  So I am collecting and photographing my beetles as well as possible, and place the result on The number that Bugguide assignes is included with the collection data, to be shipped with the specimen to Peter,  for species id and to stay in his voucher collection. He will add his id to my photo on BugGuide. It's perfect, because for my AZ Beetle book I need the reliably identified images, but I will also always know where my voucher specimens are curated.

Sericoda bembidioides
I was especially happy to find a small species whose elytra show an unusual pockmark pattern: the little Harpaline Sericoda bembidioides. I only found this species once before on Mount Lemmon. It is known to be attracted to areas that suffered an extensive forest fires. Mount Lemmon back then, just as Rustler Park now, were indeed heavily marked by fire. In both cases the time of the actual catastrophic burn was more than 5 years in the past.  But last year I watched forest rangers and firemen build pyramids of cut logs everywhere in the forest. The logs were from fallen trees and from those that were felled to thin the tree stands. The rangers told me that they would let the wood dry and then wait for wet winter days,  preferably with thick snow cover, to burn these piles of logs. They had in fact disappeared by now. This practice seems like a terrible waste and source of unnecessary CO2 emissions. But it seems to maintain pockets of habitat for this interesting beetle. 

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Young Cooper's Hawks hunting

The urban areas of Tucson have an overabundance of Cooper's Hawks that decimate the Dove and Pigeon population downtown and around the university campus (photo)

Out here, in the open desert west of the Tucson Mountains, Red Tails, Harris Hawks, and Kestrels are a more obvious presence than Cooper's Hawks.  But the Cooper's stealthy way of hunting from a hidden perch may have something to do with that.  For years we knew that a big female Cooper's was using our neighbors' big mesquite tree as her daytime roost.  Nearly every morning she makes one fast swoop at the doves and quail that enjoy a one-time feeding in our backyard (just a handful of seeds tossed on the ground). This usually results in a lot of fluttering, squaking and aggravation, and even our dogs join in the melee.

We rarely witness a catch. But we find telltale piles of feathers, mainly of doves, but once even the wings and tail of a screech owl. Over the last months, the big female and her mate must have been raising a clutch of young ones in another neighbor's big old pine tree.
During that time she was less visible. But lately got into some territorial disputes with the local group of Harris Hawks that was trying to take over her mesquite tree, so she's probably back to her old habit of spending the day in its cool, green canopy..  Several fledglings must be on their own, and  they are becoming a menace.

The young Cooper's in pursuit of  the Gila Woodpecker (Photo-montage!)
When we walked with our dogs this morning just after six, we heard a distress call from a Gila Woodpecker. It was flying erratically among the saguaros, trying to escape a smallish Cooper's that was matching its every turn. The Cooper's was relentless. We watched them for what seemed several minutes:  the Gila always nearly getting away, flying in tight curves to evade its pursuer, but the the Cooper's matching its desperate tactics in every turn. Eventually, when they were just out of sight, a last scream from the Gila told us how it ended.

Change of the guard at the Saguaro nest of a Gila pair (photo Dave March)
The Gila Woodpecker may have been an inexperienced youngster. We had  woodpecker nests in nearly every saguaro and the young ones only fledged some few weeks ago. It always seems that the cavity breeders like woodpeckers and Kestrels take their time growing up in the safety of their climate controlled saguaro holes. But now they are out and live is hard - the summer rains so far have not even really started, insect numbers are down, and only Prickly Pear fruit are available in unusual abundance.   

For years we had some established adult Gila Woodpeckers that frequented our hummingbird feeders. Individuals had their own special techniques to get to the sugar water, so we got to know them well. 
One male used to tip the feeder with his weight, causing messy drips under the feeder, another one used his long tongue to reach in, one female employed a very distinctive tremolo to induce sugar water to flow from the seams of the feeder. For years, a pair spent its resting time right in front of my studio window and brought their young ones to my feeder as soon as they could fly.

This August, all those patterns seem disturbed. When Robyn Waayers visited to photograph desert birds, I thought that the Gilas would be her easiest targets, but they made themselves rarer than the Gilded Flickers. I have been finding an ominous amount of plucking sites with black and white banded feathers - clearly from Gila Woodpeckers. Should one of the young Cooper's hawks be a Gila Killer?  This suspicion is not too far fetched.

In the eighties, my friend Erik Kretschmar and his ethology professor Eberhard Curio raised a number of the smallest European Accipiter species - the  Sperber (Accipiter nisu) to investigate how prey preferences were formed, as the prey base of the species includes many different animals from insects to birds to small mammals, but most individual birds are more specialized. I short, they found that the first hunting experiences of a youngster are quite determining for its further  career as a hunter.  Success in grabbing a tasty mouse during early trials may make a particular hawk a rodent specialist, while clashing into a nasty thorn bush in pursuit of a lizard may sour that kind of prey for this particular bird. I do not remember how specific that imprinting process was. It cannot be too narrow or it would limit the food supply for the bird too much, but it may keep partners (or for a while siblings) who share a territory from competing too much for resources.

When I  watch Gila Woodpeckers, our most common Picidae,  and I notice the very distinct flight pattern, choice of perch, pose while sitting, their noisy calls, and I can imagine that a hunter may consider them as a  prey group as distinct as 'small rodent', 'small bird', 'lizard', 'snake' etc. and specialize on them.

Young Cooper's after an unsuccessful swoop (photo Glenn Seplak) 
I love our noisy agile drummers. I hope they will not be decimated too much!  While we had breakfast on the patio, there was another attack from a small Cooper's Hawk, this time wreaking havoc among Quail, doves and our dogs while he was chasing a Curvebilled Thrasher. He was unsuccessful and landed quite close to our table to take an extended brake. I'm pretty sure the he wasn't the Gila hunter, who should have been still full of his earlier meal, but a sibling (is clutch-mate a word?)

Luckily, Gila Woodpeckers are not always helpless victims. During the breeding season I saw heroic parents take on our top predator, the Great Horned Owl, who came to close to the saguaro hole with its chicks. The Owl did not stay long.