Gillung, who received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in December 2018, and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, has won the Snodgrass Memorial Research Award from the Entomological Society of America (ESA) for her landmark dissertation on spider flies.
Spider flies? They're parasitoids of spiders in the family Acroceridaae and not widely known. Many are bee or wasp mimics. They are commonly called "small-headed flies" or "hunch-backed flies."
The award, given by ESA's Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity Section, recognizes outstanding research by a doctoral student who has completed a research thesis or dissertation in arthropod morphology, systematics, taxonomy, or evolution. The prize is a $500 cash award and an invited talk at ESA. She'll speak on "Unraveling the Evolution of Spider Flies (Diptera, Acroceridae): Progress and Possibilities" at the ESA's annual meeting, set Nov. 17-20 in St. Louis, Mo.
Gilllung studied with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. She also studied with mentor Shaun Winterton, insect biosystematist, California Department of Food and Agriculture, and collaborated with ant specialist and taxonomist Phil Ward, professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Gillung's dissertation, involving genomics, phylogenetics, systematics, and comparative analyses, “has increased our understanding of the biological patterns and processes that have shaped our planet's biodiversity,” Kimsey wrote in her letter of nomination. Her taxonomic work included identification keys and morphology-based diagnoses of species using modern techniques of cybertaxonomy—the application of the internet, digital technologies, and computer resources to increase and speed up the discovery and cataloging of new species, Kimsey wrote in her letter of nomination.
“Using cybertaxonomic tools, Jessica described 25 new spider fly species herself, and in collaboration with fellow entomologists, three fossil species from Baltic amber, described in her first dissertation chapter," Kimsey wrote. "Cybertaxonomy is a powerful tool that allows researchers and citizen scientists to collaborate in real time and across great distances to increase the speed and efficiency of biodiversity discovery.”
Kimsey noted that “Jessica unraveled the functional and ecological implications of key morphological traits, as well as their distribution across the Tree of Life," and "established new homologies for the wing venation of spider flies. She conducted detailed and assiduous dissections of male reproductive structures (i.e., genitalia) to understand homologies, demonstrating that morphological traits are dynamically evolving systems useful for both classification and inference of evolutionary history.”
While at UC Davis, Gillung drew more $120,000 in grants and awards for her multifaceted research on genomics, bioinformatics, phylogenetics, plant-pollinator interactions, and biodiversity discovery. She compiled a near straight-A academic record, published 11 refereed publications in top journals, and engaged in public service and outreach programs that reached more than 20,000 people at UC Davis-based events.
Gillung was a key member of the UC Davis Linnaean Games Team that won the ESA national championship in 2015. (See YouTube video.) The Linnaean Games are lively question-and-answer, college bowl-style competitions on entomological facts played between university-sponsored student teams.
The UC Davis-trained entomologist earlier received
- The 2019 Marsh Award for Early Career Entomologist, sponsored by the Royal Entomological Society. That involved a $1624 cash award and an invitation to the society meeting, Aug. 20-22 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
- The 2019 Early Career Award from the Pacific Branch, Entomological Society of America (PBESA). PBESA encompasses 11 western states, U.S. territories and parts of Canada and Mexico.
- The 2018 Student Leadership Award from PBESA
- The “Best Student Presentation Award” at the ninth annual International Congress of Dipterology, held in 2018 in Windhoek, Namibia.
At Cornell, Gillung is researching Apoidea (stinging wasps and bees) phylogenomics, evolution and diversification in the Brian Danforth lab.
That sign greets visitors to the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis, and that's exactly what Noah Crockette, 18, an intern there since age 11 and the winner of an international beetle research award as a teenager, plans to do.
This week he's already gone far--a distance of more than 2700 miles--from Davis to Ithaca, N.Y., where he is majoring in entomology at Cornell University.
Fondly known as “The Beetle Boy,” Noah won the 2015 Coleopterists' Society Award (senior division) for his project, “Survey of the Dung Beetles of Stann Creek, Belize.”
He volunteers at the Bohart Museum, home of nearly eight million insect specimens, and a live petting zoo of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and tarantulas. He has helped out with open houses, outreach programs and collecting trips.
“Yes, Noah has been volunteering here for quite a few years,” said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis. “We've seen him go from a middle school kid to a very mature 18-year-old. He's a great kid, always ready with a big smile, great attitude and really hard working. Smart, too. He should do very well at Cornell. We already miss him.”
Two Cornell University alumni--Tabatha Yang, the Bohart Museum's education and outreach coordinator, and UC Davis doctoral candidate student Emily Bick of the Christian Nansen lab, serenaded him with the Cornell fight song. Yang's degree is in general biology, and Bick's degree in entomology. After they sang the fight song, they told him how cold the winters are!
His major advisor is drosophila (fruit flies) expert Patrick O'Grady, who taught at UC Berkeley for 12 years before joining the Cornell faculty last year. His ecology professor is UC Davis alumnus Anurag Agrawal, an ecologist who received his doctorate in 1999, studying with Richard Karban.
His acceptance into Cornell, one of the top-ranked entomology programs in the country, came in 2017. Noah graduated in 2017 from The Met Sacramento High School, and Cornell offered him a one-year student transfer contract for the fall of 2018.
“I have always been interested in bugs but my interest in entomology started in sixth grade,” Noah said. “I mostly became interested in insects through my internship at the Bohart and participating in the undergraduate UC Davis Entomology Club (open to all interested persons). Before then I had only known that I was interested in zoology and started going to the Ent Club after learning about it from talking to (UC Davis forensic entomologist and club advisor) Robert “Bob” Kimsey at UC Davis Picnic Day. After attending the club for awhile, Danielle Wishon (club president and entomology major) and Bob got me connected with the Bohart to start the internship from which my interest grew.”
Career plans? Noah is keeping his options open as to specialty, but he wants to work in research. Beetles fascinate him, especially scarab beetles. “I have a tendency towards scarab beetles,” he said. “I particularly like the tribe Cyclocephalini, the masked chafer beetles. I really like that they are a Dynastines like the Hercules beetles but lack any sort of horns or other glitzy features. Even though they are small and brown, I love the subtle beauty of the markings which remind me of the Rorschach ink tests.
”I also really love venom so I have also thought about going into venom research but would like to grow more familiar with it before considering it more.”
As a Bohart Museum intern and associate, Noah collected insects twice in Belize on Bohart-affiliated collecting trips “where I was able to get field work experience in entomology as well as herpetology and ornithology.” Fran Keller, assistant professor, Folsom Lake College, and David Wyatt, an entomology professor at Sacramento City College, led the collecting trips. Keller, who served as his mentor, received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis, studying with Lynn Kimsey.
“My last trip to Belize," Noah said, "was when I completed my Coleopterists' Society project in which I designed and constructed 12 baited pitfall traps which I used to survey the dung beetle species on the property as well as determine their preferred bait, between human feces, pig feces, chicken manure, rotten chicken, and rotten fruit."
In his freshman year, Noah taught an entomology class to elementary students, and as a senior project, organized a museum day at Shriners Hospital for Children.
Outside of entomological pursuits, he enjoys hiking, kayaking and birdwatching. “I really love the outdoors,” he said. “Last year after my trip to Belize I was also given the opportunity through my school to go on a month-long backpacking and kayaking trip through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Alaska. I also played rugby for C.K. McClatchy High School during my senior year which was a fun experience and I now plan on continuing with the sport. At home I like to keep reptiles and invertebrates--mostly tarantulas--as pets and enjoy collecting zoology related books and objects.”
During the going-away party, a photo of Noah Crockette flashed on the wall-mounted computer screen. It pictured him at about age 14, enthusiastically working with insects.
Doing what he loves.
Not overlooked was the quote from noted scientist E. O. Wilson “Go as far as you can [young scientists]. The world needs you badly."
The evolutionary history of honey bees dates back millions and millions of years. Bees are thought to have appeared at least 130 million years ago, according to British biologist Dave Goulson, author of A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees. The oldest known bee in amber is about 80 million old, Goulson estimates. It's a stingless bee "similar to species that live today in South America."
Honey bees? Consider the fossilized worker bee discovered in 30-million-year-old sedimentary rock in Germany.
Bee scientist Thomas Dyer Seeley of Cornell University says that "honey bee colonies have experienced millions of years being shaped by the relentless operation of natural selection. Natural selection maximizes the abilities of living systems (such honey bee colonies) to pass on their genes to future generations."
In an article published in the March 2017 edition of the American Bee Journal on "Darwinian Beekeeping: An Evolutionary Approach to Apiculture," Seeley wrote: "As someone who has devoted his scientific career to investigating the marvelous inner workings of honey bee colonies, it saddens me to see how profoundly--and ever increasingly--conventional beekeeping disrupts and endangers the lives of colonies."
On Saturday, March 3, Seeley will share his experiences, research and suggestions on beekeeping when he addresses the fourth annual UC Davis Bee Symposum, themed "Keeping Bees Healthy."
The all-day event, sponsored by the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, takes place in the UC Davis Conference Center. Registration ends this week, according to coordinator Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center.
Seeley, who will speak at 9:15 a.m., is the Horace White Professor in Biology in Cornell's Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, where he teaches courses on animal behavior and researches the behavior and social life of honey bees. He's the author of Honeybee Ecology: A Study of Adaptation in Social Life (1985), The Wisdom of the Hive: the Social Physiology of Honey Bee Colonies (1995), and Honeybee Democracy (2010), all published by Princeton University Press. His books will be available for purchase and signing at the symposium.
The daylong event "is designed for beekeepers of all experience levels, including gardeners, farmers and anyone interested in the world of pollination and bees," said Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center. "In addition to our speakers, there will be lobby displays featuring graduate student research posters, the latest in beekeeping equipment, books, honey, plants, and much more."
Seeley's talk promises to be both informative and captivating.
Fact is, honey bees "lived independently from humans for millions of years, and during this time they were shaped by natural selection to be skilled at surviving and reproducing wherever they lived, in Europe, western Asia, or Africa," Seeley wrote in the American Bee Journal.
Seeley will share "what can we do, as beekeepers, to help honey bee colonies live with a better fit to their environment, and thereby live with less stress and better health."
It's all about "keeping bees healthy."
In research published Nov. 4 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Professor Agrawal and colleague Georg Petschenka, also of Cornell, found that monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) have "evolved" the ability to store toxins, known as cardenolides, that are poisonous to birds. The title of their research article: "Milkweed Butterfly Resistance to Plant Toxins Is Linked to Sequestration, Not Coping with a Toxic Diet."
Lepidopterans and butterfly enthusiasts know that caterpillars digest the toxins in milkweed plants and that they retain that poison not only as caterpillars, but as chrysalids and adults.
Birds dislike the toxicity and learn to avoid the monarchs. Of course, birds still eat the caterpillars, chrysalids and adults, but not as many.
The take-home message in lay terms? "We learned that the evolutionary pressure of predation can be so strong, that it drives the way insects eat plants, and to eat more toxic plants," Agrawal told us this afternoon.
What about the oleander aphids that suck the juices out of milkweed plants and the lady beetles, aka ladybugs, that eat the aphids?
"The toxicity does impact both the aphids and lady beetles … they don't like it!" Agrawal said. "Well, it is sort of a coevolutionary argument… the aphids have specialized on the milkweeds, so that family is all they eat… but in response, the plants produce cardenolides that do bother them."
Writer Geoffrey Giller published an article, "Butterflies Weaponize Milkweed Toxins" today in The Scientist.
"Scientists," wrote Giller, "have long known that milkweed cardenolides, which in most animals disable a vital sodium-potassium pump enzyme if they are absorbed into the blood, serve to make caterpillars and butterflies dangerous meals for their predators, but whether that acquired toxicity was a side effect of an adaptation that allowed monarchs to eat milkweed or had developed separately as a defensive mechanism was unclear."
The paper is being called a landmark.
And those toxins are also "landmark" weapons. Toxic weapons.
Ladybugs, aka ladybird beetles, are out there.
Walk through the garden and they're easy to find.
Last weekend we spotted one tucked in the heart of an artichoke, another climbing a nectarine tree, and still another perched on an artichoke leaf.
They're doing what they're supposed to do--eat aphids and other soft-bodied insects.
Red on green--how beautiful is that?
If you're keen on ladybugs--and you ought to be--you'll want to check out Cornell University's Lost Ladybug Project, once confined to New York state and now a nationwide project. It all began in 2000 when Cornell researchers joined the 4-H Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners to survey ladybug populations throughout the state. Now "citizen scientists" participate in ladybug surveys across the country.
The excitement grew in 2006 when two pre-teens found a nine-spotted ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) near their home in Virginia. This marked the first documented nine-spotted ladybug found in the eastern United States in 14 years.
The Cornell University site seeks ladybug photos--as of today, the count reached 10,661.
Last Saturday, May 19 the San Diego Botanical Garden got in the act by hosting a "Lost Ladybug Project" for Cornell.
They posted the event on their website only to receive this note: "Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly away home. Your house is on fire. And your children all gone. Because it is Judgment Day..."
Only thing being judged, however, was the number of ladybugs counted...that, no doubt, drew the rapt attention of all.
Those ladybugs are out there...