Living Things

Mystery Bug

Question:

I have found a bug in my house that I have not been able to find a picture of anywhere. We have found lots of leaf-footed pine seed beetles inside this winter, and I reference this bug simply because the unidentified bug in question is similar in shape. The strange bug is the same sort of shape as the pine seed beetle, but is only about the length of a dime, and is slightly wider proportionately. It is grey in colour, and has the appearance of being “moldy” or velvety. I can just see that it has two very fine antennae that are about 1/4″ long and finer than human hair. The back legs have the same sort of leaf look to them, but only on the upper side – the “paddle” is proportionately larger than that of the pine seed beetle. I saw this bug last night, and then this afternoon realized he was still sitting there. I put a glass over it so it could not run away, and when I nudge it with the glass, it moves in jerky jumpy steps staying low to the ground, unlike the pine bug that moves in slow motion one leg at a time. Standing still, the bug seems to rest its abdomen on the ground and the legs are all spread out sideways a bit like the hands on a clock. The upper abdominal surface is very flat, almost concave, and it is fairly thin from upper to lower surface. There is clearly a head, thorax, and abdomen. The head seems tiny, the thorax a bit wider, and the majority is abdomen. The back of the head and thorax are darker, somewhat brown, and do not seem “moldy”; most of the rest of the bug is grey and moldy looking with a touch of brown, so slightly brownish grey. I realize it’s tough to identify a bug without a picture. Unfortunately my camera won’t focus that close up. When you place a dime beside this bug, it is about the same size (including the legs spread out like a spider). I hope that you can solve this mystery for me. Thanks… Sue Naegels

Answer:

Yes, as you say, it is always difficult to identify any insect without a photo as there are so many different kinds. I think that the insect you have is Reduvius personatus,”the masked hunter”. This is a bug often found in houses. Your description of it as ‘moldy’ suggests that it might be this species as masked hunters cover themselves in debris, as camouflage. They feed upon other insects and so presumably, the camouflage allows them to get close enough to the prey to catch them. Masekd hunters can deliver a painful bite equivalent to a bee sting if handled. They belong to a family of insects called assassin bugs. If you ‘google’ masked hunter or the scientific name you will find lots of photos to compare with your specimen.

- Robert Anderson

 


 

Food

Question:

Do all living things need food to survive?

Answer:

I would answer “Yes, if you define food broadly as an energy source.”  The ways living things obtain  their energy source is quite varied and extremely interesting.  The way that some small microscopic organisms obtain energy is even exploited in biotechnology in mining and in cleaning up the environment.  Here are a few unusual examples…

Plants use carbon dioxide, water and light energy to make their food (specifically, sugar) through a process called photosynthesis.  As sugar is made, the plant produces oxygen.  Lichens (encrusting growths found on rocks and tree trunks) consist of a symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationship between a fungus and algae.  Here, the algae produces the food or organic matter through photosynthesis and the fungus benefits.  The fungus, on the other hand, takes up water and provides inorganic nutrients essential for the algae to grow.  These algae are called phototrophs because they obtain energy from light.  Bacteria, known as chemolithotrophs, use minerals or inorganic materials as “food”.  For example, some of these microorganisms oxidize iron to produce energy and grow.  This is a characteristic that is exploited in biotechnology and mining as this type of bacteria can be used to release iron from sulfide minerals.  Other bacteria live in a symbiotic relationship with the tube worm (Riftia Pachyptila).  This allows the tube worm to survive without a gut.  These bacteria turn oxygen, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide into “food” for its life partner, the tube worm.

- Julia Mills

 


 

Bed Bugs

Question:

Do any insect predators in the house, such as spiders or hairy centipedes eat bedbugs?

Answer:

Certainly such predators as spiders and house centipedes could and would feed on bedbugs if they encountered them. These predators do not specialize on any particular kinds of insects and take basically whatever they can find. But, I don’t know of any specific occurrences of bedbugs being eaten by these predators.

- Robert Anderson

 


 

Transgenic Goats

Question:

How do transgenic goats produce spider silk in their milk?

Answer:

These transgenic goats are made by splicing the spider’s silk making genes into goats. Specifically, the spider gene is targeted to the mammary gland of the goat. Each lactating goat produces 3-4 L of milk during a 10 month period. Spider protein fibres can, in turn, be isolated from the goats milk and used to make spider silk. Essentially the transgenic goat is a living bioreactor.

- Julia Mills

 


 

Plant Growth

Question:

We are getting ready to participate in a science fair. We thought we would verify the effect of certain substances on plant growth. Would certain products, such as deodorant, peanut butter, vinegar, lemon juice and ketchup, affect plant growth?

Answer:

Plants need carbon dioxide (CO2), water and light to live. Therefore, depending on where a substance is placed -- for example, on the leaves or on the roots -- the impact on the plant may be different. Also, the impact will vary with the quantity and concentration of the substance. The substances to which you refer (deodorant, peanut butter, vinegar, lemon juice and ketchup) may affect a plant because of their acidity or may reduce the quantity of light and absorption of CO2 or water, and this can negatively affect photosynthesis. In short, the answer is yes: these substances may have a variety of effects on plant growth. By doing a number of experiments with each substance, you will see the positive and negative effects.

- René Brunet

 


 

Wildlife Mortality

Question:

What do you think of the recent flock of dead birds as well as fish in Louisiana and Arkansas?

Answer:

Large wildlife die-off events are fairly common, though they should never be ignored, according to scientists whose preliminary tests showed that the bird deaths in Arkansas on New Year’s Eve and those in Louisiana were caused by impact trauma.

Preliminary findings suggest that the birds died from impact trauma, and these findings are consistent with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s statement. The State concluded that such trauma was probably a result of the birds being startled by loud noises on the night of Dec. 31, arousing them and causing them to fly into objects such as houses or trees. Scientists performed necropsies -- the animal version of an autopsy -- on the birds and found internal hemorrhaging, while the pesticide tests they conducted were negative.

Although wildlife die-offs always pose a concern, they are not all that unusual. It’s important to study and understand what happened in order to determine if we can prevent mortality events from happening again.

- Chris Derksen

 


 

Sustainable Farming

Question:

What is sustainable farming? Give an example. Why is it important?

Answer:

Although there is no single agreed definition, it is generally agreed that sustainable farming (or sustainable agriculture) is an approach to producing food that brings together environmental, economic, and social perspectives in a way that allows us to meet today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Sustainable farming practices give us a way of producing and processing agricultural products that can be carried out over the long term, in a manner that supports or enhances the high quality of life we enjoy in Canada today.

Sustainable agriculture:

  • protects the natural resource base; prevents the degradation of soil, water, and air quality; and conserves biodiversity
  • contributes to the economic and social well-being of all Canadians
  • ensures a safe and high-quality supply of agricultural products
  • safeguards the livelihood and well-being of agricultural and agri-food businesses, workers and their families.

An example of a sustainable farming practice common in Canada is conservation tillage, where crop residues (stubble and straw) they are left in the field as soil cover after harvest. This reduces soil erosion and water loss, inhibits the germination of weeds, protects soil micro organisms and helps build up organic matter. As a result, less time and labour are spent on land preparation, and there is lower fuel consumption and less air pollution, reduced need for chemical inputs, and increasing yields and farm income.

- Jake Rice

 


 

Swim Bladder

Question:

Bony fish have a swim bladder. Is the function of the swim bladder to store urine or do they have another bladder specifically for that purpose?

Answer:

Not all species of bony fish have swim bladders, but many do. The primary function of the swim bladder is to help fish accommodate to changes in depth, and therefore in water pressure, as they swim up or swim down in the water column. As depth increases, so does water pressure, and as pressure increases, gasses like oxygen and nitrogen that are dissolved in the water column can enter the bloodstream of the fish. Then, when they swim up, the pressure decreases and the air may come out of solution. When human divers swim up from depths in the ocean, they have to do so carefully, pausing frequently to avoid getting “the bends” – bubbles of nitrogen forming in the circulatory system with potentially serious health effects. This change in “partial pressure” of gasses can affect fish as well. However, the swim bladder can expand or contract to absorb or release gas and allow a fish to swim up quickly in the water column without gas bubbles forming the bloodstream.

Although this is the original function of swim bladders, in a few kinds of fish they have taken on other specialised functions, including the production or reflection of sounds. The swim bladder does not, however, store urea or urine, as metabolic wastes. There is a separate urinary bladder in the excretory system of fishes, functioning in a similar manner to the urinary bladder of mammals.

- Jake Rice

 


 

Zebra Mussels

Question:

Our cottage has in recent years had growing number of Zebra mussels, which I believe is an invasive species, not originally found in the great lakes and the trent severn waterways. This year to our great surprise there seems to be no zebra mussels anywhere. But a different anomaly of very dense vegetation has occurred. Has the government taken action against zebra mussels, causing this (less annoying) side effect, or is this nature taking its course? Thanks ahead for any info regarding this topic. (by the way our cottage is located near Port Severn, on the first lake past the lock, heading away from Georgian Bay – along the trent severn waterway in Ontario (the lake is called Gloucestor pool)).

Answer:

Thank you for your question.  Zebra mussels are indeed not native to the Great lakes or the Trent Severn waterways.  The original introduction appears to be through ballast water into the great lakes, zebra mussels and further spread through recreational boats and connected waterways.

The most likely explanation for what you are observing is an indirect impact of zebra mussels in your lake.  Zebra mussels are very effective at filtering algae (microscopic plants) from the water often resulting in clearer waters.  These clearer waters allow light to penetrate deeper and make for ideal conditions for the growth aquatic vegetation.

Once zebra mussels become established in a water body, they are impossible to eradicate with the technology currently available. Most methods to control zebra mussels rely on chemicals such as chlorine, filters, or mechanical scraping to remove mussels and are typically used to remove them from intake pipes and facilities.  These methods would not be feasible in a natural system such as your lake.

- Sophie Foster, Science Advisor for the Aquatic Invasive Species Program at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

 


 

Cloning and GMOs

Question: 

What are the differences and similarities between cloning and GMOs?

Answer:

What every living thing has in common is that all are made up of one or more cells, and all cells contain DNA. Just as a blueprint gives the instructions for building a house, DNA gives the instructions for “building” living things, such as animals, plants, tiny microbes, and people. What makes a plant different from an animal, or one individual of the same species different from another one, is that each contains different “instructions” in their DNA. These instructions are called genes.

Sometimes different individuals have identical DNA. We would say that these are clones of one another. An example of this is identical twins, who are often very hard to tell apart. Their traits (e.g. eye colour, hair colour, height, unique shape of their nose) are the same because their genes are the same.

Clones of plants and animals can be made artificially, and are especially useful in agriculture. Farmers have noticed over thousands of years that not all the plants they grow or animals they breed are the same because they have different traits. Let’s say a farmer found a plant that had particularly good traits, for example it grew fast, gave a lot tasty fruit, needed less water, or was resistant to known plant diseases. This plant could be cloned to produce many more plants with the same traits. It is also possible to clone animals, but in practice, this is difficult. People have tried to clone several domestic and farm animals, and even endangered animals. Cloned plants and animals are basically “identical twins” of the original, just grown or born later.

Genetic modification, on the other hand, is a way to transfer the gene for a specific trait directly from one lineage of plant (or animal) to another. Take the example of a trait for resistance to a virus causing disease in plants. In conventional breeding, a farmer could use plants that are resistant to the virus as “parents”, and some or all of the progeny plants will also be resistant to the virus. This has been done for thousands of years. This old-fashioned way of doing things works, but it is very slow because you have to wait for plants to grow, and then repeat this many times until you get just the right plants consistently.

There are newer ways to introduce a new or useful trait into a plant. It is even possible to transfer genes from one species to another using genetic engineering. For example, a species of bacteria that lives in soil called Bacillus thuringiensis produces a substance that is toxic to insects. The gene for that toxin has been transferred to some plant crops, such as corn or cotton. The modified plant lines are essentially the same as other plants of the same species, except that they are resistant to insects. Both conventional breeding and genetic engineering methods cause changes in the genes (DNA) and so can be used to produce genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs. A good example of conventional breeding applied to animals is the many dog breeds that have been produced over hundreds of years.

To summarize, in clones all DNA is identical, so all their traits are almost identical. GMOs contain one (or many) new gene(s) to give new traits that the plant or animal did not have before.

Jennifer Holtzmann, Ph.D.
Scientific Evaluator, Evaluation Division
Bureau of Microbial Hazards, Food Directorate
Health Products and Foods Branch, Health Canada

 


 

Insects

Question: Why are insects small?

Answer: Insects are small because they don’t have a system inside their bodies that pumps blood (which carries oxygen) to all parts of the body like people do. They have a series of tiny little tubes that open to the outside air and the oxygen enters these tubes directly and goes to the different parts of the body. Since the oxygen can’t move far or fast in these little tubes it limits how big the insects can grow. If they get too big they won’t be able to get the oxygen to all parts of their bodies.

Question: How do insects fly?

Answer: Insects have one or two pairs of wings and lots of strong muscles to move the wings up and down and allow them to fly.

Question: Why do insects have legs if they can fly?

Answer: Sometimes they need to walk places instead of flying.

Question: Why do insects have antennae?

Answer: The antennae help the insects sense smells, find food, find other insects of the same kind.

- Robert Anderson

 


 

Moss

Question:

Does moss only grow on the north side of trees?

Answer:

The simple answer is “no”. But things in ecology are usually more complex than this and there are some good scientific reasons behind the old Boy Scout advice to find north by looking for which side of the tree has moss. This is because moss tends to prefer to grow in cooler, moister environments. In the northern hemisphere, south-facing surfaces tend to be warmer and drier than north-facing ones. Thus, the north side of a tree is likely to be more favourable for moss growth.

However, if you were lost in the woods, checking for moss on just a single tree would not necessarily be a reliable way to identify where north is. If the tree is located in a shady area or in a depression where it is damp and dark, then it is more likely that moss will be found around the entire tree since more of the trunk area is good growing conditions for moss. There are other factors that influence how moss is distributed on a tree – these include tree species, tree diameter, and competition for other mosses, as well as lichens and liverworts. However, if you take a large sample of trees over a reasonably big area, and measure the density of moss on the north vs. south sides of all the trees, it is quite likely that you will find a higher amount of moss growing on the north side of the trees, averaged across all your samples. But you won’t find an absence of moss on the south sides of the trees either. So, if you’re hiking in the woods, and worried about getting lost, it’s probably best to just carry a compass.

- Yolanda Wiersma

 


 

Birds

Question:

If gravity pulls things down, how do birds fly?

Answer:

Birds can overcome gravity because they have several body features that enable flight. Wings are essential to being able to fly, and an important aspect of the bird wing is its shape – the top is curved while the bottom is flat. Because of this, an air molecule needs to travel a greater distance as it passes over top of the wing than it does passing under it. This means that the air density above the wing is lower – the same number of air molecules is spread out over a larger distance. As a result, the bird is ‘sucked up’ by the vacuum above the wing. Feathers help to fine-tune the movement of air around the wings.

That explains how birds can fly up, but how do they move forward? They do so by flapping their wings. To move their wings, birds contract the breast muscles, which are very large, and which are attached to their breastbone.

This of course only works if the bird is not too heavy, and birds have indeed evolved some characteristics that make them much lighter than – say – a dog of similar size. For example, their bones are hollow, and they do not have teeth, and as you will know, feathers are very light, too. What’s interesting is that some birds that migrate over long-distances can shrink the size of their stomach before they depart on their journey – this way, they don’t have to carry so much weight. When they arrive and start to eat again, they just grow the stomach back to normal size. Neat, hey?

Question:

Why do birds feed their young insects and worms?

Answer:

In order to grow, you need a lot of protein (meat, eggs, beans and such). This is also the case for young birds, and insects and worms contain a lot of protein, so that’s why the parent birds feed it to their young.

- Silke Nebel

 


 

Ants

Questions:

  1. How do ants dig tunnels without having them cave in?
  2. How do ants find their way back to their colony?
  3. Are there any poisonous ants?

Answers:

  1. Ants make tunnels that are generally very small (big enough for just a few ants) and they make the tunnels in well compacted or solid soil. These factors make the tunnels very unlikely to collapse.
  2. When ants go out in search of food they lay down a trail of special chemicals. When it’s time to come back home the ants just follow their own special chemical trail back to the nest.
  3. Most female ants have a venomous sting with which they can inject poison into another insect (or your finger). They use the stings in hunting and for protection. Some ant types do not have stings but have strong chemicals and they also use to overpower their prey or for protection.

- Robert Anderson

 


 

Fish eyes

Question:

Do fish have different eye colours?

Answer:

Fish eyes are remarkably similar to human eyes – they have the same parts such as a cornea, iris, pupil, lens and retina. Like humans, fish have different eye colours but it tends to be fixed for a given species. In fact, sometimes we use eye colour as one of the ways to identify a fish species. The iris is the component of the fish eye that can be visibly different in terms of colour. Even here in Ontario we see fish with very different eye colours. The iris of the popular rock bass is brilliant orange. In general the colours are rather muted – typically earthy shades of brown, yellow, orange, green and black. Some fish such as walleye have translucent eyes but there is a shiny silver reflection off the back of the eye especially when illuminated by a flashlight.

-Dr. Steven Cooke

 


 

Fish spawning

Question:

How do fish get babies?

Answer:

Fish have many fascinating ways in which they produce baby fish – a process often called spawning. In most cases, females expel small eggs that are fertilized by male fish. Sometimes it is just one female and one male that come together to spawn on rocks, logs, or vegetation. In other cases it may be thousands of fish that spawn together where millions of eggs are released into the water column. Eventually the eggs hatch if they are not first eaten by another animal. Sometimes one or both of the parents stick around to care for their offspring but usually the fertilized eggs and eventually small fish are on their own. Some fish such as lemon sharks actually give birth to live babies which means that they also have internal fertilization. Every species of fish has its own story to tell so I encourage you to read about your favourite species!

- Dr. Steven Cooke

 


 

Penguins

Question:

How old do penguins live on average?

Answer:

Penguins grow quite old – compared to other birds, at least. The average life span differs among species, but most penguins live to be about 20 years old in the wild. In captivity, they can live up to 30 years old, mainly because they are safe from predators, never go hungry and when they get sick, a vet will come to visit them!

Question:

And how long does the daddy penguin have to sit on the egg before it hatches?

Answer:

Actually, it is only in the Emperor Penguins where the daddy keeps the egg warm – in all other species, both parents take turns with incubating the egg. The daddy Emperor Penguin balances the egg on his feet, keeping it warm in his brood pouch. Should the egg ever touch the ground, the chick inside the egg would very quickly freeze to death. The daddy stays with the egg for 2 months, until the chick is ready to hatch.

Question:

Also how long does it take for a baby penguin to get its fur?

Answer:

The penguin chicks don’t actually have fur, but when they hatch out of the egg, their feathers are very small and fit tightly together, which makes it look like as if they had fur.

- Silke Nebel

 


 

Do insects sleep?

Question:

When some bugs just stay still, I assume they are sleeping. But I think my assumption could be plain wrong! Do insects ever sleep?

Answer:

They don’t sleep in the same sense as people or other animals do.  They will have periods where they are not active and just sitting there but their senses are all on high alert and they are ready to jump or run or fly away fast if they sense danger. 

- Robert Anderson

 

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