Updates and thoughts on course materials

As I posted before (in February and again in March), we’re in the midst of reinventing our upper level course on insect biodiversity and evolution. Our long term mission has always been to make these materials available broadly, under a license with few restrictions (probably CC BY). We’ve started pushing materials to our GitHub repo, so that people can clone, use, edit, add, push, etc.—a process that I expect to be slow—and the time seems right for an update.

Over the last month or so we spent about 60 hours on what was the least developed handout: Amphiesmenoptera. I always teach this taxon at the end of the course, and by then we are usually running out of steam. We removed all uncredited images and replaced them with our own photos, CC-licensed photos from Flickr, and out-of-copyright illustrations from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). All are referenced and linked back to their sources. See Figure 13 in the Amphiesmenoptera handout, for example:


The process is definitely taking longer than I anticipated, although this handout needed way more work than most. We want each handout to represent a unit of knowledge, in this case amphiesmenopteran diversity, evolution, adaptations, diagnostic characters, and natural history. The lab and lecture components will likely be fused in future iterations of the course: we introduce the focal taxa, discuss some higher-level adaptations and things to watch for when looking at specimens in lab, then we break to look at specimens, using the handout as a guide. There will be many opportunities to take breaks and discuss what we’ve found (mini lectures mixed in with lab). At the end we answer some big picture questions as a group.

Some other thoughts, in random list form:

  • The BHL is an incredible resource. We will be using it more in other handouts! I will likely edit the .bst file to render linked DOI and URIs, so that readers can see the source in one click from the PDF.
  • We need to move away from using content whose license is not controlled by my lab group or our collaborators. Image source and permissions management gets increasingly difficult in rapidly evolving, image-rich content. This situation gave us ideas for student exercises involving camera phones and microscopy. More on that later.
  • GitHub and Overleaf are awesome tools, with great synergy, but I wish there was a seamless way to push changes made in Overleaf to our GitHub repo. This post gets me halfway there … but I am (arguably too) reliant on Overleaf as my primary LaTeX editor.
  • We’re looking for more graded exercise ideas if you have any. I am especially interested in alternatives to collection making. Would you let a student curate the research collection for credit?

My next move, which might happen right now, is to push the remaining handouts to GitHub. Onwards!

Collaborative, open access course materials

It’s time to follow up on my post last month, in which I established a starting point for our collaborative course on insect biodiversity and evolution. We’ve had extensive back and forth here, about how to establish a robust, user-friendly environment for contributing edits and content to course materials. We settled on GitHub: https://github.com/adeans/InsectBiodiversityEvolution

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And we’ve started migrating materials there. Probably the best place to start if you’re interested in learning more about the project or want to contribute your own materials is our wiki: https://github.com/adeans/InsectBiodiversityEvolution/wiki

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We’re drafting some help documents this week that will guide one through the process of submitting issues, downloading (cloning) files, submitting changes, etc.

Dendrocerus mexicali (Hymenoptera, Ceraphronoidea, Megaspilidae) – our latest open access publication


Burks KN, Mikó I, Deans AR (2016) Dendrocerus mexicali (Hymenoptera, Ceraphronoidea, Megaspilidae): Novel antennal morphology, first description of female, and expansion of known range into the U.S. ZooKeys 569: 53-69. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.569.6629

Abstract.—Dendrocerus mexicali has been described by Paul Dessart from a single male specimen collected in Mexico. Using 87 newly identified specimens we expand the known range to include the Southwestern United States and Florida, provide an expanded description of the species, and provide the first record of the female. We also use confocal laser scanning microscopy and in vitro hydrostatic pressure changes to investigate the functional morphology of apparently unique basally flexible antennal branches.

Insect Biodiversity and Evolution revolution

Last fall I gave a talk at the ESA annual meeting (see blog post about it) about re-envisioning our course on insect biodiversity and evolution (currently called, weirdly enough, Insect Biodiversity and Evolution (ENT432)). We’re in week five of the “revolution”, and it’s time to start being a bit more public about our efforts. That was, after all, the whole point of the talk I gave at ESA.

Redesigning a course is a complex undertaking, especially when we’re building on eight years of teaching history and bits and pieces of content from various colleagues. Hence we chose to start more or less from scratch, breaking the course down into modules that could be worked on in parallel:

  1.  Introduction – mostly logistics but also addresses the following questions: What are arthropods? What is systematics and why is it relevant?
  2. Arthropod morphology – lays the groundwork for understanding adaptations, evolution, and diagnosis
  3. Systematics and Evolution – basics of evolution (natural selection, adaptation, Hox genes), history of classification and phylogenetics (Aristotle to Hennig and beyond); puts our knowledge into context
  4. Early arthropods, fossils, terrestrialization – fossilization processes, important arthropod fossils, adaptations to the challenges of terrestrial environments; where did arthropods come from?
  5. Outgroups – covers non-insect arthropods and the likely sister to Arthropoda, Onychophora [see drafts of slideshow and handout]
  6. Non-pterygote hexapods – this and the rest are self-explanatory
  7. Palaeoptera
  8. Polyneoptera
  9. Acercaria
  10. Hymenoptera
  11. Neuropterida
  12. Coleoptera, Strepsiptera
  13. Antliophora
  14. Amphiesmenoptera
  15. Natural history collections (could/should be done as one of the first modules)

Additionally, we’ve identified a set of cool stories, bro (20+ min, could involve a paper and discussion) that are highly relevant and important for students training to become professional entomologists to know:

  • origin of wings
  • holometabolous development
  • leaf mining/herbivory strategies
  • galls/galling
  • mimicry/aposematism
  • sound production – percussion (Plecoptera), stridulation (Hemiptera: Heteroptera, Coleoptera, Lepidoptera, others), tymbals (Cicadamorpha), forced air (Blattodea)
  • sexual selection
  • fighting/weapons – or include in sexual selection? 
  • sociality – haplodiploidy, other conditions that contribute to rise of eusociality
  • nest architecture
  • myrmecophily – tie in with nest architecture?
  • symbioses – seems too diverse for one long discussion, maybe better as series of short vignettes (one on Blattabacterium, one on polydnaviruses, another on yeasts in hemipterans, etc.)
  • aquatic adaptations (breathing, swimming) – lentic, lotic, boundary layer, plastron breathing, air straps, hydrofuge hairs, semiaquatic, surface skimming
  • silk – which glands produce it, chemical composition, uses

And short vignettes (5–10 min, not much discussion maybe):

  • camouflage
  • pheromones
  • migration
  • wing coupling
  • cryophily
  • relicts
  • sucking mouth
  • xylophagy
  • resilin, jumping
  • tympana
  • mating position
  • foveation
  • parasitoidism
  • parasitism
  • predation

That could/should be peppered throughout the modules and revisited in multiple modules as necessary.

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“Outgroups” handout, in development at Overleaf

We’re still getting organized about how to engage colleagues and share emerging content. At the moment we use Google Slides for the lecture slideshows (slide example) and Overleaf for handouts (above; see also handout example). Our rules are: (1) maximize note-taking potential where possible, i.e., minimize text and use images to stimulate discussion, (2) use CC BY or CC0 images where possible (avoid copyrighted images unless we have permission that we can document and/or we are using them in the spirit of fair use), (3) document all content, including image source(s), content source(s), and dates of retrieval, (4) develop content in a way that maximizes safe re-use.

Any thoughts? What have we missed? Expect more frequent engagement (hopefully weekly) as this project unfolds! We’ll tag ’em, so that they can be browsed conveniently: InsectSystematics.

Emerging semantics to link phenotype and environment – our latest open access publication


Thessen AE, Bunker DE, Buttigieg PL, Cooper LD, Dahdul WM, Domisch S, Franz NM, Jaiswal P, Lawrence-Dill CJ, Midford PE, Mungall CJ, Ramírez MJ, Specht CD, Vogt L, Vos RA, Walls RL, White JW, Zhang G, Deans AR, Huala E, Lewis SE, Mabee PM. (2015) Emerging semantics to link phenotype and environment. PeerJ 3:e1470. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.1470

Abstract.—Understanding the interplay between environmental conditions and phenotypes is a fundamental goal of biology. Unfortunately, data that include observations on phenotype and environment are highly heterogeneous and thus difficult to find and integrate. One approach that is likely to improve the status quo involves the use of ontologies to standardize and link data about phenotypes and environments. Specifying and linking data through ontologies will allow researchers to increase the scope and flexibility of large-scale analyses aided by modern computing methods. Investments in this area would advance diverse fields such as ecology, phylogenetics, and conservation biology. While several biological ontologies are well-developed, using them to link phenotypes and environments is rare because of gaps in ontological coverage and limits to interoperability among ontologies and disciplines. In this manuscript, we present (1) use cases from diverse disciplines to illustrate questions that could be answered more efficiently using a robust linkage between phenotypes and environments, (2) two proof-of-concept analyses that show the value of linking phenotypes to environments in fishes and amphibians, and (3) two proposed example data models for linking phenotypes and environments using the extensible observation ontology (OBOE) and the Biological Collections Ontology (BCO); these provide a starting point for the development of a data model linking phenotypes and environments.

Redescription of Conostigmus albovarius Dodd, 1915 … – our latest open access publication

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Trietsch C, Deans AR, Mikó I (2015) Redescription of Conostigmus albovarius Dodd, 1915 (Hymenoptera, Megaspilidae), a metallic ceraphronoid, with the first description of males. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 46: 137-150. doi: 10.3897/JHR.46.5534

Abstract.— Conostigmus albovarius Dodd, 1915 (Hymenoptera: Megaspilidae) is a species previously known by a single female holotype. Here, we provide a redescription of this peculiar ceraphronoid based on several female specimens and describe the male of the species for the first time. Intraspecifically-variable morphological traits such as female antenna color pattern are documented and discussed. A phenotype bank of morphological characters is provided for use in future megaspilid taxonomic treatments. We also provide phenotypic data in a semantic form to allow for ease of data integration and accessibility, making taxonomic data more accessible to future systematic efforts.

Our 2015 ECN/ESA talks

I gotta say that I am really proud of the talks my lab gave at this year’s Entomological Collections Network and Entomological Society of America meetings. You can find the slides below:

Emily Sandall et al. (2015) Digitization of the Beatty Odonata Collection at the Frost Entomological Museum (PSUC): the terrain of ecological niche modeling. ECN annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1602235 (Sandall et al. program link)

Kyle Burks (2015) Revision of Dendrocerus (Hymenoptera, Megaspilidae): Deciphering an esoteric taxon through an integrative approach. ESA annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1603028

Carolyn Trietsch (2015) Conostigmus spp. (Hymenoptera: Megaspilidae) of the Holarctic. ESA annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1609733

István Mikó and Andrew R. Deans (2015) Insect integument: The link between insect taxonomy and evolutionary developmental biology. ESA annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1606223

I also gave my own talk, in which I summarized our experiences with a recent morphology course we offered: Know your insect (ENT 530):

Andrew R. Deans and István Mikó (2015) Know your insects! New approaches to teaching insect morphology and systematics. ESA annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1609692

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It could’ve (should’ve?) been one of the worst talk experiences I have ever had—crackly voice, blistering headache, sore throat, cough of death—except that I was overwhelmed by the massive interest people seemed to have in the topic. The room was completely filled, with every square centimeter of floor space covered by entomologists and a huge overflow out into the hallway. I couldn’t believe it! And, to top it off, there was a massive line afterwards to talk to me about morphology course ideas.

Based on these interactions, as well as some incredible talks by my colleagues (I’m looking at you, Brian Wiegmann), I’m now more motivated than ever to pursue some of the ideas we have for training the next generation of entomologists in core entomological knowledge. Watch this space for a deeper explanation, updates about collaboratively-developed educational materials, and news of an upcoming morphology workshop for graduate students.

Thank you all for making ECN and ESA such vibrant, accepting, and exciting communities!