The poisonous web of a bioluminescent fly

The toxic web of Orfelia fultoni (Diptera, Keroplatidae)

    While on a collecting trip to the Pisgah Mountains of North Carolina, we found the fly Orfelia fultoni. These luminous fly larvae dotted the mossy bank of a spring and emitted a continuous blue glow. The spectrum is the bluest of any terrestrial bioluminescence, and originates from the larva’s head and tail. This luminescence has been experimentally shown to be effective in attracting insect prey (Sivinski, 1982). The fly larvae, which were about 1 cm long and translucent, appeared on the surface of the moss suspended in a web adorned with little ampules of clear fluid. In the image above, the fluid-filled ampules appear as tiny white cones, and you can see the larvae just to the right of the web in the middle of frame, you’ll have to look close. The ampules are filled with oxalic acid and when an entangled insect disturbs them, they rupture spilling the toxic fluid onto the insect prey (Fulton, 1939).


  • Fulton, B. B. (1939). Lochetic luminous Diptera larvae. Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, 55, 289-293.
  • Fulton, B. B. (1941). A luminous fly larva with spider traits (Diptera, Mycetophilidae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 34(2), 289-302.
  • Sivinski, J. (1982). Prey attraction by luminous larvae of the fungus gnat Orfelia fultoni. Ecological Entomology, 7(4), 443-446.
  • Viviani, V. R., Hastings, J., & Wilson, T. (2002). Two Bioluminescent Diptera: The North American Orfelia fultoni and the Australian Arachnocampa flava. Similar Niche, Different Bioluminescence Systems. Photochemistry and Photobiology, 75(1), 22-27.
  • The adventurous blog of Danté Fenolio:
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Collecting millipedes on Brush Mountain

(left to right) Paul Marek, Jackson Means, Katy Lawler, Nina Zegler and Elizabeth Francis

On Friday, we collected millipedes on Brush Mountain near Blacksburg, Virginia. We found the genera Narceus, Pseudopolydesmus, Apheloria, Rudiloria, and Nannaria. Other fascinating discoveries included several species of plethodontid salamanders, a large imperial moth caterpillar, a giant crayfish, cryptocercid cockroaches, and an aggregation of dancing Beech blight aphids.

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Fruit fly parasitoids

Parasitic wasps in the family Figitidae (Eucoilinae), top male – bottom female.

Jamie Wahls, graduate student here in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech working in Tom Kuhar’s Vegetable Entomology Lab, recently visited our lab with some of his parasitoid wasps. This is an image of an unidentified species of figitid wasp, and fruit fly parasitoid, that we captured with our  microphotography system.

(Canon 6D, 65 mm lens, 3x, 1/125s, f5.6 – stack of 10 images)

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A poem

Beautiful Millipedes

I dreamed I am a millipede
So beautiful and happy indeed
What genus to be?
Well, let’s see!

Brachoria, Motyxia or Illacme
Each with their own species
Some with colors bright
Some glow at night

Brachoria, with species of 34
Living in the Appalachian forest floor
Colors of orange, yellow, violet, red
Snug under leaves in a burrow bed

Motyxia, bioluminescent glow
In the dark a crawling show
Species of toxic 8
Searching for a cyanide mate

Illacme plenipes, leggiest of all
Rediscovered by Rob and Paul
750 and 666 legs plentiful
Such a wonderful spectacle!

*Poem contributed by the laboratory’s poet laureate and my dad, Bob Marek. When he is not writing poetry, Bob enjoys studying the U.S. Constitution and reading the New York Times. He is also volunteer at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center.

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Pinwheel of millipedes

A quarter pinwheel of millipedes of the species Brachycybe lecontii Wood, 1864

A murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings…a pinwheel of millipedes? Last week, Dr. Matt Kasson, his student Cameron, and I went on an expedition to find the millipede Brachycybe lecontii. The picture shown above is an aggregation of about 15 individuals on a decaying piece of wood that we discovered in Buchanan County, Virginia (there are 10 or so small juveniles hidden beneath the adults). Often, Brachycybe are found in these aggregations where individuals are arranged radially with their heads facing a common center and tails diverging outwards (also shown here).

These millipedes are blind, slow-moving and eat fungus. They are also fascinating biologically:

  • First, B. lecontii produces an unknown chemical secretion from serially arranged pores lining the lateral tips of its segments.
  • Second, the species demonstrates exclusive male parental care of young. The males  care for the eggs and the young by holding them ventrally in a basket formed by their many legs. There’s evidence that the males groom the eggs and clean them of fungus and bacteria.
  • Third, B. lecontii are social and live in multi-generational clusters of individuals affectionately referred to as pinwheels.
  • Finally, the genus Brachycybe  lives in East Asia and North America, and in geological time the group’s evolutionary age predates the breakup of these continents.


  • Brewer, M. S., Spruill, C. L., Rao, N. S., & Bond, J. E. (2012). Phylogenetics of the millipede genus Brachycybe Wood, 1864 (Diplopoda: Platydesmida: Andrognathidae): Patterns of deep evolutionary history and recent speciation. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 64(1), 232-242.
  • Gardner, M.R. (1975) Revision of the millipede family Andrognathidae in the Nearctic region (Diplopoda, Platydesmida). Memoirs of the Pacific Coast Entomological Society, 5, 61 pp.
  • Hasegawa, E., Yao, I., Futami, K., Yagi, N., Kobayashi, K., & Kudo, S. I. (2012). Isolation of microsatellite loci from the millipede, Brachycybe nodulosa Verhoeff. Conservation Genetics Resources, 4(1), 89-91.
  • Kudo, S. I., Akagi, Y., Hiraoka, S., Tanabe, T., & Morimoto, G. (2011). Exclusive male egg care and determinants of brooding success in a millipede. Ethology, 117(1), 19-27.
  • Shelley, R. M., McAllister, C. T., & Tanabe, T. (2005). A synopsis of the milliped genus Brachycybe Wood, 1864 (Platydesmida: Andrognathidae). Fragmenta Faunistica, 48(2), 137-166.


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National Moth Week 2014

Spanish moon moth, Graellsia isabellae (Graëlls, 1849). D. Descouens CC BY-SA 3.0

Join entomologists from Virginia Tech and celebrate National Moth Week! Come out to the campus of VPI and discover insect biodiversity and nighttime nature. We’ll be across the street from Price Hall, near Duck Pond at 8:30PM this Thursday, July 24. We’ll have a mercury-vapor lamp, black light and insect nets.

This year’s NMW is celebrating the silk moth, insect family Saturniidae. Pictured above is a member of this family from Spain. It’s a close relative to our Luna Moth (Actias luna) here in the U.S. Saturniid moths are fascinating insects with a super sense of smell. They can detect just a few molecules of a chemical or pheromone with their frilly, plumose antennae! (Pictured above is a male, here’s a female.)

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Collecting in the Blue Ridge

The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina

Elizabeth, Jackson and I just returned from a three-day collecting expedition to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. It was an exhilarating three days and two nights, with little sleep and lots of beetles and millipedes. One of the best discoveries of the trip were bioluminescent fly larvae of the species Orfelia fultoni (Diptera, Keroplatidae) from the mountains of North Carolina. These nocturnal fly larvae are carnivorous and spin webs to entangle their prey, which they attract with their glowing blue light.

Snail-eating ground beetle, genus Scaphinotus (Coleoptera, Carabidae). It’s pointed head is adapted for poking into the apertures of snails to feed on the soft body parts.

Helops sulcipennis (Coleoptera, Tenebrionidae). This flightless beetle occurs in the higher reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains in dry habitats referred to as “Appalachian Deserts”.

Meracantha contracta (Coleoptera, Tenebrionidae), found exclusively on dead tree snags.

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Millipede from Burkes Garden

Appalachioria separanda hamata (Burkes Garden, Virginia)

The Appalachian Mountains hold a great diversity of colorful millipedes, including this species that we found during a recent collecting trip to Burkes Garden, Virginia. This is one of two color morphs that we found in this spot (special thanks to Tim McCoy for spying this one). The other morph has yellow stripes and legs instead of the red spots and orange legs shown in this individual. The red & black morph likely mimics Rudiloria kleinpeteri and the yellow morph, Apheloria virginiensis (both found in the area). Many of these instances of divergent coloration occur between individuals that are very closely related (based on uniform DNA barcoding sequences). The genetic mechanism controlling this in millipedes is unknown. However, the genetics of variable color mimicry in nymphalid butterflies has been investigated in several fascinating articles (Joron et al. Nature, 2011; Kunte et al. Nature, 2013).

Appalachioria separanda calcaria (Brush Mountain, Virginia), another colorful millipede from just a few miles north of the Entomology Department @ Virginia Tech. (The little white patch above the red medial spot is neat.)

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Terraformer millipede

This millipede is Narceus americanus (Palisot de Beauvois, 1817) that I found curled up in the trunk of a live tree. At night, N. americanus is known to climb trees and graze on algae and fungus adhering to the surface of the bark. Their contribution to decomposition and nutrient cycling is quite spectacular.

Many millipedes, especially individuals of the species N. americanus, are voracious detritivores and feed on decaying leaves, wood, bark and other decomposing vegetation. Millipedes provide a really important ecosystem service by fragmenting decaying vegetation thus increasing surface area for colonization by microorganisms (e.g., bacteria and fungus). These microbes complete the process of decomposition and free up nutrients for future generations of life to use.

Based on careful natural history observations, Frederick Coville, former chief botanist of the USDA who studied a population of Narceus americanus from Plummers Island, described the astounding composting abilities of these diminutive animals. He and Herbert Barber, a beetle expert at the Smithsonian, discovered 1000 individual N. americanus while searching a 1000 sq-ft surface of the island at night. On another occasion, they found 320 individuals in a 80 sq-ft area by carefully sifting through the fallen leaves and detritus of the forest.

Coville found that each N. americanus produces about a half cubic centimeter of excrement a day. That’s about an M&M’s worth of feces, which equates to nutrient rich compost for the forest. By measuring the amount of excrement that N. americanus produced each day, easily counted because they’re excreted as firm oval pellets, Coville estimated that they contribute more than 2 tons of compost (about 2 small automobiles worth!) to an acre of the forest each year. Quite a spectacular contribution, considering it’s coming from just one species in the forest.

Coville, F.V. (1913) The formation of leafmold. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences. 3: 77-89.*

*In the article, Narceus americanus is referred to as Spirobolus marginatus, which is an old name for the same species. (Article contributed by MBLWHOI through Biodiversity Heritage Library.)

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Fieldwork at La Selva, Costa Rica

rotting_log 018
In search of millipedes, we’re dismantling this fantastically rotten log in La Selva, Costa Rica [left to right: Petra Sierwald, curator at the Field Museum; Jackson Means, grad student in the lab; Jason Bond, professor at Auburn University; Paul Marek, PI in the lab; Carlos Viquez, curator at the National Biodiversity Institute, INBio, Costa Rica] Photo by Bill Shear, professor at Hamden-Sydney College.

The decaying log held scores of millipedes, including sphaeriodesmids, siphonophorids, pyrgodesmids, spirostreptids, chelodesmids, polyxenids, and glomeridesmids.

bill_jackson_inbio 020
Bill and Jackson with a portion of the millipede collection at Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad, INBio. (Jackson is hatching up a plan to bring a 20 gallon bucket of unsorted Berlese samples back to Blacksburg with him.)

INBio is a national institute (funded privately) dedicated to making an inventory of Costa Rica’s natural heritage, promoting conservation and education, and identifying biological and chemical properties of plants and animals potentially useful for pharmaceuticals, industry, biomimicry, and other applications.

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