Hiep’s bug blog

Hiep Nguyen’s UCMP undergraduate research experience: “Scentless in Nevada”

I have been working this past year on making ‘sense” out of a fossil “scentless” plant bug from the middle Miocene Stewart Valley locality in west-central Nevada. Together with Senior Museum Scientist Diane M. Erwin we have identified a new fossil species of scentless plant bug (family Rhopalidae) from a Miocene lake bed deposit in Stewart Valley, Nevada. The study developed as a result of my participation as an Undergraduate Research Apprentice (URAP) in UC Berkeley’s fossil insect digitization PEN project (BFIP) funded by the National Science Foundation. The BFIP project is part of the Fossil Insect Collaborative Thematic Collections Network, a group of seven institutions that house our nation’s largest fossil insect collections. Their charge is to database and image these collections for public access online through the iDigBio and iDigPaleo web portals.

Hiep busy measuring specimens of the new Stewart Valley fossil rhopalid using BFIP images and computer-based analytical software.
Hiep using the microscope camera-lucida setup to make tracings of his specimens to be used for his publication illustrations.

The Stewart Valley rhopalid is brown-bodied, 6.5-7.5 mm long from head to the tip of the abdomen, has numerous dark spots covering the legs, and the femur of its two back legs is noticeably wider than the others, but shows no evidence of spines. The feature that stands out most however is the striking set of dorsal markings on the insect’s abdomen. In the pictures below, you will notice a figure-8 shaped crest accompanied by four similarly-sized semicircular spots beneath it.

Diane and I worked through a long process of examining species sharing similar characteristics to our specimens. We collaborated with the Essig Museum of Entomology to examine modern counterparts to our fossil and were able to narrow the family down to the Rhopalidae. We then consulted the published literature on rhopalids and used the combination of abdominal markings and other characters to differentiate between species within Rhopalidae. What we found was that the fossil shares a number of its characters with species in several genera, but is closest to those in the subfamily Rhopalinae, tribe Rhopalini. Of especial note is the fossil’s abdominal markings, which are very reminiscent of those on the purported introduced European species, Brachycarenus tigrinus.

I wrapped up my URAP with a poster presentation for the 2016 Geological Society of America meeting held in Denver, CO detailing our findings about this newly discovered fossil insect and its evolutionary, biogeographic and paleoenvironmental implications as well as a first draft of a paper to be published on these results. The Nevada landscape of today with its miles of treeless expanse, dry lakebeds (playas), hot summers and cold winters was quite the opposite during the Miocene. Unlike today, Stewart Valley boasted an abundance of rain. A lush forest of dicotyledonous trees and nearby grasslands sporting an array of herbaceous plants surrounded a large lake teeming with aquatic life, its waters sustaining a diverse vertebrate fauna. Indeed 14.5 million years ago the Stewart Valley was an ideal habitat for scentless plant bugs to thrive and diversify.

Bringing UCMP’s Fossil Insects to Light and More!

Bringing UCMP’s Fossil Insects to Light and More!
The National Science Foundation.

Thanks to a two-year collections digitization grant awarded to the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) by the National Science Foundation’s, “Advancing the Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC)” program, UC Berkeley joined the Fossil Insect Collaborative Thematic Collections Network (FIC) as a “Partner to an Existing Network (PEN)” in the summer of 2015.


The FIC is a consortium of seven institutions that house the largest fossil insect collections in the country. Members include the University of Colorado (Boulder), American Museum of Natural History, Harvard, Yale, University of Kansas, Illinois Natural History Survey (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), and the Virginia Museum of Natural History. The specimen data and images generated by these institutions go to the iDigBio, GBIFiDigPaleo and EOL web portals for online access by anyone. The BFIP data is also accessible through the UCMP and Calphotos online databases.

The BFIP project is contributing specimen data and images of its smaller, yet significant collections of insects preserved in amber from Mexico, those from the Rancho La Brea and McKittrick tar pits of southern California, and the thousands buried 14.5 million years ago in an ancient Nevada lake bed. Although the main task of the BFIP is to provide fossil insect data and images, one our BFIP team members, Dr. Marwa Wafeeq El-Faramawi became intrigued with the amber collection archives. Now one year into the project Dr. El-Faramawi has scanned the contents of nearly all 85 folders.

A beautifully preserved fossil fungus gnat from the middle Miocene of Stewart Valley, Nevada. This specimen is just one specimen among the thousands in the UCMP collection.

The amber archive files are one of the PEN project resources that we first targeted in the hope of finding clues on where some (or all) of the missing amber specimens are in order to track them down and, if lucky enough, get them back. However, going through the files (85 folders) made us realize just how important and probably highly overlooked these documents are. Basically speaking they contain all official correspondences concerning the amber and related research that Berkeley professors had with their peers all over the country and the world. They also revealed most of the specimen’s shipping details and receipts (going back and forth), in addition to drafts and manuscripts that the professors exchanged by snail mail in the old days. As official as they may seem, they definitely revealed more than that. These documents –if you read them right- tell so many stories; stories about the social / friendly or sometimes unfriendly side of the relationship between the professors and in some cases their families. Stories about the history of research in Berkeley and how it was done back then; and it may even tell you stories about the history of mail service at these times. These are the last century’s text messages and being able to view them is a one of a kind time-machine experience.

A dapper young Frans Blom in 1922.

Given that most of the museum’s amber collection comes from Chiapas, Mexico, one of the most interesting folders is number 19, the Frans Blom folder, which includes his correspondences, photos, and postcards from 1952-1962. Frans Blom, also known as Pancho (as he used to sign his letters and postcards), is a highly renowned figure in the world of archaeology and the study of the Mayan civilization in Mexico and Guatemala. The great Danish archeologist and his wife the Swiss photographer Gertude Duby (Trudi) used to supply UC Berkeley Department of  Entomology’s professors Paul D. Hurd, Jr. and Ray F. Smith and UCMP’s J. Wyatt Durham with amber materials and host them in their house, the “Casa Na Bolom” or “the house of the jaguar,” during their amber collecting expeditions in Mexico. The house still existed under the management of his wife Trudi and served as a center for scholars researching Chiapas and Guatemala even after Blom died in 1963. It now serves as a museum, hotel and restaurant. His correspondence goes beyond the official in revealing his hospitality, high sense of humor and sturdy, determinate, courageous self, it also gives details about the expedition made by the UC-Berkeley research team and its before and after arrangements and complications. Frans Blom led an adventurous life that was documented in many articles and books. For more information about the great man it is definitely worth mentioning that the Bancroft Library has an invaluable genuine collection of Frans Blom’s personal and professional history that includes eleven boxes of his papers, diaries, correspondences and more from 1919 to 1942. All these items can be accessed by request for research purposes.

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