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B.C. researchers discover parasitic wasps that hypnotize and feast on spiders





Philippe Fernandez-Fournier was in Ecuador studying “social” spiders that typically stay close to their colonies.

So, when one wandered off alone and started spinning a thick, cocoon-like web, he noticed.

“It was very odd … so I started taking notes,” said Fernandez-Fournier, a former master’s student in the University of British Columbia’s department of zoology.

Philippe Fernandez-Fournier, a former master’s student at UBC’s department of zoology, stands beneath a large spider’s nest in Ecuador. (UBC)

Those first notes led to the discovery of a new species of wasp that transforms the sociable spiders into lifeless drones that abandon their own colonies to obey the wasp instead.

And, eventually, die to keep the wasp alive.

Egg comes first

The findings, published in Ecological Entomology this fall, detail the unusual parasite-host relationship between the Zatypota wasp and the spider.

It begins when an adult female wasp — only about the size of a fingernail — lays an egg on the spider’s abdomen. When the larva hatches, it latches on to its unlucky host and starts feasting.

The larva slowly takes over the spider’s body as it grows, keeping it alive until it’s ready to move to a proper nest.

Then, it commands its spider to spin a dense, protective cocoon not far from the colony.

A cocoon web, indicated by the white arrow, was created by the infected host spider near its colony. It protects the wasp larva until it turns into an adult insect. (UBC)

The wasp then kills the spider, devours the corpse and crawls into the cage-like web. An adult wasp emerges fully formed after about 10 days.

Samantha Straus, co-author of the study and a PhD candidate in UBC’s department of zoology, said it’s not clear how the wasp takes over the spider’s brain. Her best guesses are some kind of hormonal or viral influence.

Philippe Fernandez-Fournier and Samantha Straus studying a spider’s nest in Ecuador. (UBC)

She said the wasps essentially use the spiders to ensure their own survival.

“The environment in Ecuador is intense,” Straus said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “The web is basically a protective cage for the wasp to keep growing.”

Parasitic wasps aren’t entirely new, but the Zatypota species is the only one the authors believe can manipulate social spiders.

The Vancouver-based student described the wasp hijacking, which was researched over six years, as one of the “coolest” things she’s “ever worked on.”

So cool, that Straus got a tattoo of the wasp on her arm — keeping with her tradition of getting some kind of tattoo in homage to her various field studies.

“I think they’re beautiful,” she said, adding: “You have to be a pretty big nerd to think this stuff is cool. Which I am.”

Samantha Straus’ tattoo of an adult Zatypota wasp on her forearm. (Samantha Straus)


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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla





Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm





Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover





KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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