Sumac Aphid Gall

The bladder-like galls produced the Sumac Gall Aphid (Melaphis rhois) are becoming evident on the leaflet midveins of its namesake host in southwest Ohio. They currently measure between around 1/4" to 1/2" in diameter and their size coupled with their light green color can make them difficult to detect.

Sumac Aphid Gall

Sumac Aphid Gall

Sumac Aphid Gall

This will change as the season progresses. The galls will eventually become variegated with areas that are greenish-white bounded by areas that are mottled reddish-pink. The starkly contrasting colors will make the galls very evident.

Sumac Aphid Gall

Sumac Aphid Gall

The online literature indicates smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and staghorn sumac (R. typhina) are the aphid's primary hosts, if not the only sumac hosts. I've never found them on any other sumac.

Sumac Aphid Gall

Sumac Aphid Gall

As with the vast majority of insects that produce plant galls, the sumac gall aphid appears to cause little injury to the overall health of their host plants. Although heavy galling may cause early coloring and shedding of some sumac leaflets, the overall impact appears to be inconsequential relative to plant health.

The aphid has a complex life cycle with summer generations producing galls on sumac and winter generations living on mosses beneath or near the sumac. Females released from the summer galls drop onto moss where they reproduce asexually and the subsequent generations survive the winter.

Sumac Aphid Gall

Males and females arise from the moss colonies in the spring with winged, mated females flying to sumac where each female lays a single egg. The egg hatches into a "stem mother" which initiates gall formation and gives rise to a series of parthenogenetic (without males) generations that proliferate inside the gall. The galls eventually split open in the fall to release winged females that drop onto moss starting the alternating moss-sumac host cycle over again. 

Sumac Aphid Gall

A Deep Time International Story

In 2015, Zhumei Ren (School of Life Science, Shanxi University, Taiyuan, China) visited Greater Cincinnati on a collection trip hosted by Sue Lutz (Botanist, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History) and funded by the Museum's Global Genome Initiative. Ren was doing research on prehistoric connections between gall-making aphids on sumac that are found in Asia and North America. 

Sumac Aphid Gall

Research had clearly shown that our native sumac gall aphid,Melaphis rhois, and the Chinese sumac aphid,Schlechtendalia chinensis, are "biogeographically disjunct" Asian and North American species meaning they are related, but separated geographically. Indeed, Ren's research showed our native aphid's mitochondrial genome (mitogenome) is identical to that of the Chinese aphid which begs the question: just how "native" is our native sumac gall aphid?

Based on aphids Ren gathered in Ohio and elsewhere in 2015, a phylogenetic study she published in 2017 showed the North American gall aphid genus,Melaphis, diverged from its Asian relatives around 64.6 million years ago during the early Paleogene Period in the Paleocene Epoch

Sumac Aphid Gall

Alert readers will recognize that the timing is very close to the mass extinction that marked the end of the Cretaceous period as well as the non-avian dinosaurs (the so-called K-T Boundary). While the exact chain of events causing the demise of T-Rex remains hotly debated, there is no doubt a meteor impact played a key role.

The meteor muddled-up more than just reptiles. Owing to continental drift, Earth's land masses were aligned differently 65 million years ago. North America was strongly attached to Asia by more than just a land bridge across the Bering Sea. There is no doubt many insect-plant relationships were shared between the two continents. However, the mass extinction radically changed things [see "2002: Impact …" in "More Information" below].

The meteor impact appears to have scrambled the phylogenetic record in such way that science may not be able to untangle the exact historical relationship between our sumac gall aphids and those found in Asia. At least, that's a conclusion Ren and her co-authors presented in their 2017 paper. Of course, if Ren's research thus far teaches us anything, it's that science does not stand still. And, the lessons taught by the sumac aphid is more than just gall deep; they are deep time deep. 

Ron Wilson

Ron Wilson

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