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Different wing colors in a harlequin ladybeetle specimen

The ladybeetle Harmonia axyridis is naturally distributed over eastern Asia, but was imported to the United States already at the beginning of the 20th century as pest control. At first, there was no population development in the open fields. These were at first reported from Louisiana in 1988. In 2001 the first free living specimens were for Europe discovered in Belgium. Since then the beetle distributed over several European countries, such as France, entire Germany or Switzerland.

 

Variations of Harmonia axyridis

 

The beetle is well known for its great form variations. Worldwide more than 200 different color pattern forms of thorax and elytrae are described. They are distinctly shaped and maintain in this shape and arrangement of pattern. But four forms dominate within natural populations. Speaking about the elytrae (not the thorax patterns), the reddish form with dark spots, as visible in my film, is one of them.

These distinct different forms must be named a polymorphism and are based on genetic information as well as on environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity and light intensitivity. According to that even the term polyphenism might be adequate.

 

 

 

 

Transcription factor pannier responsible for color pattern polymorphism

 

According to the work of M. Gautier et al. (the genomic basis of color pattern polymorphism  in the harlequin ladybird, Current biology, 28, 20), the transcription factor pannier is responsible for the genetically based control of this polymorphism. They discovered that different pannier alleles determine the color pattern in the different known forms. The authors furthermore report that pannier was never found before to play a keyfactor role in the pigmentation of insects.

 

Ladybeetle species on a meadow in Berlin

 

The specimen in my footage was discovered on an urban meadow in the park area „Nordhafen“ in Berlin. It’s a meadow in autumn predominantly consisting of lucerne and clover, sorrel and yellow field cress. Different ladybeetle species could be in greater numbers found there between September and October 2019. The sevenspot-ladybird, the adonis ladybird (Hippodamia variegata) and most abundant the harlquin ladybird in all its developmental stages.

 

Asymmetrical wing colors and possible explications

 

 

Harlequin beetle specimen from Berlin with asymmetrically colored wings, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, please like my video also on Youtube

 

The most conspicuous character of „my“ harlequin ladybird specimen was its distinct asymmetrically colored wings (elytrae). One side reddish with black spots, the other side brownish with black spots. During my research about such asymmetries in ladybirds, I didn’t find recent studies, which distinctly focussed on that topic. H. E. Roy et al. reported in their book „ladybirds“ (original version 1989, revised version 2013) about the existance of such differently colored wings in the same specimen. They emphasized that the phenominon was not studied in detail, but assumed different factors being eventually responsible for such a development of a beetle individual: 1) disruption of pigment production, 2) mitotic mutation in early development, 3) environmental conditions, eventually influencing the colors of an originally normal developed young adult (exposed for longer time to different light intensities etc.). The latter might in the case of „my“ specimen being an indeed possible factor, as it is clearly visible that also the brownish wing has at its edges some of the reddish pigments.

 

 

Filming/ photography conditions

 

The beetles was filmed and photographed under artificial conditions in a soil and grass-set in my video lab. There, mites of the Gamasina (Parasitiformes, evtl. mostly Laelapidae) were common. They interestingly showed a phoretic behavior by quickly climbing onto the wings of that ladybeetle. They obviously recognized it as a suitable carrier to new habitats. I assume ladybeetles in the field not being of much attraction for phoretic dispersal, based on their life-cycles and preferred habitats.

 

Berlin, September/ October 2019, Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

Complex and modified mouthparts in Histiostomatidae mites

Mites represent arachnids, which means that they share characters with much bigger organisms, such as spiders, skorpions or harvestmen. Their bodies consist of specialized bundles of segments, named tagmata.  Two major tagmata are differed from each other in arachnids: prosoma, including legs and mouthparts, and opisthosoma, including for example the digestive and the reproductive systems.

 

Diphyletic origin of mites

 

Mites are not longer just mites. The former two clades of mites, Parasitiformes and Acariformes, originally considered as sister taxa, were in the modern systematics reconstructed to be diphyletic. That means, there was no commor ancestor, from which only those two clades derived.  There is no close relationship between them,each clade is most closely related to different groups of arachnids.  Thus, when I talk about mites, I am talking about the clade Acariformes.

 

Mites of the Acariformes and body plan

 

In these Acariformes mites, the arachnid body construction plan was modified into three visible tagmata: gnathosoma (bearing chelicerae and pedipalps as mouthparts), proterosoma (bearing first two leg pairs) and hysterosoma (bearing last two leg pairs and opisthosoma organs).

 

big male 2 Saarland compost

Male (large morph) of mite Histiostoma feroniarum in dorsal view. Body division in gnathosoma, proterosoma and hysterostoma. Fixation : critical-point-dried, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

 

Mouthparts

 

Let’s talk about mouthparts, as they are an important aspect of my systematic and my function.morphological studies. Originally the gnathosoma consists of a pair of scissor-shaped chelicerae to grasp the food particles and of a pair of leg-shaped pedipalps, which mostly have mechano-sensitive and chemo-sensitive functions. But because mites colonized almost all kinds of existing habitats on earth, they extensively were exposed to the mechanisms of evolution. Acariform mites show a high range of variability regarding their morphology and their life strategies.

 

Mouthparts of Sarcoptiformes

 

Within the clade Sarcoptiformes, consisting of oribatid and astigmatid mites, there evolved a tendency towards miniaturization. Mites of the Astigmata are usually much smaller than one mm. Correspondingly the cuticle becam thinner and softer, perfect adaptations to a life inside very tiny micro habitats, but at the same time also a limitation, namely towards more or less moist habitats due to the lack of a well developed desiccation protection. They appear inside compost, rotting wood or mammal dung, being even there very specifically adapted into very defined micro climatic conditions. They live in a world of complete darkness, which is why light sensory organs are completely lost or reduced to vestigial structures.

Inside their habitats, astigmatid mites need to reproduce, to develop through different nymphal stages until adulthood and of course to feed. Astigmata are no fluid suckers, but feed on particles, such as bacteria, algae, fungi, thus many Astigmata taxa can be named microorganism feeders.

 

Life-strategy of mites of the (family) Histiostomatidae

 

Rollei Digital Camera

Extinct bark beetle fpssil in amber (collection Hoffeins) with phoretic mite deutonymphs. Fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, stereomicroscopic photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

One of the largest family within the Astigmata clade is the Histiostomatidae, which I use since many years as model for my scientific studies. These mites are scientifically interesting from different points of view. Their ecology is characterized by life styles, which correspond to the life cycle of insects and other arthropods, to which most species have a close association. Most important aspect of these interactions between mites and other arthropods, commonly insects, is a dispersal strategy named „phoresy“. Mites use their „partners“ as carriers from one habitat to another. These habitats can often be the nests of the corresponding arthropods/ insects.

Habitats, in which mites of the Histiostomatidae develop successfully need to be moist and need to contain a sufficiant amount of microorganisms as food source. It is the most conspicuous feature of these mites to possess  remarkably modified mouthparts compared to the above described standard equipment of an acariform gnathosoma.

 

Mouthparts of the Histiostomatidae

 

 

Mite Histiostoma sp. (sapropel around ponds, female, Berlin) feeding from a substrate surface inside its original habitat. Videography in 4K, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

The character conditions of the gnathosoma were one of the reasons, why I at the beginning of my phd thesis in 2000 decided to put my research focus on this mite family, being worldwide in major still unexplored.

The chelicera modified into a dagger-like structure being formed by the fixed part of the former scissor-like organ, named the digitus fixus. There is a variability of shapes of this digitus fius-chelicera-ending within the Histiostomatidae . It can appear „simple-dagger-like, simple formed with a hook-like ending or having cuticular dentations of specific numbers and sizes along the lower edge of the digitus fixus.

As typical for mites of the big clade Astigmata, the pedipalps are reduced in size and almost immovably ventrally and dorsally connected with each other. In Histiostomatidae, the third pedipalp article is additionally distinctly bent sidewards. Their front sides bear more or less complex arrangements of flexible membraneous structures, which can morphologically differ between taxa or even species, thus giving them a systematic relevance. I named these membrane-organs „palparmembrane“ following the nomenclature, introduced by R. Scheucher in 1957. These membranes can be devided into fringes or being lobe-sphaped and can cover the last pedipalp article dorsally and/or ventrally. My histological analysis from 2006 indicated that these membranes are shaped by the enditesof the pedipalpal coxae.

 

Complex mouthpart apparatus

 

Thus Histiostomatidae possess a bizarre mouthpart apparatus being unique within the Acariformes and representing an amount of characters, which from the phylogenetc point of view  can be reconstructed to have evolved in the stem species of that family (so called apomorphies).

 

Mouthpart apparatus as multifunctional organ

 

 

Mite Histiostoma sp. (male left, female right) feeding from a substrate surface inside its original habitat. Fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

This gnathosoma is a multifunctional organ with the main function to select specific microorganism particles out of their liquid environments. When observing a histiostomatid mite with a sufficient high magnification walking along on a smooth water agar surface, on which bacteria and fungi growth was stimulated before, then occasionally trails can be seen around the walking mite, indicating that the gnathosoma was hold mostly leaned downwards towards the ground, pushing the microorganism cover along in front of the mite’s body. I interpreted this as an accumulation of food in order to gain more nutrients all at once. In my early papers, I described this as the typical feeding behavior of histiostomatid mites with the membraneous appendages acting like rubber sliders in the meantime. But as newer analyses showed is that such observations do not describe the full equipment of possible applications of the mite’s complex filter-feeding apparatus.

 

Membraneous structures create an underpressure to incorporate food

 

 

Mite Histiostoma ruehmi mouthpart endings with palparmembrane in ventral view. Fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

More recent experiments with a higher videographic resolution and more suitable light conditions than 10 years ago (through-light and up light or one of them depending on the setting) showed that the palpar membrane structures , which more or less surround the entire fore-part (anterior part) of the gnathosoma can act like suckers: When the mite presses its front end of the mouthparts  to the underground, an underpressure can be formed based on these membraneous structures. This seemingly facilitates the incorporation of nutrients in that area. I presented such video footage in one of my former mite videos. To get off from the underground requires a jerky upward movement of the whole mouthpart apparatus (also visible in that older video). As I observed different developmental stages of different species, I could conclude that on a smooth surface with randomly dispersed food supply, regular stops and mouthpart-sucking-activities are seemingly a most common behavior of histiostomatids, while a straight forward walking behavior with the gnathosoma permanently touching the ground in order to push microorganism covers to the body`s front side only than occured, when food supply was uniformly dispersed (under artificial experimental conditions) under uniform moisture conditions.

 

Mite Histiostoma ruehmi and an undetermined species feeding from a smooth artificial substrate surface and performing an underpressure to incorporate food. Videography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

 

Scanning-electron-microscopic experiments

 

Mite Histiostoma feroniarum feeding from a substrate mount inside its original habitat. Fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

Mite Bonomoia opuntiae feeding from the surface of a substrate mount inside its original habitat. Rounded particles might represent yeast bodies. Fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

 

In my early postdoc-years, still at the FU Berlin, I performed experiments in order to fix mite activities inside their original substrates by filling such a mite-substrate-setting up with 1,1,1,3,3,3-hexamethyldisilazane and warming the corresponding small experimental dish, until the chemical was vaporized. I then sputtered the conserved setting with gold and studied the details on it via scanning-electron-microscopy. Occasionally, mites were shrinkled or deformed after this procedure, but sometimes they stayed in shape and did seemingly still remain in their last activity positions. I several times could take SEM photos, showing that (well visible only in adult mites due to their size) mite specimens can insert their (distal) chelicerae-endings into bigger heaps of substrate (obviously full of nutrients) and use the entire laterally bent pedipalpal articles, including the connected palparmembranes, to lean it against the substrate surface, either to stabilize the chelicerae movents or even to support the incorporation of nutrients again by forming a slight underpressure, or both.

 

Mite species Bonomoia opuntiae

 

Early observations during times of my phd-thesis on the mite Bonomoia opuntiae could show that the mouthpart apparatus of this terrestrial/semiaquatic mite works well also under water or inside a watery juce of decomposing cactus pieces. There even a filter function comparable with a fishing net was hypothesised, but so far was never studied in detail. The very distinct fringes along the palparmembrane lobes in this mite species might support this theory. I also studied the semiaquatic mite Sarraceniopus nipponensis feeding inside watery environments (normally the digestive fluids of Sarracenia pitchers), again never focussing in detail in how excactly the feeding mechanism works.

 

A putatively new species

 

The herewith presented video shows behaviors of  a female of the putative new species Histiostoma sp. , which I discovered in beginning of 2019 in sapropel around ponds inside an old gravel pit area in the Berlin forest Grunewald. The footage is presented in slow motion. The question was about how motile the whole gnathosoma apparatus in a histiostomatid species can be and what kinds of movements occured. As the settings, which I in early years of my mite studies used for videographic studies, were simplyfied and thus unnatural (smooth agar surfaces), I thought it being necessary and important to capture behaviors in a complexly sculptured habitat, namely surfaces of decomposing potato pieces (on which most histiostomatid species use to develop well).

 

It was visible, based on the specimens of my video of this species, that histiostomatid mites can be able to lift up their entire gnathosomas on a sometimes even higher position than the levels of the rest of their bodies. Additionally the gnathosoma can be turned to the right and to the left. Up and down as well as sideward movements of the whole feeding apparatus were often performed and represented obviously flexible reactions of the mite to the surface structure of the substrate and to the availability of suitable nutrients. In this context I was also interested in details of the movements of the chelicera tips themselves.

 

Chelicera endings (digitus fixus)

 

Although they can be used dagger-like and be accurately inserted into muddy substrate mounts, chelicera tips will also appear in a very fragile and seemingly careful way, when palpating the surface of the substrate underneath. Such chelicera movements are visible in the footage of this video, presented in slow motion (about 25 percent of original speed) and in a digital magnification. I interpret this visible fragility caution of the chelicerae as one option to discover suitable food sources. Other important organs perceive the mite’s environment chemically, modified setae, namely the so called solenidia, which might additionally recognize profitable microorganism sources.

 

Fig. 2

Mite Histiostoma feroniarum feeding from substrate mounts inside its original habitat (A-F). Rounded particles might represent yeast bodies. D = distal chelicera endings (digitus fixus), holding food particles, fixation with hexamethyldisilazane, SEM photography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

Berlin, September 2019

 

Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

Countryside of Berlin: urban green in a drone view (4K)

Many tourists from overseas use to visit European cities in a much too short time. For this reason they often miss an entire picture of for example the city Berlin, when inserting an only short interstop here. Especially winter tourists can experience the German capital as a sad a grey urban being with some architectural major sites and a remarkable party life only.

 

Climate and landscape types in Berlin

 

Berlin has a continental climate and shows a completely other face in summer. It’s a very green face. Not only is the center of the city then colorfully greened by numerous urban parks, which partly lay almost adjacent to each other, but also the outskirts, in major parts covered by forests and grasslands or fields, appear like green oases.

 

 

Countryside of Berlin as aerial videography, Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin June 2019. Please give my video on youtube a like, in case you like it.

 

 

Lübarser Felder and surrounding

 

Lübarser Felder is an area of agriculture, being under the management of inhabitants of the adjacent village Lübars, which represents the only Berlin village that still practices agriculture. The village has a long history and still has architectural monuments, dating back to the 19th century. Lübarser Felder lay adjacent to a nature refuge area more in the north, consisting of different kinds of wetlands, such as bog meadows or lowland fens. Lake Köppcensee as part of that nature refuge area is visible from a bigger distance in one scene of my video.

 

Püttberge and surrounding

 

The sanddune-mounts Püttberge are located in the east of Berlin and belong to the nature refuge area Wilhelmshagen-Woltersdorfer Dünenzug. The area consists of sandy mounts, some of them reaching a height of up to 68 meters. They are part of the glacial valley of Berlin, which dates back to the Weichselian glaciation, which happend between 115,000 and 11,700 years ago and covered almost the whole Northern Europe. The dune elevations of Püttberge were formed due to windblown sand inside the glacial valley. My footage shows the Wilhelmshagen-Woltersdorfer Dünenzug in a greater distance seen from the edge of the whole area. Ecologically the Püttberge are characterized by numerous plants and animals, being typical for sanddune environments.

 

Lieper Bucht at river Havel

 

Lieper Bucht is a bathing beach area at river Havel, belonging to the Berlin city district Nikolassee in the South-West of Berlin. The adjacent forest area is the huge urban forest Grunewald. The riverside of Havel in Berlin is geologically charactrized as sandy with a tendency to the formation of dunes, being like Püttberge a relict of the Weichselian glaciation. Flora and fauna are correspondingly composed. Pine trees for example are typical representatives. The nearby Havel islands Lindwerder and Schwanenwerder are visibe in my footage.

 

Berlin, June 2019

Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

Mite Histiostoma sp., putatively new species, from mud around ponds (Berlin) and its morphology

Gravel pit area „Im Jagen 86“ in Berlin as biotope

 

„Im Jagen 86“ is a former gravel pit area in the Berlin urban forest Grunewald. It today represents a dynamic biotope, consisting of different types of habitats: mud around ponds, sand dunes, dry grassland and forest. Since the early 2000th, its habitat composition partly changed remarkably. Out of several (smaller) ponds, only one bigger pond remained. All ponds originally were surrounded by sapropel, a habitat for different interesting organisms, such as beetles of Heterocerus, Elaphrus and Bembidion. The mite Histiostoma maritimum was commonly found phoreticaly on Heterocerus and Elaphrus. I additionally in those early 2000th described the new mite Histiostoma palustre from Hydrophilidae of Cercyon and Coelostoma, living inside the saporopel as well. Today only a few small areas with open sapropel exist. I so far did not look for Histiostoma maritimum again and don’t know, how common it still is. At least Heterocerus beetles are harder to find than in earlier years. I so far did not found Histiostoma palustre again.

 

Rearing conditions of a putatively new mite species

 

I collected new mud samples in March 2019 at different areas, but found developing histiostomatid mites in a sample from the edge between mud (sapropel) and mosses. It is a species I never found before there and which might represent a new species. Only females could be morphologically studied. Nymyphal stages (not deutonymphs) are only available as video footage. No males were found. I had added bigger potato pieces to stimulate microorganism growth as mite food into the soil sample (room temperature). After about one month, a few mites (females and proto/tritonymphs) developed on only one of these potato pieces and quickly died out shortly after my filming activities and after I could prepare a few females. I actually try to get them reared again. Due to the low temperatures in March, it is considered that these mites hibernate independently from insects in the substrate. No bigger insects could be found in the substrate, which might be the corresponding carriers. But different dipterans (e.g. Ceratopogonidae) developed, they had no mite deutonymphs after hatching in my sample.

 

 

 

 

Morphological reconstruction of females and important characters as well as behavioral observations

 

The females of Histiostoma sp. differ from other females, which I know, by the mosaic of the following characters: body conspicuously elongated with a distinctly big distance between hind ringorgans and anus, digitus fixus almost simple shaped, fringes or ridges on palparmembrane, 6 dorsal humps, unusually big copulation opening. Leg setation not yet studied. One pair of ventral setae hardly visible (not in the drawing). Nymphs were observed during burrowing activities (footage), females are may be also able to. Deutonymphs or males would be useful to decide, whether the species is new. Some species are only described by deutonymphs.

 

Berlin, March/ June 2019 All copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

Agriculture, natural countryside and stream pasture landscape north of Berlin

Berlin as a green city

 

 

Berlin, lake Köppchensee, March 2019. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.

 

Berlin is an unusually green metropolis. Besides numerous urban park landscapes and the huge forest area Grunewald, there is a unique countryside north of Berlin, including the area of the old village Lübars, being surrounded by numerous fields (Lübarser Felder) and a stream pasture landscape, named Tegeler Fließ, with bog meadows.

 

 

Nature sites Lübarser Felder, Arkenberge, Schönerlinder Teiche in 4K, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth. Please also like my video on Youtube.

 

Mounts Arkenberge and pondlandscape Schönerlinder Teiche

 

In the northeast, around the urban village Blankenfelde, the currently highest elevation of Berlin can be found, the Arkenberge. Originally, they represented a chain of smaller mounts as natural remnants of the Weichselian glacier. One of these mounts is especially conspicuous and is acually prepared to become accessible for people and forms with a height of 122 m over NHN the highest mountain of Berlin. It represents despite of its natural origin a rubble landfill site, which was formed beginning in 1984.
Adjacent to the Arkenberge, several wetland areas attract nature enthusiasts for hiking tours: the pond landscape „Schönerlinder Teiche“ (Brandenburg) and the lake Kiessee Arkenberge.

 

Mount Arkenberge with Kiessee Arkenberge, Berlin March 2019. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.

 

Mount Arkenberge, Berlin February/ March 2019. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

Eurasian blue tit at Schönerlinder Teiche (Wandlitz), February/ March 2019. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.

 

Ponds Schönerlinder Teiche (Wandlitz, Brandenburg), February/ March 2019. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.

 

Lowland area of the stream Tegeler Fließ as remnants of the Weichselian glacier and adjacent calcareous tufa area

 

The stream Tegeler Fließ is a wetland nature site with a high biodiversity of plants and animals. It is surrounded by different types of bog meadows. The Tegeler Fließ lowland is also a result of the last glacier period.

The stream lowland is additionally adjacent to a calcareous tufa area, which is well visible from top of the Arkenberge. Calcareous springs and calcareous tufas created here calcareous rush- marshes with an interesting biodiversity of for example species of mosses and snails.

 

Lake Köppchensee as part of the Tegeler Fließ lowland, March 2019. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.

 

Video footage and photos

 

The footage was captured from localities around the village Lübars in the area of Lübarser Felder and additionally around Arkenberge. Some above mentioned nature sites are only visible in a distance.

 

Berlin, March 2019, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.

 

Late winter insect life: winter aconite blossoms and dipteran visitors

When do the first insect activities in the new year occur? Can insects be active in winter, even in the presence of snow? The answer is generally yes, different insect species even use to appear on warmer winter days on top of snow layers. Examples are the limoniid crane fly Chionea belgica, a wingless dipteran, which can be observed on milder winter days on snow surfaces along forest edges in Central Europe. Also the fly Trichocera hiemalis belongs to the winter crane flies (Trichoceridae) and can be characterized by a very well developed cold resistance. It appears on sunny winter days between branches of leafless trees in swarms around invading sunlight beams.

 

The winter aconite as an early blooming flower and its biology

 

But what about insects, visiting blooming flowers? This requires the existance of early blossoms, which can grow and bloom under winter conditions. A well known example is the winter aconite Eranthis hyemalis, which outlasts the summer period only by its underground tubers. Their conspicuous yellow blossoms belong to the first blooming flowers in the year. In Central Europe, they begin to grow under suitable conditions in mid February. They require milder temperatures, but even persist in case an unusual cold snap would happen. The blossoms open only at sunshine and thus close shortly after sunset. Opening and closing is a growth process, which depends on temperature conditions. Such a phenomenon is called thermonasty.

 

The winter aconite as a neophyte in Germany

 

In Central Europe, such as in Germany, E. hyemalis is a neophyte. It is originally native to Southern European areas, Turkey, South-East-France, Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary.

The species was introduced to Central Europe (and North America) as ornamental plant for gardens. It is proven that it was in Germany already cultivated since the 16th century. The German botanist, nature researcher and medical doctor Joachim Camerarius reared the winter agonite, which he brought from Italy, since 1588 in his backyards.

 

Common pollinating insects

 

Pollinating insects of E. hyemalis are flies, bumblebees and bees. To reach the nectar inside the blossoms requires a proboscis length of about two mm, which is mostly given in bumblebees and bees.

 

Flowerbed in Berlin urban park Schillerpark

 

I documented via my videography (4K) and photography a smaller area of winter aconites in front of a wall at urban park „Schillerpark“ (honoring the German poet Friedrich Schiller) in Berlin. The bright bricks of that wall reflected efficiently the solar warmth and thus created suitable conditions for a late winter flowerbed full of life.

 

Video with winter aconite blossoms and pollunating flies, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.

 

Most abundant insects in that winter aconite bed

 

DSC03573bestsharpsignatur

Western honey bee, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

The western honey bee Apis mellifera was often seen on blossoms, but unfortunately was not captured via video footage. Our honey bee hibernates in a so called winter clusters with lower temperatures and low activities in workers. Beginning in late winter/ early spring, workers increase the nest temperature due to body movements up to 35°C. This is exactly the body temperature, workers need to fly out and collect first nectar and pollen, for example from the winter agonite.

 

Drone fly on blossom of the winter aconite, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

The drone fly Eristalis tenax belongs to the hoverflies (Syrphidae). Their larvae develop in watery environments, where they use their conspicuous snorkel tube to breath air at the water surface. Adults are typical blossom visitors, preferring Asteraceae and Apiaceae. Interesting highlight of their biology is the migratory behavior. These migratory insects form swarms, which cross the Alpes towards Southern European areas by using suitable wind conditions, where they finally hibernate and reproduce. The next generation returns the same way back. Not all individuals participate these migratory flights and would try to hibernate in Central Europe. Hibernating individuals are always females, which were fertilized prior to their winter diapause or their migration and which lay their eggs in the subsequent spring or in southern regions during winter. In Germany they only survive in greater numbers in milder winters, which they persist in temperature-stable hideways, such as gaps inside walls or wooden habitats. These specimen can be usually observed early in the year, beginning with March, when visiting blooming flowers. Their numerous very early appearance in mid February 2019 might be due to a very warm summer 2018 and a subsequent very mild winter in north-eastern Germany (Berlin). I have no comparative findings regarding the usual blooming time of the winter aconite and the abundance of drone flies there for Berlin or even this specific urban park. I also don’t know about indications that due to a global warming, as in some migratory birds, less specimens of the fly would migrate and more stay to hibernate here around.

The research station „Randecker Maar“ in the Swabian Jura records changes in migratory flights of birds and insects. They discovered a distinct decline of numbers of migrating drone flies and interpret it as a result of the increasing application of poisonous substances in the agricultural sector. Whether they additionally consider this being due to more individuals hibernating, where they are, based on generally warmer temperatures (global warming) is unknown to me.

 

Blow fly on blossom of the winter aconite, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

 

The blow fly Calliphora vicina is a common blossom visitor in early spring and autumn. This fly, typically appearing in human settlements in Europe and the New World, is well adapted for an activity at lower temperatures (more than 13°C). While larvae develop in decomposing organic tissue (such as cadavers of animals), adults feed on nectar and pollen. They additionally incorprate saps from organic material with a strong odor.

C. vicina produces about five generation per year and throughout the year. The flies can even be active in winter, when temperatures reach a suitable level.

 

Other fly species were existant, but I did not determine them.

 

Time of footage and photo recording

 

Video footage and photos were recorded between 16 and 18 February 2019 in the urban park Schillerpark in Berlin.

 

Copyrights: Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2019.

Mite Histiostoma sachsi (Astigmata): Juvenile dispersal instar deutonymph and its orientation behavior

Some animals live in environments, where there is (almost) no light available. It makes no sense to see in the dark, but it is important for a specimen to know, where it actually is, where it is going to, whether there is enough food and what the conspecifics are doing. Predators need to be recognized in time, and a sexual partner must be found. There is also need for an efficient communication between specimens of a species. How can all this be performed by mites of the Astigmata, which usually live inside decomposing soil habitats in a more or less permanent darkness?

 

Olfactory sense organs in mites of the Histiostomatidae

 

Histiostoma sachsi (Histiostomatidae, Astigmata) is such a mite, living inside cow dung or compost. It might have a rudimentary ability for a light perception, but has not visible or functional eyes. It cannot produce any sounds. It can only feel and smell. Seemingly very limited abilities, but the contrary is fact: Due to evolution this mite is perfectly adapted to its life-style. It can feel objects by touching on them using its body setation (= body hairs). And it smells by means of very specialized body hairs, which are called solenidia and appear in different types, shapes and functions. These mites don’t smell on the level of us humans, which would be very insufficient. If at all, it should be compared with a dog. I am always fascinated when seeing blind dogs and how perfectly they can interact with their environment, despite their handicap. That’s may be how the efficiency of olfactory perception abilities of such a mite must be imagined. They do not only perceive scent particles from other animals, plants and soil components. Even olfactory signals from their conspecifics will be correctly and differentiatedly interpreted. And that not only marginally.  Olfactory signals represent indeed the major mode of their intraspecific communication.

 

Chemical communication of mites of the Histiostomatidae

 

Communication always requires contributions from both sides, a signal and an answer. These mites smell the signal of a conspecific using their solenidia, and they answer by the secretion of biochemical components. For these purposes, they possess a huge and complex gland system located on the upperside of their backs. Volatile excretions aggregate inside a big and rounded reservoir and finally leak to the outside via a pore, called oilgland opening. These gland systems are located symmetrically on both sides, each with one reservoir and one pore.

The meaning of the sent volatile message simply depends on the composition of the correspondingbiochemical components. Even diffferent stereochemical configurations of the same molecule can have different meanings. Citral for instance is a major component and has in different stereoisomers different functions. Such cummunicative volatile signals are usually named pheromones. And mites of the Histiostomatidae can indeed produce different kinds of pheromnes via the same gland system. Aggregation pheromones inform specimens about a suitable place to stay together with their conspecifics, for example due to a sufficient amount of food resources. Alarm pheromones solicit mites nearby to flee from an unpleasant situation. Sexual pheromones attract adult partners to each other in order to perform the mating procedure. But the gland secretions can even more. As allomones, they communicate with specimens of other species. They function as defenses against predators or other dangerous cohabitants.

 

Deutonymphs need to find a carrier for dispersal

 

Another form of communicative interspecific interactions is performed by a specific juvenile instar, the deutonymph. It looks morphologically quite different from all other instars (heteromorphic situation), does not need or possess a functional mouth, has a thicker cuticle as protection against drying out and a complex sucker organ on its underside in order to attach itself to an insect or another bigger arthropod. Deutonymphs of the astigmatid mites search for bigger carrier-arthropods to get carried from one habitat to another (dispersal strategy  is calledphoresy). While doing so, they again use their specifically modified leg setation (hairs) on the first pairs of legs to perceive scents for the detection of a suitable and passing by carrier. Basically it is still unknown, whether the term „communication“ is indeed appropriate in this context as we don’t know yet about a mutual interaction between deutonymphs and their carriers, before the phoretic ride begins.

 

 

Olfactory orientation of the deutonymph of Histiostoma sachsi, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, February 2019.

 

Specific way of walking in deutonymphs

 

In detail, different kinds of behaviors can be observed in deutonymphs, when searching a carrier. The detailed behavioral patterns in this context can slightly differ between even closer related species. Deutonymphs of Histiostoma sachsi as all deutonymphs show a characteristic mode of walking, in which especially the first pair of legs plays an important role. During each step, performed by four pairs of legs, the first legs are lifted up much higher than all other hind legs. While doing so, they slightly tremble up and down. A behavior that mostly supports a better basic orientation inside a „jungle-„micro-landscape, being filled up with soil particles and decomposing plant tissues. But what H. sachsi deutonymphs additionally need in order to find their carriers is repeatedly to rest between the walking activities. Thus the first legs, which normally are still walking legs, are made free and that way available for the perception of carrier-scent-components only. These  namely are the legs that bear the highest densiy of solenidia.

 

Two different behavioral modes for an efficient orientation towards a carrier

 

Two different modes of resting with olfactory searching activities could be observed: In periodic intervals the deutonymph attached to the ground by using its sucking structures. They were then more or less laying on their entire undersides with only their forebodies slightly lifted up. By alternating moving the first legs up and down, olfactory information could be perceived from all directions without having the own body as a barrier to backwards. To improve its orientation situation, the deutonymph additionally turned on its own axis around, being stabilized by its sucking structures, which are flexible enough to follow these movements. When the deutonymph intended to continue its walk, it first needed to detach from the ground, which happened via muscle contractions that caused an abrupt detachment of the corresponding suckers. But main aim of the deutonymph is to find an elevated place, where the probability of a passing by carrier is especially high and from where a bigger insect (or other arthropod) can easier be ascended. There the second behavioral mode was performed. The deutonymph only fixed the edge of its hind body to the ground, again using the suckers on its underside, which are located close to this edge. This time the entire mite body stood in an upright position. The first legs again „waved“ alternating up and down and could under these especially elevated conditions even perceive scents from bigger distances. By occasionally slightly and alternating turning their upright bodies to both sides, olfactory information could be easier detected from all directions.

 

Carrier of H. sachsi still unknown

 

The frequency of such movements in mites increases typically as closer a suitable carrier approaches. But this was not yet observed or documented for Histiostoma sachsi. Its carrier inside the compost substrate is still unknown, which is why I so far could’t perform corresponding experiments. The species‘ describer, Scheucher (1957), found her mite specimens in cow dung and also didn’t identify the corresponding carriers there.

The observations presented in my video are part of my research project about morphologies and behaviors of deutonymphs in the Histiostomatidae.

 

Berlin, February 2019. All copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.

 

Eudicella colmanti – Mating behavior of a colorful beetle

Rose chafers represent a group of colorful beetles, which taxonomically belong to the Scarabaeidae and thus are relatives of famous beetles such as Scarabaeus sacer, well known for rolling dung into balls and for being an important symbol for creation and the rising sun in the ancient Egyptian world. Even the stag beetles are more distant relatives of rose chafers.

 

Colorful and active during daytime

 

Unlike some related beetle clades, rose chafers are usually active during the day. This is also indicated by their very colorful bodies. Colors in insects can have different functions, but they usually all are optical signals, which require a visibility in the sun light. Greenish colors are common in rose chafer species and might have optical inner specific signal functions, but also might support an optical camouflage. This would also make sense in the preferred habitats of the adult beetles, which usually feed on softer parts of blossoms and on their pollen. But they also feed on fruits, whereby mostly liquids are incorporated as the chewing mouthparts are not very well developed.

 

Tropical rose chafer Eudicella colmanti during its copulation behavior, 4K videography, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth.

 

Tropical rose chafers from African countries

 

About 3000 species of rose chafers are known, of which most inhabit the tropical zones. The about 20 species of the genus Eudicella are more or less restricted to the African continent.

Eudicella colmanti is native to Gabun, Kamerun and Kongo, thus a species with a main distribution in Central Africa. But E. colmanti is like other species of this genus worldwide often kept in terraria, although species like E. smithi are more common inhabitants of this kind of artificial habitats. They all can be more or less easily reared.

 

Specific flying mode and copulation behavior

 

This is why I was able to study behavioral characters in detail. And rose chafers indeed show interesting behaviors. They for example perform a unique way of flying. It is a specific character of rose chafers (a so called apomorphy) that they fly with closed fore wings, which cannot be opened as in other beetles.

I documented in my video the mating behavior of a beetle couple. Interestingly this was not too difficult, although both genders can, when separated from each other, react to disturbances with a high agility.

 

Almost permanent copulation activities

 

But in the copulatory position, they accepted to be removed from their terrarium to the filming set and even stayed in position, when they were enlighted from different positions with very bright light beams. Please note the the female, which I observed regularly actively searching for a position underneath the male (behavior not clearly visible in my footage). But it also conspicuously never stopped feeding (on an apple) during the copulatory process (very well visible in my footage), obviously to obtain enough nutrients for the production of eggs. A copulation in my couple is not a unique event, but is repeated regularly and can take hours.

 

Phoretic mites

 

Both genders carried bigger numbers of mites. These were phoretic deutonymphs of the taxon Astigmata (Acariformes, Acaridae). As never determined the mite species, as it was not clear, whether it represented a natural associate of these tropical beetles, or whether it was a species native to Germany, which for example was carried into the terrarium via Drosophila flies.

Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin March 2017/ February 2019

Berlin forest Grunewald – former gravelpit area, type location for the mite Histiostoma palustre

The city of Berlin geomorphologically consists of witnesses of the Weichselian glacier. The modern city itself and adjacent federal states represented end moraine areas with fluvio-glacial debris accumulations,  even well visible today due to a very sandy soil composition and a corresponding vegetation, creating landscapes, which partly almost look like from around the Mediterranean Sea.

Sands carried by the glaciers towards their end positions remained in partly huge layers with a thickness of up to 20 meters or more.

 

Gravelpit zone and its history

 

Also the area of the old gravelpit zone, called „Sandgrube im Jagen 86“, in the Berlin forest Grunewald is located inside such an end moraine zone, which was represented by plates belonging to the geological Teltow-plateau. In the time period between 1966 and 1983, gravel was excavated for industrial purposes. After 1983 a part renaturation was supported by nature conservationists. In 1992 in total 13 hectares of the former gravelpit area were allocated as nature conservation areas.

Other parts of this unique landscape remained accessible for the public. They represent today popular places for leisure and experiences of nature. Especially the huge sand dune is a popular destination for families with children.

 

Aerial videography of the gravelpit area in January 2019, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth. Please like my video also on Youtube, in case you like it.

 

 

Gravelpit zone and its ecology and biodiversity

 

The whole area – nature protection and accessible zones – show a complex mosaic of different  landscape types, offering numerous animal and plant species a well suitable refuge.  Neglected grasslands and dry meadows are surrounded by sandy areas free of any vegetation („dunes“) and moist osier beds and wetlands with ponds. The wetlands represent breeding grounds for numerous amphids. Lizards such as the sand lizard Lacerta agilis and snakes such as the grass snake Natrix natrix can regularly be observed. Sandy habitats offer space and specific ecological conditions for a interstitial fauna, consisting for example of different bee and sand wasp species.

In total the area bears more than 300 ferns and flowering plants, 16 breeding bird species, 7 amphibian species and 188 butterfly species.

 

My own scientific mite research in the gravelpit area

 

I was performing scientific research in that gravel pit landscape during the work on my phd-thesis between 2000 and 2005. My interest was (and one of my interests is still) focussed on specific organisms living around the shoreline of ponds.

The whole area of the gravelpit landscape is a good example for ecological changes that happen naturally with the ongoing time or even being affected by climatic changes. Between 2005 and 2018, the landscape partly changed significantly. Neglected grasslands and dry meadows covered less space originally, and instead several smaller ponds existed and offered amphibs and wetland inhabiting insects additional habitats. But some of the ponds already years ago dried out permanently. Their remnants are now covered by extended dry grasslands.

In former times of my phd thesis and even today, my research interests focus and focussed on the mite fauna in and around the muddy shorelines of ponds inside this former gravelpit area. The ponds are mostly surrounded by sapropel, a seemingly black and brownish mud, which is colored that way due to the incorporation metal sulfides. These muddy areas develop due to biochemical modifications of organic material in the absence of oxygen. Different insects, especially beetles live on top of these waterside habitats or even inside. Carabids of genera Elaphrus or Bembidion represent predators, while heterocerid beetles of genus Heterocerus are substrate feeders, presumanly with a preference for diatoms. Also water beetles of Dytiscidae and Hydrophilidae inhabit these habitats.

 

The mites Histiostoma maritimum and Histiostoma palustre

 

I discovered some of these beetles as dispersal carriers for specific mites. The dispersal strategy to take a ride on bigger animals to become carried from one habitat to another is called phoresy. Mites of the Astigmata represent typical phoretic organisms. I am scientifically specialized in a specific family of the Astigmata, which is named Histiostomatidae, and I discovered the mite species Histiostoma maritimum Oudemans, 1914 on Heterocerus fenestratus and H. fusculus as well as on Bembidion and Elaphrus species insside and on top of these muddy zones. I was the first acarologist, who ever studied the biology of this mite species. I furthermore discovered another mite species that was completely new to the scientific knowledge, and thus I scientifically described it as Histiostoma palustre („palustris“ = „muddy“) in 2002.

This species deserves particularly mention due to an unusual biological phenomenon: populations show a so called male dimorphism (better diphenism). Besides males with a „normal“ morphology, morphologically modified males appear. Their second legs differ from the typical shape of a mite and are modified into clasping organs. The function of these conspicuous organs could so far only be interpreted in the context of male to male competition conflicts for a female. In such situations, I observed the organs being used as arms against other males, against such ones with and such ones without clasping organs.

 

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Right modified leg of a male of Histiostoma palustre. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, 2002/ 2019

 

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Modified leg of a H. palustre male in closed position. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2002/ 2019

 

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Underside of a H. palustre male with modified leg. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth 2002/ 2019

 

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Asymmetry: male of H. palustre with only the right leg modified. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth 2002/ 2019

 

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Asymmetry: male of H. palustre with only the left leg modified. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth 2002/ 2019

 

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Copulation of a Histiostoma palustre male with both-sided modified legs. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2002/ 2019

 

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Details of a copulation with a modified male, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, 2002/2019

 

 

Berlin, January 2019. Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth

Kardinal Brandmüller und seine Heuchelei über vorgebliche Heuchelei

Missbrauchsskandale in erheblichem Ausmaße erschüttern bereits seit geraumer Zeit die Katholische Kirche. Seit geraumer Zeit? Im Grunde muss man doch annehmen, dass es in Wahrheit um einen Zeitraum geht, der die gesamte Dauer der Existenz dieser Kirche umfasst, doch dazu später mehr.

Missbrauch an Minderjährigen im Deutschland der vergangenen 68 Jahre

Papst Franziskus hat sich mehrfach deutlich gegen Täter in den eigenen Reihen ausgesprochen, womöglich aber erst, als Leugnung oder Ignoranz aufgrund offen gelegter Fakten nicht mehr möglich waren. Einer Studie aus dem letzten Jahr konnte entnommen werden, dass im Zeitraum zwischen 1946 und 2014 in Deutschland insgesamt 1670 katholische Geistliche sexuellen Missbrauch an 3677 Minderjährigen betrieben, wobei es sich bei den Opfern zumeist um heranwachsende Männer handelte.

Franciscus_in_2015

Papst Franziskus, für viele ein Reformverweigerer, für manch hochbetagten Kleriker jedoch unzumutbar modern, Quelle Foto: Wikipedia

Der deutsche Kardinal Walter Brandmüller und seine Bemühung zur Verniedlichung sexueller Straftaten durch Mitarbeiter der Kirche

Der fast 90-jährige deutsche Kardinal Walter Brandmüller nimmt dies zum Anlass, eine gegen die Kirchenmoral sprechende Statistik ins vermeintlich richtige Licht zu rücken. „Was in der Kirche an Missbrauch passiert ist, ist nichts anderes, als was in der Gesellschaft überhaupt geschieht“, so seine Stellungnahme. Sexueller Missbrauch sei kein spezifisch katholisches Phänomen. Außerdem sei darauf hinzuweisen, dass „80 Prozent der Missbrauchsfälle“ an männlichen Jugendlichen begangen worden seien, womit er den direkten Zusammenhang zwischen Homosexualität und dem Missbrauch an heranwachsenden Männern konstruiert.

Kardinal Brandmüller gilt als erzkonservativ und zählt zu den offenen Kritikern von Papst Franziskus, der aus Sicht vieler Intellektueller zu wenige Reformen durchsetzt, in den Augen von Hardlinern wie Brandmüller jedoch mit Neuerungen allzu sehr über die Stränge schlägt. So hat er zusammen mit dem ebenfalls konservativen Joachim Meisner (inzw. verstorben) einen offenen Kritik-Brief an den Papst verfasst, der als „Dubia-Brief“ bezeichnet wird und vor allem die Öffnung der Kirche gegenüber wieder verheirateten Geschiedenen kritisierte.

Die Katholische Kirche als Refugium

In seinen Einlassungen zu den Missbrauchsfällen, die die Kirche erschüttern, hat Kardinal Brandmüller keineswegs grundsätzlich Unrecht. Sexueller Missbrauch findet auch außerhalb von Institutionen der katholischen Kirche statt. Außerdem legen sexuelle Straftaten männlicher Kleriker an männlichen Jugendlichen in der Tat einen homosexuellen Zusammenhang nahe. Doch bleibt uns Herr Brandmüller eine Erklärung dafür schuldig, welche Institution in Deutschland außer der Katholischen Kirche eine Statistik vorweisen kann, die es im Verlaufe von nur 68 Jahren auf ganze 3677 Missbrauchsfälle an Minderjährigen gebracht hat. Wohlgemerkt die Dunkelziffer nicht nachgewiesener Straftaten außer Acht gelassen!

Klar ist, dass die Neigung zu sexuellen Straftaten unter hetero-, bi- und homosexuellen Männern generell gleich verteilt ist. Nicht ganz so klar ist allerdings, warum sich homoerotisch motivierte Straftaten in beeindruckender Dichte nun ausgerechnet in den Reihen der Katholischen Kirche häufen. Hierzu äußert sich der betagte Kardinal ebenfalls nicht. Legt eine Betrachtung der gesamten Kirchengeschichte denn nicht nahe, dass es sich bei dieser Institution schon seit jeher um ein Refugium für Menschen mit ungewöhnlichen sexuellen Vorlieben handelte? Ist ja klar, mag mancher jetzt argumentieren, Schwule neigen nun einmal zur Perversion. Aber mitnichten!! Lediglich ist es so, dass die strukturelle Organisation der Kirche gezielt schon immer diejenigen erotischen Abweichler aus einem großen Pool der Bevölkerung herausfilterte, die zudem zufällig schwul oder bisexuell veranlagt waren. Denn wer sonst fühlt sich in Gemeinschaften wohl, die fast ausschließlich aus Männern zusammengesetzt sind? Doch warum das besondere Potential für sexuelle Straftaten? Weil die Kirche zum einen legale erotische Verbindungen verbietet, Stichwort Zölibat, und weil es wenige vergleichbare Großorganisationen gibt, in denen persönliche Willkür, Machtmissbrauch und Korruption eine ähnlich lange und vor allem erfolgreiche Tradition haben, geradezu eine Einladung also an alle, die nach Unmoralischem und striktem Eigennutz streben.

Kritik wird von Kardinal Brandmüller harsch zurückgewiesen. „Da benimmt sich die Gesellschaft ziemlich heuchlerisch“, äußert er im Zusammenhang mit den stattlichen Missbrauchszahlen durch Kleriker. Ist es nicht heuchlerisch, dort Heuchelei zu unterstellen, wo berechtigte Kritik vorgebracht wird, die eigentlich nur eine Reaktion moralisch vertretbar macht: die Bitte um Vergebung begangener zahlreicher und schwerer Sünden sowie die Gelobigung der Besserung? Zumindest in diesem Punkt ist der eigentlich selbst viel zu rückständige Papst Franziskus in der Tat in seinem Handeln weit voraus!

Wünschenswerte und notwendige Reformen

Ich bin kein Fan der Katholischen Kirche, wahrlich nicht. Sie hat seitdem sie existiert Leid über die Menschheit gebracht, hat gemordet, Kriege geführt und gefoltert, sich gegen die Aufklärung und selbstbestimmte Denker gestellt. Es ist ihr nach all den Jahrhunderten endlich eine Erkenntnis der Werte zu wünschen, für die ihr Namensgeber ursprünglich eingestanden ist: Nächstenliebe, Toleranz und Moral! Zwar muss man bei aller kritischen Haltung auch anerkennen, dass es genau diese Kirche war, die sich zwar stets bemühte, unerwünschtes Wissen zu bekämpfen, andererseits jedoch durch Vertreter der eigenen Reihen auch erheblich zu Erkenntnisgewinn beigetragen hat, nicht zuletzt auch dadurch, die Literatur der letzten Jahrtausende in hervorragend organisierten Bibliotheken für die Nachwelt zu erhalten. Auch die Entwicklungen in der Kunstgeschichte wurden maßgeblich durch die Kirche mit beeinflusst. Da jedoch all dies heute längst durch andere Einrichtungen übernommen wird, kommt die katholische Kirche nicht mehr umhin, sich vollständig umzustrukturieren, um vergangene Fehler zu vermeiden. Es muss das Prinzip Vorrang finden: weniger Dogmatismus, stattdessen unbegrenzte geistige Freiheit und vor allem mehr soziale Verantwortung. Wird das nicht ernst genug genommen, wird diese Kirche keinen Platz mehr in der Zukunft haben, die uns bevorsteht!

Berlin, Januar 2018, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth