Archive For: Salamanders

Art for scientists: Social media avatars by Ethan Kocak

If you are on twitter, you may have noticed many science peeps recently changing their profile photos to something more cartoonish, almost as if they turned into comic book heroes overnight. It has now become so common that I am surprised there are still people out there with regular profile photos.

The artist behind this interesting trend is Ethan Kocak (aka @blackmudpuppy on twitter). I first stumbled upon his work when one of the people I follow tweeted a page from his web comic “Black Mudpuppy”. It showed a young naturalist being bullied for her non-mainstream hobby, something I can easily relate to. The next page really broke my heart. As a kid I had to deal with the very same scenario countless times. Maybe I should elaborate on this one day when I sit to write my own origin story. That being said, “Black Mudpuppy” is not at all about a naturalist or a scientist. Created back in 2012, it tells the story of an Aztec god who was punished and has to spend his life trapped in the body of a salamander. I went ahead and read the whole comic and I must say, it is darn good. It is funny and action-packed, and more than anything the excellent storytelling is gripping. Also interesting to see how the artwork style has changed throughout the years. I also love the character design, and there is always a wink at pop culture and the world of herpetology. For example, the protagonist, Xolotl, sometimes looks like a salamander version of x-men’s wolverine, with the claws coming out of his head as external gills. His brother, Quezalcoatl, is modeled after…well, a Quetzalcoatlus.

But the profile pic initiative was something completely different. Kocak decided to see if his twitter followers, mostly science communication people, would be interested in a personalized avatar for their social media account. Early on in December he tweeted his idea, and almost immediately was flooded with requests.

Mark Martin is an avid microbiologist with a strong passion for tardigrades.

Mark Martin is an avid microbiologist with a strong passion for tardigrades.

After an intensive few weeks of drawing he managed to build quite an impressive collection of avatars (you can see a selection of it here), approaching a hundred completed drawings. Each one has a slightly different style, some are more realistic while others cartoonish. Some are stand alone pieces while others look like a panel taken out of a comic strip.

Andrew Farke is a paleontologist who also enjoys good homebrewed beer.

Andrew Farke is a paleontologist who also enjoys good homebrewed beer.

Joni Pini-Fitzsimmons is a marine biologist studying stingrays.

Joni Pini-Fitzsimmons is a marine biologist studying stingrays.

I could not help noticing that most avatars were of herpetologists.

Jennifer Moore is a conservation biologist and molecular ecologist focusing on reptiles and amphibians. OH MY GOD IS THAT A TUATARA???

Jennifer Moore is a conservation biologist and molecular ecologist focusing on reptiles and amphibians. OH MY GOD IS THAT A TUATARA???

Mark Mandica is the founder and CEO of The Amphibian Foundation Inc, dedicated to the conservation of those lovely animals.

Mark Mandica is the founder and CEO of The Amphibian Foundation Inc, dedicated to the conservation of those lovely animals.

Kocak has an unusual talent for drawing reptiles and amphibians, especially salamanders. I felt however, that entomologists are underrepresented in his gallery (I mean, come on ento-people!). So I set out to request my own avatar.

I'm always on the lookout for Epomis larvae.

I’m always on the lookout for Epomis larvae.

And I dare say, I love it.
Not only Kocak managed to breathe life into what I had in mind, he also nailed it in his execution of my body posture and even my facial expression. And the funny part? We have never met in person. I’m impressed. Also, he was surprisingly fast. I asked him how many of these he gets to work on each night and he said he usually does 5-6 avatars in one sitting. I think the results are fantastic, and I hope to see him successfully turning his art into a secure source of income.

And as I was writing this post, I found out that he also did one for Catherine Scott, a fellow arachnologist and a good friend of mine:

Catherine Scott is an arachnologist studying the mating behavior of black widows.

Catherine Scott is an arachnologist studying the mating behavior of black widows.

So if you are in for a personalized caricature of yourself, Ethan tells me he enjoys doing them so he will continue to accept commissions as long as there is demand. You can contact him here, here and here. By the way, they are not just for scientists!

Salamander Day: 2014

Every year when the right time comes (depending on my location), I make an effort to go out and search for salamanders and newts. What started as an attempt to photograph the elusive fire salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata) in Israel has become almost an annual celebration to appreciate the local amphibian fauna.

Redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

 

Why salamanders of all things? Very early in my days as a naturalist I was under the impression that salamanders in Israel are super-rare. But at some point I realized that while they were uncommonly seen, it is not necessarily because they were rare. Salamanders have very localized populations, and the adult salamanders are active on the ground surface only a few days per year during the breeding season. You need to know exactly when and where to look for them, and then you can actually observe quite many individuals.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) from Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately I did not find them this year.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) from Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately I did not find them this year.

 

There are rare species of salamanders for sure, don’t get me wrong. And this is where knowing your local amphibian fauna plays an important role.
Salamanders, and amphibians in general, are not only super cute (see in the below photo) but they are also very important bioindicators. They breathe and absorb water through their moist skin, and they at a high risk of absorbing various chemical compounds found in their surroundings. As a result they are some of the first organisms to suffer from pollution or habitat disturbance (as well as many other factors). Surveying and monitoring the local amphibian populations can assist substantially in understanding their condition and the health of the whole ecosystem.

Portrait of the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Portrait of the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

 

In the past few years I have been “celebrating” Salamander Day in southern Ontario Canada, where I regularly find four species of salamanders right after the snow melts: the common redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus), spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale), and the rarer Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), all showing stable populations. I am sure there are more species to be found; for example, I have been trying to locate a population of Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) but was unsuccessful. This year I was a bit too late in the season to search for salamanders because of a research trip to Israel. My intention was to photograph them for Meet Your Neighbours biodiversity project (a topic for a separate post) against a white background using a potable field studio. Unfortunately, I only found two species out of the four I usually find, but they were very cooperative during the quick photoshoot.

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

 

Portrait of Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Portrait of Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

 

The setup I used for photographing the salamanders against a white background, for Meet Your Neighbours project

The setup I used for photographing the salamanders against a white background, for Meet Your Neighbours project

 

I encourage everyone to go out and look for amphibians in activity. And when you find them – be happy about it. It is a good sign that natural processes are functioning properly in your area (unless you are located in a part of the world where the only amphibians you can find are invasive species. Sigh… that is not a good sign).

Female Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) from last year's Salamander Day

Female Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) from last year’s Salamander Day