Archive For: Art

Public outreach: Promoting the appreciation of arthropods

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in an outreach event, Guelph Bug Day, at the University of Guelph Arboretum. Bug days are public events, usually free of any admission fees, which promote the appreciation and admiration of insects and arachnids, and set out to educate anyone who is fascinated by arthropods.

Held a super cool whip spider at #guelphbugday 🕷 🐜 🦋

A post shared by 🌻🌎T E S S A 🌎🌻 (@tessa.spaghetti) on

This is not the first time I participate in such an event. Last year I presented arachnids at Bug Day Ottawa. In fact, ever since I became interested in insects and their natural history, I have been involved in presenting them to whoever was interested: I brought live insects to lab sessions in high school, I led my mates in outdoor excursions to find spiders and scorpions during my military service, I collaborated with operating museums and insectariums as a consultant on exhibitions, and I incorporated the use of live insects in biology studies at universities to help students gain a better understanding of the courses material. More recently though, I have been more active in events aimed at the general public, in order to bring arthropods into the mainstream and help people overcome their fears. And so far, it has been a blast. Take this recent bug day in Guelph for example: I found myself smiling from ear to ear the whole time, and my table was always busy with no moment to rest, not that I am complaining. This was the first time Guelph holds a bug day event and to be honest, it was the best one I have ever been to. It was that good. But before I talk about the bug day, let me elaborate a little about public outreach and why I think it is important.

When working in science, especially when you acquire some expertise, it becomes difficult to expose the public to your subject of research and communicate about it. The more knowledge you gain about your study system, the harder it gets to explain it to people with little or no science background and get them to care about it. I am happy to say that this is changing thanks to the engagement of researchers and science communicators with the public on social media. Yet there is still a long way to go.

More specifically, nowadays most people go about their daily lives with little or no exposure to the wonders of nature. I once brought velvet worms to a public outreach event at the Toronto Zoo and the response was phenomenal. It was not surprising – the majority of people, biologists included, will live through their lives without even knowing these majestic animals exist, let alone see a live one. So in my opinion this exposure is critical, it can influence the public’s opinion and later have implications for nature conservation. I do think people should familiarize themselves with whatever is found in their area, both plants and animals. After all, insects and spiders are everywhere, and most of them are not out to get anyone. They are harmless and usually mind their own business.

When I present live arthropods, I love interacting with children and let them handle the animals, but I am even more interested in getting the parents into the game. You see, the reality is that the majority of kids already like bugs. They are curious about the diverse world of invertebrates, those common animals that are so different from mammals and birds, and have the appearance of small toys. Unfortunately, at some point children lose their interest in invertebrates, and sometimes even worse, replace it with fear and hate. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why that stage occurs. But it is most likely due to an environmental influence – succumbing to peer-pressure from friends or parents, and witnessing a shift in cultural appreciation as technology takes nature’s place. Parents have a huge role in preserving the view of the natural world in young people’s minds by encouraging them and nurturing their curiosity. Many times I have seen an excited kid holding an insect turn to their parents in hopes for affirmation. However, sometimes the kids are uninterested in insects, in which case I try to work directly with the parents and get them to handle the animals. Some children just need to see their parents doing something a bit unconventional to get confirmation that they are cool!

It just so happens that I stumbled upon this beautiful artwork by Tiana Cabana, a lovely composite image (inspired by another artwork) depicting my burning passion and mission –

Give small critters some room in your heart. Embrace them.
It will make you a better person, and they will appreciate it too.

https://twitter.com/spoodersNsuch/status/902678547638218752

Going back to Guelph Bug Day, I was astonished by the sheer amount of positivity expressed by the visitors attending. Even those who confessed their fears gave the arachnids a chance after listening to some facts about them and realizing that they do not pose a threat. I find this level of open-mindness incredible, and it is in great part thanks to the amazing organizers and volunteers who put so much of their energy into making this event a reality. Such a talented group of people.

I returned home from the bug day with such a “high”, almost intoxicated, feeling. At first I didn’t know what it was. Sure, the event was fun, but was it that fun? What is this smile smeared all over my face? Why am I so restless, why can’t I just sit down? And it finally dawned on me what it is that I was feeling. It was love. I was in love.
So yeah, I can get pretty emotional at times, but the important take home message for me here is that I can see myself doing this every single day, for the rest of my life. Thank you, Guelph Bug Day. You have a special place in my heart.

One lesson learned from doing these events – I need to bring a camera…

Insect art: Framed whip spiders (Amblypygi)

I have been covering a lot of insect-inspired art on this blog recently. It makes me excited; there are so many beautiful examples of artwork that incorporate insects and other arthropods into their theme. Just by reading some of the comments on the previous posts I got a gazillion new ideas for topics to write about (thank you). This time, however, I want to take the opportunity to tell you about something that I have been working on. The title for this post is a little misleading, because this is not really ”insect art”, but more like “arachnid art”.

One of the first presents I got from my parents when they realized their kid was fascinated with insects was a frame with several tropical butterflies. This frame, along with others that joined in subsequent years, decorated the wall of my room for many years. They became a part of my identity, telling every visitor what I was all about. Throughout the years my focus shifted from butterflies to spiders and scorpions, and then to beetles and other arthropod groups. Yet those framed insects remained on the wall, and even though I left that house many years ago they are still hung there to this very day.

Framed arachnids, whip spiders and a tarantula. Read on to learn what is so special about these.

Framed arachnids, whip spiders and a tarantula. Read on to learn what is so special about these.

I got so used to hearing wows every time someone noticed the spectacular sunset moth, the blue morpho butterfly, or even the less colorful dobsonfly, that when one day a friend told me she didn’t like those frames, it caught me by surprise. I asked her why, and she replied, “An animal had to die so you can enjoy this”. And by all accounts, she was right.
That reply stuck with me. I do not consider myself much of a collector, but when I do collect there is always a conflict. Is this necessary? Is this going to help anyone in the future? In my travels I have seen many dead insects, tarantulas and scorpions being offered as home decor for sale in city markets. It is shocking to realize these animals are probably harvested from their natural habitats by the hundreds for this purpose. To be fair, some butterfly and beetle species are being farmed and thus the ecological impact on their natural populations is insignificant. However, insect frames still require a dead specimen to begin with.

A framed rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracilicornis) that I made. You might not believe it, but this specimen was in very poor condition when I received it.

A framed rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracilicornis) that I made. You might not believe it, but this specimen was in very poor condition when I received it.

In the past I have sinned in trying to make my own version of such frames. In all honesty, when done correctly, they do look nice and add some character to a room. Almost like an old natural history lithograph. I did this with dead insects from my own cultures, or with specimens I already had in my collection. But recently I was wondering if there is another way to achieve the same result, one that does not require dead specimens. Something more sustainable.

Me presenting whip spiders to the general public at Bug Day Ottawa 2016. Framed specimens can be used for education along with live ones.

Me presenting whip spiders to the general public at Bug Day Ottawa 2016. Framed specimens can be used for education along with live ones.

Whip spiders, or amblypygids, are rarely offered as framed specimens, but when they do, they usually look very bad and have an unflattering, unnatural pose. I mean, look at this one for example. It looks horrible. Now look at how much this specimen costs. It makes no sense to me that an animal gave its life to be preserved in such a horrendous way, accompanied with such a hefty price tag. This is also coming from a company that claims to farm its framed specimens, however I highly doubt they farm any of their arachnid specimens. Large arachnids take years to reach their adult size, and it would not be very profitable to farm them just for the purpose of framing them later. Moreover, dead arachnids (and many insects too) often lose their vibrant colors. There has to be a different way to do this. And there is: during my time keeping amblypygids, I noticed that their empty molts retain their appearance even after many years, and when arranged properly they look like a copy of the living animal. I made some exemplars for use in public outreach and the response was phenomenal. When I presented the prepared molt next to its still-living parent, people refused to believe they are both the very same specimen.

Whip spider (Heterophrynus batesii) fresh after molting in the wild. The molt (on the left) is a hollow empty shell, but looks just like the live arachnid.

Whip spider (Heterophrynus batesii) fresh after molting in the wild. The molt (on the left) is a hollow empty shell, but looks just like the live arachnid.

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

Whip spiders molts, work in progress before framing. Oh, and that tarantula? That is a molt too.

Whip spiders molts, work in progress before framing. Oh, and that tarantula? That is a molt too.

Working with molts is not easy and resembles taxidermy in many ways. It requires deep understanding of the animal’s natural appearance, as well as how to stabilize its now-empty limbs. It took me many months of practicing until I finally mastered the technique of making a hollow arachnid look alive. The best thing about it – no animal was sacrificed during the preparation, and in fact the very same animal that produced the molt is still alive and kicking.

Framed whip spider (Paraphrynus raptator). In the background, framed molts of two additional species (Heterphrynus spp).

Framed whip spider (Paraphrynus raptator). In the background, framed molts of two additional species (Heterphrynus spp).

Now this begs the question – what am I going to do with these frames? I enjoy looking at them a lot actually. They add something authentic to my living space. I thought about putting up a page to offer them for sale at some point. The only problem seems to be availability, because whip spiders usually molt only once a year. I will need to salvage every single molt if I want to continue making more of these.

Framed whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). This is probably my favorite work so far. Small. Simple. Perfect.

Framed whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). This is probably my favorite work so far. Small. Simple. Perfect.

By the way, if you want to hear more about whip spiders and you happen to be in Toronto this weekend, the Toronto Entomology Association and the Royal Ontario Museum are organizing “Bug Day”, an event dedicated to the keeping live arthropods. I will give a short talk on Sunday April 23rd at noon, so please come and say hi.

Insect art: Transformers and other insect mecha

In my previous post I discussed the use of insects in Japanese anime. There are many other fascinating examples of insects being featured in cartoons, but I cannot leave the subject without mentioning one specific example that is somewhat related: The Transformers.

"Look! There is some interesting text written down there"

“Look! There is some interesting text written down there”

"Yes! Let's check it out!"

“Yes! Let’s check it out!”

I grew up in the 1980’s, a time when giant robots were popular among kids. The Transformers was one such franchise, telling the story of two races of transforming robots fighting each other, who one day end up stranded on earth. Despite its apparent novelty, it was not the first show to come up with the idea of robots that can change form into vehicles and other objects; the same concept was already in use by other animated mecha shows like Gobots, Voltron, Macross etc’. Nevertheless, The Transformers had the largest variety of shape-shifting robots compared to its competitors. It is important to remember that at its core, The Transformers cartoon series was meant to promote the sale of toys created by the Japanese manufacturer Takara and licensed to Hasbro in the US. New characters were introduced continuously on the show, corresponding to new toy models being released. Soon enough, The Transformers became a huge success, attracting a large crowd of followers. Together with its toy lines, unique animation style, and recognizable sound effects, it coined catchphrases like “More than Meets the Eye” and “Robots in Disguise”. Now, over 30 years after its first launch, it is still growing as a franchise.

I look at this image and I see toys. So many toys.

I look at this image and I see toys. So many toys.

To make things clear, I am not a hardcore Transformers fan. I do not collect the toys, and I am not too obsessed with the cartoon. I also do not care much for the recent reboot of the franchise in live-actions films, but I am not their target audience anyway. To put it more simply, I love the idea of transforming robots for exactly what it is – creatures trying to disguise themselves as something else. You can imagine my excitement as a kid when I found out about the Transformers’ line of robot insects: the insecticons.

As a young naturalist I learned that insects try to hide or disguise themselves all the time. It seemed natural to me (and I must admit, also very cool) that insects inspired the design of some of the Transformers characters. Although the thought of giant robots from another planet taking the form of insects may come as a surprise, does it really? Insects already look bulky, and their movements are often described as mechanical, thanks to their restricting exoskeleton. I think the idea of robot insects is as straightforward and predictable as it can be.

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons were introduced early in the Transformers series, in the episode A Plague of Insecticons. The group included three members: Shrapnel, the gang’s leader who can also control lightning, was modeled after a stag beetle; Bombshell, who can mind-control other robots by using capsules, transforms into a weevil; and Kickback, a robotic locust. Some of the show’s fans will probably try to correct me that Bombshell is supposed to be a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, however the design of his snout complete with two antennae-like projections, along with the way he uses it in his insect mode, suggest he is a weevil. In addition, the insecticons were supposed to portray insect pests; they had the ability to multiply and form swarms, consuming crops and energy resources in their path. Pest locusts and weevils are well known. As to why a stag beetle was chosen to represent a pest species, that is indeed a good question.

The insecticons swarm on its way to defoliate a crop field. Oh, Kickback. Why are you so cute?

The insecticons swarm on its way to defoliate a crop field. Oh, Kickback. Why are you so cute?

"Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!"

“Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!”

I love this comic artwork showing Kickback's locust swarm. It is an excellent depiction of our helplessness not only against giant menacing robots, but also the unpredictability of catastrophic natural phenomena.

I love this comic artwork showing Kickback’s locust swarm. It is an excellent depiction of our helplessness not only against giant menacing robots, but also the unpredictability of catastrophic natural phenomena.

By the time The Transformers were popular as a TV series and a toy line, they released several other insect robots toys known as “Deluxe insecticons”. These colorful figures were never featured on the animated show due to a licensing issue, but they appeared in the comics.

One of the first appearances of the Deluxe insecticons in the Transformers comics

One of the first appearances of the Deluxe insecticons in the Transformers comics

The Deluxe insecticons included a Japanese rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma) called Barrage, another stag beetle named Chop Shop, a grasshopper named Ransack, and Venom – a cicada. You can definitely see the influence of Japanese culture reflecting in these insect mode choices.

Barrage and Chop Chop. The Deluxe insecticons were not exactly loyal to each other.

Barrage and Chop Shop. The Deluxe insecticons were not exactly loyal to each other.

Deluxe insecticons Venom and Barrage. I love how they designed Venom to have sucking mouthparts, a proboscis, in his insect mode, just like a real cicada.

Deluxe insecticons Venom and Barrage. I love how they designed Venom to have sucking mouthparts, a proboscis, in his insect mode, just like a real cicada.

Despite their bright color palette, the Deluxe insecticons were more similar in their appearance to real-life insects than the original insecticons. The only figure I have issues with is Ransack: With his black and yellow coloration he is supposed to represent a gregarious morph of the desert locust Schistocerca gregaria, but his colors make him look more like Aganacris velutina, a wasp-mimicking katydid.

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

There is a small a history lesson here too: Despite their late addition to the franchise, the Deluxe insecticons were not really new characters. They were designs borrowed from another Japanese franchise by the name of Beetras: Armored Insect Battalion, manufactured by the Japanese company Takatoku Toys. The Beetras story revolved around five young warriors who pilot insectoid mecha to protect earth from threats. I like this idea of humans using insectoid vehicles to perform different tasks. Anyone who has stumbled upon the photo of John Deer’s Walking Harvester will know what I am talking about. However, shortly after the Beetras toy line was released in 1984, Takatoku Toys went bankrupt. The toy molds were sold to Bandai, another toy manufacturer who then licensed them to Hasbro, and those would later become the Deluxe insecticons. I much prefer the original Beetras color scheme of the robots as opposed to the brightly colored deluxe insecticons. The Beetras colors appear more natural and closer to what insects look like in real life.

The insecticons toys presented in the 1985 catalog. The original insecticons can be seen at the bottom, while the Deluxe insecticons, still sporting their Beetras coloration, at the top.

The insecticons toys presented in the 1985 catalog. The original insecticons can be seen at the bottom, while the Deluxe insecticons, still sporting their Beetras coloration, at the top.

The Deluxe insecticons toy line in the 1986 catalog, now with their reissued colors.

The Deluxe insecticons toy line in the 1986 catalog, now with their reissued colors.

Going over the Beetras robot designs reveals that there were several additional characters in planning – a Hercules beetle, yet another stag beetle, and a ladybird beetle (a female robot toy, which at the time was quite unusual). Unfortunately, these characters never made it through to the production stage.

The Beetras planned toy line from 1984. This could have been such a great series.

The Beetras planned toy line from 1984. This could have been such a great series.

If there is anything that the insecticons have taught us, it is that good things are only temporary. Like many good Transformers characters, the insecticons’ fate was to fade from existence. They were hit, run over, and eventually killed off during the events of Transformers: The Movie in 1986.

Kickback being run over by a vehicle. The poor guy can be seen trying to cover his head and antennae just before the impact. I can feel for him.

Kickback being run over by a vehicle. The poor guy can be seen trying to cover his head and antennae just before the impact. I can feel for him.

Although they never returned to the animated series, their legacy still lives on in the form of toys, with interesting reissues from time to time. In my opinion the insecticons were a great idea that never really reached its full potential. They left much to be desired. Maybe we will see them again one day, after all insects are all around us.

Soundwave releases tiny insecticons for a mission. Maybe there are still some little transformers out there?

Soundwave releases tiny insecticons for a mission. Maybe there are still some little transformers out there?

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* This post makes use of copyrighted material for the purpose of commentary under fair use.

Insect art: The use of insects in Japanese anime

I have a confession to make: I love anime.
It should come as no surprise, especially after my post featuring an animated cockroach video. I cannot seem to trace back when my interest in anime has started, but it has been there for a while since childhood. It would be difficult for me to explain why I love this form of media so much, as well as it predecessor, the Japanese manga. I love everything about it: The character design, their well-crafted stories, the overly detailed backgrounds, and the wink to some of Japan’s culture. And what is better than having your interests collide and merge into one? There is some extensive use of insects and other arthropods in manga and anime, but it is so subtle that you may have not even noticed it.

A field of plain tiger butterflies (Danaus chrysippus). From "Natsume's Book of Friends"

A field of plain tiger butterflies (Danaus chrysippus). From “Natsume’s Book of Friends”

To start off, Japan’s culture has an interesting relationship with insects (collectively called mushi). It is a nation that embraces the eccentric and weird, where insects are a part of the mainstream. They are mostly not feared from, but admired and respected. Japanese people enjoy listening to singing insects, observing the behavior of fighting insects, and in some areas even eat insects. I will not go into much detail about the Japanese beetle culture (as this is a topic for a full post by itself), just mention that it is widely accepted for kids (and adults) to keep beetles as pets, and you can buy a variety of beetles and their breeding supplies in stores. The popularity of live beetles in Japan is no less than that of cats and dogs. It is a pity that the rest of the world is a bit lagging in this regard. There are numerous Japanese books dealing with insects as well as insectariums targeting children. In addition, every summer kids in Japan catch and play with insects, from dragonflies and butterflies to cicadas and water bugs. The result is that almost no children in Japan are afraid to handle insects. With such a culture, the children are also always connected to nature.

And this brings me to art. With mushi playing such an extensive role in Japanese culture, it is very easy to find representations of that in art. I am going to focus mainly on examples in anime but it is important to note that insects can be found painted, sculpted, or carved in everyday objects. The mushi culture is truly overwhelming; this post is merely scratching the surface.

Without exception, the insect that is most commonly used in Japanese art, and specifically in anime and manga, is the singing cicada.

Cicada molting into its adult stage. Beautiful use of insect biology from Makoto Shinkai's "The Garden of Words"

Cicada molting into its adult stage. Beautiful use of insect biology from Makoto Shinkai’s “The Garden of Words”

The emergence of larval and adult cicadas represent the onset of warm summer, and these insects are used to give a sense of time for the ongoing plot. This is usually done by showing cicadas singing while clinging to trees, poles etc’, even in an urban envronment. In anime the sound of singing cicadas is used to represent summertime even without actually showing cicadas in the frame.

Singing cicada on a street lamp post. From "Steins;Gate"

Singing cicada on a street lamp post. From “Steins;Gate”

Unique styling on this singing cicada. From "Welcome to the NHK!"

Unique styling on this singing cicada. From “Welcome to the NHK!”

Cicadas are also used to show the end of summer, by depicting a dead cicada falling from its perch, or a carcass on the ground.

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From "Aoi Bungaku"

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From “Aoi Bungaku”

Dragonflies are another commonly used insect in anime, usually to give the sense of a bigger picture; despite what just happened in the plot, it is but an insignificant event and life around is still going on. This adds a dramatic impact to the more serious anime genres, in moments where a catastrophe just took place.

Life goes on. From "Steins;Gate"

Life goes on. From “Steins;Gate”

Other insects are used to depict different emotions. Fireflies usually represent a special event in the life of the characters, whereas singing insects evoke curiosity and a sense of exploration.

One day I will take a firefly photo just like in this scene. From "Encouragement of Climb"

One day I will take a firefly photo just like in this scene. From “Encouragement of Climb”

Observing a Japanese bell cricket, suzumushi (Meloimorpha japonicus). From "Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day"

Observing a Japanese bell cricket, suzumushi (Meloimorpha japonicus). From “Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day”

Spiders and other predatory arthropods are usually used as a sign for danger. I wish it wasn’t the case. I can only hope that one day arachnids are going to represent beauty and complexity in popular culture, but it seems we still have a long way to go.

The spider had nothing to do with what happened in this scene. From "Aoi Bungaku"

The spider had nothing to do with what happened in this scene. From “Aoi Bungaku”

Which spider family? From "Aoi Bungaku"

Which spider family? From “Aoi Bungaku”

In Japanese mythology, the golden orb-web spider (Nephila clavata) is considered a shape-shifter that seduces young men. From "Beyond the Boundary"

In Japanese mythology, the golden orb-web spider (Nephila clavata) is considered a shape-shifter that seduces young men. From “Beyond the Boundary”

Somebody is in ambush, and I don't mean the mantis. From "Sword of the Stranger"

Somebody is in ambush, and I don’t mean the mantis. From “Sword of the Stranger”

Another important part of the Japanese insect culture is the appreciation and celebration of insect diversity. The collecting of insects is explained and demonstrated in both manga and anime as a fun activity for the summer days. The “Endless eight” plotline from anime The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya relies heavily on an insect collection trip as its main setting. Although the characters are out to collect cicadas (they release them eventually, in case you wondered), many insect species are shown, including beetles, butterflies, bugs and grasshoppers.

Collecting insects isn't always easy. From "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya"

Collecting insects isn’t always easy. From “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”

More specifically, rhinoceros and stag beetle species are represented in great detail and are often referred to by species name. In the series Natsume’s Book of Friends there is a split-second scene in which the main character flips through an insect book from his childhood. It is hard not to appreciate the accuracy shown in that short scene, all the insects can be easily identified to the species level (and probably even mentioned by name, too bad I cannot read Japanese). In the screenshot below you can recognize the various subspecies of the atlas beetle (Chalcosoma atlas), neptune beetle (Dynastes neptunus), eastern Hercules beetle (Dynastes tityus), western Hercules beetle (Dynastes granti), and the rare satanas beetle (Dysantes satanas).

Detailed insect book from "Natsume's Book of Friends"

Detailed insect book from “Natsume’s Book of Friends”

As with any type of collecting activity, some specimens are highly prized and receive special attention.

"A golden stag beetle!" From "Teekyu"

“A golden stag beetle!” From “Teekyu”

Saw-toothed stag beetle (Lamprima adolphinae)! From "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya"

Saw-toothed stag beetle (Lamprima adolphinae)! From “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”

Beetle fights are also a common theme. One good example is a whole franchise centered around the world of rhinoceros and stag beetles. Musiking included a manga, an anime series, and an arcade game complete with activation cards containing information about different beetle species. It even had collectible merchandise (beetle models) that sold very well. More than anything, Mushiking exposed kids to the huge diversity of fighting beetles, and there are even reports claiming that this franchise is responsible for the rise in popularity and illegal trafficking of certain beetle species in Japan. The concept of beetle fights as a game of gambling is also explored in some anime. For example, in the series Samurai Champloo, the character Mugen is shown training a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, known as kabutomushi (Allomyrina dichotoma) by letting it pull weights. Later he is seen putting his trainee to the test, while a crowd of drunk people cheer in the background. Allomyrina dichotoma has a long-standing status in Japanese culture because of its unique male horn and strength. It is extremely popular as a pet species, and even has toys modeled after it.

Training a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, kabutomushi (Allomyrina dichotoma). From "Samurai Champloo"

Training a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, kabutomushi (Allomyrina dichotoma). From “Samurai Champloo”

"Fight! Fight!" From "Samurai Champloo"

“Fight! Fight!” From “Samurai Champloo”

There are many more excellent examples out there, but I hope I convinced you that insects have an important place in anime. In fact, while researching anime series for this post I came a cross several dozens of additional examples that I missed during my first watch of the shows. So why am I writing about this? This is the first of two posts dealing with the use of insects in animated media that I really like. I thought it would be interesting and refreshing to depart a little from my usual posts about natural history and present you with a different aspect of who I am. Shocking, I know. Wait till you read the next post. I promise it will be fun, so please stick around.

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* This post makes use of copyrighted material for the purpose of commentary under fair use.
** This post is also a response to some people who tried their best to mock me about my anime-watching habits. I don’t see how pointing out someone for having a hobby that they love can ever be considered as an insult. If you are one of those bullies, take a good honest look at your own hobbies and answer me this – do you feel ashamed for your personal interests? No? Didn’t think so.
So why should I be.

Insect art: Animated short explores common view on cockroaches

Have you ever wondered how life would look like from an insect’s perspective? Have you ever thought what goes on in a cockroach’s mind when it is confronted with a terrified human? And what would you do if you found yourself in that situation? An animated short film explores exactly that.

But before we get into the film, a short explanation why I am posting about it. There is a lot of unjustified hate when it comes to insects and arachnids. After a few years of sharing my photographs and stories online, trying to show their beauty as well as their importance for the healthy functioning of ecosystems on this planet, I realized that there will always be a subset of people who disagree with my point of view. That is fine. We all have our reasons. I do my best to explain better and educate that these animals are not out to get anyone, but sometimes it is not enough. Sometimes I fail. I often see people being bullied for their fascination with insects. Other times, I get bashing comments for posting photos of harmless jumping spiders. Let me tell you, after some time you get exhausted from having to deal with all this hate and negativity thrown at you. Maybe it is time to approach it from a different angle.

It means you no harm.

It means you no harm.

Completely by chance, my love for the animated art form (a topic for a future post) led me to this beautiful piece. The short film is titled “20min Walk From Nishi-Ogikubo Station, 2 Bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, 2 Months Deposit, No Pets Allowed”. It was written and directed by Takeshi Honda and Mahiro Maeda for Japan Animator Expo in 2014. The film’s plot takes place in an apartment, most likely at the address mentioned in the title, and follows a very simple animation style. Don’t expect slick animation here: there is no CG, no 3D animation, and no special effects. The animation was drawn entirely by hand. This short shows love for traditional animation methods, which are rarer nowadays. I do not want to spoil too much of the already simple plot, but if you have 8 minutes to spare this fun film is well worth you time.

(You can also watch it here, in this case start watching from 1:28. But I suggest you do it now, because this video will surely disappear at some point.)

It is quite a ride, but what I really like about this animated short is that it makes you think about what you just watched. It is not perfectly clear what the main character is feeling at the end. Everyone I showed this to seemed to take something different from the ending. But they all agreed this is a thought-provoking piece. So the next time you find a cockroach on your floor, relax, and please take a brief moment to remember this video.

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!

Insect art: Illustrations by Carim Nahaboo

Looking back on my life as a kid obsessed with the natural world, I often found myself fascinated by scientific illustrations, whether they were accompanying taxonomic descriptions or not. Something about the intense level of accuracy, the neutral pose of the subject, and the fine details shown, every bristle, every pore, that made me sink my eyes into these books, even if I could not understand the language or scientific terminology at that time. At some point I started hoping that one day I too can become such an artist, drafting the various shapes and forms surrounding us. Although I did draw a lot, I eventually neglected this side of myself. I guess the passion for photography took over, as another medium for getting similar results. But my passion for natural history illustrations has not died, and today I am pleased to find myself in a middle ground between the two, as a part of “Meet Your Neighbours” project. I still have a high appreciation for well-made illustrations, so you can understand why I was excited to discover the amazing artwork by Carim Nahaboo.

If you have never heard of Carim Nahaboo and don’t know what I am talking about, I suggest heading over to his website RIGHT NOW.
Carim is a talented artist producing stunning, photorealistic artwork featuring insects, arachnids and other arthropods. He is quickly becoming one of the hot natural history artists out there.

All artwork shown here is courtesy of Carim Nahaboo and posted with his permission.

Chrysina resplendens - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Jewel scarab (Chrysina resplendens) – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

At first glance, it is easy to mistake Carim’s drawings for photographs. It clearly shows that the artist is well-immersed in the natural world and pays attention to the smallest details. Take for example the following illustration of a centipede preying on a lizard:

Scolopendra hardwickei feeding on Psammophilus dorsalis - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Scolopendra hardwickei feeding on Psammophilus dorsalis – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Not only the anatomy of both animals is shown in great accuracy, but also their posture, and the way the light “falls” on their bodies. Excellent depiction of the shiny centipede versus the dull, scaly lizard. You can almost feel this predation is happening right now before your eyes.

Another good example is this drawing of a female Australian stick insect:

Extatosoma tiaratum feeding - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Extatosoma tiaratum feeding on Eucalyptus – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Notice how the head area is bent forward? Only someone who knows how this insect moves in real life can get this minor detail correctly.

Nephila clavipes pair - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Golden orb weaver (Nephila clavipes) pair – artwork by Carim Nahaboo.
Hard to believe this is not a photograph.

The amount of detail Carim puts in his artwork is staggering. I cannot imagine how much work is going into color drawings of creatures such as this Death’s head hawkmoth:

Acherontia atropos work in progress - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Death’s head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos), artwork in progress

After months of drooling over the images Carim posted online, I decided it is about time I get my own Carim Nahaboo piece. I ended up getting three. They are just too good. Deciding on the subjects was not easy, because I wanted not only something that looks good, but also something that will be personal. The first piece though was a no-brainer: it had to be Epomis. I have spent years keeping and observing these interesting beetles, in order to document how their larvae parasitize and kill amphibians. Although the larvae can be very colorful at late developmental stages, I chose a first-instar larva for the piece, because of its unique body proportions.
The first thing I noticed about Carim is that he is very fast. Hours only after sending him the reference material he had already sent me an image of the work in progress. He has an amazing talent to get the right “feel” and texture for his subject, even if it is a creature he has never seen in person. More specifically, he managed to illustrate the mild transparency of the larva very well. When the piece finally arrived in the mail (very professionally wrapped, by the way), my eyes almost popped out of their sockets. It looked even better in real life.

Epomis circumscriptus larva - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Epomis circumscriptus larva, dorsal view – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

This cropped photo shows detail on another piece I got, a lichen-mimic katydid from Ecuador (Markia hystrix):

Markia hystrix - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Markia hystrix – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Here is a whip spider posing next to one of Carim’s drawings. Or is it vice versa? This shows the amount of precision and just how realistic these artwork pieces are. I have a strong feeling we will see a lot more of his work in the next few years.

Heterophrynus sp. - artwork by Carim Nahaboo

Heterophrynus sp. – artwork by Carim Nahaboo

You can see more of Carim’s work by following his Facebook and Twitter feeds, and you can also order prints from his online shop.

Insect art: rubber stamps

Some months ago I stumbled upon on a blog post in Japanese with many images of insect plush toys and wooden figurines. The topic was the annual Mozo Mozo exhibition in Japan. In case you have never heard about this exhibition, dedicated to the love of small creatures, every year various artists join to display and sell insect-themed artwork. The diversity of works ranges from drawings and figurines to toys, clothing, bags and accessories. I hope one day I have a chance to attend this event in person. Until then, I will have to settle for photos posted online.
Nevertheless, upon noticing some artwork that I really liked in those photos, I decided to try and contact several artists in hopes they still have something available that can be sent overseas.

This is how I discovered the amazing hand-made stamps by the talented Mayu Watanabe (check out her work here). This young artist is not only very capable of translating complex structures (not just insects) into rubber stamps, but she also finds original and intriguing ways to combine different stamping methods to create esthetically pleasing designs on almost any paper media, for example postcards or gift wrappings.

stamps2

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), solitary form (left) and gregarious form (right). Beautiful stamp artwork by Mayu Watanabe

 

stamps1

 

stamps3

I couldn’t think of a better packing for these! Excellent!

 

The artist also puts a lot of thinking into the packaging of her artwork (marketing departments, take notes!): Every stamp is packed separately on cotton, stapled within a piece of cardboard and cellophane. Entomologists out there, does this sound familiar? This is exactly how you would send unmounted insect specimens overseas! I even had a prepared horned dung beetle (Copris sp.) lying around and compared it to its stamp counterpart – the similarity is very entertaining.

stamps4
But if you think this ends here, think again. Flip the packaged stamp and you will find the collecting data for that “specimen”, along with the species’ ID. Again, written very accurately according to the rules of scientific collecting.

stamps5
Overall, I am very impressed with the quality of these stamps, and I look forward to seeing more work from Mayu Watanabe in the future. I find it refreshing to see someone who not only loves what they are doing, but also does it very professionally.

A Moment of Creativity: Naked mole rats

I decided to start a new section in this blog called “A Moment of Creativity”, where I will post about fun creative ideas I come up with, usually when I am busy doing something important. Some of these ideas might not necessarily be related to science or photography. Besides, it was not the sole purpose of this blog anyway. I do not regard myself as a master of Photoshop, but every once in a while I like to test what I can produce and sharpen my skills. It does not make me an expert in image editing. A great deal of these attempts are deleted immediately. Others come out as interesting creations. I will post those here.

Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are small underground rodents native to East Africa. They are considered the only known eusocial mammal, having different reproductive casts (and no, humans are not eusocial. Unless you want to leave all the baby-making in your neighborhood for a single person). They are also the longest-lived rodent of their size, and can sometimes reach the age of 30 years or older. Naked mole rats have an impressive resistance to tumors, thanks to a specific compound they synthesize more efficiently than other cancer-prone animals. In addition, their ribosomes produce fewer aberrant proteins, which can explain the absence of errors causing most tumors. For these reasons, and because they do well in small colonies in captivity, they are kept as lab animals for research against cancer.

Fortunately, I had an opportunity to visit the colonies kept at University of Toronto Mississauga in 2012, because the technician who took care of them was also a member of the lab I was at, and kindly agreed to give me a tour.

Heterocephalus-glaber-10

Naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber). It is quite cute actually.

 

I brought along some of my photography gear, but soon found out that photographing naked mole rats is not an easy task, as they are somewhat sensitive to light and almost never sit still. I did not plan to do anything with the photos I took, but was happy to find out at least one of them was used in an article about the research (very cool, guys!).

One of the mole rats had its jaws wide open in a photo and I remember I said this reminded me of a scene from the film “Pink Floyd: The Wall”, especially due to the animal’s external appearance: it has many skin wrinkles and almost no hair. It looked just like a small naked human to me.

pink-naked-mole-rat

 

Meh. I am not sure that the result delivers the gloomy atmosphere of “The Wall”. To me it looks like the mole rat is praying at the Wailing Wall. But as I was working on this image, I could not help noticing how similar naked mole rats are to the film interpretation of the Dark Lord, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. So I set out to find some Harry Potter posters I can play with.

HP7-Voldemolerat

 

Well, this didn’t exactly turn out the way I wanted. I think I made the head too small, and the fact that there is a snake crawling calmly near a potential food source does not seem… hmmm… reliable. So I had to try something else.

harry-voldemolerat

 

Aha! Now we’re talking! Lord Voldemolerat himself. This could have easily been the real movie poster. Maybe for the next film Voldemort will return as an incarnation of a naked mole rat? And cure cancer at the same time??

Insect art: Cordyceps cicada vase

I have always been inspired by art, and I try to express this through my photography or in my drawings (not that I draw much these days). It is therefore understood why I love artwork and designs that are directly connected to my other passions: nature and small creatures. It is not difficult to find nature-inspired art or designs; they are everywhere, especially nowadays, where the biomimicry concept has become very popular in engineering and technology.

Insect-inspired art/design is also found out there, but it is much more scarce. In particular, it is difficult to find pieces that represent species other than iconic ones (for example, the monarch butterfly, the ladybug or the stag beetle), or a biological phenomenon.

Since an early age I was interested in such artwork and representation of insects in different cultures. Luckily, there is an excellent blog dedicated to this topic, The Endless Swarm, which allows me to follow my interest. I recommend checking it out if you are interested in insect art. I hope to follow the same path – whenever I stumble upon artwork that I find interesting, I will present it in this blog.

In this first insect art post, I would like to present a beautiful product from Japan: The Cordyceps cicada vase.

Singing cicadas have been a part of the Japanese culture for many years. They are depicted in drawings and small figurines on pottery and wood art. This vase is a relatively new product, it was released in spring 2013. Surprisingly, the vase depicts a cicada nymph, in contrast to adult cicadas that are more commonly seen in similar artwork. The idea is to show an insect that is infected with Cordyceps, a genus of parasitic fungi that attack arthropods, and through complex mind-control alter their behavior to reach a preferred spot for releasing the spores. When the host reaches its destination, the fungal fruiting body emerges from its head, killing it in the process.

cicada_vase1

 

The cicada nymph vase come secured in a box that makes it look like it rests in its preferred habitat: underground, between roots of trees that are its food.
The box is decorated with beautiful artwork by Takuhiko Yokoyama, showing different insects infected with Cordyceps fungus. I highly recommend checking the artist’s personal webpage for more beautiful insect art (his digital paintings and insect food logos are especially recommended!).

cicada_vase2

Cordyceps artwork on the box by Takuhiko Yokoyama

 

cicada_vase5

Original Cordyceps artwork, courtesy of Takuhiko Yokoyama

 

The detail and finish on the vase is very impressive. It has the appearance of a big caramelized cicada nymph. Almost anything placed into the vase (even flowers and branches) makes it look like a Cordyceps fungus emerging from the cicada’s head. I decided to demonstrate this using something a little more faithful to the charismatic parasite – Buna-shimeji mushrooms I had in my fridge.

cicada_vase4

Almost like the real thing

 

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Rear view of the cicada vase