Little Transformers: Forcipomyia, the midge that turns into a balloon

It is time to introduce another Little Transformer! I know what you are thinking. Am I ever going to run out material for these blog posts? Maybe. Probably not. As long as there are arthropods around, their life history and morphological diversity guarantees that I will always find examples for interesting deceptions and transformations. Up until now I mostly focused on animals that can change form quickly, assuming the appearance of something else as a defense response against predators and to avoid detection. The case presented in this post is a little different because it does not follow a quick change of form, but rather a slow one, over the course of a life stage. I should be cautious here, because under this definition every insect that goes through complete metamorphosis from larva to adult can be considered a Little Transformer (butterflies, beetles etc’). Even amphibians fall under this loose definition. And to some extent they ARE transformers, because the changes they go through during development are extreme. But this is not the topic for this series of posts. When I talk about a big change happening within a life stage, I mean that the animal starts as one thing, and by the end of the stage its appearance and function has changed into something else completely. And no example is better to show this than the parasitic midges of the genus Forcipomyia.

Biting midge (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a moth caterpillar. Photographed in Belize

Biting midge (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a moth caterpillar. Photographed in Belize

Here is the Forcipomyia midge with the whole caterpillar to give a better sense of scale

Here is the Forcipomyia midge with the whole caterpillar to give a better sense of scale

Forcipomyia is a large genus in the midge family Ceratopogonidae, with a worldwide distribution and diverse habitat preferences. There are now over 1,000 described species of Forcipomyia. The adults of some species are known as important pollinators of cacao and other plants of economic importance in tropical and subtropical areas. However, many species in the genus are blood-feeders, somewhat characteristic to ceratopogonids as the common name to the family suggests (biting midges). These parasites have interesting relationships with different insect hosts, and they can be found feeding on the hemolymph (insect blood) of grasshoppers, katydids, stick insects, butterflies, true bugs, and even skittish dragonflies. In fact, these interactions are so fascinating and overlooked, that only after spending some time in the field one can notice the midges have a preference for certain host species to feed from.

Sometimes the biting midges sneak into the photo without me noticing. I photographed these mating grasshoppers (Cloephoracris festae), but they have an accompanying Forcipomyia. Can you spot it?

Sometimes the biting midges sneak into the photo without me noticing. I photographed these mating grasshoppers (Cloephoracris festae), but they have an accompanying Forcipomyia. Can you spot it?

But let’s go back to the transformation they go through, because in one group of species, subgenus Microhelea, it is truly remarkable. The female Forcipomyia midge begins her adult stage with an active lifestyle. She flies about in the forest, feeding on nectar from small flowers. As days go by, she starts craving for blood and search for insects to bite. When she locates her preferred host, using her serrated mouthparts she proceeds to bite it in an area that has soft tissue: antennae, legs joints, wing veins, or between body segments. Once she found the right spot that will fulfill her dietary needs, the female midge attaches to it firmly, and… doesn’t let go, thanks to specialized claws on her feet. She sucks and gulps the insect’s blood, filtering the nutrients and secreting the excess fluids as clear droplets.

Tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a walking stick

Tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a walking stick

The midge stays attached like this for quite a while, and soon this sessile lifestyle starts taking its toll on the small parasite. She starts to put on weight. Then, she usually losses her wings – she will not need them anymore because the added mass from the developing eggs prevents her from taking off.

Female Forcipomyia swelling while feeding. She lost her wings but can still use her legs to hold firmly onto the host

Female Forcipomyia swelling while feeding. She lost her wings but can still use her legs to hold firmly onto the host

Forcipomyia getting fatter... but not quite there yet

Forcipomyia getting fatter… but not quite there yet

As she continues to swell like a grapefruit, the Forcipomyia midge also losses the ability to use her legs. She does not need to leave anyway, but she is so bloated that she cannot even hold onto the body of the host, and the only thing keeping the two connected are the midge’s mouthparts.

Female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) at the final stage of feeding. Her legs released their grip on the host and at this point the midge has fully transformed into a passive parasite that looks like a balloon.

Female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) at the final stage of feeding. Her legs released their grip on the host and at this point the midge has fully transformed into a passive parasite that looks like a balloon.

Stick insect (Pseudophasma bispinosum) carrying tick flies (Forcipomyia sp.) at different stages of feeding. Photographed in Ecuador

Stick insect (Pseudophasma bispinosum) carrying tick flies (Forcipomyia sp.) at different stages of feeding. Photographed in Ecuador

At this point, the engorged biting midge is no different than a tick, and indeed many refer to these parasitic Forcipomyia as tick-flies. Sometimes I like to imagine these fat dipterans disconnecting from their host and floating upwards like a balloon filled with helium, reaching above the forest canopy and flying into space. In reality, the exact opposite happens. The Forcipomyia female eventually leaves the host and drops to the ground, where she lays her eggs and finishes her role. And the male Forcipomyia? They are mostly unknown. Because males are never found feeding on insect hosts, it is safe to assume that they do not feed on blood, and prefer to keep a vegan diet of sweet nectar.

An engorged female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) after dropping from its host

An engorged female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) after dropping from its host

What about the larvae, are they parasites too? The majority of the research on biting midges has focused on the adults, due to their economic and medical significance, as well as their important role in aquatic ecosystems. Larvae of most ceratopogonids are unknown because finding them in their natural habitats can be challenging. They usually inhabit aquatic and semiaquatic habitats, but in the case of Forcipomyia the larvae are terrestrial and prefer to feed on moist detritus and organic matter under bark or in moss. In some species they feed on algae.

This stick insect is staring at me with tired eyes. I wonder if it is aware of the two hitchhikers it is carrying?

This stick insect is staring at me with tired eyes. I wonder if it is aware of the two hitchhikers it is carrying?

With so many aspects of their life history still unknown, and especially due to their ecological and economical importance, you would expect to see more active research on Forcipomyia. The bad news is that there is not enough research going on. A few years ago, I approached Dr. Stephen Marshall, a dipterologist from University of Guelph, and suggested doing a PhD study about Forcipomyia’s biology, phylogenetics, and their relationships with their hosts. I was politely refused, unfortunately. I still believe there is potential for a cool project involving Forcipomyia, maybe someone will pursue it in the future.

A Moment of Creativity: Unwanted Neighbours

It has been a while since I started photographing for Meet Your Neighbours global biodiversity photography project, and throughout the years I have assembled a collection of some fantastic beasts (along with the information where to find them). But early on I had the idea of creating another collection of photos, a spinoff to the original MYN concept, bringing together neighbours that we often do not want to meet, or the way I refer to them: Unwanted Neighbours.

Human flea (pulex irritans). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Human flea (pulex irritans). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Unwanted Neighbours include household pests, biting and blood-sucking arthropods, disease vectors, venomous animals, parasites, and the like. Most of the photos can be found in my original MYN gallery, and it is only natural that this new collection will be smaller in size. Nevertheless it can be used as a reference for animals with any negative significance to humans, whether it is medical or economical. For example, brown recluse spiders are known for their potency, but are often misidentified. There are very helpful initiatives out there to help and fight the misinformation, like Recluse or Not. I decided that detailed high-quality photos of the spiders can help clarify doubts about their physical appearance.

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Black widow spiders also suffer the same public treatment as brown recluses, for no good reason. Sure, they are venomous, but they do not tend to bite unless they have to, even if you poke them.

Mediterranean black widow spider (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) from Israel. Widow spiders are shy and usually keep to themselves.

Mediterranean black widow spider (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) from Israel. Widow spiders are shy and usually keep to themselves.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

This is not a gallery of “bad” animals. Despite their bad reputation, it is important to mention that there is no such thing as “bad” in nature. Many of these species are not even out to get us (excluding blood-feeders and parasites). Every creature has its rightful place on this planet. I was carful not to include just about any species that possesses venom, or incidental biters. Many times a bad interaction with an animal is our own fault. I am trying to avoid pointing fingers and propagating hatred towards nature, because in most cases these animals are doing exactly what they are supposed to, and we are just in their way. For this reason the representation of household pests, like ants, termites, wasps, and cockroaches will be kept to the minimum.

Everyone's favorite nightmare parasite - the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Although unpleasant, in reality they are not so bad.

Everyone’s favorite nightmare parasite – the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Although unpleasant, in reality they are not so bad.

Telson and stinger of black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor). Scorpions will always try to avoid an encounter with a human.

Telson and stinger of black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor). Scorpions will always try to avoid an encounter with a human.

At this point in time the Unwanted Neighbours page is still being constructed, but I expect it to stay relatively small in size. This is because most critters out there are harmless to us, and even those that have the potential to harm us, usually don’t. It is all about impact significance.

Why I rejected your request for free photos

This post is dedicated to all the people who have completely lost their sense of common decency.

I have a destructive humbleness that most people do not understand (myself included). I do not have a Patreon page, I do not run ads on this website, I have never asked for donations*. However, for some reason I get the feeling that this leads people to believe I do everything for free. This could not be further from the truth. You want to use my work? Great! How about you pay me for it? No? Of course not, what was I thinking. I’m sorry.

I don’t know how I can make this easier to understand: asking a professional (any professional – not only photographers) for free work is disrespectful, rude, and insulting. You do not want to be that person. Also, let’s make one thing clear, people: unless we have an agreement in place, you don’t get to decide for me how to use my photos.

This reminds me of my first PhD supervisor, who said that giving photos away was the “humane” thing to do. Ok. Explain to me how giving up your copyright is considered humane. After all, I don’t see authors putting their texts on the public domain for humanity to enjoy or adapt without expecting some sort of payment. Don’t get me wrong. I do like to put myself out there for the right cause, by volunteering or providing imagery free of charge. However, I feel that more and more entities are trying to take advantage of my good will, almost as if it became a trend. Some of you might not know, but I am completely self-funded as of last year (cough* Know a project/position I can fit in? Want me to give a presentation for your group? Let me know!). This lifestyle is not for the faint of heart, and it is often ridden with periods of anxiety and frustration. In any case, when too many people ask me to give away free stuff, how do you expect me to buy food? Pay for the roof above my head?
“Well, how about you get a real job?”, you might ask.
Fair enough. But you know what turns the content I create into a paid job? The fact that someone wants to use it. Maybe you do not like viewing photography, entomology, or science communication as a job, in that case I cannot help you. A lot has been said and written about working for free (here’s an excellent post for example, and here’s an analysis why professional photographers cannot work for free), I even wrote about this issue in the past. Needless to say, nowadays I almost never give photos for free. One thing I learned in this business is that there will always be some people who will hate you. Whether it is because you refuse to give photos for free, or because your rates are too high, or maybe because they are jealous of your work. I am not even counting people who just hate insects, yet still bother to comment on their photos instead of looking away. Whatever it may be, it is impossible to satisfy everyone, so I do not try. People are judgmental. I recall one interesting incident in which a stranger commented on a friend’s post, calling me “just an annoying photographer”. I reached out to them and asked if we knew each other, and why they think so. We ended up chatting for some time and eventually I think they realized that I am really not that bad of a person. I still think that from time to time, it is important to make a contribution to a cause you support (more on that later). However, when someone takes advantage of your generosity and tries to make a personal gain from it – run home! And don’t stop until you get there.

All these publishers paid for the rights to use my photos. So why shouldn't you?

All these publishers paid for the rights to use my photos. So why shouldn’t you?

I must say, if you got a negative response to your request, be respectful. Whether I choose to give something for charity is entirely up to me, not the person requesting the image. I go over the photos and the intended use, and analyze each case by its characteristics. If I decide to reject it, it is not personal; it means that I just could not see how it fits my mission. Another reason for a refusal is when I do not see how the use can promote me further as a photographer. In any case, if your request was refused please do not start throwing insults. That’s not going to win you any fans, and will definitely not get you the photo for use free of charge, not this time and not the next time around. Also, if you inquire about free images and you also receive a paycheck for doing this, there is a 100% chance that I will refuse to give photos for free. Allow me to demonstrate by using typical examples for this behavior.

Case #1 – The Networking Card

A person who I do not know contacts me to request a photo for their upcoming publication. It is a small production, a personal project. There is a section in the book describing a rare phenomenon or a rarely encountered species, and my photos are perfect to illustrate said subject. Alas, there is no budget for photographs.
In this case I reject the request on the basis that anything rarely documented has its own value. Examples for such subjects are Epomis beetles, swarming locusts, tusked weta, adult botflies etc’. All these subjects took a substantial investment of time, money, and physical preparation to get the final shot. Giving those photographs away free of charge devalues my personal investment, and makes it harder to charge normal fees for use of similar photos later. It would also be unfair towards those who have already paid a licensing fee to use the photos.
To my understanding, some people do this to “test the waters” and see if the photographer is someone worthy of working with abusing in the future. In one specific case, when I rejected the request I got this reply: “Good luck making a living with the images, you have some nice shots, and publishing does not pay well…. I have for instance plenty of pictures of the ****. I just thought it might be a nice connection.”
Oh, really? So you just wanted to make acquaintances? How very nice of you. How about you start respecting someone’s work and time instead of expecting to get free stuff.

Case #2 – The Exposure Card

Many of us in the creative scene have been there: photographers, artists, illustrators, and designers. Someone from a highly reputable institution contacts to request free work in return for exposure to the creator.
Here’s the thing. You claim that by sharing my work I will gain exposure. Correct me if I am wrong, but you contacted me to ask about using my work. It seems to me that my name is already out there; I do not need any further exposure. Why don’t you take a minute to think about it and get back to me, hopefully with a budget next time.

Case #3 – The Unintentional Infringement Card

This case is a little different because it starts with a copyright infringement. A user uses my photo as a thumbnail for their video/article/social media profile. Since this use is without permission, I take it down as a copyright infringement. The user contacts me and requests to undo the DMCA take down, so they can have their original post back online. I explain that take downs are being recorded, and the only way to reverse one is to comply with the conditions of use, in other words – licensing the photo. I also add that putting my photo as the thumbnail encourages people to click the post when being shared on social media, therefore my photo directly promotes the post. I suggest to the user the fair solution of reuploading their post minus my photo. Then hell breaks loose and I am being accused of greed, trying to extort money and what not.
I wish to clarify two things:
1) A DMCA take down is not an attempt to extort payment via licensing fees. It is what it is – regaining control over a copyrighted image that has been used inappropriately or without prior permission.
2) Professional and polite communication is key in addressing cases of copyright infringements, as well as any image use inquiries. It is crucial to be clear, concise, but still provide all the relevant details. I have often been accused of having a “patronizing/condescending tone” by infringers. I can understand how polite speech can seem this way when explaining to someone their unauthorized use of intellectual property. If you cannot communicate in a civilized manner, you are not helping to solve the issue.
I will mention one specific instance here, in which someone used my photo on their personal page on social media. When I called them out on it, I got this amazing reply (see closing paragraph):

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Way to go on winning an argument. No better way to get me to block you than diverting from the main topic of discussion into accusatory politics.

Case #4 – The “you owe me” Card

A person who I know requests photos for commercial use (and that’s important) free of charge. They also inform me that they do not intend to credit me as the photographer, sign a licensing agreement detailing the specific use, or pay anything for the use. Every time I confront this, I think I misheard. You said no credit, no licensing agreement, AND no pay? So absolutely nothing in return? Truly an offer I cannot refuse.
I refuse.
Then I receive the classic response of “Well I didn’t need those photos anyway, I just gave you the chance to be human again” (see case #1). First of all, thank you for giving me that chance to prove myself! Highly appreciated. But let me ask you – What did you think was gonna happen? You think just because we know each other you can take my work and do with it as you please? I don’t think so. That ain’t how it works around here. And if you did not really need the photos, why did you waste my time?

It's not just about photos of insects, by the way. Several instances include requests for free photos of landscapes, portraits, and even commercial products (in the photo: pendant designed by Mio Konfedrat)

It’s not just about photos of insects, by the way. Several instances include requests for free photos of landscapes, portraits, and even commercial products (in the photo: pendant designed by Mio Konfedrat)

It is not all bad

I understand that some of these examples can paint me as a jerk, someone who never makes a personal contribution towards others in need. I therefore want to point out that occasionally I do allow the use of my photos with little or no return (the bare minimum is a copy of the publication though). I was recently contacted by a friend who requested photos for an upcoming book about arachnids in Israel. Since there was no budget for it, I would normally reject the request. However, in this case the two authors are responsible for my professional background: one served as my mentor and guide to the wonders of the natural world when I was a kid, the other taught me entomology at university. It is thanks to their amazing nurturing that I am who I am today. In addition, I see the importance of publishing a popular book about arachnids in Israel as something that can spread the knowledge and promote appreciation of this often-mistreated arthropod group. The authors offered a signed copy of the book when published, which I see as a valuable return. I was happy to respond positively to this request for photos, and I hope the new book will be well-received.


* A recent discussion I had with several friends made me realize that people often want to help, and that I should not stop them from doing so. After much thinking, I have decided to add a PayPal.me donation link to this website, located on the sidebar to the right (or bottom of the page in the mobile version). If you find the content I post on this website interesting and wish to show your support by giving something in return, please consider donating. Think of it as buying me a hot cocoa to keep me fuelled!

Little Transformers: Lamprosoma, the living Christmas ornament

Ah, the joy of transforming beetles. The first Little Transformer that opened this series of posts was a beetle – a Ceratocanthinae pill scarab that transforms into a perfect sphere and drops off to escape predators. It is an impressive evolutionary achievement that merges a successful body design and anti-predator behavior. I should mention though that many beetle species from other families use this strategy to avoid predation, some more successfully than others. One such example is a genus of small beetles from the leaf beetle family (Chrysomelidae): Lamprosoma.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

When I first encountered a Lamprosoma beetle I thought it was a piece of plastic that someone discarded in the rainforest. There is something almost artificial about their appearance, shiny metallic colors combined with a compact shape. Not all species are colorful, by the way. The genus contains about 130 species, all with a neotropical distribution, some of which are completely black in color. With a body length of less than 1cm they are easy to miss in the dense vegetation of the tropical forest. Nevertheless, over the years I have encountered them more and more frequently. Unfortunately for me, identifying these beetles to the species level requires an expertise that I do not have, because there are many similar-looking species, and possibly also new species that have not been described yet.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from Honduras

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from Honduras

The beetles are dome-shaped, and have very short legs. I think “cute” is the best way to describe them. As mentioned above, Lamprosoma can transform into a ball when threatened. In contrast to Ceratocanthinae beetles that have dedicated grooves to hold the legs and head in place, members of genus Lamprosoma have no such features. The beetle tucks in its head and holds its legs tightly close to its body, making it a neat impenetrable package.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.), a ventral view showing how neatly they press their legs against the body when forming the ball

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.), a ventral view showing how neatly they press their legs against the body when forming the ball

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) in ball-mode. Mimicking a Christmas ornament.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) in ball-mode. Mimicking a Christmas ornament.

In species with shiny metallic colors it is hard not to see the resemblance to the glass balls used as Christmas ornaments (maybe an idea for a future product?). Once the danger is out of sight, the beetle loosens its legs and walks away.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) transformation sequence from ball-mode to beetle-mode. How can you not fall in love with those stubby feet?

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) transformation sequence from ball-mode to beetle-mode. How can you not fall in love with those stubby feet?

Lamprosoma are phytophagous beetles, meaning that they feed on plants. Both adults and larvae feed on leaves, and can be potential pests due to damage they can cause to foliage. The species shown here seem to be associated with cacao trees, and were found under leaves during the day. While the adults are very showy, the larvae are cryptic to avoid predators: they construct a case from frass and wood debris, and carry it around throughout their lifetime. The case is often shaped like a bent thorn, and blends perfectly with the branches the larvae live on. When threatened the larva retreat into the case and hold it firmly against the branch, preventing predators (such as ants and wasps) from accessing inside.

Another example of Lamprosoma sp. in ball-mode

Another example of Lamprosoma sp. in ball-mode

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.). Full beetle-mode!

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.). Full beetle-mode!

Insect art: Arthropod girls by Jun (Kemono Friends fanart)

Imagine a world where humans have disappeared, while animals transformed into humanoid form but stayed true to their natural behavior and preferred habitats. This is the premise of Kemono Friends, an anime series from last year that surprised everyone and became very successful despite its seemingly low production value. It presents the dreamworld of Japari Park, a mysterious deserted zoo that houses animals from around the world (in the form of cute girls). In fact it was so successful that it generated a global cult following, regardless of gender, origin, and even species (if you are not familiar with the story of the old male penguin that fell in love with a cardboard cutout of one of the characters, read it here – it will melt your heart …and then its tragic ending will break your heart). Full disclosure: I did not watch the series, so I decided to test it out and watched one episode. I must say that despite my low expectations, I found it entertaining. You see, to enjoy Kenomo Friends you have to look beyond what it is on the surface. Leaving the plot and the quirky animation style aside, the naturalist in me liked the way animals were portrayed in the series, and appreciated the information presented to make viewers more familiar with their real-life counterparts. I am sure the series itself has great potential (want to see an interesting take on it? watch this). Anyway, the series deals with cute girls modeled after animals (mainly mammals and birds), also known as gijinka, however invertebrates were left out of the series. This is a real shame, because the huge diversity of invertebrates could inspire a similar diversity of characters, sparking interest and evoking respect and appreciation for these animals.

But do not fret. Several independent artists decided to do just that: designing their own arthropod-themed characters, while drawing inspiration from the anime series. One of them is Jun (@ni075 on twitter), an artist from Malaysia, who has spent the last months creating incredibly detailed arthropod gijinka. After discovering his art and following his posts he quickly became one of my most favorite artists. He kindly agreed to talk about his work and describe the process of creating the characters.

Chiasognathus grantii, stag beetle artwork by Jun

Chiasognathus grantii, stag beetle artwork by Jun

What exactly is gijinka?
Jun: “Gijinka (擬人化) means anthropomorphized characters based on any non-human subject (non-human characters, organisms, non-living things etc’). However, not all characters inspired by non-human subjects are gijinka unless the artist states they are (for example, characters with cat ears and tail are not always meant to be a cat’s anthropomorphism). There are no guidelines for gijinka but in general, instead of a non-human characters bearing human-like features, gijinka always come with a full human body at least in appearance, which sometimes makes them looks more like a cosplay based on their model. This type of anthropomorphism is also called Moe gijinka (萌え擬人化, see here for more details). There are many examples for gijinka products that follow these rules in Japan, such as Kantai Collection (warship girls), Touken Ranbu (sword boys), Houseki no Kuni (genderless human-like minerals), and Kemono Friends (animal girls).”

How did the idea of creating arthropod-inspired characters come to life?
Jun: “The idea of arthropod gijinka originated few years ago (during my high school days), but I started working on this series in May 2017, so only about half a year. I do not have any background in character design, the same goes for fashion and cloth design. This is my first original character series ever made. I think I was inspired by Kantai collection, a web browser game with the theme of warship gijinka, which I played throughout several years. The biggest inspiration came from the Kemono Friends series and the twitter user 小森雨太 (@comori_uta) who makes insects and other bugs gijinka as fanart “friends” (friend = gijinka individual in Kemono Friends). I love arthropods since childhood, from the infamous terrestrial bugs to the rather famous crustaceans. As the arthropd gijinka series took off, I decided to also debunk the common misconceptions people have on this fascinating and important group of animals.”

Xya japonica, pygmy mole cricket. Artwork by Jun

Xya japonica, pygmy mole cricket. Artwork by Jun

How do you choose which arthropod species to use as the model?
Jun: “Most of them simply come on a whim, and few are requests I get from other users. If possible, I will choose a ‘typical’ species at first. For example, I chose the water flea Daphnia pulex for having typical characteristics and being a well-known representative of its taxonomical group. Later I decided to make another character from the same group but based on a different species – Leptodora water flea. So in this case I used the first work as a basic design, and then added the characteristics that differentiate between the species. In some cases I make an exception and choose the “unique” species as the first character of its group, like in the cases of Chiasognathus grantii for a stag beetle and Rhagodes melanus for a camel spider. Both have quite a different body plan compared to other representatives of their groups (small-headed; short-legged, respectively). Though the creation process is still somewhat the same, in which I at least try to imagine how the ‘typical’ one looks like. For the examples mentioned above I chose Prosopocoilus stag beetle and the camel spider family Galeodidae, and used those as the basic design and made changes to it.”

Leptodora richardi, a water flea. This is one of my favorite designs by Jun; if you are not familiar with this animal please search for it online. He really captured the essence of this crustacean.

Leptodora richardi, a water flea. This is one of my favorite designs by Jun; if you are not familiar with this animal please search for it online. He really captured the essence of this crustacean.

One thing I love about Jun’s work is his attention to detail. His designs are not only flawless in execution, but also show a great deal of accuracy when it comes to arthropod morphology. Here are a few examples:

Crematogaster ants have a characteristic, elegant abdomen. Artwork by Jun

Crematogaster ants have a characteristic, elegant abdomen. Artwork by Jun

Pseudoscorpion by Jun. Accurate. I don't think I need to add anything here.

Pseudoscorpion by Jun. Accurate. I don’t think I need to add anything here.

In the case of Myrmarachne, Jun not only captured the lively and inquisitive nature of the jumping spider, but also the intricate details of its appearance. I would like to draw your attention to the color of the eyes, and to the dark stripe running along the second pair of legs in the spider, and its corresponding element on the girl’s arms. Brilliant.

Myrmarachne, an ant-mimicking jumping spider by Jun. Excellent depiction of morphology, coloration, and posture.

Myrmarachne, an ant-mimicking jumping spider by Jun. Excellent depiction of morphology, coloration, and posture.

By the way, Jun was not joking when he mentioned getting work requests from other people. After discovering and admiring his work, I half-jokingly asked if we are ever going to see a girl modeled after Epomis beetle. He gave it a shot using the first-instar larva as the model, and created the following jaw-dropping artwork. Ground beetle larvae are hard to characterize to begin with, so needless to say I was very impressed.

Epomis circumscriptus larva by Jun. She is missing a pet frog by her side, but I will let this one slide...

Epomis circumscriptus larva by Jun. She is missing a pet frog by her side, but I will let this one slide…

What do you do to get the information you need for creating the characters?
Jun: “Almost all of the information is obtained through an online search. My personal experience and records will be included as well if I have encountered the species in real life. Photographs of live individuals and specimens are a major part of my research. I also search for identification keys since many arthropods can look very similar between species or even higher classifications. Searching for taxonomy and behavior publications written by specialists is a must-do as well.”

As a side note, when you follow Jun’s posts on Twitter you get a first-row seat in viewing his entire creative process, and I do not mean just random posts showing work-in-process. You are exposed to the initial research, morphology studies, first sketches and outfit design, head design, and final character design. I find this not only fascinating to watch, but also quite engaging.

Jun: “I mainly express the species characteristics through clothes design, while leaving the hairstyle and face for last, because it has a big influence on the character’s personality. As all of my gijinka are created down to species level, I want to make them different from each other, each one with its own unique look. The Introduction corner is based on the one used in Kemono Friends anime, which appears on the screen when the animal girl makes her first appearance. The format I use is slightly different from the anime, and includes: class-order-family; Japanese name; scientific name.”

Rhagodes melanus, a camel spider by Jun. Another very impressive achievement; this is an animal that rarely gets any positive attention, not to mention the difficulty to portray it well in art form.

Rhagodes melanus, a camel spider by Jun. Another very impressive achievement; this is an animal that rarely gets any positive attention, not to mention the difficulty to portray it well in art form.

“I try to avoid including religion, culture, narrative or any other human-related elements of the animals in my gijinka’s design. The main reason is that those are not the characteristics of the animal itself. Moreover, many of those elements are based on misconception, which is something I try to debunk through the design itself. I want to show the true nature of the animal, instead of repeating people’s wrong impressions and stereotypes.”

How long does it take to complete each work, from conception to finished artwork?
Jun: “The time can range from 3 days to 2 weeks. In most cases I spend up almost a week throughout the process: 1-3 days for research and concept, 2-4 days for the final artwork.”

Another interesting aspect in Jun’s characters is the eyes. “While most of the gijinka will have the animal’s eyes reconstructed around the character’s head like an accessory, I decided to go against this rule and make the human eye more similar to the species’ eye itself. In extreme cases like huge eyes or stalked eyes, I reconstruct it as an accessory in a non-eye-like design.”

This is very apparent in the following examples, the split-eyes of Chiasognathus grantii stag beetle, or the six clustered stemmata (simple eyes) of Epomis larva are perfectly depicted in the characters’ eyes.

A Composite image to show the level of detail in characters' eyes. Chiasognathus beetles have split eyes, while Epomis larvae eyes consist of six stemmata arranged in a cluster. Jun expressed these features within the iris of both characters.

A Composite image to show the level of detail in characters’ eyes. Chiasognathus beetles have split eyes, while Epomis larvae eyes consist of six stemmata arranged in a cluster. Jun expressed these features within the iris of both characters.

How many characters do you plan to make?
Jun: “Actually I haven’t set any limit for the number of characters, so the plan is to make as many as I possibly can. But I want to make more characters representing different taxonomical groups. For example I still lack myriapods, and I have only two crustaceans.”

Damon diadema, a whip spider by Jun. Another personal favorite that shows the essence of the model species, from the presence of spines and sensory whips to the banded legs depicted here by belt straps.

Damon diadema, a whip spider by Jun. Another personal favorite that shows the essence of the model species, from the presence of spines and sensory whips to the banded legs depicted here by belt straps.

Do you have any future plans for these designs like publishing a book or running an exhibition?
Jun: “Currently I only made this series as Kemono Friends’s fanart, so I still don’t have any future plans for it.”

I must admit that reply to my last question left me a little bitter. There is something about Jun’s work that makes me wish for more. For someone who is passionate about arthropods, it is pure eye candy. I would love to see it becoming something big, a collection perhaps. Hey, I even find myself fantasizing about a spinoff anime series or a manga following the arthropod girls’ adventures. For the time being, I will continue to enjoy whatever I can find on Jun’s twitter. But I can dream, right?

2017 in review: …wait, what was the question?

At last, this year is coming to an end. I really wanted to end this year with a rant post, because for me 2017 was downright just awful. Don’t worry, that rant is coming. It will join similar posts like this one and this one. I’m just waiting for the right timing. This post has a more personal tone to it compared to my usual texts, and I apologize for anyone following my through my RSS feed – if you are expecting insects or wildlife photos in this one, skip it.

To say that I haven’t felt productive this year would be an understatement. I am still recovering from last year’s depression, and while things have improved a lot, having no one close to talk to and nothing to keep me occupied (and yeah, poverty too) only perpetuated my dreadful condition. I did not feel inspired or motivated enough to produce new photographs, even though we had a beautiful summer this year. You know those days you have to force yourself out of the house to feel more alive? I could barely bring myself to do that. One thing I did try was to keep this blog active, which is why you saw some kind of a posting spree going on here. Among my personal highlights were launching a series of posts that combine a few of my interests, my first detailed lens review as well as my first gear-bashing, and two opinion pieces (here and here) that became very popular with readers. Statistically speaking, during 2017 I posted more articles on the blog than ever before, and you know what? I still have many planned posts waiting their turn. I guess this is a good thing.

I wonder if one day I will be brave enough to share an honest account of everything I have gone through in the last year and a half. I am actually amazed that I managed to keep a calm tone in my posts this year. Especially because in today’s blogosphere (or whatever is left of it) it is all about excitement and surprises. Here’s a fun exercise for you: open a random blog and count how many exclamation marks appear on the most recent post. I know, right? Why is everyone talking loudly all of a sudden? Calm down and breathe, you guys.

This year, along with some presentations and public events, I also managed to publish two natural history notes. I need to do this more often. Not only because I enjoy it, but also because natural history data rarely gets published at all, “It is not interesting enough to justify a publication”. These are not my own words, but a response I got from a journal editor, believe it or not. What a shame, and a waste for anyone thirsting for knowledge. Working scientists need access to natural history information too. The funny thing is that every time I publish a scientific paper I get indirect comments from people asking, ‘What’s up with this guy? He’s no longer in academia, why is he still wasting his time and energy publishing research papers? He’s getting nothing from it!’
This might be true to some extent, but here is the way I see it: different people have different goals in life. Some want to become rich or famous. Others want a career working for a big company. For me, it was never about those things.

I might have failed in some aspects of my life. However, the most important thing for me is to leave something of myself behind, a legacy of some sort. This is why I try to infect others with my enthusiasm for insects, arachnids, and other small animals. This is why I still publish whatever knowledge I think can be useful to someone else at some point in the future. For me, leaving something valuable behind is the very essence of success. Too bad the habit of doing so at self-expense will drag me to the grave.

As I am sitting here waiting for my impending homelessness (oh, and it’s coming alright), I am also struck with an urge to share more knowledge and initiate more projects. Not sure how long I can do this at my current state, but hey, whatever I put out there will stay long after I’m gone.

Sayonara, 2017. Adios. Au revoir. Ciao.
Here’s to a more productive 2018.

Season's Greetings

Season’s Greetings

Hello, Hedwig (snowy owl)

Birds, on this blog?? I must be out of my mind. Posts covering birds are almost unheard of on this website. It’s not that I do not find birds fascinating. There are just so many bird-dedicated websites out there that I do not feel I can contribute anything unique, and if I want to be completely honest – I am not exactly the best bird photographer out there. I will always prefer looking at insects and other ground-dwelling creatures. This is something that I need to change: I need to make a habit to switch from arthropod-seeking to bird watching once winter hits Canada and it gets too cold for insect activity. I decided to force myself out and go searching for snowy owls in my area. Living in Mississauga on the shore of Lake Ontario, I always knew I have a good chance of finding snowy owls, but it takes dedication to look for birds in below-zero temperatures, even more so in my case because I am fine-tuned for searching smaller animals.

A resting snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is like a sitting duck. On a dock.

A resting snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is like a sitting duck. On a dock.

Snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) are truly stunning animals. It is one of the largest and heaviest owl species, and easily recognized thanks to its unmistakable appearance: a hefty white bird, with a black beak and bright yellow eyes. Female snowy owls are bigger and heavier than males, and their feathers are mottled in black. The smaller males are entirely white.

Who left this pile of snow on the dock? hehe

Who left this pile of snow on the dock? hehe

It's transforming!

It’s transforming!

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Try not to get hypnotized by these eyes.

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Try not to get hypnotized by these eyes.

Despite being big and showy, snowy owls made it to the mainstream only in the late 90’s thanks to the Harry Potter book series. In the story, Harry has a pet snowy owl named Hedwig, used for delivering messages to other wizards, but also serving as a companion to Harry. The popularity of snowy owls has increased also thanks to a famous meme, perhaps one of the oldest internet memes in existence, focusing on their somewhat goofy facial expressions.

These owls are native to and breed in the Arctic tundra. Every year a part of the population migrates south to winter in the North American prairies, whereas the others remain in the Arctic year-round. The migration is triggered by seasonal population fluctuations of their prey – small mammals, mainly rodents. When hungry they will go after birds as well.

Snowy owls probably hunt small rodents like this meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

Snowy owls probably hunt small rodents like this meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

Snowy owls are very unique among owls for nesting in shallow mounds that they build on the ground. Even outside of the breeding season they stay active close to the ground level. Because they prefer open habitats, they are often found in areas disturbed by human activity. They utilize boat docks, airstrips, and arable land, which probably host their prey. Here in Southern Ontario I bet they hunt voles because, let’s face it, those are quite common in semi-urban areas, and judging by my experience they are extremely easy to catch.

O RLY?

O RLY?

The nice thing about snowy owls is that they do not seem to care too much about humans. Ok, I should clarify this – they will not care *only* if you respect their privacy and keep your distance. I want to prevent a situation where people harass these beauties. It is also important to mention that this species is currently classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. When undisturbed, the owl will keep its position, and even display some natural behavior like cleaning, scratching, and… grinning. However, once the observer gets too close and is spotted by the owl, it ends right there. A snowy owl will not hesitate to take flight if it feels threatened. If you decide to go and look for these birds please be respectful, and you will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience that will stay with you forever.

Amphibians are tougher than we think

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about a dream of mine that came true – seeing the gorgeous tree frog Cruziohyla craspedopus in the wild. Even after numerous trips to Ecuador I still consider it one of the best moments I have experienced in the outdoors. Fast forward to this week, I am excited to present a new paper I published about these frogs in Herpetology Notes.

Juvenile fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus)

Juvenile fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus)

To summarize this already short paper – the fringe tree frog (C. craspedopus), an amphibian often used as an example for species requiring pristine habitats, made itself a habit to breed in human-made infrastructure containing polluted, sewage-like water. And not only that, but the frogs are also perfectly fine with this, recruiting healthy new individuals into the population and returning every year to the same spot for more breeding.

Fringe tree frog metamorph (Cruziohyla craspedopus), still with its tail, climbing out of a septic tank

Fringe tree frog metamorph (Cruziohyla craspedopus), still with its tail, climbing out of a septic tank

Amphibian metamorphs can sometimes look like weird animals... not very froggy

Amphibian metamorphs can sometimes look like weird animals… not very froggy

On the surface this is a simple natural history report that adds to the existing knowledge about the species. However, when you look at the bigger picture there is something else hidden between the lines.

Fringe tree frog metamorph (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in the process of absorbing its tail

Fringe tree frog metamorph (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in the process of absorbing its tail

Remember back in the day when I had to sacrifice amphibians in the name of science? One of the questions that I get asked often is ‘how was this research ever approved by an ethics committee?’ After all, amphibian populations suffer a global decline, caused by various different factors: habitat loss, climate change, diseases, invasive species, etc’. Surely killing hundreds of them for science would seem like defeating the purpose of their conservation. But what if… those amphibians were never meant to be alive in the first place… You see, for the Epomis research we selectively collected tadpoles from areas where they were destined to die. These included flooded vehicle tracks, deep water holes with no climbing surface, and shallow puddles in the process of drying out. We called them “ecological traps”: sites that seemed suitable for amphibian breeding but failed to provide the right conditions to support the growth of tadpoles, or did not hold water long enough to allow for their complete development.

A classic ecological trap for amphibians: a puddle in the process of drying out, containing hundreds of tadpoles. The next day they were all dead. Photographed in Israel

A classic ecological trap for amphibians: a puddle in the process of drying out, containing hundreds of tadpoles. The next day they were all dead. Photographed in Israel

But why do amphibians choose to breed in those dangerous sites in the first place? What can I say, amphibians are idiots. Or are they? Maybe it is just their way of ensuring the survival of their species, and we are interpreting it the wrong way?
The species that breed in ecological traps are usually ones with an explosive breeding strategy: migrating to the breeding sites only for a short period of time during a specific season, and offloading massive amounts of eggs in the water, sometimes up to ten-thousands of eggs per female. With so many eggs being produced by each female, they have nothing to lose. One breeding site may fail to provide the right environment for the developing tadpoles, but others will do fine. Or, some of the tadpoles might grow faster than others and complete their metamorphosis before it is too late.

Three fringe tree frog metamorphs (Cruziohyla craspedopus) at different stages of metamorphosis

Three fringe tree frog metamorphs (Cruziohyla craspedopus) at different stages of metamorphosis

Not too many people are aware that juvenile fringe tree frogs are often active during the early morning hours. Here is one climbing up to the canopy.

Not too many people are aware that juvenile fringe tree frogs are often active during the early morning hours. Here is one climbing up to the canopy.

Back to our fringe tree frogs in Ecuador: the species is an iconic frog, representing a true Amazonian amphibian, with its unique appearance and behavior. To the best of our knowledge it is not an explosive breeder. It is reported to breed in tree holes and in water reservoirs under fallen trees, while spending the rest of its time high up in the thick tree canopy. For many it is considered elusive and hard to find. But in reality these frogs could not care less about the condition of breeding sites or water quality. Just like the aforementioned explosive breeders, while on their search for suitable water reservoirs the frogs can stumble upon something that in their eyes has potential for breeding, and they will test it. This means that to us, it may look like they are choosing the “wrong” place to breed. But what if they are right and we are missing something? Before encountering the frogs described in the paper, I would have sworn that they have no chance at successful breeding in polluted water at an unnatural or disturbed habitat. Not to mention doing it over the course of several consecutive years. And what do you know! They sure proved me wrong and I learned something new. Don’t get me wrong, amphibians still need our constant attention. I am not saying that we should stop our efforts to conserve amphibian species and save them from extinction, but maybe we should cut them some slack. Because even though they are fragile creatures, sometimes they are tougher than we think.

When I think of Cruziohyla craspedopus this is what I imagine: an toy-like animal in a lush, pristine habitat. Well, reality just slapped me in the face.

When I think of Cruziohyla craspedopus this is what I imagine: an toy-like animal in a lush, pristine habitat. Well, reality just slapped me in the face.

A short note about ethics

Last week I took this photo of a jumping spider, Phiddipus insignarius, and although I consider it a good photo, it is not a photo I am proud of.
Why?

Female jumping spider (Phiddipus insignarius) displaying

Female jumping spider (Phiddipus insignarius) displaying

I believe I pushed it a little too far here.

By the time you are reading this, you may have seen photos of jumping spiders floating online. They are charismatic, inquisitive, and intelligent little arachnids. Their big eyes and cutesy appearance make it possible to open a door for communication between spider enthusiasts and people suffering from arachnophobia. This photo is a little different. This is the face of stressed spider. Jumping spiders have a habit of exploring the world around them, but they usually avoid confrontation. They have a typical threat display that they use when they are annoyed or feel threatened, by raising their forelegs and exposing their chelicerae. At this point they are no different from a wandering spider warning to back off. And if not left alone, they will strike. The female Phiddipus in this photo was clearly fed up with my attempts at stalking her, and wanted to show me that she had enough.

Photographs of small animals can be a great tool for communication and education by revealing the hidden beauty of overlooked creatures. However, we tend to forget how things are from their perspective. They do not like to be cornered or pushed around. The last thing they expect is a giant being trying to manipulate them to pose in a certain way. Ethics in nature photography is an important topic that should be brought into the conversation. And yet almost no one talks about it (see Nicky Bay’s fantastic resource on the topic). Paul Bertner posted a lot about it on social media during his assignment last year, sparking some of the best discussions I have seen on photography ethics and what information should be disclosed with a photo (he later coined the term EE – Ethical Exif, information that is incorporated into his photos). I would like to see transparency and compassion for the living subject becoming the standard in nature photography. Every nature photographer I know is longing for a “perfect” subject – one that displays an interesting natural behavior but also does not move too much. Yet we forget that many times photography is just another type of disturbance to animals. At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves – was this really necessary?

In the case of the spider here, I got the message loud and clear and left her alone. She was clearly not interested in playing. I will get back to photographing her some other time, maybe when she is in a better mood.

The female Phiddipus insignarius is much more charming when she is relaxed.

The female Phiddipus insignarius is much more charming when she is relaxed.

Rhynchotermes – the best of both worlds

If you read my previous post about blattodeans you might have noticed that I left something out. The post does not make a single mention of termites that belong in the same insect order. Yet my Blattodea gallery contains photos of some termite species. What is going on?

Make no mistake – termites are indeed included in order Blattodea. While they do not lay their eggs in cases (oothecae), they share many other attributes with roaches. Historically, termites were classified under their own order, Isoptera. This is what I learned at university during my entomology training a decade ago. However, times change, and with it taxonomy is rearranged according to new evidence concerning the relationships between groups. Termites have been found similar in their morphology and social behavior, as well as molecular phylogenetics, to wood-feeding roaches of the genus Cryptocercus, and both are now treated as sister groups under the infraorder Isoptera within the Blattodea. I will only say that although I welcome this update in termites’ taxonomical position, I found it difficult to get used to at first. Old habits die hard I guess.

Termites are truly unique because they are among the few hemimetabolous insects (lacking the pupal stage in their life cycle) to develop an eusocial lifestyle, with different reproductive castes, division of labor, and overlapping generations. In stark contrast to eusocial Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps), termite colonies follow a different structure, often with a single long-lived royal pair responsible for egg production (as opposed to male Hymenoptera that die soon after mating), but also include a secondary reproductive caste. Workers and soldiers can be both males and females (in Hymenoptera – all females). From an ecosystem standpoint, termites play a vital role as detrivores, feeding on and breaking down dead plant tissue and wood. For this reason they rely on gut symbionts (protozoans, bacteria, and flagellates) that assist in breaking down cellulose.

One of the things you often learn about termites in an entomology course is that there are two types, easily distinguished by their soldiers: species with mandibulate soldiers (possessing jaws), and species with nasute soldiers (with a long nose). The mandibulate soldiers use their enlarged strong mandibles to physically attack and injure intruders. They cannot use their jaws for feeding, and are therefore dependent on mouth-to-mouth feeding from the workers. In contrast, the nasutes deploy chemical defense by secreting various compounds from their nose, mainly to use as deterrents against ants, but also with some effect over much larger predators such as tamanduas.

Why this long introduction? As things usually go in nature, and more specifically in arthropods, to every rule there is an exception. Last year I travelled to Costa Rica, and one of the species I was hoping to find was a very unique termite.

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus)

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus)

This monstrous beast is a soldier of Rhynchotermes perarmatus, a nasutiform termite. However, contrary to the “rule” I mentioned above, soldiers of this species possess both a chemically armed snout and well developed mandibles. They are now treated by taxonomists as being mandibulate nasute.

The neotropical genus Rhynchotermes contains several species, all have nasute soldiers with noticeable mandibles. However, only in two species the mandibles are massive – Rhynchotermes perarmatus and R. bulbinasus.

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus). Combining elements from both nasute and mandibulate termites!

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus). Combining elements from both nasute and mandibulate termites!

Rhynchotermes perarmatus is subterranean, nesting underground or under stones. These termites usually do not expose themselves to the outside world, but instead move inside covered tunnels constructed from soil particles. Inside these dark tunnels the stout workers run clumsily, carrying debris and compressed wood fiber back to the colony for food.

An intimate look at Rhynchotermes perarmatus termites crawling in one of their covered nest tunnels

An intimate look at Rhynchotermes perarmatus termites crawling in one of their covered nest tunnels

An active tunnel contains a thick flow of worker termites, and several soldiers scattered at the periphery, on guard.

An active tunnel contains a thick flow of worker termites, and several soldiers scattered at the periphery, on guard.

Rhynchotermes seems to be associated with slightly disturbed habitats, such as cleared forest areas or meadows used for cattle grazing. There are reposts of them active under aged dried out cattle dung, suggesting they may have a role in breaking it down and recycling the nutrients. In Costa Rica I found Rhynchotermes perarmatus under a heavily decomposed fallen tree, right besides a well-maintained trail. Still, after flipping the log I could not see them. I had to break open one of the galleries to get access to the action.
And the soldiers did not like that.

Armed nasute termite soldiers (Rhynchotermes perarmatus) crawling out to defend the workers

Armed nasute termite soldiers (Rhynchotermes perarmatus) crawling out to defend the workers

While the workers kept on running seemingly undisturbed, the armed soldiers started pouring out, seeking the intruder. Maybe this is the time to mention that termite soldiers are usually blind. They have no functional eyes, and rely on chemical cues and physical proximity for defending the colony.

"Fear me, ant!"

“Fear me, ant!”

Even tough beetles like this weevil know to steer clear of active Rhynchotermes perarmatus soldiers.

Even tough beetles like this weevil know to steer clear of active Rhynchotermes perarmatus soldiers.

To the human eye it seems like despite their menacing appearance, Rhynchotermes perarmatus soldiers do not do much. They walk around aimlessly, then suddenly rise on their feet and give a mute roar, gaping their mandibles. But what seems harmless to us is actually a well thought of strategy: the soldier’s head contains a special gland that secretes a cocktail of sticky odorous compounds from an opening located in the snout. It is easy to think of nasute soldiers as nozzle heads discharging glue, but in reality what Rhynchotermes discharge is a strand, not fluid. The idea behind this is to turn your enemy into a sticky mess and incapacitate it. This is effective in case of attacking ants, perhaps termites’ worst enemies. The chemical properties of the compounds may also have a role in disrupting the ants’ chemical communication. Sometimes during the interaction the termite soldiers stick to the ants as well, sacrificing themselves for the benefit of the colony. But what if this does not work? Then they can use their secondary weapon – the mandibles.

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus) gaping its impressive mandibles

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus) gaping its impressive mandibles.

The mandibles are curved (similar to those found in army ant soldiers) and double-hooked. I cannot help seeing them as reminiscent to the mandibles of young Epomis larvae. This is probably an adaptation to grab and hold on tight to whatever the termite is biting. I even tested it – not only the soldiers grab well, they also lock themselves in place. They are difficult to pull out, like a fishhook.

Let me tell you, these tiny soldiers can sure bite!

Let me tell you, these tiny soldiers can sure bite!

Another thing I noticed is that many soldiers had “broken noses”. I wonder if the snout has a breaking point to allow for a quick release of the gland’s contents onto the intruder. They too moved about clumsily looking for troublemakers to the colony, reminding me of a drunken guy trying pick a fight in a bar, broken bottle in hand.

Poor soldier got its nose broken

Poor soldier got its nose broken

Aren't these termites just stunning?

Aren’t these termites just stunning?

There is still much we do not know about Rhynchotermes. For example, in the case of Rhynchotermes perarmatus, the alate caste was described only recently. Some Rhynchotermes species tend to occupy abandoned nests of other termites, but occasionally they are also found in close proximity to active nests, bordering the neighbouring colony or right on top of it. It would be interesting to examine what kind of interaction they have with other termite species. Like a lot of things in nature, these termites do not conform to our neat labels. Their bizarre soldiers represent the best of both worlds. They serve as a reminder that nature is full of surprises, that rules are meant to be broken, and that you do not have to look hard to find something new and inspiring.