Vestria – the katydid that wanted to be a spider

Last week my home country celebrated the holiday of Purim; a holiday of joy, in which people go out to the streets, pretend to be something else by wearing masks and costumes, and exchange gifts. It is kind of like a happy mishmash of Halloween and Saint Patrick’s Day. And what excellent time it is to highlight interesting cases in nature in which one organism pretends to be another. One such story involves a genus of beautiful katydids – Vestria.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.). It is hard to describe how colorful these katydids are. This photo does not do justice to the insect's beauty.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.). It is hard to describe how colorful these katydids are. This photo does not do justice to the insect’s beauty.

When searching for arthropods in the rainforest I made a habit of backlighting leaves with a flashlight to see if there are animals hiding on the side opposite to me. There is always something interesting to find: salamanders, caterpillars, insects infected with parasitic fungi, and even velvet worms. Very often spiders occupy the underside of a leaf by day, waiting for nighttime to resume hunting on the top of the leaf’s surface. Among the most frequently encountered ones are huntsman spiders (family Sparassidae) of the genus Anaptomecus. These are flat, thin-limbed spiders, usually pale green in color to blend in with the leaf they are sitting on, but with a brightly colored abdomen with red and yellow patches. They are extremely fast, and when disturbed they shoot and vanish on the underside of a neighboring leaf.

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) active on a palm leaf in the Ecuadorian rainforest.

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) active on a palm leaf in the Ecuadorian rainforest.

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) hiding under a leaf.

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) hiding under a leaf.

To my surprise, in some of these searches upon shining my light I thought I found a spider at first, but when I turned the leaf I saw a katydid nymph.

Katydid nymph hiding under a leaf. Like Anaptomecus spiders, they too seem to prefer sitting on palm leaves.

Katydid nymph hiding under a leaf. Like Anaptomecus spiders, they too seem to prefer sitting on palm leaves.

With the kind assistance of Piotr Naskrecki I learned that these are nymphs of Vestria katydids, known mostly due to their characteristics as adults (more on that later). Genus Vestria contains four species known from lowland forests of Central and South America, but do not let this low number fool you. There are many more species in need of a formal description, and others awaiting their discovery. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, all the species featured in this blog post are undescribed.

Rainbow katydid nymph (Vestria sp.) camouflaged on a leaf. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Rainbow katydid nymph (Vestria sp.) camouflaged on a leaf. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

The young Vestria nymphs bear an uncanny resemblance to Anaptomecus spiders. They too are flat, green with similar leg patterns, and have a bright yellow-red abdomen. Their mimicry to the huntsman spiders does not end there: they also share the same behavior of pressing flat against the underside of a leaf when resting, and running to the next leaf when disturbed. And, as I learned the hard way, they can bite. Like most members of tribe Copiphorini, Vestria katydids are packed with powerful jaws, and they will not hesitate to use them when in danger. By the way, these katydids are omnivores, feeding on both animal and plant matter, but they show a strong preference towards live prey, kind of like… well, spiders.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) feeding on a beetle pupa. When given a chance they will always prefer a protetin-based diet.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) feeding on a beetle pupa. When given a chance they will always prefer a protetin-based diet.

As adults, the Vestria katydids take a different look completely. They are no longer flat and look like the huntsman spiders. In this stage they are known as rainbow katydids or crayola katydids because of their striking coloration, which is an advertisement of their chemical defense against predators.

A selection of rainbow katydids (Vestria spp.) from the Amazon Basin of Ecuador

A selection of rainbow katydids (Vestria spp.) from the Amazon Basin of Ecuador

When provoked, Vestria katydids curl their body and hunker down, revealing a brightly colored abdomen. They also expose a scent gland from their last abdominal tergum and release a foul odor that is easily detectable from a close distance. Different species of Vestria have different odors, and from my personal experience I can attest that some species smell as bitter as bad almonds while others smell like a ripe peaches. The compounds released are pyrazines, and there is evidence that this chemical defense is effective against mammalian predators such as monkeys. While many katydids have bright aposematic coloration, Vestria species are one of the only examples of katydids successfully deploying chemical defense against predators, making them distasteful. But don’t listen to me, I actually like peaches.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

But let’s go back to the spider-mimicking katydid nymphs. As it is often the case in nature, mimicry is not always straightforward. Why would a katydid nymph adopt the look and behavior of a spider? Avoiding predators may be the answer that comes in mind, however it is not that simple to explain. Although the model spiders are venomous, they are easily preyed upon by the predators they share with the katydids – birds, frogs and lizards. So what other benefits come into play here? And is it really a case of mimicry? It is a difficult question to answer, as there are several possible explanations for mimicry in this is a case. To put it into context, on one hand it can be an example of Batesian mimicry, in which one harmless organism adopts the appearance of another that is widely-recognized by predators as toxic, vemonous, or unpalatable, to gain an advantage when confronted with a predator. In other words, the katydids use their mimicry to signal visual predators (such as spiders, mantids) to avoid confrontation with a spider (I discussed a similar case here). On the other hand, it might be a case of Müllerian mimicry, two unpalatable organisms evolve to look similar in appearance, to send the same message to predators and enemies. It is possible that both the Vestria nymph and the spider are signaling that they are fast-moving and can deliver an unpleasant bite when provoked. In addition, both have some sort of chemical defense: the spider is venomous, while the katydid is distasteful. There is also a third option – that this is all coincidental, and it is a case of convergent evolution: the two organisms simply try their best to hide from predators and came up with a similar adaptation to solve a similar problem, without mimicry. Piotr suggested that this is simply a crypsis (camouflage) adaptation for the two organisms. The yellow-red spots can represent leaf damage that is commonly seen on leaves in the rainforest. It just goes to show that in nature things are not always easy to explain, because sometimes they do not fall neatly into our boxes of labeled natural phenomena. What do you think?

Vestria nymphs have beautiful markings on their body, which can assist in breaking the outline of the insect to avoid detection by predators.

Vestria nymphs have beautiful markings on their body, which can assist in breaking the outline of the insect to avoid detection by predators.

In some species the dark markings remain also in the adult stage.

In some species the dark markings remain also in the adult stage.

Smile! You're on katydid camera!

Smile! You’re on katydid camera!

 

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.

Centurion roach (Gyna centurio) hiding. Photographed in captivity

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.

Bursting the Trioplan bubble

There is a growing interest in legacy lenses in recent years. With the rise in popularity of mirrorless camera bodies, and the availability of various lens mount adapters, photographers are testing old glass on modern camera bodies and the results can be surprising. One such lens is the Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f2.8, which became famous due its “soap bubble” bokeh and unique chromatic aberrations. Some time ago, one could find this old lens listed for sale for about $150, but nowadays popularity drove its market price upwards to around $1000. I though I’d share my thoughts about this lens in the context of nature photography, and maybe offer a warning to fellow photographers out there who are considering getting this lens.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Meyer-Optik Görlitz is a lens brand made in Germany. Founded in 1896, it is most known for its Trioplan lens construction, based on Cooke Triplet. The Trioplan quickly became one of the most popular Meyer lenses because of its special visual properties, and a great deal of its increase in popularity is thanks to online image-sharing platforms that allowed photographers around the globe to learn of its existence. There are even photography groups dedicated to sharing photos of out-of-focus dewy blades of grass taken with the Trioplan. The Meyer-Optik brand stopped lens production in the 1970’s, but due to the high demand, another company, net SE, revived the lens in 2014 and started developing new version of lenses under the Meyer-Optik Görlitz brand (now available for jaw-dropping prices, I dare say). My experience is with the old version of the lens. In fact, the lens I got was even older than what most photographers use, as it belongs to a line that was manufactured in post-war 1952.

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8 testing

Soap bubbles! Also, my first selfie on the blog.

The goal with this lens is to get the “soap bubbles” appearing in the background where specular highlights are present, and for this effect you must use the lens with the aperture wide open at f/2.8. The problem is that an open aperture also translates to a very shallow depth of field. In other words, if you are photographing a big, three-dimensional subject, most of it will be rendered out of focus. Another problem with the open aperture is the loss of contrast; the image comes out very “soft”. Sharpness also goes of out the window. And to top it all the lens signature feature is also its Achilles’ heel: the chromatic aberrations that are responsible for the “soap bubble” effect will cause color fringing in highlight areas of your subject. In addition, compositions rich in highlights will result in a busy background, and those desired “soap bubbles” can actually have a negative effect by distracting the viewer’s attention from the subject.

Longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus). Limón Province, Costa Rica

This photo of a longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus) from Costa Rica shows a negative outcome of the Trioplan characteristics. Too many specular highlights in the background, and your photo might end up like this – a “beautiful” mess.

Longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus). Limón Province, Costa Rica

However, change the viewing angle a little bit, and you might be rewarded with a better, less-distracting result, sometimes with a better color rendition.

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

This photo of a splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) shows another issue of the Trioplan lens – color fringing in highlight areas of the subject itself.

By the way, stop down the aperture to f/4 and the lens performs beautifully, producing punchy, well-rendered images. Alas, the “soap bubbles” are lost.

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

In this photo I closed the aperture to f/4. Very interesting result. I love the creamy background!

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Another photo taken at f/4, notice that the background composition is important if you want to produce a smooth result like in the previous photo. It will not always work.

But my main issue with this lens is a very simple one – it is fully manual. I do not have a thing against manual lenses, in fact I own quite a few and love using them. My problem is the lack of communication between the camera and the lens. After all, this lens has no electronic contacts. The lack of focus confirmation with this lens is the real deal breaker for me here. This is a common thing with uncorrected lenses; whatever appears to be in focus in the camera’s viewfinder is not necessarily in focus in reality. So in order to get a properly focused image you must take several shots and review them on the back screen. Then correct focus by “eyeballing”, and try again. This can take some time, and if your subject moves or is blown by the wind this can be quite nerve-racking. Some of the images you see in this post took over an hour to get, each. I am surprised these subjects were so patient with me.

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Could I have gotten a hold of a bad copy of the lens? Possible. The lens was old, and I am not sure what were the quality control standards when it was made. However, the lens was in overall good condition, despite its ~65 years of age. I do not think the minor scuffs and imperfections on its barrel were enough to deteriorate image quality. Nevertheless, because of the inaccurate focusing issue mentioned above I found the operation of the lens very challenging. This is the most unusable lens I have ever used. Maybe this was fixed in the new version of the lens (I‘d love to hear some input from someone who has it!).

Helicopter damselfly (Microstigma rotundatum). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Helicopter damselfly (Microstigma rotundatum) from Ecuador. Sometimes the Trioplan produces images that look like paintings. If you have a very artistic style as a photographer, you should definitely consider getting this lens.

I hate to say this, but the Trioplan lens is a gimmick. Although it does have some interesting capabilities, if you shoot with it wide open all your photos will have the same look, and this gets old very fast. It’s like the first months after buying a fisheye lens; suddenly your portfolio is flooded with distorted photos, until you realize they all look the same and this is boring. Head over to the flickr page I mentioned earlier and see for yourself, after you review 20 similar photos the wow effect will fade.

Spiny orb weaver (Micrathena cyanospina). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Spiny orb weaver (Micrathena cyanospina) from Ecuador. A slightly different take on the lens’ photographic style.

Leaf-mimicking peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Don’t get me wrong. In the right hands, this lens can create some of the most visually pleasing images. For some nice examples check out these photos by Nikola Rahme, Alex Mustard, and Matthew Sullivan. If you aim for the artistic look in your photographs, this lens might be the right one for you. But at the end of the day, I ask myself if it is worth it. Its inflated price, all this time spent on composing for the “soap bubbles”, shooting, correcting focus and reshooting, then post-processing to increase contrast, correct the color casts and fringing, and finally sharpening, only to end up with another photo that looks just like any other photo taken with a Trioplan. For me it was not worth it. In the time it took me to photograph a single photo with the Trioplan I could have taken dozens of other great photos, maybe even better ones. Yes, this lens can take some cool-looking photos, but for the financial and personal time investments it gets a huge thumbs down from me. Don’t say I did not warn you. Needless to say I got rid of my Trioplan lens, and treated myself to a true legendary macro beast instead.

Cruziohyla calcarifer – closing the circle

Over three years have passed since my unforgettable encounter with the fringe tree frog, Cruziohyla craspedopus, in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. That experience is still one of my all-time favorite moments of working in the field. Since then, I learned a lot about this species and nowadays I see them every time I visit Ecuador (as you can probably tell by their growing presence in my frogs gallery). Still, even after all this time the fringe tree frog remains high up on my list of the world’s most beautiful tree frogs. But it felt like something was missing. I decided to take a trip to Costa Rica, and right from the start I had one goal in mind: to find the other half of genus Cruziohyla – the splendid leaf frog, Cruziohyla calcarifer.

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer)

After researching a little on C. calcarifer’s distribution, I decided to contact the place that in my mind packed the best potential of seeing one. The Costa Rican Amphibian Research Center (neatly abbreviated C.R.A.R.C.!) is a small biological research station located close to the Siquirres River in the Guayacán rainforest reserve, in Limón Province. It is owned and run by Brian Kubicki, a conservation naturalist who dedicated his life to the study of Costa Rican amphibians, with special focus on glass frogs, poison frogs, tree frogs and lungless salamanders. I thought if there is one person that can help me find C. calcarifer in Costa Rica, it must be him. Remember the frog poster from 2003 that I mentioned in the beginning of my post about C. craspedopus? Brian Kubicki was the person signed at the bottom of that poster. Now how cool is that.

To begin with, the C.R.A.R.C. Guayacán reserve is stunning. There are many interesting corners with different types of microhabitats, so a huge potential for finding interesting reptiles and amphibians, not to mention arthropods. Unfortunately for me, I arrived to the reserve during a dry spell, as it has not rained for days prior my arrival, and most habitats that were not directly connected to natural springs or the river were fairly dry. Even so, I still found the place highly biodiveresed, and recorded many interesting species of arthropods, some of which I have not yet had the chance to see in the wild.

Alas, I was there to find C. calcarifer, and I was worried that the area might have been too dry. Brain kindly offered to hike with me at night and show me some good spots to find specific amphibians. And it did not take him long; once we hit a certain trail he found C. calcarifer within minutes! What a gorgeous species. I will just paste here my description of C. calcarifer from the post about its sister species:

“…a massive tree frog, with eye-catching coloration: dark green (dorsal) and bright orange (ventral). The sides of its body are finely striped in black against an orange background. Its eyes, featuring a vertical pupil – an indication this animal has a nocturnal lifestyle, are orange with a grey center. In addition, the foot-webbing is wide and the adhesion discs on the fingers are large and round, giving it a cutesy appearance.”

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Isn’t it gorgeous? It is hard not to fall in love with these tree frogs.

This tree frog species is indeed, as its common name suggests, splendid. It was exactly what I expected. The frog we found was a female, and I was surprised how robust it was. It is not every day you get to see an amphibian that is both colorful and big.

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Cruziohyla calcarifer. So adorable and quite a hefty frog

As mentioned, we found the frog at night. However, I wanted to see if I can locate it myself so I went back to the same spot in the morning. Let me tell you, it was not easy to find it in daylight. Not only it is difficult to find a green frog in the “sea of green” which is the rainforest, but also the tree frog is hunkered down and blends perfectly with the leaf it is resting on. After some time searching I thought about giving up, but then I looked up. I saw the perfect silhouette of a resting frog on one of the palm leaves, backlit by the sunrays penetrating the rainforest canopy. This could have still been an optical illusion created by a fallen leaf casting the silhouette. Yet, it was indeed C. calcarifer. I couldn’t be happier.

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) in its rainforest habitat

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Cruziohyla calcarifer is a good climber and spends most of its time in the canopy

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) showing off its beautiful stripy coloration

To me, seeing Cruziohyla calcarifer in the wild is a way to close a circle on a journey that started over a decade ago in a backpacker’s hostel in Costa Rica, continued in the Amazon rainforests of Ecuador, and ended in Costa Rica again.

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) and Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus)

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) and fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus). I wish moments like this one were possible in real life. Unfortunately, such a gathering of the two species is impossible. Even though both Cruziohyla species occur in Ecuador, they are separated by the Andes Mountains. C. calcarifer occupies the northwestern slopes, while C. craspedopus is found in Amazonian lowlands on the eastern side.

From a blattodean to Nilio beetles

This is the story about how a small blattodean taught me something I did not know about beetles.

While photographing frogs in the Ecuadorian Amazon this past October, I noticed a tiny insect running across the surface of a fallen leaf resting on the forest floor. It had bright colors and looked interesting, so I collected it in hopes to photograph it later. When I finally got to do it, I was struck by its deception. You see, when I initially spotted it I thought it was a beetle. The dome-shaped body and the bright coloration resembled those of some leaf beetle species (family Chrysomelidae), and this insect even moved and walked like a beetle. Nevertheless, a close inspection revealed that its whole body was segmented. This was no beetle. It was a blattodean nymph.

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph. What could be the model species?

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph

Blattodeans exhibit some beautiful examples for mimicry, with some species resembling poisonous fireflies and venomous assassin bugs. It should come as no surprise that a blattodean might benefit from looking like a leaf beetle. While many leaf beetles are harmless, some species harbor chemical compounds that make them poisonous or distasteful to predators. Unfortunately, identifying a blattodean from its larval stage is very tricky and close to impossible. I was not able to locate anything that looked like the adult stage of this species. However, when I examined this cute blattodean I remembered that I have seen this color scheme on a leaf beetle before, and after digging in my old photo archive I was able to find the record.

Darkling beetle (Nilio sp.). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf beetle. Or is it?

I took this photo on one of my first visits to Ecuador, over a decade ago. I did not plan to do anything with the photo, but I thought it was a nice-looking leaf beetle and so I snapped a quick photo for my own records. Only I was completely off. This is not a leaf beetle.

Unlike most of its family members that are elongated and dull-colored, Nilio is a genus of darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae) that bear a striking resemblance to leaf beetles and ladybugs. This resemblance can fool even experienced entomologists. Darkling beetles are well-known for their chemical defense, secreting odorous chemicals that will deter even the most enthusiastic field entomologist. This can explain the blattodean mimicry shown above.

Darkling beetle (Nilio sp.). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

This is not a leaf beetle but a darkling beetle (Nilio sp.)

After I realized these photos show a species of Nilio, I checked the rest of my photos from the very same trip, and started finding more photos of Nilio species.

Darkling beetle larvae (Nilio sp.) feeding on lichens. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Darkling beetle larvae (Nilio sp.) feeding on lichens

Here is a group of larvae on a branch. Nilio larvae are gregarious (live in groups) and feed on epiphytic lichens. If you have ever seen the typical wire-worm larvae of darkling beetles you will understand why I labeled this photo as “chrysomelid larvae” in my archive.

Darkling beetles (Nilio sp.) aggregating next to pupation site. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Darkling beetles (Nilio sp.) aggregating next to pupation site

In some species, not only the larvae, but also the adults, are gregarious. Here is a group of adults I found on a tree trunk close to their pupation spot. Like the larvae, these adults were feeding on lichens as well.

Darkling beetles (Nilio sp.) aggregating next to pupation site. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

A closer look at the Nilio beetles aggregation

As you can see, not all Nilio species have bright coloration as the species shown above. However, even when they are closer to their “darkling roots” they still look more like to members of Chrysomelidae than Tenebrionidae. This all goes to show that even when you are confident about your knowledge of insect taxonomy or biodiversity, nature can still surprise you. I embrace these moments when I am caught unprepared; nothing like learning something new!

Photographing Richardia – a long way to victory

Inside a wooden cabin on the outskirts of the peaceful town Mindo, I am standing on my bed, arms spread sideways. My bright headlamp is on at full output, to overcome the cabin’s dim lights. In a few seconds Javier will step in through the door to pick me up for our night hike in the cloud forest. And he will probably want to know what the hell I am doing.
I am trying to find a 5mm-long fly.
Suddenly, I see it. That tiny spec of an insect. Hanging upside down from one of the ceiling boards. I am reaching out for my pocket to grab a vial. The sound of footsteps climbing up the stairs is getting louder and louder. “Gil, are you there?” Great timing. I must keep my focus or that fly will be gone the moment Javier walks in.
-“Don’t open the door!!!!”

Back in 2015 I contacted Paul Bertner regarding a fly that he photographed in Mindo. It was an antlered fly from the genus Richardia. Ever since I learned about these flies in the introduction course to entomology, I have always wanted to see them in the wild. Males have antler-like projections from their eyes, which are used for pushing an opponent during a combat over territory or a mate. The female Richardia lacks those projections, but is characterized by a telescopic ovipositor at the tip of her abdomen, used for injecting eggs into fruits and other plant tissue. Paul was very kind to share his observations with me, wishing me luck in finding them on my next trip to Ecuador.

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.) feeding on amphibian feces. Mindo, Ecuador

This small-antlered fly (Richardia sp.) is feeding on amphibian feces. Many of these flies are attracted to animals’ droppings, from which they obtain valuable nutrients.

It took time and determination, but I did manage to find the flies eventually. In the brief window that they were active I took some shots, but I was completely unsatisfied with them. It seems that with Richardia, practice makes perfect. Or should I say, masochism makes perfect. You see, these flies are not only active during a very specific time of the day, on the underside of leaves of specific plants, but they are also extremely skittish. Highly territorial, the antlered males respond to any movement in their surroundings, and that includes a person carrying a big black camera. They take off and vanish almost instantly. And then, in hiding, they wait. What for I am not sure, but only a handful of times the males actually returned to their perch under the leaf. Unfortunately, I had to leave the site before I could take any decent photos. So, the following year I came back to the exact spot again. And there they were in all their splendor! I tried again to photograph the flies in their habitat on the leaves, but since they usually sit on the underside it was tricky. I spent hours with them, only to come up with lousy shots. No, I had to be creative with these Richardia.

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Another male Richardia sp. with small antlers

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Richardia flies spend their nights sleeping hidden in folded leaves like this rolled bromeliad leaf. Inside they are protected from many nocturnal predators, such as mantids, ants and spiders.

And so after some thinking I came up with the idea of working at night. The flies are diurnal, in other words they will be less active when it is dark. Or at least that’s what I thought. It was still a very exhausting experience to photograph them (it reminded me of the time I was trying to photograph Sabethes mosquitoes). As I mentioned, Richardia are very responsive and will keep moving and exploring unless they stop to clean themselves up. Every time I had the fly framed and in focus, it would travel to the other side of the leaf. Several times it would escape and I would have to go look for it in the cabin. If you think locating a small flying insect in a messy wooden cabin is easy, think again. I found myself crawling on the furniture and slowly sliding my face against the walls and floors, and when I found the fly eventually I was shocked that I was able to see it at all. I nearly lost my mind trying to photograph it. Will I be defeated by a tiny fly?

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male Richardia fly with impressive antlers

After most of the evening time was lost due to the insect’s aforementioned escapes, I decided to come up with another method to control it during the shoot. It required another pair of hands, so I asked my friend Javier Aznar, who I just met in person a couple of days before, to assist. In fact, without Javier’s help I would probably not get any usable shots. I thank him for putting up with me and for keeping my sanity during those difficult hours. “Nothing is impossible”, he told me. He probably thought I was crazy for spending so much time photographing a single fly. Well, it is somewhat true, if you consider the fact that I came back to Mindo just for that purpose. This time, I am very happy with the photos. There will probably be other chances to photograph Richardia flies, but I got precisely what I came for. And it felt like a small victory.

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.), frontal view. Mindo, Ecuador

The antlers are thin projections coming out from below the fly’s eyes.

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.), head close up. Mindo, Ecuador

The head of a male antlered fly (Richardia sp.) in all its glory. This is the shot I had in mind!

Not all Richardia species have antlered males, by the way. Some species have no such ornamentation/weaponry at all, yet I still think they are stunning flies with their colorful eyes, decorated wings and shiny bodies.

Mating richardid flies (family Richardidae). Mindo, Ecuador

Mating richardid flies. This species is antler-less, but nevertheless they are very beautiful.

Another group of species have had the head morphology evolving in a completely different direction. Instead of having antler-like projections coming from below their eyes, males evolved wide heads. These flies are sometimes called hammerheads, due to their striking resemblance to hammerhead sharks. They are also often mistaken for stalk-eyes flies, however the latter belong to a separate family of flies (Diopsidae, not Richardidae) distributed mainly in tropical regions of Asia and Africa. The hammerhead Richardia can sometimes be seen on the underside of broad leaves such as those of banana and heliconia plants. Males engage in head-pushing tournaments while a single female usually stands by watching and waiting for the winner to approach. He will then display a short dance, running in circles and waving his decorated wings, before mating with her.

Male hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). This one was scouting out a female on a nearby leaf.

Hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.) with “demonic” eyes

Female hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

The female hammerhead Richardia has a less pronounced head

If you remember my previous post, Richardia flies are not immune to infections, and they are occasionally found “glued” to the underside of leaves after being killed by an entomophagic parasitic fungus (Ophiocordyceps).

Richardia fly infected with Ophiocordyceps parasitic fungus. Mindo, Ecuador

An unlucky Richardia fly infected with Ophiocordyceps parasitic fungus. Mindo, Ecuador

I should mention another fly species, an extreme case of a hammerhead fly. Unlike Richardia, this one belongs to another family, Ulidiidae. Plagiocephalus latifrons is probably the closest neotropical equivalent to the old-world stalk-eyed flies, with a head so wide and so disproportional to the rest of the body that it looks more like someone’s prank than a real living animal.

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), dorsal view. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), dorsal view. One of the most amazing fly species out there in my opinion!

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), frontal view. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), frontal view. I cannot imagine this head being very aerodynamic, but you’d be surprised to hear that they are excellent fliers.

The eyes are so wide apart on the tips of the head, that it makes me wonder what these flies see. I am also curious as to how these flies look like at the exact moment when they emerge as adults from their puparium. Surely this whole elongated head cannot fit inside the compact oval puparium within the last larval skin, so it must get pumped up and expanded right after the fly’s eclosion (the BBC has a nice video showing this in a stalk-eyed fly). I would love to see this process in person one day – there is still so much to discover!

One unlucky earwig

(or why you should not get attached to whatever you encounter in the wild)

Isn’t being outdoors the greatest thing in the world? Surrounded by the soothing beauty of nature, while observing species living together in harmony? It is easy to lose sense of reality sometimes. But things are not always what they seem, and this serenity is often deceiving. We do not like to think about it, but nature is a harsh environment. There is a constant struggle for survival, many animal and plant species compete with each other over resources and breeding space. In fact, many of the animals we humans encounter in the wild are already on their way out of the game, either due to senescence, diseases, pathogens or parasites. I always try to remind myself that if I stumble upon an elusive animal active beyond its normal activity time, and it is not startled by my presence, then something fishy is going on here.

That being said, I admit that many times my sound judgment is clouded by the sheer excitement of finding something I have never seen before. Case in point: During one of my visits to Mindo cloud forest in Ecuador, I came across a beautiful specimen of earwig.

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

In general, earwigs suffer from a bad reputation, or lack thereof. While many people simply ignore them because they do not find them interesting, others find them terrifying due to their menacing-looking pincers. Nevertheless, these animals are both fascinating and harmless. First, they have interesting behaviors. Pairs often construct a breeding chamber together, and females display maternal care, tending the eggs and baby earwigs until they can fend for themselves.

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.) guarding the entrance to its burrow. Breeding pairs of earwigs construct such chambers, where the female later cares for the brood. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.) guarding the entrance to its burrow. Breeding pairs of earwigs construct such chambers, where the female later cares for the brood. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Second, earwigs cannot cause any injury to us. They cannot bite, and they possess no stinger or venom. Some species have an unpleasant odor, but you should not go sniffing animals that sport a pair of pincers anyway… Earwigs are omnivorous, and although they mainly feed on plant matter, they often use their modified cerci (the pincers) to manipulate soft prey such as moths and insect larvae. Earwigs are usually seen crawling on the ground or on plants, clumsily dragging their elongated body. However, they are also good fliers – underneath those square leathery forewings are neatly folded flight wings. During flight they spread like a delicate fan.

Detail of an earwig wing. Ontario, Canada

Detail of an earwig wing. Ontario, Canada

The earwig I found in Mindo belonged to the genus Allostethus (family Labiduridae). It is a beautiful animal, with a length of up to 35mm, a shiny black body and orange legs, and each of its forewings is decorated with a bright orange patch. I found it active on a mossy tree trunk in broad daylight, something I should have regarded to as suspicious, as earwigs are nocturnal insects. In any case, I did not give it much thought and collected the specimen, hoping I could later get some behavioral shots of it preying.

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.), what a magnificent beast!

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.), what a magnificent beast!

However, I waited too long. In the evening the animal stopped moving and appeared dead. I was devastated. It still looked healthy, no signs of injury, starvation, or poisoning. I decided to keep it in the vial and moved on to other work. The next morning I had my first evidence of the culprit – the earwig started to grow some whitish “fur”.

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.) covered with entomophagic fungus. What a magnificent beast?

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.) covered with entomophagic fungus. What a magnificent beast?

This was not, of course, fur per se, but small filaments indicating an infection by a parasitic fungus specifically feeding on insects. Parasitic entomophagic fungi (such as Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps) are extremely common in the tropics. Moreover, they are so diverse that many of their species are host-specific. In other words, a certain fungus species attacks only arthropods from a specific order or family. Typically, the growing fungus inside the still-living arthropod alters its normal behavior, causing it to roam in unusual locations, and often outside of its normal range of activity hours. In many cases the infected animal climbs on nearby tree trunks, branches, or positions itself on the underside of a leaf. This is done to allow better spread of spores from the fungus fruit bodies.

Detail of the fungus feeding on the earwig

Detail of the fungus feeding on the earwig

Seeing that stunning earwig giving in and dying was heartbreaking, but it is important to remember it happens every day in nature. When walking in a tropical forest, there are signs of death by entomophagic fungi all over the place. It is hard to avoid corpses of ants, grasshoppers, moths, and beetles, all with bright fungal horns and tubers sticking out of their bodies. However, it is extremely hard to predict if a living arthropod is already infected with the fungus or not. Many times I have seen insects that behaved like “zombies”, only to later find out that they were harboring a parasitoid wasp or a parasitic worm. Looking for early signs of a fungus infection is trickier, but at least now I am a little bit wiser. I will know what to do the next time I see an earwig climbing up a tree at daytime.

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!

2016 in review: a heartfelt thank you

It is that time of the year again. Time to reflect on the passing year and look forward to what is coming next. I think a lot of people will agree that 2016 was a challenging year to live through. A lot of disappointing things happened, expectations shattered, and hopes lost. Although for me the year started on a good note, by mid-2016 I found myself fighting deteriorating health and then later suffering through a depression due to a failing relationship. It was one hell of a ride, I was on the brink of mental collapse, and just when I was starting to recover my computer crashed, deleting most of my archives in the process. And I thought 2013 was bad. Little did I know.

But putting all these unfortunate events aside, 2016 was not all bad. Even with my mishaps, there were some parts of my life that needed resetting. Nothing was lost during the computer crash because I meticulously back up my most important stuff (if there is one advice I can give you for the new year, it is to back up your files. Do it RIGHT NOW). In fact, I have so much to be grateful for. I can honestly say that this year I finally feel like I got some recognition. It started with a nice article about Epomis beetles on WIRED, and continued with a few blog posts that became very popular and attracted more followers. After years of avoidance I decided to join Twitter, and even though I am still a novice there I enjoy the interaction with other people. I managed to publish a few scientific papers, including the descriptions of new species. I even gave a filmed interview for BBC’s “Nature’s Weirdest Events” which was aired a few days ago. However, what really stood out for me this year is that I got to know a lot of people. Many people, some of whom I have never met, offered their support during my rough days. I was honored to participate in Entomological Society of Ontario’s “Bug Day Ottawa”, where I exposed the public to the wonderful world of whip spiders. I was also fortunate to personally meet up with fascinating people that I have previously known only from their online presence. I would like to extend my gratitude to everyone responsible for making my life so much more meaningful and enjoyable.

Thank you. All of you.

 

I bet you want to see some photos. Because what is a photographer’s annual summary without some photos?

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Encountering this species was one of my highlights for the year. I know Macrodontia cervicornis very well from museum insect collections. It is one of the most impressive beetle species in the world, both in size and structure. But I never imagined I would be seeing a live one in the wild! Well let me tell you, it is hard to get over the initial impression. The male beetle that I found was not the biggest specimen, but the way it moved around still made it appear like nothing short of a monster. This species is very defensive, and getting close for the wide angle macro shot was a bit risky. The beetle responds to any approaching object with a swift biting action, and those jaws are powerful enough to cut through thick wooden branches, not to mention fingers!

The most perfectly timed photo

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

I have been observing orchid bees for a few years now. It is one of those rewarding experiences that I recommend to anyone with an interest in the natural world. While visiting Costa Rica I was fortunate to snap the above photo, showing four differently colored bees active together at the same spot. A second later the bees started to fight and eventually scattered. The photo drew a lot of attention and became viral, initiating interesting correspondences and new friendships, for which I will be forever thankful.

Best behavior shot

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) in defensive display. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) in defensive display. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

I have always wanted a photo showing a Panacanthus cuspidatus in its charismatic threat display. However, this photo is a bit misleading. The spiny devil katydid is actually a very cute and shy animal that prefers to hide rather than attack a huge predator. It took quite a lot of “convincing” to release this behavior.

The best non-animal photo

"Silkhenge" spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

“Silkhenge” spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

OK, I am going to cheat a little in this category. This photo is not exactly non-animal because it is an animal-made structure. The “silkhenge” structure is a story that gained a lot of attention in the past few years. Initially spotted in Peru by Troy Alexander, and later revealed to the world by entomologists Phil Torres and Aaron Pomerantz, this is a intricate spider egg sac, along with a protective “fence”. While the photo is ok at best, I was extremely excited to discover this structure in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The spider species responsible for this structure is still unknown at this point (although I have my own guess for its ID).

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid's wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid’s wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Another photo that I am very satisfied with is this interesting view of the bright colors hidden on the underside of a leaf-mimicking katydid. It belongs to my “This is not a leaf” series of closeups on katydids’ wings.

The best photo of an elusive subject

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

In 2015 I traveled to Mindo, Ecuador in hopes to find a horned fly that Paul Bertner photographed a few years back. I managed to find it, but was unhappy with the results. I returned to the same place this year, hoping to get a better photo. But oh my, these flies are annoyingly skittish. Watch this space for an upcoming post about my experience photographing them.

The best natural phenomenon observed

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

This photo is another highlight for me, because it depicts several interconnected biological interactions. The ants are shown tending a camouflaged treehopper to gain access to sweet honeydew secreted by the sap-sucking insect. The female treehopper is guarding her eggs, hidden in a foamy protective cover in the leaf’s central vein. And finally, there is a red parasitic mite feeding on the treehopper.

The best stacked photo

The focus-stacked image of the antlered caterpillar at the end of this post took hours to produce, and I am very satisfied with the result. However, for this category I decided to choose something a little different.

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

This landscape shot is actually not focus-stacked, but exposure-stacked. I was not carrying a tripod with me during that day but I still wanted to capture the majestic beauty of Albion falls located in Ontario, Canada. Exposure stacking and blending was a completely new technique for me, and I like how the final image turned out. It almost looks like a remote exotic location. I cannot believe this place is just a couple of hours from where I live.

The best wide-angle macro

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

“Arghhh! I have pollen in my eye!” Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

I really tried to push myself to the limits this year with wide angle macrophotography. Most of my attempts were of capturing pollinating insects in action, but I also tested my capabilities in other scenarios. For example, the following photo was taken using the simplest setup I have – a cheap, unmodified pancake lens and the camera’s built-in popup flash:

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

I also worked on perfecting results from more frequently-used setups:

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Best of the year

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

The above photo of a Costa Rican glass frog is probably my personal favorite from 2016. If you critically evaluate your photography work on a regular basis, it is not very often that you find yourself looking at a photograph without being able to find anything wrong with it. In the case of this photo, everything is just the way I wanted it to be. Perfect.

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

This photo would probably not be in my “best of 2016” if it weren’t for the huge positive response from other people. This is a katydid species I have encountered many times in Ecuador, yet I could not believe my eyes when I saw how brightly colored this individual was. I posted the photo on social media and it caught on like wildfire and went viral. Some people even accused me of altering the natural colors of the katydid in photoshop. And I wonder, what a time to be alive. You travel to a remote place to bring back a piece of beautiful nature to share with others, and no one believes it is real. It makes me sad.

So yes, 2016 was not easy, then again it is just a number that does not mean anything. 2017 will most likely be just as challenging. We survived last year’s events, let’s see what comes next. Bring it on!

One more thing…

To properly welcome the new year, I am offering a product for the first time. It is a calendar containing selected photographs of one of my favorite groups of insects, the orthopterans. If you do not have a 2017 calendar yet, or if you already got one but would still like to have nice photos of katydids and grasshoppers on your wall to look at, please consider ordering one. The candy-colored katydid is featured there too!

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

USA holidays calendar :
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-usa-holidays/calendar/product-22988977.html

Canadian holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-canada-holidays/calendar/product-22990362.html

Israeli/Jewish holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-israeli-holidays/calendar/product-22989647.html

 

Diaethria – a festive caterpillar with antlers!

In my last trip to the Amazon basin of Ecuador I had the fortune of meeting Paul Bertner, an acclaimed photographer and adventurer. I have been following his image posts and trip reports since I cannot remember when (and you should too!), and was excited to spend some time in the field with him, in hopes of learning some new tricks. It was great fun to discover hidden gems in the rainforest together, while discussing arthropod biology, conservation and photography.

During one of our night hikes we came across a tiny green caterpillar that was resting on a silky retreat on top of a leaf. At first glance it did not look very special, but then I noticed that its head featured two enormous antler-like horns. The horns were almost half the caterpillar’s body length! They were not simple straight horns, but rather complex structures that included many branches and hairs. I recognized the caterpillar as a member of tribe Biblidinae in the butterfly family Nymphalidae, but only later learned that it belongs to genus Diaethria.

Eighty-eight caterpillar (Diaethria sp.) with complex antler-like horns. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Eighty-eight caterpillar (Diaethria sp.) with complex antler-like horns. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Despite their small size, Diaethria butterflies are quite well-known thanks to the characteristic pattern on the underside of their hindwings. Circular bands in black and white surrounding black dots, giving the impression of the letters BB, Bd or the the numbers 88, 89, 69 etc’. The common names “88 butterfly” and “89 butterfly” are typically used for species in this genus. They are often seen puddling – an interesting behavior in which butterflies take up minerals from mud, sweat and feces.

Eighty-eight caterpillar (Diaethria sp.) is sometimes seen waving its horns while walking.

Eighty-eight caterpillar (Diaethria sp.) is sometimes seen waving its horns while walking.

Upon seeing the caterpillar I knew exactly how I want to photograph it. I wanted a frontal, head-on photo of the caterpillar’s head with the antlers stretched up in their full glory. What photo is more suitable for the holiday season than a festive caterpillar? Unfortunately, I did not have my high magnification MP-E lens with me (as mentioned, the caterpillar was tiny), so I gently collected it to photograph later. Let me tell you, photographing it was not an easy task. It seems that the caterpillar’s default behavior is to rest face down on the leaf, preventing any view of its antlers other than a dorsal one. It literally took hours to get it to change position, and I had to come up with a creative solution to get something remotely similar to the photo I had in mind.

This deer-mimicking caterpillar wishes you happy holidays and a happy new year!

This deer-mimicking caterpillar wishes you happy holidays and a happy new year!

One question that comes to mind is how do these caterpillars molt with such long head protrusions? Do the horns come out already stretched from the old head capsule or are they compressed as horn “buds” that inflate later? And what are those horns good for? They are most likely an adaptation against predators, but it is hard to say exactly how they are used. They can be used as defense to push away ants from attacking the caterpillar, or maybe the caterpillar drives away parasitoid wasps by waving the antlers from side to side. Hopefully someone will be able to document their function in the future and shed light on these remarkable structures.