Little Transformers: Myrmarachne formicaria

Little Transformers is back! And this time our star is a small jumping spider that goes out of its way to masquerade as an ant.

I am often accused for not writing about topics related to Canada on this blog. While this is not entirely true, I could have without doubt posted more about local critters. It is a great time to do so now, as I will be taking the opportunity to address several events.
Firstly, it is now October, and we are getting closer and closer to Halloween (Oct 31st). Nine years ago, the Arachtober initiative was born: why wait till the end of the month to celebrate spiders? Let’s celebrate them and other arachnids throughout the entire month of October! And so, during the month of October we give arachnids more exposure in hopes to educate the general public about these magnificent and important creatures.
Secondly, a new initiative is slowly forming, International Jumping Spider Day, on October 10th. The idea is to use the easily adored jumping spiders as the gateway arachnid for changing the often-negative public perception of spiders. I wholeheartedly support this idea and hope to see it catching on.
Lastly, a shameless plug: You may have noticed that this blog is nominated for the 2017 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online. It is a huge honor to be included with other excellent science blogs and sites on the same list. If you like the content and stories that I post, you can show your appreciation by voting following this link. I wish to thank those who already voted in support of this blog. While this nomination has nothing to do with spiders, I thought it is a great opportunity to write a blog post about an arthropod found in Canada.

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) wants your attention

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) wants your attention

After this short introduction, it is time to present our first local Little Transformer, the ant-mimicking jumping spider Myrmarachne formicaria. It is one of the nicest looking spiders here in Ontario, and it is surprisingly abundant in its habitat. Alas, there is a small catch here. While this jumping spider is local, it is not native to Canada. This species was first detected in North America in 2001, and later established in Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto in 2015. It originates in the Palearctic region, more specifically Europe and Asia. Despite this, these spiders feel right at home in Toronto, as it seems that they are spreading away from the park containing the main population. This year, Sean McCann recorded Myrmarachne in Scarborough (east Toronto), and I found them in Mississauga (west of Toronto).

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) masquerading as an ant

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) masquerading as an ant

Myrmarachne formicaria is an elongated jumping spider that takes the appearance of a small ant, and here in Ontario it is associated with the European fire ant, Myrmica rubra, also an introduced species. Isn’t it interesting how these two non-native species managed to find each other on unfamiliar land? The spider has long and slender legs just like those of an ant, and the banded forelegs are slightly thicker to resemble antennae. The cephalothorax has a depression to echo the segmentation in ants separating head from thorax. The abdomen is long with a narrow connection to the cephalothorax, reminiscent of an ant’s petiole. Surprisingly, in this species the pedipalps (normally a distinguishing character between males and females) are swollen in females, a trait usually seen only in males. Males on the other hand have enormous toothed chelicerae that stick right out of their faces. I suspected this is a sexually selected trait used in fights for females, and this was later confirmed by Sean McCann (check out his amazing shots here).

Female ant-mimicking jumping spiders (Myrmarachne formicaria) have swollen pedipalps

Female ant-mimicking jumping spiders (Myrmarachne formicaria) have swollen pedipalps

Male duck-mimicking jumping spide... um, excuse me ANT-mimicking jumping spider. Quack quack.

Male duck-mimicking jumping spide… um, excuse me ANT-mimicking jumping spider. Quack quack.

This begs the question, why do Myrmarachne spiders look like ants? Do the spiders use their appearance to fool the ants into thinking they are members of their own colony in order to sneak up on them and prey on ant workers or larvae? Not really. For starters, the ant species approached by Myrmarachne formicaria are usually not visual creatures. They rely more on their chemical communication, using volatile pheromones, for navigation and recognition. Moreover, the spiders seem to deliberately avoid any contact with the ant workers. They may walk among the ants, but they always keep their distance from them. In fact, when I experimented and isolated a few spiders within a group of ants, the spiders chose to stay still, and only when the path was clear they made a run for it. I also noticed that the ants display an aggressive response when encountering a spider. So the ants are not the target of this mimicry. Who is? Us. Or more precisely, predators. You see, the spider not only looks like an ant and spend its time close to the ants, it also moves like an ant.

Myrmarachne formicaria always keep a safe distance from Myrmica rubra workers

Myrmarachne formicaria always keep a safe distance from Myrmica rubra workers

A recent study looked into the locomotion of Myrmarachne formicaria jumping spiders and found that they do not move like their peers. First of all, instead of jumping like most salticid spiders, they move forward in a series of short sprints. But they also move in a pattern that resembles the movement of ants following a pheromone trail, back and forth in a winding wave motion, instead of random strolling and stopping often we see in other spiders. If it looks like an ant and moves like an ant… it might be good enough to fool predators that it is an ant. And I can attest to this – it is extremely difficult to keep track of a Myrmarachne spider moving about in an area with ant activity. Look away, and you will need all the luck in the world to find it again. The spiders also benefit from being close to a colony of highly defensive ants. Myrmica rubra is easily alarmed and has its reputation when it comes to stinging intruders.

Some Myrmarachne formicaria feature a two-colored cephalothorax, to emphasize the part that mimics the ant's head

Some Myrmarachne formicaria feature a two-colored cephalothorax, to emphasize the part that mimics the ant’s head

If they do not hunt the ants, what do these spiders feed on? They seem to go after soft-bodied insects, and they are especially fond of dipterans: small flies, mosquitoes, midges etc’.

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) feeding on a chironomid midge

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) feeding on a chironomid midge

A closer look at the feeding Myrmarachne male reveals the weaponized chelicerae, used in fighting other males

A closer look at the feeding Myrmarachne male reveals the weaponized chelicerae, used in fighting other males

At this point you might ask yourself why I included this jumping spider in my Little Transformers series. Sure, it mimics an ant, but that’s it. Or is it? In order to qualify as a Little Transformer the arthropod needs to change something in its appearance to transform into something different. So far we have seen that these spiders move in an atypical fashion to jumping spiders. But there is one more thing they do to conceal their salticid identity. What is the one, fail-safe characteristic of jumping spiders? Those huge front eyes! If only the spider could hide them, it would look like the perfect ant. And they do exactly that.

I look at this spider and I see an ant staring back at me.

I look at this spider and I see an ant staring back at me.

Myrmarachne often wave their forelegs in the air to mimic the ants’ antennae, but the legs also hide their most recognizable feature, the bulging front eyes. Females seem to do a better job at this than males, transforming into ants right before our eyes.

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria). Even on a side-view I still see a weird duck...

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria). Even on a side-view I still see a weird duck…

What is most intriguing here is that the rear pair of eyes evolved to be very large, bearing a striking resemblance in their size and position to ant eyes.

Ant-mimicry is quite common among arthropds, and many species of jumping spiders deploy this strategy as an anti-predator defense or to assist in foraging. While some do not consider Myrmarachne formicaria as a case of perfect mimicry, it is a gorgeous spider with intriguing behavior. Besides, mimicry does not have to be perfect to satisfy our aesthetic desires. It only has to be good enough to benefit the spider’s survival.

Compsus: glitter weevils with structural coloration

The insect world is full of great examples for flamboyant insects. From mosquitoes sporting feathery legs and electric blue scales, through the splash of vibrant colors in rainbow katydids, to shiny golden-green orchid bees and their mimics. But none are as dazzling as the glitter weevils of genus Compsus (family Curculionidae, subfamily Entiminae).

Short-snout weevil (Compsus sp.) from Mindo, Ecuador. It is hard to take all these colors in.

Short-snout weevil (Compsus sp.) from Mindo, Ecuador. It is hard to take all these colors in.

Compsus is a large genus distributed mainly in Central and South America, with one species occurring in North America. It contains around 140 species, mostly small to medium sized beetles of 0.5-2.5cm in length. Several species are considered as pests of citrus trees. The adult weevils feed on plant tissue: leaves, flower petals, and pollen, but they will also go for rotting leaves and fermenting fruits. The females oviposit egg masses on the aerial parts of trees. The young legless larvae hatch, drop to the ground, and burrow into the soil where they feed on the roots of the tree. At the end of its developmental stage the larva builds a chamber in the ground and pupates, and it will stay in this state for two months until the adult’s eclosion. Compsus weevils complete their life cycle within 5-7 months.

Another species of Compsus from Mindo, this one has a bit more metallic sheen to it.

Another species of Compsus from Mindo, this one has a bit more metallic sheen to it.

Compsus weevil feeding on rotting plant tissue

Compsus weevil feeding on rotting plant tissue

Freshly-eclosed short-snout weevil (Compsus sp.) use impressive mandibles to break out of the pupal skin. These scissor-like attachments drop later.

Freshly-eclosed short-snout weevil (Compsus sp.) use impressive mandibles to break out of the pupal skin. These scissor-like attachments drop later.

But what makes Compsus weevils so special, as well as other members of subfamily Entiminae, is their eye-catching colors. I would do these beetles a disservice if I didn’t explain where the colors come from, so things are about to get technical. Animal coloration is derived from spectrally selective light reflections on the outer body parts. There are two types of coloration:
1) Pigmentary (or chemical) coloration – occurs when pigments absorb scattered light in a narrow wavelength range. This type of coloration is the most common in animals.
2) Structural (or physical) coloration – achieved by nanometer-sized structures with changing refractive indices, causing coherent light scattering. Structural coloration is less common in the animal kingdom but it is widely encountered as well, and often structural colors are modified by spectrally filtering pigments.

Scales containing photonic crystals on the head of a Compsus weevil

Scales containing photonic crystals on the head of a Compsus weevil

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of a Compsus weevil

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of a Compsus weevil

The structures causing the physical colors are referred to as photonic crystals if they have properties (periodicity) that align with wavelengths of visible light. One-dimensional photonic crystals consist of parallel thin film layers of alternating high and low refractive index materials. These structures create the metallic and polarized reflections of cephalopods skin, the elytra of jewel beetles and scarabs, and the breast feathers of birds of paradise. Two-dimensional photonic crystals are structures with periodicity in two dimensions. An example for two-dimensional photonic crystals in animals would be the coloration of peacock feathers. Three-dimensional photonic crystals have been found in the scales of weevils and other beetles, but also in butterflies like the blue morpho.

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus schoenherri) from Indonesia

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus schoenherri) from Indonesia

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus schoenherri) from Indonesia

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus schoenherri) from Indonesia

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of a Compsus weevil

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of a Compsus weevil

Blue scales on the leg tarsus of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus linnei) from Indonesia

Blue scales on the leg tarsus of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus linnei) from Indonesia

In the case of Entiminae weevils, the adult beetles have strikingly iridescent scales, sometimes immersed in pits on the weevils’ elytra and legs. This gives the weevils a festive glittery look, as if they were covered with confetti during a big party. The reason for the bright coloration in weevils is mostly misunderstood. In some ways it may serve as camouflage in green species, but blue-colored species are very conspicuous so it remains unclear whether they advertise something to potential predators. I cannot complain: for me it is always a joy to see the cute Compsus weevils in the wild, even though sometimes it makes you feel like you missed out on a celebration or something.

 

Public outreach: Promoting the appreciation of arthropods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The discovery of Charinus israelensis, a new whip spider from Israel

When I was a kid I used to spend hours in the Israeli outdoors, looking for insects and arachnids in hopes to familiarize myself with as many arthropod species as possible. I was so darn good at finding small critters that soon enough friends requested to tag along to see what I could unearth during a short afternoon hike. My parents recognized my growing passion and got me the natural history “bible” at that time – the 12 volumes of Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. I studied it carefully, trying to set goals to find certain species, which led me on excursions throughout the country. Yet one arachnid seemed to remain out of reach.

Charinus israelensis, a new species of whip spider in Israel

Charinus israelensis, a new species of whip spider in Israel

It looked like a cross between a mantis and a spider, with one long pair of appendages. It was an amblypygid, a whip spider. The book listed only a single species occurring in Israel, Charinus ioanniticus, very rare. It featured a tiny photo, followed by a large illustration on the opposite page, a replication of the photo. In the days before the internet, that was my only reference for this arachnid group.

Amblypygi in: Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

Amblypygi in: Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 Arachnids. For nearly a decade this was my only reference for information about whip spiders.

I was determined to see a live one, but I always failed to find them. I kept looking at those pages in hopes to memorize every aspect of the animal, making sure I can confirm its identity in case I stumble upon one. Years have passed and I gave up on finding one in the wild. I did get a chance to see a live specimen during my high school days though, in one of the visits I paid to Pinchas “Pini” Amitai, the man who took the original photo in the book. Little did I know that 20 years into the future I would be involved in discovering a new species of whip spider living in Israel.

This discovery is not recent news. We found the new species over five years ago, and the formal description was published last year. The media intended to feature the story, but unfortunately a former president in Israel passed away on the same week the paper was published and there was no interest in a story about an obscure arachnid living inside caves in Israel. Despite that, I waited. The discovery is an important one, and I was hoping our new species could still make an appearance in the news. And as you can imagine, I am still waiting. Well, as the old saying goes – if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

So let me tell you the story of this cute arachnid. Back in 2012 I stumbled upon a photo of a whip spider from Israel in one of my social media newsfeeds. The photo was taken by Dr. Eran Levin during a cave survey for his research about bats’ hibernation sites. Since I had an approaching trip to Israel I contacted my friend and asked if he would share the location, because I was still hoping to see and document a wild whip spider in my home country. We chatted for a while, the location was a bit unexpected for amblypygids in the area, but a few months later I found myself crawling through a tight opening into the warm cave. And indeed they were there, happily roaming on the walls, waving their magnificent long legs everywhere.

A juvenile of Charinus israelensis walking on the wall in one of the caves

A juvenile of Charinus israelensis walking on the wall in one of the caves

Molts hanging from the cave's ceiling are a good sign for an active whip spider population.

Molts hanging from the cave’s ceiling are a good sign for an active whip spider population.

Charinus israelensis cleaning its leg

Charinus israelensis cleaning its leg. This specimen lost two of its legs in fights with others (see example below). They will grow back the next time it molts.

I took some photos and happily went home. When I inspected the photos later, something did not sit right with me. I still had a vivid memory of the photo and illustration in the book from my childhood. But now, I could also use information online for confirmation. The amblypygid species known from Israel, Charinus ioanniticus, has well developed median eyes. It almost looks like it is crossed-eyed. How cute.

Charinus ioanniticus' big smile. See the tiny beady eyes? Adorable!

Charinus ioanniticus’ big smile. See the tiny beady eyes? Adorable!

I looked at my photos, and none of the animals had median eyes. What is going on here?

Charinus israelensis, note the absence of median eyes

Charinus israelensis, note the absence of median eyes

Charinus israelensis can have big smiles too

Charinus israelensis can have big smiles too

In all other visible aspects the whip spiders looked like C. ioanniticus, yet the absence of eyes was enough for me to suspect that I might be dealing with a new species. I made some calls, went back to collect some specimens, and started the long process of verifying and describing the species with colleagues (you can find our paper on my publications page). I invested my energy and personal funds into that research. For me it was a mission to put the spotlight on this exciting new find. We named it Charinus israelensis. I became heavily involved with the general public and posted requests in forums and social media groups for any records or sightings of whip spiders in Israel. Slowly but surely, I started receiving responses from various people located throughout the country. Some of which mentioned whip spiders that found their way into homes, others were reported from natural caverns. It was even more interesting to visit some of those places with the people who made the sightings, and witness the whip spiders’ populations together with them. I learned a lot about caves in Israel, and how much we still don’t know about these habitat systems. But the best experience for me while searching for the new species C. israelensis was to discover new unrecorded populations of the known species, C. ioanniticus. And more than anything, I suddenly realized that they are not at all that rare as mentioned in the old encyclopedia. They are just extremely cryptic, remaining hidden in tight crevices and coming out in the darkest of nights. No wonder people never see them.

Charinus ioanniticus from a newly recorded population in the Carmel Mountain Ridge of Israel

Charinus ioanniticus from a newly recorded population in the Carmel Mountain Ridge of Israel

Why is this exciting? There are two main reasons. The first one is that this discovery doubles the Amblypygi fauna for Israel. It may not sound much, but jumping from one species to two is actually a big deal. It has implications on our understanding of food webs in caves, and these unique arachnids may give further incentives to protect and conserve cave habitats in Israel. The second reason is that the loss of eyes in cave animals (troglomorphism, a term associated with adaptation for life in dark caves) is an interesting topic for studying the evolution of traits within a phyllogenetic lineage. There are already several examples of blind Charinus whip spiders from around the globe, which may lead to fascinating research in the future. In the meantime, I continue to keep live specimens of both Charinus species from Israel, learning a ton about their biology in the process.

A freshly molted Charinus israelensis shows spectacular coloration

A freshly molted Charinus israelensis shows spectacular coloration. The color turns reddish-brown after some time.

Two females of Charinus israelensis fighting

Two females of Charinus israelensis fighting. Whip spiders have complex communication based on movements of their antenniform legs. Some encounters turn hostile, in this case because the bottom female was gravid.

Charinus israelensis female carrying an egg sac

Charinus israelensis female carrying an egg sac

Some of the adult whip spiders that were collected in the beginning of the research are still alive and kicking! Quite impressive for a small arachnid, and seems like they can even outlive some of the more “conventional” pets.

Because I eat, sleep, and breathe whip spiders, my friend Peggy Muddles aka The Vexed Muddler made this awesome portrait of mine with C. israelensis (check out more of her fabulous stuff here)

artwork by Peggy Muddles

“Whip spiders are the coolest arachnids that will never hurt you”

By the way, this weekend (Sunday August 27th, 10am-5pm) the University of Guelph is holding a “Bug Day” at the Arboretum Centre. Come for a fun day out and learn about arthropods. I will have a table with whip spiders, so please drop by and say hi. I will also have some framed whip spider molts with me so please come and check them out!

Review: Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

The Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens has been around on the market for several years now. I mentioned it briefly in my series of posts about wide-angle macro photography. It is currently the only wide-angle lens capable of achieving 1:1 magnification ratio. When I first heard about this lens I was intrigued to say the least, but also immediately put off by the lack of automatic aperture control (I no longer see this is a problem – more on this later). Still I was curious about it and was waiting for a chance to give it a try. Fortunately, an opportunity to play with the lens came up during my last trip to Ecuador. My initial impression was that of – oh boy, this lens is a lot of fun. I was therefore delighted when Venus Optics Laowa contacted me a few months ago and asked if I wanted to give the lens a thorough test run. Despite this fact, this is not a paid review and the content below is based entirely on my personal impressions.

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Also, this is not going to be a very technical review. If you are reading this post, I assume you already know the lens is lightweight, has full metal construction, a de-clicked aperture ring, and feature an innovative shift mechanism. What I am more interested in is its practical uses, more specifically – is it useful for wide angle macrophotography of small subjects?

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

After testing it for a while, I strongly believe that this is the most versatile lens existing on the market at the moment. It is a jack-of-all-trades. This is the one to choose when you can take only a single lens with you. However, no lens is perfect and the Laowa 15mm has its weak points (which I discuss below). I tested it on a crop sensor camera (APS-C). Unless otherwise mentioned, all photos in this post were taken at f/16 or close, with a twin macro flash used as a fill-light.

Lens attributes to note
Aside from its construction and weight, the Laowa 15mm lens is very sharp. Wide open it has very good sharpness in the center (corners are softer, typical for a wide angle lens), and it stays sharp all the way down to f/16. Diffraction starts creeping in and being noticeable at f/22, producing soft images. Overall I found f/11-f/16 to be perfect and most usable, but it depends on the desired result.

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

Chromatic aberration is typical for a wide angle lens, I did not see anything out of the ordinary. Of course if you shoot scenes that are very high in contrast (for example, sky peeking through the forest canopy) you will get very noticeable CA in the frame. If you like sunstars the good news is that this lens produces nice-looking 14-pointed sunstars. Lens flare is surprisingly well controlled in this lens. It comes with a detachable lens hood included in the box, but I never found myself using it.

Operation
The lens requires a break-in period similarly to other specialty lenses like Canon’s MP-E. The learning curve is steep at first.
Shooting with a stopped-down aperture darkens the viewfinder, making it difficult to track and focus on your subject. In this case liveview mode or a bright focusing light can help. Occasionally, when photographing with the sun behind your back the lens will cast a shadow over the subject. A setup with a diffused fill-flash is useful to light the scene. The lens can still be used in natural light, but you will benefit from holding a small reflector close to the lens in order to bounce some light onto your subject and eliminate the shadow from the front element.
One of the praised attributes of the Laowa 15mm lens is its ability to achieve 1:1 magnification ratio, taking it from wide angle to true macro realm. However, this is also its main shortcoming. Going to 1:1 will require you to get very close to the subject (about 4mm), at which point the large front element of the lens will cast a shadow over the subject, making it difficult to light it properly. I have seen creative solutions for this issue, so it is not entirely impossible.
The aperture ring is de-clicked and turns smoothly, but I found the focusing ring a bit to tight to turn. The position of the rings on the lens requires getting used to: the aperture ring sits at the front of the lens barrel, whereas the focusing ring is at the back (in sharp contrast to just about any other lens out there). I consider this a design flaw – I found myself mistakenly turning aperture ring when I intended to turn the focusing ring, and vice versa. It really does not help that the aperture ring is de-clicked in this case.

Wide Angle Macro
In my opinion this is the primary use of the Laowa 15mm lens. When used correctly, it gives an unparalleled perspective of the subject and its surroundings, shrinking us, the viewers, to become a part of its small-scale world. This is one of the only lenses on the market that can go from this:

Who's hiding here?

Who’s hiding here?

to this:

Can you spot it yet?

Can you spot it yet?

then this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

and finally this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

I find this flexibility incredible (but wait! There is more! Read on).
Here are some more examples for wide angle macro taken with the Laowa 15mm lens.

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Yellowjackets (Vespula vulgaris) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Yellowjackets (Vespula vulgaris) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

By the way, this lens produces very nice results for flower photography.

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Wide angle macro is not all about “taking it all in”. Here are some examples of this style with less emphasis on the surroundings.

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

The background rendering of the Laowa 15mm lens is unique and might be a little difficult to describe. A friend of mine described it as being “metallic”, and I somewhat agree.

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

The important thing to remember is that the closer you get to your subject and the higher magnification ratio you use, the more you are stepping into real macro and out of wide angle macro. This means that details in the background will become less and less noticeable. Even if you photograph with a closed aperture most of the background will be out of focus. See my next point.

Pure macro mode at 1:1
This is probably the lens’ most-discussed feature, but it is also its greatest weakness. I would even argue that one should not push this lens to the extreme of 1:1 magnification ratio. As a wide-angle lens it provides a wide DOF, however when taking it to the macro realm the background rendering is completely different and may putt off some users. Everything in the background turns into an unrecognized blurry mishmash. Unless you photograph a subject in a very dense or against a flat background, do not take this lens to 1:1. In fact, I would not take it anywhere above the 0.6:1 magnification ratio.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

That being said, it is still useful as a macro lens. The following two photographs were taken at f/8.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Landscape uses
I am not a dedicated landscape photographer, but will occasionally shoot the odd landscape if the opportunity presents itself. I tried the Laowa 15mm and the results are not too shabby. The following two photographs were taken at f/11.

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

“Microscope mode”
After experimenting a little with the wide-angle properties of the lens, I started wondering what else can be done with it. Let’s examine the properties of our lens here: it is an ultra wide-angle with a filter thread on the front of the lens, it has a manual aperture ring, and lastly it has a focusing range of 10cm to infinity. You can see where I am going with this. I am going to reverse-mount it.
You now understand why I no longer see the lack of auto aperture control as a disadvantage. When reverse-mounted the presence of a manual aperture ring comes as a blessing. Surprisingly the working distance for this high magnification (above x5.5 for APS-C cameras) is decent at a touch over 4cm. This is a lightweight alternative setup for Canon’s high magnification flagship, the MP-E 65mm. Keep in mind Venus Optics-Laowa are currently working on their own high magnification lens, which will be capable of 2-5x magnification.

One of the main difficulties at this high magnification is to figure out what to use it for. Many macro subjects are just too big to fit in the frame. Nevertheless using the Laowa 15mm reversed opens up a whole new world of possibilities. All of the following photographs were taken at f/5.6. My first attempts were on common household pests.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

I then moved to test the image quality of the reversed lens, using the classic “scales on a butterfly wing” approach. I was amazed by the sharpness of the lens when mounted this way. The DOF is shallow at this magnification, but this can be solved by tilting the lens towards the subject or focus stacking.

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

But what about typical macro subjects? No problem! The reversed Laowa 15mm can be used to photograph even larger subjects.

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Springtail found in decaying wood

Springtail found in decaying wood

You can even use the reversed 15mm as a base lens for a relay system. Why you would want to use one wide angle macro lens to build another wide angle macro lens system is beyond me, but it is possible. In any case, regarding reverse-mounting the Laowa 15mm, what I really want to know is how on earth no one has done this before? This lens is perfect for reverse-mounting if you are into microcosmos photography.

To summarize my impressions of the lens –

Pros:
– Super versatile lens
– Impressive focusing range, ~10cm to infinity
– Highest magnification ratio possible on a wide angle lens, up to 1:1 but even higher when reverse-mounted
– Excellent sharpness and image quality
– Manual aperture (if you plan to reverse-mount it)
– Lightweight, small size for a wide angle lens
– Shift mechanism (if angle distortion is an issue for you)

Cons:
– Manual, no auto aperture control, no auto focus
– Placement of focusing and aperture rings not intuitive. A clicked aperture ring would be nice to distinguish it from the focusing ring
– Extremely short working distance when using 1:1
– Background rendering may put off some users
– Large front element makes it difficult to sneak up on live subjects

So the question is who is this lens for? The way I see it, first and foremost it is for anyone with a desire to photograph medium-sized subjects in their habitat. It is perfect for photographing reptiles, amphibians, plants or mushrooms. Use with arthropods can vary depending on the subject and context, but the results can be impressive. Regardless, the Laowa 15mm lens is a jaw-dropping piece of gear. It is so versatile and can be used for several different styles and purposes.

You can buy the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens on Venus Optica Laowa’s website here.

Jumping spider mimicry in Brenthia moths

Many insects deploy mimicry to fool their predators into thinking they are highly defensive, venomous, or simply not to be messed with. A great fraction of mimicry cases involve adopting the appearance of ants, wasps, and spiders for these exact reasons. One of the most interesting cases, however, is predator mimicry: insects that take the appearance of their potential predators in order to expose them. I have already written about one such case in crambid moths, but in this post I want to present one of the classic examples for this mimicry in metalmark moths of the genus Brenthia.

At first glance, metalmark moths do not really resemble spiders. In my post about Petrophila moths I mentioned that observed spider mimicry might also be a case of pareidolia. In other words, we as humans seek familiar patterns surrounding us, so we recognize the image of a spider on the wings, but is it really mimicry? And indeed, after posting I was accused of having a strong imagination for thinking this is mimicry. There is a good point being made here – in the case of Petrophila there is a temporal barrier preventing the two from encountering each other under normal conditions. Petrophila moths are nocturnal while jumping spiders are diurnal. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such wing patterns in the insect world suggests that they have a role in the survival of those organisms.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) displaying its typical body posture, with wings raised like a peacock's tail.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) displaying its typical body posture, with wings raised like a peacock’s tail.

Brenthia moths are no different. It takes some imagination to strip them of their mothy characteristics to see the resemblance to jumping spiders. Members of family Choreutidae, the genus contains over 80 described species, all sharing the same appearance: a unique body posture, and wings patterns that are reminiscent of jumping spiders’ eyes. In fact their common name, metalmark moths, is due to the convincing “catchlight” area of the eyespots, often consisting of silvery scales. Brenthia species also move like jumping spiders, advancing by short bursts of movements while still retaining their wing display. Lastly, these moths are diurnal and can be seen active on top of leaves, just like salticid spiders. If you think it ends there for these moths in regards to anti-predator defenses, let me also add that their caterpillars deploy defense strategies as well. When alarmed, they launch themselves through holes chewed into the floor of their webbed feeding shelter, giving the term “teleporting through a wormhole” a new meaning.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) in frontal view, displaying wing patterns that resemble a jumping spider's face and legs.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) in frontal view, displaying wing patterns that resemble a jumping spider’s face and legs.

Brenthia moth (upper image) mimics jumping spiders (lower image) with wing markings, wing positioning, and posture. Figure from Rota and Wagner 2006 (drawing by Virginia Wagner).

Brenthia moth (upper image) mimics jumping spiders (lower image) with wing markings, wing positioning, and posture. Figure from Rota and Wagner 2006 (drawing by Virginia Wagner).

Portrait of a jumping spider (Phiale formosa). It is a little difficult to see the resemblance to the moth's wing patterns, but the important thing is that it works to the moth's benefit.

Portrait of a jumping spider (Phiale formosa). It is a little difficult to see the resemblance to the moth’s wing patterns, but the important thing is that it works to the moth’s benefit.

When discussing animals mimicking their predator, it is important to remember that we humans are not the target audience. This means that the imitator may not look too convincing in its mimicry to us, but still manages to trigger a desired response from said predator. However, when in doubt, the best way to know for sure is to put the suggested mimicry to the test through a series of experiments. Brenthia moths have become one of the best examples of spider-mimicking moths, thanks to rigorous testing. In their classic paper, Rota and Wagner placed the moths with their potential predators, jumping spiders of the species Phiale formosa, in arenas and recorded the outcome. They also used non-mimicking moths of the same size as control for the experiments. The results showed that the jumping spiders respond to Brenthia by displaying territorial behavior and waving their forelegs. In other words, upon noticing the Brenthia moths the spider predators immediately expose themselves. It comes as no surprise that Brenthia moths had a high survival rate in the experiments, as they could take off once the danger was revealed, avoiding predation. The control moths did not trigger a territorial response from the spiders and were preyed upon extensively.

Jumping spider (Phiale formosa) displaying territorial behavior in response to its own image. This is when the moth knows it is in danger.

Jumping spider (Phiale formosa) displaying territorial behavior in response to its own image. This is when the moth knows it is in danger.

One thing to keep in mind though is that this mimicry works well only because salticids are special among spiders. They do not make a web to capture prey, but instead rely on their excellent vision to detect prey. They are active predators, and therefore display a wide array of behaviors to communicate with other salticids. Jumping spiders will avoid other jumping spiders due to the risk of cannibalism. Brenthia moths take advantage of this behavior to get the higher ground by delaying the spider’s attack in order to escape. This makes them one of nature’s greatest con artists, but when survival is on the line, anything is kosher.

Papers mentioned in this post:

  • Rota, J, Wagner DL (2008) Wormholes, sensory nets and hypertrophied tactile setae: the extraordinary defence strategies of Brenthia caterpillars. Animal Behaviour 76(5): 1709-1713
  • Rota J, Wagner DL (2006) Predator Mimicry: Metalmark Moths Mimic Their Jumping Spider Predators. PLoS ONE 1(1): e45. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000045

Little Transformers: Dysodius

When I first came up with the idea of Little Transformers, what I had in mind were insects that can masquerade as other objects by changing their appearance or behavior. I consider myself a “mild” Transformers fan: I like the concept of entities taking the form of other things, very much like how mimicry or camouflage work in nature. I have said before that I am not a fan of the current iteration of Transformers, those movies are so bad. However, I am going to take advantage of the upcoming release of the new Transformers movie (and I cannot believe I am using this as my reasoning) to post about yet another Little Transformer. This one does not really transform though, but it sure looks like one of the robots in those films. While I am not sure who is behind the designs for the robots, it was clear right from the start that there is some insectoid perspective to their appearance. I have always preferred the simple “blocky” design of the original cartoon show, but I can see how that would not look very realistic.

As mentioned above, our Little Transformer may not pass as the best example for a mode-changer, but it has an alien-like appearance. Meet Dysodius, a bark bug that belongs to the family of flatbugs, Aradidae.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) crawling on a fallen log. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) crawling on a fallen log. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Aradidae are cryptic insects, spending most of their time hidden on or under bark, and inside fallen logs. They feed on fungi: at nighttime both adults and nymphs can be seen aggregating near fruit bodies of mushrooms, sticking their proboscis into the soft flesh. It is a fungi cocktail party, and everyone is invited! Some species of Aradidae even display parental care and protect their offspring. Aradids are incredibly flat, a character that helps them to squeeze into tight crevices and take advantage of the complex habitat that is the bark’s surface, in order to remain hidden from the ever-searching eyes of predators.

Lateral view of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus). So flat it could sit comfortably inside a paper envelope.

Lateral view of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus). So flat it could sit comfortably inside a paper envelope.

Members of genus Dysodius are particularly interesting because of the their unique body structure, featuring curved lobes protruding from the pronotum and a crown of “fins” surrounding their abdominal segments. They also have tiny wings, so tiny that it makes me wonder if these wings are truly functional and can create enough force to lift the insect off the ground.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), dorsal view

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), dorsal view

Dysodius are also very slow animals. They usually rely on their excellent camouflage rather than speed to avoid threats.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) camouflaged on a fallen log

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) camouflaged on a fallen log

Their body surface is rough and often mottled with moss-like splotches. It is also wettable just like tree bark, in other words the colors get darker when getting wet by rain (unlike the water-repellent integument of other bugs), ensuring that the insect is still camouflaged even in rainy conditions.

Bark bugs (Dysodius spp.) from Belize (left) and Ecuador (right) demonstrating different coloration and textures of the body surface.

Bark bugs (Dysodius spp.) from Belize (left) and Ecuador (right) demonstrating different coloration and textures of the body surface.

This begs the question why am I including Dysodius in the Little Transformers series? After all, these insects are already “transformed” and do not change their appearance any further. They already look like a piece of bark. To understand why they are mentioned within these posts, you need to view them from the underside.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), facial view. Am I the only one seeing a robot here?

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), facial view. Am I the only one seeing a robot here?

Aradidae, and Dysodius in particular, have one of the most robotic faces in the entire insect world, a face that could easily fit in the current Transformers movie franchise.
If you are not convinced yet, here is a closer look.

Portrait of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus)

Portrait of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus)

So if you think the Transformers movies are cool, insects do it better and have been doing it for far longer time. How does that quote from the trailer go?

“A thousand years we’ve kept it hidden. The secret history of Transformers…”

It was hidden all right. But not anymore. I am slowly unearthing this secret, exposing the existence of Transformers right here under our nose. You’re welcome.

Little Transformers: Pycnopalpa bicordata

It comes as no surprise that the first two “Little Transformers” presented on this blog were beetles. Many beetles are capable of folding, taking the shape of different structures, whether it is for camouflage or as a means of defense against predators. I will surely present more examples of transforming beetles in future posts. However, there are other insects out there that have the same transformation ability. I had the fortune of meeting one of those insects while staying at a jungle lodge in Honduras. My visit was in the middle of a dry spell and insects were surprisingly scarce. Many of the hikes I took in the rainforest were unfruitful. In my frustration I decided to check the screen windows outside a nearby facility because sometimes insects decide to rest on the mesh. I did spot a few nice finds, and then, I saw this.

"It's a bird! It's a plane!"

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane!”

My first thought was ‘that is one weird-looking moth’.
Let me explain.
My entomologist mind is on a constant search to find familiar patterns in objects that I see, because in the tropics deception is lurking everywhere. What I saw first was the animal’s shape and took it immediately for a winged insect. Then the coloration and the pose reminded me of some Erebidae moths (for example, genus Eutelia).
It took me a couple of short attempts to refocus my eyes on what is important before I could see that this is not a moth at all.

Now that the insect is off the net, we can take a better look. Dorsal view.

Now that the insect is off the net, we can take a better look. Dorsal view.

Another view of this amazing insect

Another view of this amazing insect

This is in fact a katydid nymph, Pycnopalpa bicordata, and it is so good at what it does that I was not able to locate it much later as it was sitting among fallen leaves in the vial I put it into. Whenever it is inactive it will assume this position, blending in with tree bark or leaf litter in the forest understory. Whether it resembles a moth or not is a matter of personal opinion at this point, because unless there is concrete evidence for an unpalatable moth model that this katydid is mimicking, the body posture this katydid takes can be within a different context altogether, such as a shredded fallen leaf or something similar.

Viewing from the side reveals that this is a leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) at rest

Viewing from the side reveals that this is a leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) at rest

The nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) in full katydid-mode

The nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) in full katydid-mode

Leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata). Clever girl!

Leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata). Clever girl!

As mentioned above, this is a nymph. A juvenile female to be more accurate, as can be seen by her sickle-shaped ovipositor. So what does the adult katydid look like? I was expecting some mind-blowing leaf appearance; maybe with flattened fins and spines on the legs, to mimic a dried leaf chewed up to its veins. You can safely say that I was exaggerating, and in the end when the nymph molted to its adult stage I was rather disappointed.

The adult Pycnopalpa bicordata is a delicate leaf-mimicking katydid. This one is a male.

The adult Pycnopalpa bicordata is a delicate leaf-mimicking katydid. This one is a male.

The adult Pycnopalpa bicordata is a very delicate insect with no major body modifications for mimicry or camouflage. Yes, it still looks very much like a leaf – having vivid green wings with transparent cells surrounded with brown margins, representing consumed parts or sunburn damage to leaf tissue. But the adult stage pales in comparison to the ingenious structural design of the nymph. Still, it is very nice to find Little Transformers outside the realm of Coleoptera. Moreover, among the orthopterans, I can think of at least one additional species of katydid and several grasshoppers that fall under my definition for Little Transformers. Hopefully we will get to learn about them in future posts.

Little Transformers: Eburia pedestris

We are back to celebrate little transformers: insects that are more than meets the eye. In this post I feature an insect whose transformation may seem a little awkward at first. It is not of cryptic nature, and it is not a case of mimicry.

While doing research about whip spiders in Belize, I also surveyed the insect biodiversity of one site, and so made sure to visit the light traps that we set up in several spots. The traps attracted an impressive diversity of insects, including moths, leafhoppers, ants, mantids, and katydids. One night a beautiful longhorn beetle (family Cerambycidae) showed up at the light trap. I did not recognize it at first so I collected it for a short Meet Your Neighbours session.

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) from Belize

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) from Belize

It was Eburia pedestris, a member in a genus of hardwood-boring longhorn beetles with a wide distribution in the Americas. I took a few decent shots. The beetle was trying to escape of course, so I reached out to grab it before it fell from the acrylic sheet. The moment I touched it something interesting happened. It crossed its legs and took a sitting position. I could not help it and I sneaked a loud laugh, because it looked like the beetle was in the middle of a yoga practice. It stayed in this comical position for a while, so I took some additional shots.

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) just sitting around

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) just sitting around

Another view of the strange pose taken by Eburia pedestris

Another view of the strange pose taken by Eburia pedestris

The strange position did not make a lot of sense to me, but I thought maybe it was a more elaborate way of playing dead, a common behavior in many beetle families (which will probably be featured more than once in this series). I finally decided not to wait for the cerambycid to “open up” so I grabbed it in my hand to put it back into the vial before releasing it outside. And then it hit me.

I mean, it literally hit me.
I felt my hand being pierced in several spots. Blood was dripping from my fingers.
You see, there is a reason why Eburia beetles take this unusual body posture. Look at the beetle’s leg joints and at the tips of the elytra. By taking a “sitting” pose, the beetle transforms into a prickly business, pointing sharp spikes in all directions, making it difficult for large predators like myself to handle the beetle. It will also not hesitate to use its other cold weapon: biting mandibles. Something I only noticed much later when I examined the photos – notice how the beetle contracts its abdomen, to make the elytral spines more prominent. Even with caution it was difficult not to get your skin punctured by the spines. They are as sharp as syringes. I would not want to imagine the experience for a mammal trying to eat this beetle. Ouch.

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) in defense posture. Grab it if you can.

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) in defense posture. Grab it if you can.

Some insects prove to us that avoiding predators is not all about hiding, mimicking other organisms, and advertising toxicity or potent venom. There are other, more creative ways to survive in the jungle out there. I will even take it a step further and say this Eburia beetle is comparable to the armadillo girdled lizard in its behavior. Nature is so awesome.

Insect art: Framed whip spiders (Amblypygi)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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