The Plot Thickens: This caterpillar ain’t big enough for the two of us

Some of my favorite insects to find while out in the field are hawkmoth caterpillars, or hornworms (named after the characteristic “tail”). They are big, squishy sausages that often show off dazzling colors, sometimes with interesting anti-predator adaptations like eyespots and mimicry. All these characters make the hawkmoth caterpillar look like a toy just waiting for you to play with. The sad truth is that being big and flashy in the natural world often comes with a price. There is danger lurking in every corner. Despite the bright colors and adaptations, birds and lizards do not hesitate to snatch the caterpillars from branches, pathogens and spores of entomophagous fungi scattered everywhere increase the chance for passive infections, and parasitoids are always on the lookout for chunky hosts for their offspring. And the reality is that many of the caterpillars we get to encounter outdoors are already infected with something. I learned this the hard way: as a kid I used to rear a lot of butterflies and moths collected as caterpillars in the field, and many times I was devastated to witness my cute pets being reduced into a sticky mess while wiggly worm-like creatures emerge from their bodies. Sometimes I wonder how lepidopterans manage to keep their populations stable with so many enemies around.

On one of my visits to the beautiful town of Mindo Ecuador, I came across a young hornworm. Despite finding it at daytime, the caterpillar remained calm (many hornworms do their best to disappear from plain sight during the day) so I decided to photograph it.

A cute hawkmoth caterpillar. See that black spot on the leaf? It is important to our story.

A cute hawkmoth caterpillar. See that black spot on the leaf? It is important to our story.

After taking a few shots I noticed a black splotch in the photo that I didn’t like, so I decided to change the angle of view. Little did I know this was a wasp that just arrived at the leaf to check out the caterpillar. A few photos later its identity became clear: It was a species of Brachymeria, a tiny wasp that belongs to the large parasitoid family Chalcididae.

The hawkmoth caterpillar being visited by a parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.)

The hawkmoth caterpillar being visited by a parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.)

Chalcidid wasps can be easily recognized by their modified hindlegs that resemble mantids’ raptorial forelegs. The function of these structures is largely unclear. The adult wasps feed on nectar and other liquid foods, and do not use the legs for catching prey. There is a paper describing an interesting behavior in which the females use their legs in fighting over a host’s egg mass. Even more interesting are the last three paragraphs of the paper, with additional examples and hypotheses. It seems like there is no single function for these modified hindlegs and it really depends on the species and its biology. One example really stands out: “The female of Lasiochalcida igiliensis literally jumps into the jaws of antlions and holds the mandibles agape with her hind legs while ovipositing.”

Going back to our little Brachymeria and the hawkmoth caterpillar, at first the wasp just strolled peacefully on the leaf next to the caterpillar, but within a few minutes it hopped, quite literally, on the caterpillar and started walking on it, exploring its body surface while frantically moving its antennae.

The wasp jumped on the caterpillar's proleg and started crawling on its body

The wasp jumped on the caterpillar’s proleg and started crawling on its body

In general, the caterpillar doesn’t enjoy this attention, and often swiftly moves its head backwards in an attempt to drive the parasitoid away. It usually does not work. Once a caterpillar has been spotted and marked by a parasitoid as a host, it will be attacked (here’s a fantastic video showing this behavior, notice that the fly sitting nearby is another parasitoid of hornworms – a tachinid fly!).

A closeup of the parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.) as it was walking on the hawkmoth caterpillar

A closeup of the parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.) as it was walking on the hawkmoth caterpillar

As I was taking photos of the tiny wasp antennating the caterpillar, from the corner of my eye I noticed a bright yellow object flashing in. A second wasp, a golden Conura species, swooshed into the scene and started harassing the busy Brachymeria wasp.

While the Brachymeria was busy exploring the caterpillar, another wasp (Conura sp.) rushed in to fight for it

While the Brachymeria was busy exploring the caterpillar, another wasp (Conura sp.) rushed in to fight for it

For a short while, the Conura striked from above repeatedly, yet the Brachymeria stood her ground. Eventually the Conura got fed up and attempted to grab onto the other wasp and pull her away from the host. After several tries she succeeded, and the two started swirling in the air, before the Brachymeria returned to her business on top of the caterpillar. The golden wasp did not give up and returned for a second attack and then a third.

The two chalcidid wasps (Brachymeria sp. and Conura sp.) fighting over the host. This was taken moments before the Conura grabbed the other wasp's head and dislodged it from the caterpillar.

The two chalcidid wasps (Brachymeria sp. and Conura sp.) fighting over the host. This was taken moments before the Conura grabbed the other wasp’s head and dislodged it from the caterpillar.

This was very exciting to watch, but to be honest I was waiting eagerly to see if the wasps would use their modified hindlegs during the fight. Unfortunately, I was not able to detect any special maneuvers that involved grabbing with those legs.

Why did this happen? There are several possible explanations. The simplest one is that there is a shortage of caterpillar hosts and the two wasps are competing for the same source of food for their larvae. However, an alternative explanation suggests that the caterpillar has already been infected with a parasitoid before the first wasp found it. Many chalcidid wasps are hyperparasitoids – they do not feed on the big hosts (the caterpillar) directly, but instead attack larvae of other parasitoids already feeding inside the host. In other words they are parasitoids of parasitoids.
Parasitoidception.
Watch this excellent video explaining the complex relationship between several wasp species living on a tobacco hornworm:

This can explain the intense antennation performed by the Brachymeria wasp on the caterpillar for a long period of time. Maybe the wasp was trying to determine if there are parasitoid larvae already present in there. One of the most common sights when it comes to infected hawkmoths is a caterpillar with a cluster of white silk cocoons dangling from its body. Those cocoons belong to braconid wasps, and there is a good chance that the Bracymeria wasp was after their larvae, as some species of in the genus are parasitoids of Braconidae. The golden Conura wasp could then compete for access to those parasitoid larvae or even go after the Brachymeria larvae. It can get pretty complicated with chalcidid wasps.

Hawkmoth caterpillar with cocoons of a braconid parasitoid wasp. The caterpillar is still alive, and can move its head to deter predators like ants and other parasitoids from approaching the developing wasps.

Hawkmoth caterpillar with cocoons of a braconid parasitoid wasp. The caterpillar is still alive, and can move its head to deter predators like ants and other parasitoids from approaching the developing wasps.

So who won in the end? The wasp that was more persistent. At the end of the fight the black Brachymeria wasp was nowhere to be seen, and the golden Conura wasp took over the caterpillar and started antennating it.

The winning chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) with its hawkmoth caterpillar prize

The winning chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) with its hawkmoth caterpillar prize

The interesting thing here is that members of genus Conura are usually associated with butterfly and moth’s pupae, yet the wasp here decided to chase off a competitor and take over a caterpillar.

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa. This innocent face hides a dark secret.

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa. This innocent face hides a dark secret.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the scene to catch a bus so I could not continue following this interaction. Without further observations, it is difficult to say with certainty what exactly was going on between the two wasps and the hawkmoth caterpillar. Parasitoids are so diverse, and many species have such complex biology. Even though several chalcidid wasp species are being studied closely as potential biological control agents, there are far more species out there about which we simply don’t know enough!

 

Insect art: Animal sculptures by Skink Chen

Art comes in many forms. In my previous insect art posts I focused mainly on graphic art that closely follows natural appearance, from natural history illustrations to arthropod-based characters. What these creations have in common is that they attempt to portray nature as accurately as possible. However, when we look at different media around us, there are many imaginary creatures that borrow heavily from existing organisms. To say that fictional creatures are often inspired by real animals would be an understatement, and invertebrates play an important role in this (I’m still waiting for your call regarding Epomis beetles, Hollywood!). There are many aspects in invertebrates’ external appearance that may look out of this world because of how different they are from us humans, so when these characters are exaggerated and taken out of their normal proportions the results can be quite impressive. This is exactly what Skink Chen is doing with his sculptures. If you have never heard of Skink and don’t know his work, boy you’re in for treat. All artwork shown here is courtesy of Skink Chen and posted with his permission.

Undead membracid treehopper by Skink Chen (based on Notocera)

Undead membracid treehopper by Skink Chen (based on Notocera)

Skink is a very talented individual. You might not know it, but I have already shared some of his work – a tutorial for making a wide angle macro relay lens (at the bottom of this post). Based in Taiwan, he designs monsters and creatures and meticulously constructs them into 3D models. The sculptures are made of polymer clay, and are quite big, standing at 20-30 cm height. Not all of them are based on arthropods, but looking through his work shows that these animals provide most of the inspiration for the designs. The way I see it, Skink’s animal-inspired artworks consist of three separate lines:

Hyper-realistic models: These are sculptures modelled after existing animals, accurate to the very last detail. Skink began making those in 2008, and selected Taiwanese animals as the theme. By modeling his sculptures after real animals, he sharpened his skills to present animal morphology and structure in the most accurate way possible. This required long hours of data collection and examination of biological properties. Occasionally he would find a roadkill animal and collect the specimen for further study. There are many reptile and amphibian models (you can see photos of them in his online shop), but also some mammals and insects. They look just like the real thing, and can be used as stunning pieces on display in a natural history museum. I cannot express the amount of precision that goes into these artwork pieces and just how realistic they look. Take this male antlered flower beetle (Dicronocephalus wallichii) for example. Skink not only captured its physical appearance in great detail, but also nailed the pose perfectly. This is something that only someone who has seen the live beetles can appreciate, and as someone who kept them in captivity for years I can tell you this model is just like looking at the real beetle (you can compare to a live beetle here. It’s a different species, but the video is excellent).

Antlered flower beetle (Dicranocephalus wallichii). Artwork by Skink Chen

Antlered flower beetle (Dicranocephalus wallichii). Artwork by Skink Chen

Fusion between animals and humans: This is the most surreal category. I haven’t seen many works, so I guess Skink doesn’t make a lot of them. The idea is to merge the human body with components from animals to create a super organism. I find them very appealing and interesting to look at. It makes you think what it would be like to have grasshopper legs or raptorial limbs.

The incredible Grasshopper-man! Artwork by Skink Chen

The incredible Grasshopper-man! Artwork by Skink Chen

Jumping spider woman in mid-leap. Artwork by Skink Chen

Jumping spider woman in mid-leap. Artwork by Skink Chen

“Undead Creature” series: This is where Skink unleashes his imagination and lets it go truly wild. He began working on this series in 2014. Skink explains the idea behind it as “dead animals transformed into giant undead creatures returning to the world for revenge.”

Undead membracid treehopper (based on Centrotypus) playing with a human. Artwork by Skink Chen

Undead membracid treehopper (based on Centrotypus) playing with a human. Artwork by Skink Chen

They all start from an existing species, but then selected characters are stretched and exaggerated, until you end up looking at a completely new creature. These monsters are not restricted to insects, by the way. I have seen deep ocean fish, reptiles, and even plants.

Carnivorous pitcher plants (based on Nepenthes) by Skink Chen. If you look closely, there is a fly "king" sitting at the throne.

Carnivorous pitcher plants (based on Nepenthes) by Skink Chen. If you look closely, there is a fly “king” sitting at the throne.

Surinam toad (Pipa pipa) by Skink Chen. Even though it belongs to the "Undead Creatures" series, I see this as highly realistic and true to the real animal. It is one of those works that the more you look at it, the more detail you discover.

Surinam toad (Pipa pipa) by Skink Chen. Even though it belongs to the “Undead Creatures” series, I see this as highly realistic and true to the real animal. It is one of those works that the more you look at it, the more detail you discover.

There are almost no limits to what is possible here. And even though these are not real creatures, the amount of detail in them is impressive. The body postures and surface textures look so realistic, that it is easy to forget you are looking at something that came out of someone’s imagination. I cannot imagine how long it must take to finish them. What I like about Skink’s models is that they are always doing some kind of activity: fighting, reflecting, leaping etc’. They are never boring to look at. It is a little difficult to judge Skink’s work solely from photographs. I found that the more I look at them, the more hidden details I discover. I can only imagine what an interesting experience it is to see them in person.

Undead Cordyceps-infected ant meditating by Skink Chen. There is a lot of hidden detail in this work, and I hate to say this but the photo doesn't do it enough justice.

Undead Cordyceps-infected ant meditating by Skink Chen. There is a lot of hidden detail in this work, and I hate to say this but the photo doesn’t do it enough justice.

Caterpillars fighting by Skink Chen (based on Polyura and Acherontia caterpillars)

Caterpillars fighting by Skink Chen (based on Polyura and Acherontia caterpillars)

Antlered stag beetle (based on Rhaetulus) rests after defeating an atlas beetle in a fight. One of my favorite works by Skink Chen, and also one of my favorite stag beetle species.

Antlered stag beetle (based on Rhaetulus) rests after defeating an atlas beetle in a fight. One of my favorite works by Skink Chen, and also one of my favorite stag beetle species.

You can see more of Skink’s stunning work by following him on Facebook or Twitter. You can also order selected models as resin kits from his online shop.

Little Transformers: Bolitotherus cornutus – the first dinobeetle?

Little Transformers are back with another coleopteran representative. I usually use this platform to present insect adaptations from the tropics, however this time I am focusing on a local species with a wide distribution in central and eastern North America: the forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus). It is one of the most iconic North American beetle species, and I remember that flipping through pages of insect books as a kid, there was always an image of a forked fungus beetle under the darkling beetles section. In fact, as soon as I arrived to Canada this was the first species I sought after. And as much as I hate to admit, I looked for it in all the wrong places. I thought it was associated with wood (it is, but in a more indirect way), and cracked open fallen logs in search for adults. Of course I found nothing. Eventually the first fungus beetles I found were under a huge woody bracket mushroom in a conservation area near Price Edward, Ontario. Today this makes me laugh because back then we drove so far, and a year later I found out that I can find the beetles within just a mere 5 mins bus ride from my house.

I must say I am puzzled why this beetle is shown as an example for darkling beetles in books. Family Tenebrionidae is big and diverse, but there are some common characteristics that stay uniform across different genera. Bolitotherus cornutus, however, is not exactly a “typical” darkling beetle. And even though this beetle is widespread and common, it is often hard to find. When I presented this beetle in a talk to a group of local naturalists and asked how many people have seen it in the wild, only one hand was raised, surprisingly or not it came from a mushroom expert.

A pair of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus), dorsal view

A pair of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus), dorsal view

At first glance, forked fungus beetles look like they were designed by a drunk military engineer. Like most members of tribe Bolitophagini, they are built like small tanks, and to some extent they also look like ones. A compact and rugged body, sealed to the outside thanks to the tight elytra forming a protective shell. The body surface is heavily granulated to provide further shock protection in case of falling to the ground, as well as camouflage against tree bark and dried bracket mushrooms that the beetles feed on. Male beetles have two sets of horns, each with a different function.

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

The curved thoracic horns are hairy and used for pushing an opponent off the surface while fighting for territory and mates. The length of these horns is variable depending on various conditions (both genetic and environmental), with two extreme male morphs: major with long arching horns, and minor with short stout horns.

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), frontal view. The thoracic horns can be long!

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), frontal view. The thoracic horns can be long!

The other set of horns are found on the beetle’s head. These are called cephalic horns and they are sometimes missing. Their function is very peculiar: males use them as a pitchfork to scrape, lift, and throw off minor individuals that cling tightly to females. By the way, other members of Bolitophagini have horns as well, for example genus Byrsax has impressive horns that make it look like a perfect samurai helmet!

Another frontal view of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), showing its orange pom-poms.

Another frontal view of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), showing its orange pom-poms.

Ok, but what does Bolitotherus cornutus have to do with Little Transformers? Sure, touch the beetle and it folds its legs tightly close to its body, creating an impenetrable structure. We have seen similar defense behavior in other beetle transformers, like the Ceratocanthinae pill scarab and the shiny leaf beetle. In addition, the fungus beetles also secrete a smelly mixture of chemicals when disturbed. But the reason I am mentioning it here as a transformer is because of its horns. You see, many phylogenetically distant species share similar morphological adaptations. Studying these cases of convergent evolution can teach us something about the processes these adaptations go through, as well as their function. To be more specific, how is this…

Portrait of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

Portrait of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

…any different from this?

Portrait of Machairoceratops cronusi. Art by Andrey Atuchin, used with permission.

Portrait of Machairoceratops cronusi. Art by Andrey Atuchin, used with permission.

This fabulous artwork by Andrey Atuchin shows Machairoceratops cronusi, a recently described member of the rhino-like dinosaurs, and a relative of the famous triceratops. Yes, Bolitotherus cornutus is basically a miniature six-legged dinosaur in disguise. Now I know what you are thinking. The beetle’s horns are hairy, and the dinosaur’s aren’t. That is probably true. The Machairoceratops dinosaur might have had hairy horns. We don’t know for sure (ask yourself why). But regardless, you have to agree that there is some uncanny resemblance between the two animals’ head structure. A set of flat horns arching over the head, another pair of spiky horns pointing upwards from the head, a granular neck shield… Of course, we don’t know how the dinosaurs used their horns, but we can speculate. Maybe observing the forked fungus beetles fighting can help us understand a behavior in an animal that no longer exists. The relationship between form and function in animal horns is a fascinating topic for discussion and hopefully I will write about it in more depth in the future. But I cannot help it, the more illustrations of Machairoceratops cronusi I look at, the more I see forked fungus beetles in them. It is almost as if someone placed an enormous beetle on top of the dinosaur’s skull.

Bracket mushrooms (Fomitopsis betulina) growing on birch. Bolitotherus cornutus beetles prefer to feed on old mushrooms (dark-colored, coated with moss and algae in the photo) rather than fresh ones.

Bracket mushrooms (Fomitopsis betulina) growing on birch. Bolitotherus cornutus beetles prefer to feed on old mushrooms (dark-colored, coated with moss and algae in the photo) rather than fresh ones.

The diet of forked fungus beetles is unique and restricted to bracket mushrooms (such as Fomitopsis, Ganoderma, Ischnoderma) growing on weak standing trees as well as fallen logs (by the way, they are not the only darkling beetles feeding on mushrooms). They prefer old, hardened bracket mushrooms.

Major male forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) fighting on top of a bracket mushroom. Notice that their granular body surface often attracts mites and tiny springtails.

Major male forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) fighting on top of a bracket mushroom. Notice that their granular body surface often attracts mites and tiny springtails.

On spring and summer nights males gather on the mushroom surface, where they engage in fighting tournaments to win territories (=food for the them and their offspring) and matings with the females waiting nearby. What is even more interesting is that while major males with impressive horns are distracted fighting and showing off their capabilities, the minor males sneak up on them and mate with some of the females.

A minor male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) guarding a female after mating

A minor male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) guarding a female after mating

The courtship process is long and elaborate, and includes climbing over the female and stridulating (acoustic communication). Males also tend to stay and guard the female to prevent other males from mating with her. After mating, females lay their eggs separately on the mushroom surface, and cover each egg with frass. This protects the eggs from desiccation as well as from predators and parasitoids.

Bolitotherus cornutus eggs appear as dark bumps on the surface of a bracket mushroom (there are 4 eggs in this photo)

Bolitotherus cornutus eggs appear as dark bumps on the surface of a bracket mushroom (there are 4 eggs in this photo)

Within 1-2 weeks the larvae hatch and immediately burrow into the mushroom. They are not the typical darkling wireworms, but instead look like hairy, soft-bodied grubs.

Young Bolitotherus cornutus larvae

Young Bolitotherus cornutus larvae

They spend their entire life inside their feeding substrate. The mushroom fruit body protects them from the elements, so they also use this space for pupation. Surprisingly, some larvae grow faster than others, and complete their metamorphosis before winter. This means that the beetles can overwinter inside the mushroom as larvae, pupae or fresh adults.

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) emerging from a bracket mushroom

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) emerging from a bracket mushroom

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) burrowing into decomposing wood

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) burrowing into decomposing wood

If you live in North America within the distribution range of this species I encourage you to get out there and look for these magnificent creatures. First of all, it is fun, and you might find other cool stuff while searching. And second, these beetles are really cool, and they can teach us a lot. They are also embarrassingly easy to keep, all they need is some pieces of the mushrooms they were collected on, the slightest humidity, and that’s it. They live for a few years as adults and readily breed in captivity, displaying all the behaviors mentioned above and more!

An active captive colony of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus)

An active captive colony of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus)

Adult forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) aggregating on the mushroom underside

A closeup on adult forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) aggregating on the mushroom underside

Lyssomanes – the spider from the upside down

Out of all the different microhabitats plants provide for organisms, the living leaf is arguably the most underrated one. On the surface it seems that it pales in comparison to the rich leaf litter of the forest understory, or to the complex bark of trees that provide hiding and hunting spots for many animals. However, although the green leaf may look innocent, it in fact holds many stories of deception and survival. The upper surface of the leaf offers exposure to sunlight and water, as well as additional nutrients coming from above. It can serve as a solid base for the growth of ferns, mosses, lichens, and fungi. It can also be folded and glued to create a nest or shelter for an animal or its eggs. Not to mention that in many plants the entire leaf comprises of edible material available for herbivores. But there is another plane of existence, a much darker reality. It is located in a parallel dimension – an inverted copy of the leaf upper surface. This is the upside down world of the leaf underside. Many organisms live here; some only take shelter during the day and resume activity on the upside world at night, others prefer to feed under the leaf to avoid predators. But one of the most fascinating examples is a group of predators that learned to utilize the leafy upside down for ambushing prey. I have already written about two of those, and today I would like to present another member of this guild: Lyssomanes, the green jumping spider.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.). The spider's pale color helps it to blend in with the leaf it is sitting on.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.). The spider’s pale color helps it to blend in with the leaf it is sitting on.

At first glance Lyssomanes doesn’t look like a typical jumping spider. It has very long and slender legs, and prefers to move by running and using short leaps as opposed to the jumps that characterize most members of the salticid spider family. In addition, the spider is almost completely hairless, sporting a pale body color, usually (but not always) green, and occasionally semi-translucent. Unlike other jumping spiders, the only scales covering the body are clustered as a crown on its head. Those can be white, yellow, orange, red, or any combination of these colors, depending on the species and developmental stage. Sometimes dark banding is present on the legs, usually in adult males.

Green jumping spiders (Lyssomanes sp.) often have a glossy, semi-translucent body, with a crown of colorful scales on their head.

Green jumping spiders (Lyssomanes sp.) often have a glossy, semi-translucent body, with a crown of colorful scales on their head.

The genus Lyssomanes contains around 90 species, all distributed in the Americas. Many species have similar external appearance. The type species from which the genus was described is named Lyssomanes viridis (from Latin – green jumping spider), but if I want to be completely honest, almost every species I encounter looks ‘viridis’ to me. They are just so green!

Not all Lyssomanes jumping spiders are green. Some are lemon yellow like this species from Belize.

Not all Lyssomanes jumping spiders are green. Some are lemon yellow like this species from Belize.

One of the most noticeable features of Lyssomanes jumping spiders is their enormous anterior median eyes. Because of the spider’s pale color, it is also very easy to observe the internal retinal movements as the spider angles and focuses its field of view. The eyes may appear black at times, or pale green, crossed, or alternating (here’s a fantastic video showing this, and watch what happens when an ant passes by!).

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) staring straight back with its huge eyes. If you don't think it is cute you might want to check your pulse.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) staring straight back with its huge eyes. If you don’t think it is cute you might want to check your pulse.

Female Lyssomanes are very modest in their appearance. Males on the other hand, are impressive beasts with long pedipalps and elaborate chelicerae, often armed with thick setae and teeth. The latter are used in male fights for mates. Males also have extremely long legs, which they use for pushing an opponent and waving to females as a part of the courtship process.

Male Lyssomanes spiders have long legs and pedipalps for signalling conspecifics, and often sport impressive chelicerae for fighting other males.

Male Lyssomanes spiders have long legs and pedipalps for signalling conspecifics, and often sport impressive chelicerae for fighting other males.

Closeup on a male Lyssomanes spider. Notice the teeth on the long chelicera.

Closeup on a male Lyssomanes spider. Notice the teeth on the long chelicera.

Portrait of a male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) with his long chelicerae

Portrait of a male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) with his long chelicerae

Similarly to other predatory dwellers of the leafy upside down, Lyssomanes spiders deploy an ingenious hunting technique. The spider’s huge eyes are a good indication of its hunting method – it uses its excellent vision to locate prey. Lyssomanes jumping spiders are diurnal sit-and-wait predators of dipterans and other soft-bodied arthropods. They prefer to sit on leaves that are exposed to the sun, waiting in ambush for a visitor on the upper surface to cast a dark shadow. If the shadow is of the right size and shape the spider will shoot itself from the underside to the upper leaf surface and snatch the unsuspecting prey.

Male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) ambushing prey on the underside of a leaf backlit by the sun

Male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) ambushing prey on the underside of a leaf backlit by the sun

Occasionally, if sunlight is obstructed, the spider will explore the leaf and actively search for passing insects. It does not, however, stay loyal to one leaf. Once spotted, the spider usually does not take any chances and relocates to a nearby leaf.

Snap! When startled, the green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) swiftly moves to the other side of the leaf.

Snap! When startled, the green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) swiftly moves to the other side of the leaf.

Although jumping spiders rarely use silk for hunting, most of them build a small silky sleeping bag inside a crevice or a folded leaf for resting at night and molting. Lyssomanes is unique in that it does not construct such a shelter. Instead, it lines the underside of the leaf with a thin carpet of silk, and rests on it completely exposed.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) spinning silk on the underside of a leaf

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) spinning silk on the underside of a leaf

Gravid females construct a similar web for their eggs. Passing insects often trample the sheet, which triggers a predation response from the spider.

Female green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) protecting her eggs

Female green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) protecting her eggs

Cannibalism is common in salticids. Here, a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) is preying on a smaller spider that happened to walk on its leaf.

Cannibalism is common in salticids. Here, a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) is preying on a smaller spider that happened to walk on its leaf.

Unfortunately, this habit of Lyssomanes to sit exposed also means that they are sitting ducks for other predators, usually other species of jumping spiders. Remember – it is a harsh world out there and it’s not easy being green!

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence - a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) has fallen prey to another jumping spider!

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence – a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) has fallen prey to another jumping spider!

 

Review: Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens

High-magnification macrophotography was once a niche mostly reserved for Canon users, thanks to the unique MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens, and for photographers willing to experiment with microscope objectives and focus-stacking techniques. This has recently changed, and slowly more macro lenses with a reproduction ratio higher than 1:1 are being introduced into the market. Two of them belong to Venus Optics Laowa: the 60mm f/2.8 2X Ultra Macro lens that was introduced in 2015, and the new addition Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens. Since I have been a user of Canon’s MP-E lens since 2006 I was intrigued by this new Laowa lens, especially how it compares in regards to ease of use and versatility. Venus Optics Laowa were kind enough to send me a pre-production copy for review. This is not a paid review and the content below is based entirely on my personal impressions.

Portrait of a katydid nymph with erythrism (intense pink coloration)

Portrait of a katydid nymph with erythrism (intense pink coloration)

Before we begin, a warning: The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X is a high magnification macro lens. As such it gives an unusual perspective of even the most mundane subjects. I could have gone through this review using closeups of everyday objects as examples, but I am a wildlife macrophotographer. There will be spiders.

Portrait of a male jumping spider (Phidippus arizonensis)

Portrait of a male jumping spider (Phidippus arizonensis)

The boxed lens comes with front and rear caps, but also a tripod collar that is compatible with the arca-swiss mouting system (note that I did not receive the tripod collar with my copy, so I cannot share any thoughts about it). Upon opening the box I was struck by how small and lightweight the lens is compared to the tank that is the Canon MP-E. That being said, the lens is definitely well built, mostly metal construction (with some exceptions, see below), and has some heftiness to it, weighing around 430g. It does not feel cheap or fragile in any way.

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Vs. Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X

Size matters? Next to the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x lens, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X looks cute. Both lenses are fully extended to their maximum length here (5x magnification).

If you missed my previous review of the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens, I don’t get too technical in my reviews to avoid repeating information that is widely available online. If you are reading this, I assume that you are mostly interested in the practical uses of the lens, what it can be used for, and how well it performs. If you are interested in a dry summary of its specs I will gladly refer you to the product page or Nicky Bay’s excellent technical review.

I tested the lens on a crop sensor camera (APS-C), which I found somewhat limiting because of the tight range and high magnification values, nevertheless I enjoyed using it. The lens is also suitable for use on a full frame camera body. For most of the photos shown here I used my existing Canon MT-24EX macro twin lite system, and occasionally a speedlite with a softbox as the main light.

Male jumping spider (Thiodina sylvana). Spiders make excellent subjects for the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens.

Male jumping spider (Thiodina sylvana). Spiders make excellent subjects for the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens.

Caterpillars are often difficult subjects to photograph well, not to mention when using a high magnification macro lens. However, this camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora sp.) posed nicely.

Caterpillars are often difficult subjects to photograph well, not to mention when using a high magnification macro lens. However, this camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora sp.) posed nicely.

Lens construction
Compared to its massive counterpart from Canon, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a narrow lens barrel that ends with a small front element. The tip of the lens is slightly conical. The lens does not have a filter thread. I am not sure why Laowa went with this design, as it may put off some people who prefer using filters and similar lens attachments. Instead the lens has a special bayonet with grooves that click and lock the front metal cap in place (for those interested – the lens tip diameter is 41mm, however externally it is closer to 43mm due to the bayonet). It is an interesting feature, and very useful in preventing the small cap from accidentally snapping off and getting lost. Here I must warn fellow photographers: The interlocking parts on the lens tip and front cap are made of plastic (whereas the rest is aluminum). If you like to tinker with and customize your gear (like me), and plan to come up with an adapter to allow the attachment of a threaded filter or hood, use extreme caution because you can damage the tiny knobs that lock the lens cap in place! The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has an 8-blade aperture, which produces nice looking bokeh compared to the hexagons coming out of the MP-E lens.

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro

The lens itself is very sharp and produces high quality images. Depth of field, sharpness, and the level of diffraction change depending on the magnification used and aperture value dialed in.
When used at its lowest magnification an aperture of f/8-f/11 gives good results and good depth of field.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 2.5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. Notice the difference in color rendition by the Laowa.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 2.5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. Notice the difference in color rendition by the Laowa.

The above photos were taken under the same light conditions and camera settings, and they are unedited (except for cloning out sensor dust). I used a glittery backdrop because I wanted to emphasize specular highlights in order to show the difference in Bokeh between the two lenses. That did not work, however I discovered something else. At lower magnifications, the color rendition of the two lenses is slightly different, with the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X being more “punchy” than the Canon MP-E 65mm. I am not sure what can cause such a difference, but in any case this becomes less apparent as the magnification increases.
When taking the Laowa 25mm lens to higher magnification values I mostly used it at f/4-f/5.6 to get the best results, and wide open at its highest magnification. Comparison with the Canon MP-E at 5x shows very little difference in image quality, with the Laowa lens showing slightly more sharpness at f/2.8 and f/4.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. The image quality is nearly identical, with the Laowa having the edge at low apertures settings.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. The image quality is nearly identical, with the Laowa having the edge at low apertures settings.

These settings only serve as examples; it all depends on the desired end result, of course. If anyone is interested to view the high-resolution photos for pixel-peeping, I uploaded them to a Flickr album. Some people mention a higher depth of field achieved with the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X because of its shorter focal length compared to the Canon MP-E 65mm, but I will argue that because these lenses are constructed differently, this difference in DOF (if exists) is insignificant. There is a small difference in the field of view between the two lenses, but that is expected.

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a DOF that can be a little shallow when photographing highly 3-dimensional subjects like this long-snout weevil (Hammatostylus sp.). Still, it manages to squeeze in enough detail to make the image visually pleasing.

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a DOF that can be a little shallow when photographing highly 3-dimensional subjects like this long-snout weevil (Hammatostylus sp.). Still, it manages to squeeze in enough detail to make the image visually pleasing.

Chromatic aberration is well controlled and barely noticeable. One thing I noticed is that depending on the angle light is coming from, lens flare can sometimes be an issue. This can make some images look washed out or hazy, so in my opinion the lens can benefit from a small dedicated hood.

"Blizzard" - These scales on the hindwing of a brassolid butterfly reminded me of snowfall at night. In this case the lens flare in the image was intentional, to mimic the light reflecting from falling snow.

“Blizzard” – These scales on the hindwing of a brassolid butterfly reminded me of snowfall at night. In this case the lens flare in the image was intentional, to mimic the light reflecting from falling snow.

One of the points I heard people making against the lens was that it is unappealing in appearance (see the comments section of this post for example). I cannot understand why the external appearance of a lens is so important. If you buy a lens only to impress other people, you should take an honest look at yourself. As a photographer you should be more interested in the images you can create with it. More importantly, does the lens work and is it any good? Let’s see.

Operation
Although the operation of the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X is pretty straightforward, the lens requires a break-in period similarly to other specialty lenses like Canon’s MP-E. The learning curve is steep at first.

Thanks to its white face mask, I was able to locate and photograph this spotted jumping spider (Phiale guttata) quite easily.

Thanks to its white face mask, I was able to locate and photograph this spotted jumping spider (Phiale guttata) quite easily.

Shooting with a stopped-down aperture means that the viewfinder will be dark, making it difficult to track and focus on your subject. However, thanks to the narrower lens barrel compared to the MP-E I found it much easier to locate the subject in the viewfinder and follow it, even at the highest magnification. This is a huge plus, especially after years of exhaustion trying to chase down subjects in the viewfinder when using the Canon MP-E.

Although extremely active and skittish, I was able to track this ant-mimicking planthopper nymph through the viewfinder while using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Although extremely active and skittish, I was able to track this ant-mimicking planthopper nymph through the viewfinder while using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

It should be noted that due to its high magnification values the lens cannot be used in natural light alone, and requires a flash as an additional light source. A good focusing light is also essential if using the higher magnifications but not always necessary. Surprisingly, even though the lens extends forwards a lot as you change the magnification from 2.5x to 5x (from 83mm to 137mm, respectively), the working distance stays consistent at around 40mm. This is another huge plus compared to the MP-E, for which the working distance changes considerably while changing magnifications.

The lens is fully manual. The aperture ring is located at the end of the lens barrel, it is clicked and turns easily, perhaps a little too loosely. That is not really a problem, and when the lens is extended you do not need to reach out and look for the aperture ring in order to turn it – you can just turn the whole front lens tube to change the aperture, pretty cool! The magnification/focusing ring turns smoothly as well with adequate resistance, however one should be very observant of its behavior. If the lens is pointing down gravity can pull the weight of the lens barrel causing it to extend further on its own and change the magnification in the process. Many times when I captured frames for later focus-stacking I found that the magnification has changed between exposures.

High magnification macro in the field
One of the main difficulties at this high magnification range of the lens is to figure out what to use it for. It sometimes forces you to think outside of the box in order to find a subject that is just the right size. Many macro subjects are just too big to fit into the frame, however the lens can still offer an intimate perspective on those.

This juvenile whip spider (Phrynus barbadensis) was exactly the right size to fit its face into the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X field of view.

This juvenile whip spider (Phrynus barbadensis) was exactly the right size to fit its face into the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X field of view.

The long-nosed fulgorid planthopper nymph was too big to fit in the frame, but it made for an interesting and intimate perspective.

The long-nosed fulgorid planthopper nymph was too big to fit in the frame, but it made for an interesting and intimate perspective.

Portrait of a membracid treehopper (Membracis sp.)

Portrait of a membracid treehopper (Membracis sp.)

Small subjects like these marching nasute termite soldiers are easy to photograph using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Small subjects like these marching nasute termite soldiers are easy to photograph using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Anyone ordered a noodle salad? Just kidding, these are whip spider babies (Phrynus barbadensis) clinging to their mother's back.

Anyone ordered a noodle salad? Just kidding, these are whip spider babies (Phrynus barbadensis) clinging to their mother’s back.

The lens' small size makes it easy to sneak up on unsuspecting critters in order to capture some action shots, like this jumping spider enjoying a freshly caught cicadellid leafhopper.

The lens’ small size makes it easy to sneak up on unsuspecting critters in order to capture some action shots, like this jumping spider enjoying a freshly caught cicadellid leafhopper.

No high magnification lens review is complete without a classic shot of a butterfly wing, because it is a good method to test the lens’ sharpness.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly, coming at an angle results in a shallow depth of field.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly, coming at an angle results in a shallow depth of field.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly

Focus-stacking is not really necessary with this lens, but is a good technique for achieving a greater DOF. I almost never do “deep” frame stacks, most of the stacked images that are shown here were comprised of 2-10 frames. If you are into deep focus-stacking, I recommend checking out the test John Hallmén’s performed in his review here (in Swedish).

This focus-stacked image of a butterfly egg was composed of 10 frames taken at 5x magnification.

This focus-stacked image of a butterfly egg was composed of 10 frames taken at 5x magnification.

"Behind Bars" - A deep focus-stacked portrait of a whip spider (Heterophrynus armiger)

“Behind Bars” – A deep focus-stacked portrait of a whip spider (Heterophrynus armiger)

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens also has potential for producing wildlife images with a more artistic style.

"Liquid Rainbow" - Detail on the pronotum of a jewel beetle (Chrysochroa ephippigera)

“Liquid Rainbow” – Detail on the pronotum of a jewel beetle (Chrysochroa ephippigera)

Closeup on the eyes of a jumping stick (Proscopiid grasshopper)

Closeup on the eyes of a large jumping stick (Proscopiid grasshopper)

"Ghost Bunny" - Black and white silhouette of a membracid treehopper (Notocera sp.)

“Ghost Bunny” – Black and white silhouette of a membracid treehopper (Notocera sp.)

Brightly colored bark lice nymphs aggregating on tree bark

Brightly colored bark lice nymphs aggregating on tree bark

Dramatically lit portrait of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

Dramatically lit portrait of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

One thing I regret is not being able to test this lens for snowflakes and frost photography. Even though we had some cold snowy days here in Canada, the flakes were not of the right type (needles as opposed to star-shaped) and the ambient temperature was too high for the flakes to retain their structure after hitting the ground. I believe this lens has high potential for this type of photography, especially when taking into account its excellent optics and overall size. It should be easier to photograph snowflakes with this lens compared to other lenses.

To summarize my impressions of the lens –

Pros:
– Lightweight, small size for a high-magnification macro lens
– Highest magnification lens available for non-Canon users
– Excellent sharpness and image quality
– Consistent working distance
– Narrow lens barrel makes it easy to find and track subject
– Affordable

Cons:
– Manual, no auto aperture control
– No filter thread (but still customizable with caution)
– Dark viewfinder when closing aperture makes focusing difficult in poor light conditions
– Magnification range is short 2.5-5x compared to the competition

The key question is who is this lens for? First and foremost, this lens is for any non-Canon user who is interested in high magnification macrophotography. Aside from a Canon EF mount, the lens comes in Nikon N, Sony FE, and Pantax K mounts, making it accessible for a wide range of users. But I would also recommend it for Canon users who are not yet invested in the high magnification flagship, the MP-E 65mm. The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro is a smaller and lightweight alternative for the MP-E lens, and in some situations it is easier to use. With its superb optics the Laowa lens packs a lot for its value, and with a price tag of USD$399 it is very affordable, especially when you cannot shell out USD$1050 for the Canon MP-E lens. On the other hand, the MP-E lens offers auto aperture control and a larger magnification range. Regardless of the brand, there is no doubt that it takes time and experimentation to get used to a high magnification macro lens. However, I would argue that the investment is well worth it, because it opens a whole new world of possibilities for macrophotography. When using it, you will see even the most boring subjects in a new light.

You can buy the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens on Venus Optics Laowa’s website here.

 

The Plot Thickens: Staring into the eyes of a dying Cephalotes

If you are an entomologist or an insect enthusiast, it is highly probable that you like ants. It is hard not to be impressed with their diversity, abundance, complex social structure and behaviors, as well as their interactions with other organisms. Ants are everywhere and do almost anything you can think of. To most people however, ants could not be any less exciting. They are often seen as a generic insect, with a relatively uniform appearance. They always show up when unwanted, find their way into our homes, take refuge in dark and hard to reach corners, and steal our food.
I like ants. I think they are fascinating creatures. But every now and then I find myself talking people into looking beyond “that boring-looking ant”, to try and catch a glimpse of their busy life. It is not always easy to communicate ants to the public (which is why I praise myrmecologists – people who study ants for a living), however I find that it is quite easy in the case of one ant genus in particular: Cephalotes.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Cephalotes is a large genus of arboreal ants found in the neotropics. There are over 130 species, all inhabit tree hollows or utilize cavities in other plant tissues. Looking like they were designed by someone with overflowing imagination, they easily come off as cute. Their flattened head and armored body, often decorated with long sharp spines for protection, their thick legs and perfectly round abdomen, along with their matte color finish, give them the appearance of a plastic toy. In addition, Cephalotes ants move relatively slowly and cannot bite or sting, making them user-friendly. Can you ask for a more perfect ant?

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

They are commonly known as turtle ants, but also got the name gliding ants, thanks to their incredible ability to parachute from high in the canopy and land back on the trunk of their home tree. Their unique body structure and flattened legs allow them to slow down and change their course while falling (some spiders can do the same, by the way). In some species the soldier cast evolved a large head to function as a living door, plugging the entrance to the nest.

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

In regards to interspecific interactions, Cephalotes ants are often seen tending sap-sucking hemipterans such as membracids and small fulgorids to gain access to sugary secretions from those insects. They also act as the model in a mimicry complex, where crab spiders masquerade as the ants in order to sneak up and prey on them.

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Did I mention they are cute? I have written before that you should never become too attached to insects you encounter in the field. And as much as I love the adorable Cephalotes ants, it is important to remember that there are many dangers lurking for them in the forest. During my recent trip in Colombia, I stumbled upon a Cephalotes nest in a tree outside my room. The ants were very active and did not present good photographic opportunities.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

One of them however, stood out among the rest. There was something different about its behavior. This worker moved franticly in what appeared to be an aimless run. It did not follow the other workers, and seemed more interested in reaching a higher spot on the tree. I collected the ant for a closer look, and once I inspected her carefully I believe I found the culprit for her unusual behavior. This ant had a reddish abdomen, as opposed to the black abdomen of her sisters. The red color, coupled with erratic behavior suggests this worker has been infected with a parasite, a nematode worm.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

The parasitic worm lives and breeds inside the body of birds, which spread the worm’s eggs in their droppings. The ants collect nutrients from the bird droppings (along with the eggs) and feed them to their larvae, where the worm matures. In order to complete its life cycle the parasite needs to return into a bird’s body, so it changes the host ant’s appearance to look like a ripe red fruit, and causes it to climb higher on the tree to become more accessible to hungry birds. As much unique character this worker ant might have had, the sad truth is that it was destined to die prematurely. And there was nothing I could do about it. There is a great lesson here – sometimes, the raw essence of nature is difficult to take in. We would like to see it as a peaceful place where all the animals and plants live together in harmony. But the reality is that nature is harsh. It is full of conflict, violence, disease, and death. And we must accept it as an integral part of the world we live in.

Cephalotes ants offer a great opportunity to peek into the life of a small insect and learn about its survival (as well as failure) in various habitats. Before I end this post, there is one thing I would like clarified – going back to their name, why did Cephalotes get the name turtle ant, whereas some leaf beetles were named tortoise beetles? Is there any justification for the turtle designation when it comes to the ants? After all, both insects are terrestrial. If there is an etymologist in the audience, maybe you can help the entomologist?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forcipomyia getting fatter... but not quite there yet

Forcipomyia getting fatter… but not quite there yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Moment of Creativity: Unwanted Neighbours

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

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

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

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

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

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

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

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

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I rejected your request for free photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case #1 – The Networking Card

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

Case #2 – The Exposure Card

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

Case #3 – The Unintentional Infringement Card

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

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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

Case #4 – The “you owe me” Card

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

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

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

It is not all bad

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


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

Little Transformers: Lamprosoma, the living Christmas ornament

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

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

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

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

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from Honduras

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from Honduras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another example of Lamprosoma sp. in ball-mode

Another example of Lamprosoma sp. in ball-mode

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

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