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.

Little Transformers: Ceratocanthinae beetles

If you missed my subliminal message in the last two sentences of the previous post, I am not done yet with the Transformers. I was building up to this exact moment. You see, insecticons ARE everywhere. Maybe not in the same context as depicted on the TV series, but still there are creatures out there that are more than meets the eye. A substantial part of their existence relies on fooling predators into thinking they are something else: an inanimate object, another animal, or something completely different. I am happy to introduce “Little Transformers”, a new section on the blog, in which I will present interesting cases of insects in disguise.

We are launching this series with the beetle that started it all – the pill scarab (member of subfamily Ceratocanthinae). If you run an internet search with the words “transformer” and “insect”, there is a high chance that one of the results will be an image created by Kenji Nishida, showing a small beetle from Costa Rica transforming from a ball-mode to beetle-mode. The image has gone viral soon after being posted online, and now that Ceratocanthus beetle is fairly recognized by title as the beetle transformer. I have posted an image of a similar beetle before on this blog, a Ceratocanthus species I found in Belize. It was featured in an excellent phylogenetic paper about this subfamily by Alberto Ballerio and Vasily Grebennikov, and even made it to the journal’s cover. I recommend checking the paper out, even if you are not interested in these beetles, you can enjoy the beautiful images showing the impressive diversity of the group.

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.) from Belize, showing the spherical alternative mode typical to members of Ceratocanthinae

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.) from Belize, showing the spherical alternative mode typical to members of Ceratocanthinae

Ceratocanthinae are a subfamily of Hybosoridae within the Scarabaeoidea beetle group, containing over 360 described species, most of which are small in size (just a few millimeters in length). They have a wide distribution range mainly in tropical regions throughout the world, with only a few genera and species recorded close to temperate regions. Ceratocanthinae also occupy different types of habitats. The highest diversity seems to be in new world rainforests, but they also occur in temperate forests, subtropical forests, savannahs, and even in coastal deserts. Adult Ceratocanthinae are best known for their ability to conglobate: rolling into a nearly perfect ball. The elytra, pronotum, head, and all six tibiae interlock with each other by means of grooves and corresponding ridges, forming a tightly connected external surface. Many beetles take the form of a tight compact structure when threatened, however in Ceratocanthinae the tibiae of all six legs participate in forming the external hard surface of the sphere, unlike in other beetles.

Ceratocanthus sp. transformation sequence from ball-mode to beetle-mode

Ceratocanthus sp. transformation sequence from ball-mode to beetle-mode

It is fascinating to observe these beetles transform to and from their alternative mode. Nancy Miorelli, an entomologist and science communicator living in the Maquipucuna reserve in Ecuador, recently recorded a video showing the beetle opening up (by the way, Nancy also creates beautiful jewelry from insect wings and Tagua nut with the proceedings supporting rainforest conservation and the local community. You can check out her shop here).

Why do they do this? The ability to roll into a tight compact structure probably has anti-predatory and physiological advantages, such as moisture retention or thermoregulation. It seems that the primary use is as a form of crypsis, to avoid detection by nearby predators, however after following several beetles in the wild I noticed that they stay transformed into the ball-mode even when they are not active; perhaps it is a way for them to rest too.

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.) from southern Belize. Full beetle-mode!

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.) from southern Belize. Full beetle-mode!

Unfortunately, very little is known about the biology of Ceratocanthinae. They are sometimes found under bark, in tree holes, and in decomposing wood. Several records report adults and larvae that have been found in termite nests. However, It is unclear whether Ceratocanthinae are termitophilous and have a relationship with the termite hosts. The ability to roll into a ball can serve as a defense and might be an adaptation for living in the hostile environment of a termite nest. Another suggestion defines the beetles as termitariophilous, in other words attracted to the properties of the termite nest itself as opposed to its inhabitants. While the feeding habits of Ceratocanthinae are mostly unknown, a handful of observations report adults feeding on various fungi. It is therefore possible that Ceratocanthinae are attracted to some of the fungi growing on the surface of termite nests. This can explain the presence of the beetles in the nests, but unfortunately without additional data about the beetles’ life history it would be difficult to validate this connection.

So the next time you are out in the field and you stumble upon a tiny sphere in a peculiar place, take a closer look. If it looks like a beetle mummy, then bingo! You have a Little Transformer. Now all you need to do is wait for it to open up… Patience. Lots of patience.

Insect art: Transformers and other insect mecha

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

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

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

"Yes! Let's check it out!"

“Yes! Let’s check it out!”

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

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

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

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

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

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

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

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

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

"Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!"

“Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insect art: The use of insects in Japanese anime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From "Aoi Bungaku"

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From “Aoi Bungaku”

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

Life goes on. From "Steins;Gate"

Life goes on. From “Steins;Gate”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which spider family? From "Aoi Bungaku"

Which spider family? From “Aoi Bungaku”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A golden stag beetle!" From "Teekyu"

“A golden stag beetle!” From “Teekyu”

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

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

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

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

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

"Fight! Fight!" From "Samurai Champloo"

“Fight! Fight!” From “Samurai Champloo”

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

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

Vestria – the katydid that wanted to be a spider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

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

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

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

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

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

Smile! You're on katydid camera!

Smile! You’re on katydid camera!

 

Insect art: Animated short explores common view on cockroaches

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

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

Centurion roach (Gyna centurio) hiding. Photographed in captivity

It means you no harm.

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

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

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

Bursting the Trioplan bubble

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

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

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

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

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8 testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helicopter damselfly (Microstigma rotundatum). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruziohyla calcarifer – closing the circle

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

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

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruziohyla calcarifer. So adorable and quite a hefty frog

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

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

Splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) in its rainforest habitat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From a blattodean to Nilio beetles

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

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

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

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

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Beetle-mimicking cockroach nymph

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

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

Leaf beetle. Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkling beetle larvae (Nilio sp.) feeding on lichens

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

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

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

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

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

A closer look at the Nilio beetles aggregation

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

Photographing Richardia – a long way to victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another male Richardia sp. with small antlers

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

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

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

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

Male Richardia fly with impressive antlers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mating richardid flies (family Richardidae). Mindo, Ecuador

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

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

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

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

Hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

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

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

The female hammerhead Richardia has a less pronounced head

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

Richardia fly infected with Ophiocordyceps parasitic fungus. Mindo, Ecuador

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

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

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

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

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

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

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