Schizomids, the unstoppable arachnids

What if I told you that right under your nose there is an entire group of arachnids that hardly ever receives any attention? It contains many species and has a worldwide distribution, but you will not hear about them in the news or see them presented on mainstream media. A couple of months ago I gave a talk about minor arachnid orders (any arachnid that is not a spider, scorpion, mite or tick) at Nerd Nite Toronto, and while doing so it suddenly occurred to me that I have never written about shorttailed whip scorpions, or schizomids, on this blog. This is surprising, because it has been six years since I have encountered them in Belize, and I have been keeping a live captive colony of them all this time.

Schizomid or shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus peckorum) from the Footprint Cave, Belize

Schizomid or shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus peckorum) from the Footprint Cave, Belize

Members of order Schizomida are tiny soft-bodied arachnids that inhabit the top layer of soil in caves and under rocks. Some of them also live inside decomposing wood, and several species are myrmecophile, living in ant nests. In these humid habitats they actively search for their prey – tinier invertebrates. In fact we are not really sure what schizomids feed on in the wild, but records show that they will gladly take down Isopods, springtails, mites and other small arthropods. At first glance they look like a sac spider crawling on the ground. However, a closer inspection reveals that their body proportions are different from those of spiders.

Shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus), a representative of the small arachnid order Schizomida. This species is found in rainforest habitat.

Shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus), a representative of the small arachnid order Schizomida. This species is found in rainforest habitat.

Their name comes from the structure of the cephalothorax, which is split into several plates unlike in any other arachnid. Schizomids also have no eyes, which means their perception of the world is mostly tactile- and chemical-based. Their front pair of legs evolved into a sensory organ that can smell and taste as well as provide information on what is lying in front of the arachnid. These legs are called antenniform legs and they are very similar to those found in other arachnids, like whip spiders, vinegaroons, palpigrades, and even some mites, all of which walk on six legs only. The schizomid pedipalps are sturdy and built for grabbing, assisting in prey capture. Interestingly, their hind legs are modified and look very similar to those of crickets, and indeed it is reported that some species can jump to safety when threatened.

Schizomids look like a strange spider with grabby hands and cricket legs!

Schizomids look like a strange spider with grabby hands and cricket legs!

The thick setae on the schizomid pedipalps are used for sensing as well as a catching basket for prey.

The thick setae on the schizomid pedipalps are used for sensing as well as a catching basket for prey.

The schizomid fang-like mouthparts (chelicerae) are found under the pedipalps

The schizomid fang-like mouthparts (chelicerae) are found under the pedipalps

Another important character of schizomids is their short tail or flagellum (as opposed to the long flagellum in other tailed arachnids like vinegaroons and palpigrades). The tail is used for sensing but in males it has a unique structure, and it is possible that it plays a role in courtship or mating. In fact male tails are so different from species to species, that they are often used as an identification character in taxonomy.

Male shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus peckorum). Note the modified tail or flagellum.

Male shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus peckorum). Note the modified tail or flagellum.

Female shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus peckorum) with a modest tail

Female shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus peckorum) with a modest tail

The Schizomida order contains about 350 species globally, with new species still being discovered. There are two existing families; Most of the known species belong to Hubbardiidae, while some Southern North American species comprise the smaller family Protoschizomidae. As a group they are closely related to the vinegaroons (or whip scorpions), and might even share some of their chemical defense against predators – there are reports of at least two species secreting odorous compounds when disturbed.

I encountered schizomids during Bugshot Belize in 2013. Piotr Naskrecki noted that the caves in the area are home to a species of ricinulei (another fascinating group of arachnids that are on my bucket list) and we should keep our eyes open. So I did. Already in the first few meters into the Footprint Cave I found a new species of whip spider, that I would later describe and name Charinus reddelli. But I also found a small arachnid that I have never seen before. Since I have seen very few ricinulei in my life I asked Piotr if this was one. “No” he replied, “but this is something just as good”. It was Belicenochrus peckorum, one of two species of schizomids found in Belize. Later, while dissecting a decomposing log, I found the other species B. pentalatus, which is a little smaller. The latter is the species I am currently keeping in captivity, and it has been fascinating to observe and learn from.

Shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus) lives inside decomposing wood

Shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus) lives inside decomposing wood

One of the surprising things about schizomids is their reproduction. When conditions are favorable, they reproduce sexually like most animals. However, in times of stress and when males are scarce, females can switch on an asexual reproductive mode and lay fertilized eggs that will hatch into clones of the mother. This is very similar to other arthropods like stick insects and aphids, but quite unusual for arachnids. This type of reproduction is called facultative parthenogenesis. In the Belizean species I have been keeping, males were never present. In fact I remember coming home with only one live female, and this female give birth to the entire colony.

Shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus), possibly a gravid female. Being small does not make them immune to parasites - this one is carrying a few mites.

Shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus), possibly a gravid female. Being small does not make them immune to parasites – this one is carrying a few mites.

Similarly to whip spiders and vinegaroons, the females lay their eggs in a sac that they carry until the babies hatch. In small species like B. pentalatus the sac contains only 5-6 eggs, but the eggs are relatively large, which means the hatching babies are born at a size that allows them to hunt small arthropods. Once hatched, the babies climb on the mother’s back and stay there for two weeks before dropping off and starting their independent lives. Brooding females are very skittish; they will drop the babies at any disturbance.

A baby shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus) in ambush for prey

A baby shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus) in ambush for prey

A baby shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus). Believe it or not, this animal is only 1mm long.

A baby shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus). Believe it or not, this animal is only 1mm long.

A juvenile shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus) fresh after molting. The green abdomen is only temporary; it takes a few hours for the yellow-brown pigments to set in.

A juvenile shorttailed whip scorpion (Belicenochrus pentalatus) fresh after molting. The green abdomen is only temporary; it takes a few hours for the yellow-brown pigments to set in.

One of my memories from the encounter with B. peckorum in Belize was a photo session in which Piotr and I were taking turns trying to photograph one of the males. After a good 30mins of chasing the animal at a close distance with the lens, Piotr looked at me frustrated and said it’s impossible. If you follow my posts here then you know that nothing is really impossible when it comes to photography if you are willing to invest the time in it, but I understood him completely. Schizomids are some of the most active arachnids out there, especially if they are exposed (as would be the case when photographing them). Very rarely have I seen them stop to rest. Add their minute size to this equation, and it becomes clear why photographing them can be extremely unrewarding. However with patience and perseverance, you can come up with some decent shots. I hope to encounter more species of schizomids in the future, with their wide distribution there is so much to discover.

Insect art: Monsters and creepy crawlies by Jonathan Wojcik

Warning: This post contains monster art. If you are a squeamish person or suffer from trypophobia, you might want to skip this one. 

From day one this website had a links page, and one of the first links to appear was for a website called “The Insidious bogleech”, an artistic platform for all-things-scary created by Jonathan Wojcik. The reason I initially included the link was his Pokemonology page that I wished more people would know about (and I secretly wish will be updated with more creatures). There is also a page with species that should have made it into Pokemon. But bogleech is so much more than just a dive into Pokemon science. Wojcik is a monster fanatic who dedicated his life to studying and celebrating the creepy. He is also an amazing artist with a hell of an imagination. All artwork shown here is courtesy of Jonathan Wojcik and posted with his permission.

Imaginary creature inspired by a scorpionfly (Mecoptera)

Imaginary creature inspired by a scorpionfly (Mecoptera)

On bogleech every day is Halloween. The website, which I stumbled upon in late 2004 and has been in my bookmarks ever since, is probably the largest repository of anything gruesome or monster-related in existence. Jonathan tells me an early version of the site already existed in 2001, so it is a piece of history! Bogleech has entire pages dedicated to reviewing monsters in any form imaginable (fiction, media, toys etc’), popular science articles about misunderstood animals and parasites, reviews of store finds around Halloween, a printable horror game, and heaps of original artwork by Wojcik. There is an extensive webcomic that allows you to get to know some of his original monster creations better and see how they would act in different scenarios. The website has a large community of followers, many of them actively add content to it. There are even hidden corners on the site, like these toy octopus and mummy character pages. Jonathan is also active outside of his own kingdom on Tumblr and Devianart, and he also has an Etsy store where he sells some bogleech merchandise. He used to write articles for cracked.com as well.

Leeches by Jonathan Wojcik

Leeches by Jonathan Wojcik

The image above is taken from the article about leeches, check it out if you want to learn more about these magnificent animals. This is what I like about bogleech – it takes subjects that most of us will never dwell upon, and delivers them in a friendly and informative manner. Where else can you read about the different types of leeches and at the same time get a personal perspective on these animals? Bogleech is the place. When my Epomis research was published, Jonathan and I talked about it and he dedicated a page on his website to the beetles, including some first-hand impressions from me about the study. You can say that this was my first featured interview. Since then, I have not checked his website for some time, and… he has been busy.

Thanks to its long existence, the website is like a labyrinth full of surprises. You can spend an entire day going through its content and still have plenty more left to explore. Spiderween is a series of posts attempting to present information about spiders in a non-threatening way using cartoonish drawings, a one-of-a-kind spider guide for the arachnophobe. I think it is absolutely brilliant. It contains a lot of interesting facts about spider biology but also debunks common misconceptions (for example about widow spiders, brown recluses, and others). Remember the ogre-faced spiders from a few posts ago? Here is a family-friendly, anthropomorphized version of the spider by Wojcik:

Ogre-faced spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Ogre-faced spider by Jonathan Wojcik

There is also series of articles about flies that is still in progress and worth checking out. One page I like in particular is Mortasheen, where Jonathan allows himself to go wild with creating his own world of monsters, occasionally inspired by real-life animals or by science fiction. When I find myself bored I like to get lost in this section of his website. This is where it’s fun to go and search for animals and plants you know, and see them from a slightly different perspective. When it comes to arthropods and other invertebrates, making the jump into imaginary creatures and monsters is almost expected and too easy. This is something I have already discussed in the previous insect art post on this blog – many of them seem alien to us because they are so different from other animals in their body structure, and some of them are so small that they are simply overlooked. Just to give a few examples, here is a creature based on a globular springtail:

Globular springtail by Jonathan Wojcik

Globular springtail by Jonathan Wojcik

Formicrawl is based on an Eciton army ant soldier:

Formicrawl - army ant by Jonathan Wojcik

Formicrawl – army ant by Jonathan Wojcik

Horrida is loosely based on a jumping stick:

Horrida - jumping stick by Jonathan Wojcik

Horrida – jumping stick by Jonathan Wojcik

Katydread is modelled after what seems to be a spiny devil katydid (Panachanthus cuspidatus):

Katydread - spiny devil katydid by Jonathan Wojcik

Katydread – spiny devil katydid by Jonathan Wojcik

Exothresher is based on a camel spider. It makes you wonder how fortunate we are! As humans we are much larger in size than these voracious predators, so we do not have to worry about being chased and eaten alive by them.

Exothresher - camel spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Exothresher – camel spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Rotsucker is inspired by a botfly larva:

Rotsucker - botfly larva by Jonathan Wojcik

Rotsucker – botfly larva by Jonathan Wojcik

Eldoon is a cute worm-like creature that is inspired by hammerhead flatworms:

Eldoon - hammerhead flatworm by Jonathan Wojcik

Eldoon – hammerhead flatworm by Jonathan Wojcik

And it’s not just invertebrates. Other animals get representation in Wojcik’s work as well, here’s one for example:

Abysmal by Jonathan Wojcik. If you are unfamiliar with anglerfish, they have a fleshy protrusion on their head to use as a lure for prey. This monster is an interesting interpretation when the prey is human

Abysmal by Jonathan Wojcik. If you are unfamiliar with anglerfish, they have a fleshy protrusion on their head to use as a lure for prey. This monster is an interesting interpretation when the prey is human

Fungi and plants are also represented. This guy is based on latticed stinkhorn (Clathrus ruber):

Funguslyme by Jonathan Wojcik

Funguslyme by Jonathan Wojcik

In addition to the bogleech website, Jonathan has a Patreon page, where he shares even more creature designs and bits from his creative process with his supporters. The characters in the sketch below were designed after carnivorous plants. You have to be very familiar with the plants to fully appreciate the small details in each of these drawings. For example, I have been keeping butterworts (Pinguicula) for years, and I can attest that they look exactly like the one in the top left corner!

carnivorous plants by Jonathan Wojcik

carnivorous plants by Jonathan Wojcik

But Wojcik’s work is still so much more. It’s not just about animals and plants. He takes notes from whatever is around us, even everyday objects, letting his imagination dictate what is possible. Here are some examples (again, from his Patreon posts), check out that sawdust monster!

Angelworm, Mushroom berserker, and Sawdust juggernaut. Creatures by Jonathan Wojcik

Angelworm, Mushroom berserker, and Sawdust juggernaut. Creatures by Jonathan Wojcik

Bogleech also contains a lot of information about parasites. After all, they are a wonder of nature that most of us don’t want to think about, but they do deserve respect for their importance and their evolutionary success. The influence of real-world parasites can be found throughout many of Wojcik’s creations. For example, the following monsters were inspired by Leucochloridium, a parasitic flatworm that infects snails:

Leucochloridium-inspired creatures by Jonathan Wojcik (Paraseethe, Eyezome, Parasidious, Pestare, Paraslob)

Leucochloridium-inspired creatures by Jonathan Wojcik (Paraseethe, Eyezome, Parasidious, Pestare, Paraslob)

Speaking of parasites, Jonathan is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to launch the next series of enamel pins bearing his artwork – parasites.

Parasite pins by Jonathan Wojcik

Parasite pins by Jonathan Wojcik

I think they are simply stunning (they glow in the dark too, so cool!). One day I hope to see an artistic interpretation of Epomis larvae through his eyes. Until then, I recommend checking out bogleech if you have the time. There is a lot to see and learn from, and what I presented here is only a tiny fraction of the gigantic web-monster that bogleech really is. If you want to support Jonathan’s work and get access to even more cool stuff, including a chance to have a monster designed at your request, feel free to check out his Patreon page.

Ending 2018 with a bang

Let’s go straight to the punchline: 2018 was a successful year for me. This is important because I am posting this late into 2019, so I had the time to reflect on the passing year’s events.
I was debating if I should write a summary post for 2018 at all. These things get old quickly, especially around the last two weeks of December, when such posts pop up everywhere. Even though I know I am expected to post my favorite photographs from last year, the truth is that I have not been particularly busy taking photos. Instead I have been focusing on other projects, giving invited talks and doing public outreach, as well as adding content to this website. In addition, there were a few notable events this year that helped shaping me as a professional and as a person. So if you want to know what I have been up to in 2018, read on.

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

Opinion piece about giving away free photos,
and the rise to fame (not really)

One of the first posts I wrote in 2018 was aimed at people asking for free work. It joined other similar posts (examples are here and here), and to be honest I did not expect to receive any response to it. I merely posted the article so I can go back and refer people to it whenever I am faced with such requests. As many creative freelancers know, being asked to work or provide service for free is far too common. Apparently that post hit close to home because it received echo from fellow photographers and artists, and was later picked up by PetaPixel, one of the biggest photography-related news websites.
The piece featured on PetaPixel spread like wildfire and triggered some interesting discussions. On one hand, not everyone liked what I wrote, and some users even attacked me for it. On the other hand, I found myself discussing important topics like rates and copyrights with other, more experienced professionals. Even though this rant has been years in planning, I admit the post was written in the heat of the moment, and as such it is not a well-worded text. Now that I think about it, it is clear that I could have done a better job. That being said, I have no regrets whatsoever; the post is justified. If anything, having it available on my website serves as a deterrent for anyone who behaves inappropriately and disrespectfully towards creators by asking for free work.

Trip to Colombia

In February I went on a short assignment in Colombia, to photograph a tree. I know, right? It sounds simple and too good to be true, but in reality finding trees that fit what the client had in mind was challenging, not to mention it was not always possible to shoot the tree in the requested high resolution for the project. This trip also gave me a chance to test the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens, and I am happy I did, because it proved to be an outstanding competitor to the renowned Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x macro lens. Laowa is quickly establishing themselves as one of the most interesting lens companies out there, and I am looking forward to see what other innovations they have up their sleeve!

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

Tree covered in climbing epiphytes. Is this the perfect tree for the job? Close to perfect, but unfortunately, it was not good enough.

Tree covered in climbing epiphytes. Is this the perfect tree for the job? Close to perfect, but unfortunately, it was not good enough.

Central American tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii). One of the benefits of walking around checking out trees, is finding tree-inhabiting animals.

Central American tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii). One of the benefits of walking around checking out trees, is finding tree-inhabiting animals.

Katydid nymph showing intense pink coloration or erythrism - a rare phenomenon that is occasionally seen in katydids, in which a genetic mutation causes an absence of the normal green pigment and the excessive production of pink pigment.

Katydid nymph showing intense pink coloration or erythrism – a rare phenomenon that is occasionally seen in katydids, in which a genetic mutation causes an absence of the normal green pigment and the excessive production of pink pigment.

Fairy wasp (family Mymaridae) ovipositing in membracid treehopper egg mass. One of the best finds during this trip (watch this space for an upcoming post about it). This tiny wasp is only 0.6mm in length! Photographed using the Laowa 25mm lens.

Fairy wasp (family Mymaridae) ovipositing in membracid treehopper egg mass. One of the best finds during this trip (watch this space for an upcoming post about it). This tiny wasp is only 0.6mm in length! Photographed using the Laowa 25mm lens.

Trip to Ecuador

In May I returned to my beloved site in Ecuador, this time it wasn’t really to get work done but was more of an escape to spend my birthday (ok, who am I kidding, I still worked during that visit…). I often feel miserable around my birthday and during holidays because many times I have no one to spend them with, and it seemed like a good idea to pass this time in a place that I love. More than anything I needed to clear my head before taking the role of a spider wrangler (up next). This trip ended up being very peaceful and relaxing, somewhat lonely, but still satisfying. I was able to finally find one of my target species for the area, the seasonal jewel scarab, Chrysophora chrysochlora.

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

Bird eater tarantula (Theraphosa sp.). I was extremely happy to encounter this giant for the first time in the wild, and add it to the species checklist for my site.

Bird eater tarantula (Theraphosa sp.). I was extremely happy to encounter this giant for the first time in the wild, and add it to the species checklist for my site.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) in mid-flight. This photo is not perfect in many ways: it is dark, the composition is not ideal, and it is also slightly cropped. But I achieved something very difficult here - taking a wide angle macro and freezing an orchid bee in flight. Those bees are fast!

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) in mid-flight. This photo is not perfect in many ways: it is dark, the composition is not ideal, and it is also slightly cropped. But I achieved something very difficult here – taking a wide angle macro and freezing an orchid bee in flight. Those bees are fast!

Male orchid bees (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from a moss patch

Male orchid bees (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from a moss patch

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Spiders exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum

And then, immediately after returning from Ecuador, I was recruited to the Royal Ontario Museum to work on their “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibit. This is something I knew I wanted to do ever since I heard about this exhibit in December 2016. It was a long wait but I was finally in! I worked full-time as the spider wrangler for seven months at the museum, along with the awesome Mateus Peppineli. The role involved mainly taking care of spiders displayed in the gallery and in the live room, but also delivering presentations to the museum visitors. These presentations were open for whatever came in mind, so I could include information about different arachnids, not just spiders (as can be seen in the photo opening this post). A key component of the presentations was performing live venom milking from spiders and scorpions in front of an audience (you can watch a venom milking presentation in this video). This is something that requires some explanation – the idea was to extract venom from live animals that were sedated, and do it in a way that would not harm the animals and allow for future extraction of venom later on.

Milking venom from a fishing spider at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from TFO video

Milking venom from a fishing spider at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from TFO video

This is something I got trained for about a decade ago in Israel, I felt so lucky to be able to not only do this again, but also to present it to other people. In this regard I believe this ROM exhibit was one of a kind. Sure, the original exhibit coming from Australia also had a venom milking component, but I think the exhibit is really as good as the person running the show. I don’t know if there is any other place that has the unusual combination of someone passionate about arachnids, has over 20 years worth of expertise keeping and designing public displays for them, AND is also trained in venom extraction. And this is exactly why this exhibit made it well; people hoarded to see it, many coming back several times for more. Not only it gave me enormous satisfaction to see that people are interested in spiders, but also it showed me that without doubt there is a desire to see a similar permanent exhibit in Toronto, maybe on a larger scale. And I needed that affirmation.

Presenting spiders to an audience at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from Curiosity in Focus video

Presenting spiders to an audience at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from Curiosity in Focus video

I met and talked with thousands of people. Many of them came to me wishing to learn more about spiders they saw in their own house or backyard. Children found in me someone who is on their side, because I could understand and relate to their passion for insects and spiders. Some people confessed that I changed their point of view and helped them conquering their fear of spiders. Young visitors told me that watching me working has inspired them to pursue higher education and a career in science. And sure, it was nice being in the spotlight for a little while.

Some screenshots from TV appearances, representing the ROM's "Spiders: Fear & Fascination" exhibit

Some screenshots from TV appearances, representing the ROM’s “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibit

I enjoyed being the ambassador for arachnids on TV and social media. People started recognizing me on the street. Suddenly, I had fans. I got hugs. So many hugs. Some visitors stayed in touch and became close friends. I want to thank everyone who helped making this exhibit into a reality, and all the visitors who gave it a chance and came to see it. Now that the dust has settled I can honestly say that working at the spiders exhibit was one of the best experiences of my life. How do I fill the void that is left, that is the question that bothers me the most right now.

I will never forget this "finger fencing" moment. Screenshot from CP24 Live at Breakfast

I will never forget this “finger fencing” moment. Screenshot from CP24 Live at Breakfast

Social media (Instagram)

As a part of my role at the museum, I decided to join the social media platform Instagram. I did it as an experiment, to see how well I can perform there. If you know me, then you know that I find Instagram useless and crippled compared to the other social media streams, because of the inability to post clickable links or share posts from other users. My initial thought was to share behind-the-scenes moments from my work at the museum, and indeed the very first posts were exactly that. However, I quickly learned that this does not always work well, I did not always have the time to post while working, and if I have to be completely honest, my phone camera is total garbage. Nevertheless, I persisted, posting the same stuff that I post on my other accounts, and people started following. So maybe it is not so bad… I am still a shy noob on Instagram and don’t interact much, but if you remember my post from 2016, I said the exact same thing about Twitter, and today it has become my preferred social media platform. So who knows. I’m ready for an adventure!

Collaborating with Daniel Kwan (Curiosity in Focus)

During my time as the Royal Ontario Museum’s spider wrangler I was fortunate to meet Daniel Kwan, a talented individual who was responsible for running educational programs at the museum as well as producing video content about the different museum exhibits and collections. Since the opening of the spiders exhibit we collaborated many times, producing videos showing live arthropods and their behaviour, as well as activities performed in the venom lab.

Daniel also has several side projects that he runs. Many of them are related to his big passion – games, but he also hosts a couple of podcasts. One of them, Curiosity in Focus, shines a spotlight on people with interesting professional lifestyles and backgrounds, and covers many different fields like science, history, archeology, design, and fiction. Ever since the day we met he has been trying to get me on the podcast, until we finally found the time to sit down one evening and record an episode. So if you like to know about more about me, feel free to check it out here. We chatted about my role as the spider wrangler at the ROM, my military service in Israel, and shared some stories from entomology-related fieldwork. This was so much fun. I am definitely looking forward to future collaborations with Daniel.
Regardless of this episode, I have nothing but good things to say about this podcast. This is Daniel’s own brainchild, he is very passionate about it, and it shows. He always finds amazing people and interesting topics to talk about. One of my personal favorite episodes is a chat with Kevin Rawlings, Canada’s northernmost resident. Check it out if you have a moment. You won’t regret it.

Gilwizen.com in 2018

Due to my trips and later employment at the museum, my posting routine on the blog was inconsistent. I posted only 14 stories on the blog this year, a huge drop compared to 30 posts in the previous year. I am happy with the posts I got to share, but I would like to write more. Even more surprising was to see old posts resurfacing on social media and attracting new readers, notably this one, this one, this one, and… this one? Hmm. Some of these are very old and there is no doubt my writing style has changed over the years. I am tempted to go back and rewrite some of them to make it easier and more interesting to read, but I know that something would be lost if I do so.

One of the framed tarantula molts I made this year. It was already sold before I got to finish it.

One of the framed tarantula molts I made this year. It was already sold before I got to finish it.

One thing that has definitely picked up pace is my shop page. I initially started that page in 2017 to see if there is any interest in my framed “Ethical Molts” (term coined by my dear friend Peggy Muddles, who also made the video below), and since then it has exploded. I have sold and shipped over 30 framed specimens, some went to distant locations overseas. Many times when I upload a new batch of frames it is sold within a few days. I cannot complain.

Final words

As you can see, I have been busy this year. Looking back, 2017 and most of 2016 were painful and unproductive years for me. 2018 marked a much-needed shift in the right direction. It is especially interesting to compare the summary posts from the two previous years to this one. Going back to my closing statement for 2017, a friend and I were discussing life goals and what counts as success. For many people, including my friend, financial prosperity counts as success. For me, success is not about getting rich. It is first about reaching stability (not necessarily financial), and then leaving something behind, making a positive impact on others. And in 2018, I felt I did exactly that. Thank you everyone for being a part of it. I am forever grateful for your support, and my life is so much richer because you are in it.

Me with a giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia) in Ecuador

Me with a giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia) in Ecuador

Little Transformers: Deinopis, the ogre-faced spider

Today’s Little Transformer is a little unusual. First off, it is a spider. This spider is so unique in its appearance and behavior that I am surprised it has not inspired any exaggerated depictions in popular culture. It spends most of its time hidden, posing as a harmless twig among the forest vegetation. It is so good at what it does, that unless it moves it would be very easily overlooked. However, when night falls this seemingly harmless twig transforms into a sophisticated killing machine. Meet Deinopis, the ogre-faced spider (also known as net-casting spider).

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa) frontal view. Their eye arrangement is one of the weirdest of all spiders. Notice the lateral eyes are pointing down!

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa) frontal view. Their eye arrangement is one of the weirdest of all spiders. Notice the lateral eyes are pointing down!

Ogre-faced spiders are found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica, but they occur mostly in warm regions of the southern hemisphere. Found primarily in Latin America, Africa, Madagascar, and Australia, these spiders all share the same appearance: brown color, elongated body with long forelegs, and an unmistakeable face. The small family Deinopidae contains only two genera: Deinopis, holding most of the species, and Menneus.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa) camouflaged as a twig or a dried leaf

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa) camouflaged as a twig or a dried leaf

Interesting texture and patterns on the dorsal side of a net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). The legs are held tightly to form a typical 'X' shape at rest, making it look like the spider has only four legs.

Interesting texture and patterns on the dorsal side of a net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). The legs are held tightly to form a typical ‘X’ shape at rest, making it look like the spider has only four legs.

Deinopis are very unique among spiders for having superb vision, thanks to their huge median eyes.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). Those eyes... You can now understand why they are called ogre-faced spiders.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). Those eyes… You can now understand why they are called ogre-faced spiders.

A closer look at the median eyes of a net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). Staring straight into your wretched soul.

A closer look at the median eyes of a net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). Staring straight into your wretched soul.

The big eyes are what gave these spiders their common name, and they are so big that it is easy to miss the other six eyes on the spider’s head. I did my best trying to capture the stone-cold expression on a Deinopis spinosa face, but also check out Michael Doe’s amazing work with the Australian species D. subrufa. These median eyes are extremely sensitive to light, despite lacking any reflective tissue behind the lenses. Instead, a light sensitive membrane is formed inside the eyes every night, and then gets broken down at dawn. This allow the spiders to track subtle movements in complete darkness during their activity hours, something that is essential for their unique hunting strategy. While somewhat close to other weavers, ogre-faced spiders do not construct a fixed web to trap their prey. Instead they make a rather small hand-net, a handkerchief if you wish, that they use to catch insects passing nearby. The silk constructing the net is not sticky but extremely fuzzy and flexible, thanks to a special comb-like structure on the spider’s legs that stretches and frizzle the silk as it is coming out of the spider’s spinnerets.

Net made by a net-casting spider for catching prey

Net made by a net-casting spider for catching prey

A closer look at the net reveals the woolly silk used to make it. If you look carefully you will notice that it is coiled like a spring, allowing the silk to be stretched and expanded to completely cover the prey.

A closer look at the net reveals the woolly silk used to make it. If you look carefully you will notice that it is coiled like a spring, allowing the silk to be stretched and expanded to completely cover the prey.

The spider usually shapes the net as a square, and holds it loose over a branch or a leaf where an insect is likely to walk.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Colombia

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Colombia

Once it spots a suitable prey, the spider quickly stretches the net and snatches the passing insect by hand. The net can be stretched and expanded up to five times its original size without being torn, thanks to the special attributes of the silk. It entangles anything it touches. The spider is extremely fast in its response that sometimes it succeeds in capturing passing insects in mid-flight, again – completely by hand. You have to appreciate the speed and accuracy that goes into this hunting technique.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) ready for an insect to pass on a nearby branch. These spiders usually place themselves right above a possible walkway for arthropods. Photographed in Ecuador

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) ready for an insect to pass on a nearby branch. These spiders usually place themselves right above a possible walkway for arthropods. Photographed in Ecuador

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Honduras

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Honduras

It is relatively difficult to witness this behaviour in the field, mainly because by observing at night we add another component to the equation – light. In fact, in all my trips to Latin America I have encountered these spiders many times, but only once I was able to see the spider hunting… and totally missing the prey insect. So you can imagine my excitement when I realized I was going to work with one of the species, Deinopis spinosa, while it is on display at the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibition. For several weeks I tried to get a glimpse of it feeding but without success. One day I decided to toss a cricket close to it before leaving the exhibit area and within a spilt second the spider responded and caught it! I was in awe. I had to find a way to record it on video for people to see. I enlisted Daniel Kwan, one of my colleagues at the museum who has more videography experience, and we set out to produce a short movie. It took us many attempts to get decent footage of the hunting behaviour. Many times the prey crickets tried to hide, and occasionally the spider would respond to them but miss. Even though feeding the spider in an artificial environment means we had more control, it was really difficult. It makes me wonder how long the spider must wait in the wild until it is able to catch a meal.

Also worth mentioning is genus Menneus from the same family. These spiders are much smaller than Deinopis and they lack the large median eyes, therefore they are not true ogre-faced spiders. However, they spin a catch net and use the same strategy for hunting prey. The genus contains only a handful of species, distributed mainly in Australia, but with some representation in Africa. Some of the species are quite beautifully patterned compared to the plain-looking Deinopis, and there are even green-colored species! You can find some photos of Menneus spiders at the bottom of this page.

Something I was thinking about while writing this post – why do I never encounter small deinopids in the field? It would be really cute if they had miniature nets for catching even smaller insects. Even when I look for information online and in the literature, it only concerns medium-sized juveniles and adults. Could it be that the small ogre-faced spiders actually have a different hunting strategy than that of larger individuals?

Debunking Misconceptions: Scorpions

For the past five months I have been working at the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibition as a full-time spider wrangler, taking care of the live spiders and scorpions, as well as performing live venom extractions. One of the most common interactions I have at the museum are with people looking to confirm certain misconceptions about venomous arachnids. There is a lot of information available out there, and I understand it can be overwhelming and confusing. The sad truth is that a lot of it is also incorrect.  So I thought I should add my voice to the mix, maybe it will help someone who comes across my blog.

Tail and stinger of an Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus petersii)

Tail and stinger of an Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus petersii)

First off, nature does not fall neatly into boxes. This is something I emphasize a lot on this blog. It is in our own habit to look for consistency in the world around us, in order to establish some rules that nature follows. Maybe we do it in hopes of controlling and predicting certain happenings in order to live a stress-free life. However, in reality nature has its own laws and does not bend to our desires. The same goes for lumping venomous animals as a group. The search for consistency has led people to come up with guidelines for recognizing venomous animals. The problem is that in nature there is a great deal of deception. On one hand harmless animals try to pass as dangerous ones, and on the other hand medically significant animals may look harmless. It is hard to put all the animals possessing potent venom under the same umbrella, grouped by a single or a couple of characters. They are very different, each species is unique. Are you familiar with the rhyme for distinguishing true coral snakes from their mimics in the US? Take that rhyme across the border to Latin America and it becomes useless. That is because nature does not follow our rules. Let’s demonstrate this with some of the misconceptions surrounding scorpions.

Misconception #1: Is it poisonous?

Let’s start from the beginning. Poison consists of one or more toxins that can do harm when ingested or absorbed through tissue. As far as we know, there are no poisonous scorpions in existence. You can eat scorpions without worries, if that is your thing… However, people who present this question often mean to ask whether scorpions are venomous. Venom, as opposed to poison, is a chemical cocktail that is injected through the tissue into the bloodstream by a needle-like apparatus (stinger, fang, or spine). All scorpions are venomous. It is one of the defining features of the entire arachnid order Scorpiones (along with possessing a pair of grasping pedipalps called chelae or pincers, as well as a tail bearing a stinger). The venom potency is ranked using a unit called LD50 (abbreviation of “Lethal Dose 50%”), which indicates the amount of venom required for killing 50% of the population. The lower the LD50 value, the stronger the venom. In this post I will not discuss LD50 values, I will briefly mention potency as a qualitative character only.

Black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) from Israel. This genus is very diverse and contains many highly venomous species, as well as some with mild venom.

Black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) from Israel. This genus is very diverse and contains many highly venomous species, as well as some with mild venom.

Misconception #2: Small scorpions are more dangerous than big ones

This misconception is largely false, and can be broken into two parts. First, size has no bearings on how potent a certain species of scorpion can be. There are small species of scorpions that can be dangerous (mostly members of family Buthidae) as well as large sized species with the same level of potency if not higher (Buthidae again in this case). But we can even take this further and discuss size difference within the same species. In a species with potent venom, smaller sized juveniles carry the exact same venom as adults and have the same level of potency, and can still be dangerous. The smaller size usually means that they can only inject a smaller amount of venom when provoked, and they may not even be able to pierce our skin while stinging. It does not mean that we should carelessly start handling baby scorpions, but their potential for causing harm is lower.

This small scorpion (Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti) from Israel is considered harmless and yet it packs quite a punch when it comes to stings. I have had the misfortune of spending four hours with a numb hand after being tagged by this species.

This small scorpion (Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti) from Israel is considered harmless and yet it packs quite a punch when it comes to stings. I have had the misfortune of spending four hours with a numb hand after being tagged by this species.

Israel pillar tail scorpion (Orthochirus scrobiculosus negebensis) is another small-sized, non-dangerous species. Its sting is often compared to being struck with red hot steel, but otherwise it does not cause any clinical complications.

Israel pillar tail scorpion (Orthochirus scrobiculosus negebensis) is another small-sized, non-dangerous species. Its sting is often compared to being struck with red hot steel, but otherwise it does not cause any clinical complications.

Misconception #3: Yellow scorpions are more venomous than black ones

As much as it would be cool to have scorpions color coded to their venom potency, this is rarely the case. There are yellow scorpions possessing deadly venom as well as ones with extremely weak venom, and the same goes for black scorpion species. It can be extremely difficult to identify scorpions to the species level based on their color alone. This is one of those cases where you need to be familiar with the species, or enlist the assistance of an expert to properly identify the scorpion. One variation of the misconception also makes a mention of red scorpions having the intermediate level of venom potency between the aforementioned ones. Red scorpions? Very few of them out there.

Canada's only native scorpion is the northern scorpion (Paruroctonus boreus). This species lives under rock boulders and in underground burrows, and is considered harmless.

Canada’s only native scorpion is the northern scorpion (Paruroctonus boreus). This species lives under rock boulders and in underground burrows, and is considered harmless.

The deathstalker scorpion (Leiurus hebraeus) from North Africa and the Middle East is one of the deadliest scorpion species in the world, carrying a strong neurotoxic venom that can cause acute allergic reactions, paralysis, and even death. It does not help that it is also extremely common throughout its distribution range.

The deathstalker scorpion (Leiurus hebraeus) from North Africa and the Middle East is one of the deadliest scorpion species in the world, carrying a strong neurotoxic venom that can cause acute allergic reactions, paralysis, and even death. It does not help that it is also extremely common throughout its distribution range.

The Israeli scorpion (Buthus israelis) shares its habitat with the deathstalker scorpion, and may benefit from bearing a strong resemblance to it, however it is a harmless species.

The Israeli scorpion (Buthus israelis) shares its habitat with the deathstalker scorpion, and may benefit from bearing a strong resemblance to it, however it is a harmless species.

The yellow fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus amoreuxi) is a sand dunes-inhabiting species from Israel. Even though it belongs to the "hot" genus Androctonus, its venom is mild and it is not considered dangerous.

The yellow fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus amoreuxi) is a sand dunes-inhabiting species from Israel. Even though it belongs to the “hot” genus Androctonus, its venom is mild and it is not considered dangerous.

Misconception #4: A small venom gland indicates more potency compared to a large venom gland

The twisted logic behind this misconception is that a small gland contains less venom, therefore it must be very strong the achieve the desired effect of subduing prey. However, the size of the venom gland has nothing to do with what is stored inside. Venom is highly complex and packed with many chemical compounds, that a single droplet is usually enough to cause some damage. Potent species show a great variety of venom gland sizes and shapes and unfortunately they do not fall under a single group. Genus Androctonus contains many highly venomous species that are characterized by a thick tail and a small venom gland, however there are far deadlier species that posses venom glands that follow the same thickness as the preceding tail segments.

Tail and stinger of the black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) showing the small venom gland. This species has strong venom.

Tail and stinger of the black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) showing the small venom gland. This species has strong venom.

Tail and stinger of the deathstalker scorpion (Leiurus hebraeus) showing the large venom gland. This species have even stronger venom than the fat-tail scorpion in the previous photo.

Tail and stinger of the deathstalker scorpion (Leiurus hebraeus) showing the large venom gland. This species have even stronger venom than the fat-tail scorpion in the previous photo.

Misconception #5: A thick tail indicates more potency compared to a thinner tail

Like above, this one is also very inconsistent. Usually a thin tail indicates that the scorpion’s main weapon is its pincers (this is definitely the case for burrowing species), however there are exceptions. Family Buthidae contains extremely venomous species with thick tails but also many dangerous species with thin appendages.

Arabian fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda), with thick tail and pincers. This is a medically significant species with potent venom.

Arabian fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda), with thick tail and pincers. This is a medically significant species with potent venom.

Ecuadorian black scorpion (Tityus asthenes), with thin tail and pincers. And yes, you guessed it - this is a medically significant species with potent venom.

Ecuadorian black scorpion (Tityus asthenes), with thin tail and pincers. And yes, you guessed it – this is a medically significant species with potent venom.

Misconception #6: Thick pincers indicate weaker venom compared to thin pincers

This one is usually correct. As mentioned in the previous misconception, a scorpion with thick and stubby chelae relies more on force to kill its prey rather than venom. This is true for many underground species hunting from their burrow. However, there are few exceptions. Some members of family Buthidae have thick pincers and carry a strong neurotoxic venom that can be harmful and sometimes even lethal to humans. Another example are some members of family Diplocentridae, underground scorpions with impressive thick pincers. Their venom contains compounds that can cause necrosis, the death and rotting of tissue. This is usually not lethal, but should not be overlooked either because the risk of losing the tissue or organ is there.

Jericho scorpion (Nebo hierichonticus), an underground diplocentrid species with a thin tail and thick pincers. And yet its venom can cause necrosis of the tissue, which can lead to clinical complications.

Jericho scorpion (Nebo hierichonticus), an underground diplocentrid species with a thin tail and thick pincers. And yet its venom can cause necrosis of the tissue, which can lead to clinical complications.

Misconception #7: Scorpions will always use their stinger first in defence

Scorpions possess a stinger and venom primarily for the purpose of subduing prey. Their venom is not really intended for us and because it is precious for the scorpion, it prefers not to waste it. However, if cornered with no chance to flee, the scorpion will not hesitate to use its stinger to push back the aggressor and to clear a path of escape. Because venom is scarce, many scorpions will first try to flee or use their chelae in defence. While a sting can be painful, never underestimate a scorpion’s pinch. Even species with thin pincers can surprise with the sheer force they use to grab. After all, this organ evolved just for that purpose – grabbing, holding, and pulling. Scorpions hold on tight to whatever they caught, usually a prey or mate, but also aggressors like humans, in a “tear your flesh right off your body” kind of grip. You can easily get bruised or even cause a wound to open if you try to fight the scorpion’s grip and pull back.

Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus petersii). Just by looking at this tank you can tell that it is not about the venom. It is all about physical strength. This species is harmless, but oh boy they can pinch HARD!

Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus petersii). Just by looking at this tank you can tell that it is not about the venom. It is all about physical strength. This species is harmless, but oh boy they can pinch HARD!

Misconception #8: Scorpions sting themselves when in danger

Many people still believe this misconception for some reason, so it gets an honorable mention on this list. Scorpions do not commit suicide. Interestingly, scorpions are not immune to their own venom, and they definitely take advantage of that – an encounter with a conspecific will often result in a struggle and cannibalism. However as mentioned above, when in danger most scorpions try to flee first. If that does not work they turn to defend themselves, and use their stinger as a last resort. An agitated scorpion will try to sting just about anything; scorpions do not see well and use their tail as a probe to find a suitable spot for stinging. Sensory hairs located close to the stinger provide the scorpion with information about the texture, softness, and identity of what it is about to sting. This defence response is often frantic, with rapid tail movements and failed stinging attempts. The scorpion arches its tail a lot in the process, and sometimes the stinger gets stuck in the substrate close to the scorpion’s body. From a certain point of view it may look like the scorpion is actively stinging itself but this could not be further from the truth. It is trying to sting everything but itself.

Portrait of Ecuadorian black scorpion (Tityus asthenes)

Portrait of Ecuadorian black scorpion (Tityus asthenes)

Bonus misconception: Scorpions use their UV fluorescence to warn predators

This one I heard from some of the museum visitors. First, we need to make a distinction between bioluminescence, UV color pattern, and UV fluorescence. Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by an organism through a chemical reaction. It is an active process that is usually used for communication or attracting prey. Examples for bioluminescence can be seen in bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates. UV color patterns are visual signals that can be seen only in the ultraviolet spectral range. We cannot normally see them, and in order to do so we need to block all the visible light first and look through a special filter that allows only short wavelength light to pass through. Such color patterns can be found on flowers to attract and guide pollinators, but also on flying insects (like butterflies) in order to signal potential mates and competitors. Contrary to the previous terms, UV fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed ultraviolet light. In animals this means that different coloration or patterns become visible after exposure to UV light. It is a passive process that completely depends on a UV light source. In scorpions, almost all species are known to fluoresce due to a special characteristic of their exoskeleton, but the intensity of the emission varies widely and is faint in some species. The role that fluorescence plays in scorpions is largely unknown. Scorpions have poor vision and are not able to detect colors. Moreover, they are primarily nocturnal and avoid sunlight, which the main contributor of UV. Because of this, the scorpion fluorescence is not something that is visible under natural conditions. To the best of our knowledge, there are no predators that can emit UV light from their body while searching for prey (even though I must admit that it would be cool), so I think it is safe to say that scorpions do not use the fluorescence as a warning signal.

Israeli Gold scorpion (Scorpio palmatus) glowing under UV light. Of all scorpions, members of family Scorpionidae have the brightest fluorescence.

Israeli Gold scorpion (Scorpio palmatus) glowing under UV light. Of all scorpions, members of family Scorpionidae have the brightest fluorescence.

Sand scorpion (Buthacus leptochelys leptochelys) glowing under UV light

Sand scorpion (Buthacus leptochelys leptochelys) glowing under UV light

Bark scorpions (Tityus sp.) are a good example for species with a relatively faint fluorescence. Notice that the newborn babies on the female's back glow even less. Their fluorescence will build up and brighten with age.

Bark scorpions (Tityus sp.) are a good example for species with a relatively faint fluorescence. Notice that the newborn babies on the female’s back glow even less. Their fluorescence will build up and brighten with age.

Scorpions are fascinating arachnids. I have always argued they are some of nature’s best designs when it come to survival. Equipped with the means to grab, hold onto, and subdue their prey, but still capable of becoming flat enough to squeeze into tight spaces to avoid predators. They also posses a body armour that makes them resilient and impenetrable to the elements (scorpions recover well after hours of being submerged in water). Not to mention that most scorpions can dig very well, proving to be excellent architects in their habitats by constructing underground shelters for their own use as well as other animals. And as for their venom, it contains many potentially useful compounds, some of which are being tested for use in medicine as well as pest control. Let’s try to appreciate and enjoy scorpions for the magnificent creatures they are, without falsely lumping them into groups based on superficial characters. They mean us no harm.

Spiderception: jumping spider-mimicking jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

After a long hiatus of nearly 5 months, I thought it is about time I shake the dust off this blog and return to posting. This month we are celebrating Arachtober, highlighting spiders and other arachnids to promote appreciation and understanding that these animals are crucial to the normal function of ecosystems, and that they have their rightful place on this planet. Today is also International Jumping Spider Day, so it is a great opportunity to discuss something interesting that some of these cuties share.

Last February I was fortunate to spend a week in Colombia for a photography assignment. In one of our day hikes I checked a cluster of hanging vine flowers to see if there are interesting insects hiding inside. I did not find any insects except for ants, but as I was peeking inside the inflorescence I saw a row of shiny eyes staring back at me. I thought to myself – Oh, cool. A jumping spider. And indeed it was a salticid spider, however what I thought were eyes was nothing but a deception. In fact the spider’s head was facing away from me, and it was busy munching on a small moth.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider playing peek-a-boo. These spiders become even more interesting when viewed from behind.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider playing peek-a-boo. These spiders become even more interesting when viewed from behind.

Lateral view of a female Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia. The color pattern on the abdomen resembles jumping spider eyes.

Lateral view of a female Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia. The color pattern on the abdomen resembles jumping spider eyes.

Female jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). They are much cuter when looking straight at you!

Female jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). They are much cuter when looking straight at you!

Even though there are almost no identification keys for jumping spiders from the neotropics, I am confident that the spider I found was a female Parnaenus. For the most part these are plain looking jumping spiders, but their abdomen is usually covered with blue and green iridescent scales. On both side of the abdomen they have a row of spots that look exactly like jumping spider eyes. In fact, due to the contrast with the colorful abdomen, those spots are even more noticeable than the spider’s actual eyes. And it’s not just the female Parnaenus that possess these spots; the smaller and more colorful males have them too.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. Huge head with stunning iridescent colors.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. Huge head with stunning iridescent colors.

Dorsal view of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). From this angle you can see how easy it is to mistake the spots on the abdomen for eyes.

Dorsal view of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). From this angle you can see how easy it is to mistake the spots on the abdomen for eyes.

Jumping spiders are visual creatures. They rely on visual cues and their good eyesight to detect prey, competitive conspecifics, and potential mates. This is why many species of jumping spiders developed complex color patterns to assist in communication with other individuals. Other arthropods also take advantage of this and deploy mimicry to fool these spiders and avoid predation. One of the most common jumping spider mimicry is the presence of eyespots arranged in a row, to resemble the spiders’ large frontal eyes. I have already written about such cases on this blog, usually demonstrated by moths, but other insects as well (see here and here for examples). We have also seen jumping spiders using mimicry to resemble insects. What we have not seen yet though, is jumping spiders mimicking jumping spiders. Is this even possible? Well, yes and no.
Yes, because there are definitely jumping spider species that display a clear salticid eyespot pattern away from their head where their actual eyes are – like the Parnaenus species presented in this post. And no, because we have no evidence that they are truly mimicking other jumping spiders.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. So pretty.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. So pretty.

A closer look at the abdomen of a male Parnaenus jumping spider. False eyes between green and blue scales.

A closer look at the abdomen of a male Parnaenus jumping spider. False eyes between green and blue scales.

This spiderception is quite confusing. At first it looks like the salticids deploy a “false head” anti-predator tactic in order to fool their predators and direct their attacks away from the animal’s real head. But in the case of these spiders the eyespots pattern is located on the abdomen, the most vulnerable part of the spider’s body. On the other hand, if they really use this pattern to communicate with other jumping spiders, we would expect to see a specific behavior associated with it, like waving the abdomen or displaying it in front of another individual. And to the best of my knowledge there are no such observations in existence.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia

Male Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia

Parnaenus is not the only jumping spider genus that has eyespots on its abdomen, by the way. Other dendryphantine jumping spiders possess this character, to varying degrees. Those include the beautiful Paraphiddipus and Metaphiddipus jumpers and the scorpion spiders of genus Lurio. The latter is a very unusual jumper – the forelegs are disproportionally robust and long compared to the others, both in males and females.

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Taironaka, Colombia

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Taironaka, Colombia

Scorpion spiders (Lurio sp.) have a color pattern on their abdomen that is very similar to that of Parnaenus spiders.

Scorpion spiders (Lurio sp.) have a color pattern on their abdomen that is very similar to that of Parnaenus spiders.

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Even without the pretty colors these spiders are very unique, with their long thick forelegs.

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Even without the pretty colors these spiders are very unique, with their long thick forelegs.

The salticid eyespot pattern is quite common in nature, and it seems that possessing it positively affects the bearer’s chances of survival. Even jumping spiders themselves have it on their body. But do they really use it for active communication? Or is it more a passive way for them to say ‘I am a jumping spider inside and out’? Those are questions that are still left unanswered, at least until someone follows and documents their behavior.

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!