This leaf got me thinking

I sometimes like to drift away in my thoughts and reflect on my days before becoming a biologist. It is amazing to realize how much I have learned over the years. This is something I think many people take for granted nowadays. We are flooded with easily accessible information on a daily basis. Try to think how many new things you learned just in the last month.
A little over a decade ago, I embarked on my first big overseas trip. Back then I knew close to nothing about Latin America. I had one goal in mind: to see poison dart frogs in the wild. Not too long into the trip I already felt victorious, after spotting some of these frogs in Bolivia and Ecuador. My quest took me to Costa Rica, where I found more of these stunning hopping jewels. Although I was mainly interested in amphibians, I was overwhelmed by the richness and diversity of arthropods. And more interestingly, despite my knowledge and exposure to various insect species, I realized how much I do not know and need to learn.

One such moment occurred when I visited the pastoral town of Monteverde, more specifically the butterfly gardens there. The guided tour I took passed near a moth wall, which was basically a white painted wall with a powerful light source pointing at it during nighttime. This was the first time I have ever seen a light trap. It was packed with hundreds of moth species. I was fascinated. The other visitors – not so much. They were pressing me to leave these “boring brown bugs” so we can head over to the butterflies area. “Just a second” I replied, “there is one moth I have to photograph”.

Leaf-mimicking moth, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Leaf-mimicking moth, from Monteverde, Costa Rica. Amazing camouflage, down to the level of leaf (=wing) damage and asymmetry. Image scanned from an old film slide.

“That’s not a moth” argued one of the visitors, “it’s just a fallen leaf that was blown onto the screen door”.
The local tour guide smiled but kept his silence.
“Well, if it is just a leaf…” I said and stood up, “…why don’t you touch it then?”
Upon being touched, the “leaf” immediately came into life and took off in a slow flight, disappearing into the foliage.

Many insects try to look like leaves. It is one of the most common types of crypsis. Only some of these insects, however, take it to the next level, mimicking not only the shape and color of leaves, but also their texture, tissue damage and even asymmetry. This moth had all of these. For years I have been waiting for an opportunity to photograph such a moth again, and finally, last year, I stumbled upon a similarly impressive species in the Amazon basin of Ecuador.

Leaf-mimicking saturniid moth (Homoeopteryx sumacensis), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking saturniid moth (Homoeopteryx sumacensis) from the Amazon Basin, Ecuador. It was resting on the bathroom floor – I do not think I would be able to see it if it was resting among fallen leaves.

This species does look (and behave) very much like a leaf. Instead of laying flat like most moths, it holds its wings up in a way that creates a three-dimensional appearance. The forewing tips and margins are delicate; they are usually the first part to suffer tears and damage, contributing to the asymmetrical look of the false leaf. I knew immediately that I want to keep this photo for something special, and I decided to share it on the last day of National Moth Week. After posting it, the internet went wild. The photo was shared hundreds of times on social media, sparking discussions about evolution and moth diversity. It encouraged people to post their own photos of cryptic moths; others messaged me that the photo helped them to see the beauty and uniqueness of moths. I could not be happier.

Leaf-mimicking moth, Amazon Basin, Ecuador

From this angle it is easier to see that it is a moth.

It is important to remember though, that this moth is just one small example from a vast world of moths. There are over 150,000 species of moths worldwide, many undescribed, and many more waiting to be discovered. Moths are everywhere. There is more to them than meets the eye. They take many forms, and can sometimes make you doubt yourself. Until that moment in Costa Rica I was not aware these leaf moths existed, and even today I am not certain of their exact species ID*. Even nowadays within the highway of free information, I still have a lot to learn.

The positive feedback this photo received, as well as my orchid bees photo, made me realize also how much I am grateful for all the people who find my content interesting or inspiring. I never mention this, but it gives me a lot of energy. When things get rough, I remind myself that there is at least someone out there who thinks what I do is cool. I want to take this opportunity to thank all my followers, commenters and visitors. I got to know some fascinating people since I started posting. Thank you, everyone.

*UPDATE: This moth has been identified by Vazrick Nazari from the Canadian National Collections as Homoeopteryx sumacensis, a saturniid moth.

(Inter-)National Moth Week

When all that people talk about right now is going outdoors with their smartphones and tablets to play the current-trendy Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game of hunting fictional creatures, it seems appropriate to remind everyone that a similar “game” was already in existence centuries ago and still goes on today. It is called being a naturalist, and the rules are pretty simple – you just go out to search for, observe, and document everything that nature has to offer. I guess making people spend more time outside is a good thing nowadays, I just wish they were looking more around them instead of having their faces glued to mobile screens. Nevertheless, many players reported that while playing the game they stumbled upon “real life Pokémon”, in other words wild animals such as snakes, birds and even mammals. Several biologists on twitter decided to take a nice turn on this game and came up with the hashtags #PokeBlitz and #PokemonIRL, tagging and spreading facts about various wild animals, plants and fungi. It is a cool initiative that I hope will spread like fire, but in any case I wanted to use this opportunity to mention another similar event happening this month – National Moth Week.

Geometer moth (Rhodochlora brunneipalpis), Limón Province, Costa Rica

Green geometer moth (Rhodochlora brunneipalpis) from Limón Province, Costa Rica

National Moth Week is a citizen science project that sets out to increase public awareness and appreciation of moth biodiversity. It has been running continuously for 5 years, with the main event taking place on the full last week of July. During this week, moth enthusiasts set up light traps to attract moths and record the species found in their area. They are often joined by professional lepidopterists (scientists studying this insect order), who offer assistance in identifying moth species and wait for cool and unexpected discoveries. With the current accumulating evidence of dwindling insect populations, especially those of pollinators like Lepidoptera and Hymenoptera, this activity has huge importance. National Moth Week has become a global joint effort to record moth species, yet the project’s title remains “national” to emphasize the outreach activity on the local scale. Anyone can join and attract moths in the comfort of their own home, but many groups hold moth-watching events at public locations, attracting a large crowd of enthusiasts and curious people (you can attend an event close to you by searching in the event map).

Crambid moth (Desmia bajulalis), Mindo, Ecuador

Many Crambid moth species, like this Desmia bajulalis from Ecuador, have iridescent scales on their wings.

Setting up a light trap for moth watching is super easy. All you really need is a light source, and turning on the porch lights is probably the simplest way to attract moths. If you want to invest a little more, you can get a light bulb with some output in the UV range, as many moth species are attracted to this type of light. Many entomologists and insect enthusiasts use high-output mercury vapor bulbs because their spectral range seems to be more attractive for insects compared to other bulbs. Personally, I do not like these bulbs; they are very fragile, become extremely hot during operation and quite finicky to set up in remote locations. I use a compact version of a bulb that has a similar spectral distribution and get good results. My setup is built to be portable, so I now take my light trap almost anywhere I travel.

White witch moth (Thysania agrippina). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Sometimes a light trap is not even needed for attracting moths. This gigantic white witch moth (Thysania agrippina) came to our bathroom lights in the Amazon rainforest, Ecuador.

light-trap

The light trap I used at Caves Branch, Belize, attracted a nice variety of interesting moths, including members of genus Petrophila (mentioned previously on this blog).

Moths attracted to light trap, Mindo, Ecuador

Moths (and other insects) gathering around a light trap in Ecuador

Moth feeding on top of another moth's wing, Mindo, Ecuador

When it gets crowded at the trap interesting behaviors can be observed, like this small moth feeding on a bigger moth’s hemolymph.

Finally, if you want to be able to record the species coming to your trap, you will need a surface for them to rest on. The simplest way to do this is by stretching a white sheet behind the light source. The flying moths will come to the trap, bump into the sheet and cling onto it, allowing close observation and photography. Not only moths, but also other arthropods can end up coming to the light trap as well. And, if you are lucky, even amphibians and reptiles can show up to take advantage of the abundant food.
The best thing about setting up light trap is that you never know what will show up. It is not uncommon to encounter a species that you do not know, or even better, find something that is very rare.

Geometer moth (Eutomopepla rogenhoferi), Mindo, Ecuador

Geometer moth (Eutomopepla rogenhoferi) from Mindo, Ecuador

Giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia), one of the heaviest and largest moth species found in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

Geometer moth (Opisthoxia uncinata), Limón Province, Costa Rica

Geometer moth (Opisthoxia uncinata), from Limón Province, Costa Rica. This is probably one of the most common species in Latin America, it showed up in every light trap I have set up so far.

Wasp-mimicking moth (Gymnelia sp), Mindo, Ecuador

Do not forget to check the surroundings of the light trap for even more species! This wasp-mimicking moth (Gymnelia sp.) from Ecuador was found resting on the wall a few meters from the trap.

White geometer moth, Limón Province, Costa Rica

Some moths remind me of common butterflies. For example, this moth from Costa Rica somewhat looks like Small White (Pieris rapae)…

Giant silk moth (Titaea tamerlan). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Giant silk moth (Titaea tamerlan) from the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador

Green moth (Epidelia sp.), Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

Green moth (Epidelia sp.) from Belize

Crambid moth silhouette, Mindo, Ecuador

Even a silhouette can be interesting! Crambid moth from Mindo, Ecuador.

Owlet moth (Sosxestra grata). Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

Sosxestra grata has become one of the most iconic Latin American owlet moth species, thanks to an excellent photograph taken by Thomas Shahan in BugShot Belize.

Crambid moth, Mindo, Ecuador

Some of the nicest wing patterns are found on the smallest species, like this delicate Crambid moth from Mindo, Ecuador.

So go out, and enjoy this fun activity. Moth-watching is the new birding. In fact, it might even be better than birding. It requires much less effort and preparations. In addition, the diversity of moth species found in a limited area can be astounding compared to that of birds. There is so much out there to discover, you really just have to look.

Trachycephalus – that treefrog you shouldn’t touch

When people talk about nasty frog secretions the conversation usually shifts very quickly to poison arrow frogs and their toxins. And it is not surprising – these tiny frogs host some of the deadliest compounds in the natural world, some so toxic that they are even lethal to the touch. But the truth is many amphibians have skin secretions, and not all of them are meant to be deadly. One group of treefrogs in particular made a name for itself due to their skin secretions – the milk frogs (genus Trachycephalus).

I encountered one of these treefrogs earlier this year when I returned from a night hike in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. Walking and climbing for hours made me exhausted, and the only thing I could think of was crashing into the bed and getting a few hours of sleep. Suddenly I heard Andy, one of the staff members from the reserve, calling from the shower. I remember thinking to myself ‘It is 2am, what on earth is he doing in the shower?’
I got up and clumsily walked towards the shower where I found Andy pointing at a big blob completely covering the showerhead. He did say “rana” which means frog in Spanish, so I reached out my hand to grab it. Big mistake.

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

At that time I knew about milk frogs only from the pet trade. The species Trachycephalus resinifictrix is a very popular pet because of its colors and docile temper. I had no idea why members of this genus are called milk frogs, or how they behave in the wild. And so I learned the hard way, that milk frogs are named after their thick, sticky skin secretion. Within seconds of grabbing this giant amphibian my hands were tangled in a gooey mess of what looked and felt like carpenter’s glue. This defensive secretion has very interesting properties – it sticks to anything touching the frog, but in contact with the amphibian’s skin it becomes extremely slimy and slippery, allowing the frog to escape from its captor. Trying to wash it off with water only makes things worse (i.e. thicker and stickier), as it is not water-soluble. I looked for information about the chemical attributes of this substance, but came up with nothing. The only description I found for it was “caustic” (alkaline), and that it seems to be poisonous too.

I know what some of you are thinking – where are the photos of the frog in your messy hands? Trust me when I say this, it is impossible to do anything while dealing with this gluey secretion, let alone operating a camera. I spent an hour and half in the bathroom sink obsessively trying to get rid of the stuff. Unless you have something to scrape your hands with, this is not a simple task. Eventually, I managed to somewhat clean my hands, and decided to keep the frog for a short photography session.

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

“Now be a good girl and behave.”

The species I found was the common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), and it is massive. When we think of treefrogs we tend to fixate on those small or medium sized species, usually green or yellowish in color, often delicate in their appearance to allow swift movement in the forest canopy. However, some species are impressively robust, so much that when they leap and land on a branch they sometimes break it under their body weight. This is the case for the milk frog, I could not believe my eyes how big it was. Females can reach a length of over 10cm and have a body mass of over 90gr. They are indeed heavy jumpers, and they deploy an interesting strategy during landing to better support their body weight: the frog either lands on its abdomen or performs a cartwheel around the branch, while only attached by their adhesive toe pads. Trachycephalus venulosus is an explosive breeder, coming down the canopy to breed after heavy rains. Males congregate around water ponds and wrestle for females. It is often a violent event, after which males and females move together in amplexus (males “piggyback riding” the females) to lay eggs on the water surface.

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus; right) with a more typically-sized treefrog (Agalychnis hulli; left)

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus; right) with a more typically-sized treefrog (Agalychnis hulli; left)

After I got the frog’s sticky glue off my hands along with some of my own skin, I went back to bed. The frog was chilling out in a bucket beside me. In the following morning, I decided to photograph it in “Meet Your Neighbours” style before letting it go. I soon found out that if one is careful, the milk frog can be handled without triggering the defense response. When calm this frog is rather sweet actually, I think I can even see a smile in some of those photos ha ha. I released it back into the forest, putting it on a low tree branch. To my surprise it did not escape immediately. Only when I turned around and started walking away I heard a cracking sound followed by something crashing into leaves. Yup, that’s one heavy treefrog.

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Best buddies.

New species of Charinus in Belize

I am happy to announce that our new paper, describing two new species of whip spiders (Amblypygi) from Belize, was recently published (the paper can be downloaded here). This culminates work that started in 2013, in collaboration with Gustavo Miranda and Alessandro Giupponi.

Charinus reddelli from Waterfall Cave, Cayo District, Belize

Charinus reddelli from Waterfall Cave, Cayo District, Belize

The new species were found during the BugShot Belize workshop at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge and its surroundings. The smaller species of the two, now named Charinus belizensis, was discovered under a fallen log during a night hike, concealed inside the decomposing wood and sharing the space with Diplocentrus maya scorpions and platydesmid millepedes. The second species was found within several nearby cave systems, hiding under stones and running on the sandy bottom of the cave. As soon as I found these whip spiders I knew I had something that probably no one has seen before. These were new, undescribed species. Charinus species have been described from almost every continent, they are well-recorded in South America, but so far no species have been described from Central America. Only two reports mention presence of the genus Charinus in Central America: one report from Panama mentions an epigean species with well-developed eyes. I knew the Charinus that I found were different species due to their “blindness” – the two new species have no median eyes, an adaptation for life in closed dark spaces, such as caves and deep crevices. The other report from 1982 is by James Reddell, mentioning a whip spider “troglobite of uncertain generic affinities” in the Footprint Cave in Belize, probably the same species that I found in the very same cave, three decades later. We therefore decided to pay tribute to James Reddell for this discovery and for his enormous contribution to the study of the arachnids by naming this new species after him: Charinus reddelli.

The entrance to Waterfall Cave, where specimens of the new species C. reddelli have been found.

The entrance to Waterfall Cave, where specimens of the new species C. reddelli have been found.

Charinus reddelli, a freshly molted specimen besides its molt in Waterfall Cave.

Charinus reddelli, a freshly molted specimen besides its molt in Waterfall Cave.

It is not surprising that these species have not received any attention up until now. To begin with, they are very small. The leg span of the bigger species, C. reddelli, is just over 2.5cm. They constantly take shelter inside decomposing wood (C. belizensis) or in rock crevices in caves (C. reddelli). Also, to the untrained eye they may appear as juveniles of the much bigger Amblypygi genera found in the same area, Paraphrynus and Phrynus. As such small arachnids, one might wonder what they feed on. It is possible that C. belizensis feeds on termites and other soft arthropods found inside the wood cavity, whereas C. reddelli was observed feeding on cave crickets nymphs and was even spotted taking down another arachnid – a cave schizomid. Moreover, the live specimens that I keep in captivity have been found to be very fond of eating isopods, so it is possible that they are an important component in these species’ diet. Another interesting observation relates to their breeding strategy. Whip spider females are excellent mothers and demonstrate a high level of maternal care, carrying and protecting the eggs and then later carrying the hatched babies for a while until they can fend for themselves. As small-sized arachnids, Charinus species confront a problem. If they go the same path as the other whip spider genera, producing several dozens of tiny offsprings, then they might run into survival challenges, as the tiny babies must track down and hunt for even smaller prey, and at the same time deal with predators. Instead, C. reddelli‘s egg sac contains only 4–10 eggs, and the hatching whip spider babies are quite large. This ensures that the offspring have a slightly better start in life as they can exploit the common prey size in their surroundings.

Whip spiders females are good mothers and Charinus reddelli is no exception. Here, a female carrying her newborn baby on her back. Three other babies are still in the process of hatching under the mother's abdomen.

Whip spiders females are good mothers and Charinus reddelli is no exception. Here, a female carrying her newborn baby on her back. Three other babies are still in the process of hatching under the mother’s abdomen.

Charinus belizensis fresh after molting before pigmentation appears. Found under a fallen log in Caves Branch forest.

Charinus belizensis fresh after molting before pigmentation appears. Found under a fallen log in Caves Branch forest.

It took a long process to obtain the proper permits, collect, export, and describe the new species, in which I received tremendous help from Ella Baron from Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. The important thing is that now these two small arachnids are known, they have a name and a valid presence, which will make it easier to protect them and their habitat. I hope that in the near future more species of Charinus will be discovered in Central America, filling the gap in their known distribution.

Ornidia – an orchid bee mimic

In my previous post I mentioned that one of the most common questions I got was whether orchid bees are some sort of fly. Indeed there are many flies that have metallic colors, but the resemblance usually stops there. The best example are bottle flies, members of family Calliphoridae, which occupy a niche different from that of orchid bees and do not share any similar behaviors with them. It does not mean, however, that Euglossinae-mimicking flies do not exist. In the tropics, some hoverflies (family Syrphidae) have evolved to look like orchid bees. Several species of the genus Copestylum resemble Euglossa species and they are often found foraging near active orchid bees. Even more interesting is Genus Ornidia, which bears a strong visual resemblance to some Euglossa species, and even copies some of the bees behavior.

Orchid bee-mimicking hoverfly (Ornidia obesa) feeding, Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Orchid bee-mimicking hoverfly (Ornidia obesa) feeding. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

The genus Ornidia contains five species, all have shiny metallic colors and body structure that resemble those of orchid bees. Their legs in particular are thick and robust to look more like bee-legs than the typical skinny legs of hoverflies. Ornidia are distributed mainly in the tropical regions of Latin America, however one species, Ornidia obesa, reaches the southern United States and has also spread into the Afrotropical, Oriental regions and Oceania, probably due to human activity. Ornidia flies are quite common and they are frequently found close to human habitations.

Despite having hairs covering their body, Ornidia flies are extremely shiny, almost like small mirrors.

Despite having hairs covering their body, Ornidia flies are extremely shiny, almost like small mirrors.

These beautiful flies can be observed safely even from a close distance. They are not very skittish, and usually when disturbed they quickly take off, hover in the area for a few seconds, and return to the same perch. It is especially rewarding to watch them warming up during the morning hours, when they hover in a single spot for a while, trying to catch some sun rays penetrating through the canopy. The loud buzzing sound produced by their wings during flight is very similar to that of Euglossa species. During flight, the fly also displays a behavior that appears to mimic orchid bee behavior: it crosses its legs several times, similarly to a male Euglossa transferring fragrant compounds to the hind tibiae, or alternatively to a female Euglossa transferring resin to the hind legs.

Closeup on the head of Ornidia obesa. The clypeus area (front of head) is exceptionally beautiful and mimics Euglossa's clypeus quite faithfully.

Closeup on the head of Ornidia obesa. The clypeus area (front of head) is exceptionally beautiful and mimics Euglossa‘s clypeus quite faithfully.

The adult flies feed mainly on liquid food such as nectar and animal feces, but can also take small-sized particles like pollen and fragments of decomposing organic matter. Ornidia larvae are generalist feeders and seem to exploit various food sources to complete their development. Firstly, they can be found in rotting fruits, leaf litter and compost piles. Several interesting papers report the larvae to feed even on vertebrate corpses, suggesting the potential use of these maggots for forensic work. Lastly, Ornidia larvae were also found to cause intestinal myiasis in humans, after being ingested with infested food. Nevertheless, these flies pose no threat to us; Myiasis caused by Ornidia larvae is rare relatively to other fly species, the flies have plenty of abundant food in their habitat and there are no records of Ornidia flies completing their development inside a human host.

Copestylum viridis is a small species of hoverfly that, like Ornidia obesa, mimics Euglossa bees. This species is often seen feeding near active orchid bees. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Copestylum viridis is a small species of hoverfly that, like Ornidia obesa, mimics Euglossa bees. This species is often seen feeding near active orchid bees. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

How would a fly benefit from looking like an orchid bee? As I mentioned in my post about Euglossinae, these bees are not very aggressive due to their solitary lifestyle. However, the flies may still benefit from this mimicry because the bees are dominant in the rainforest habitat. The female orchid bees have a stinger and can deliver a painful sting, this alone can deter a predator. In addition, the highly territorial male orchid bees are usually left alone by other flying insects. The mimicking flies take advantage of the fact that orchid bees are common and recognized by other animals, including predators.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Orchid Bees

Whenever I visit Latin America I make sure to leave some time for observing orchid bees in activity. This means my morning routine is usually very brief: a quick breakfast, some reorganization of gear from the previous night hike, and heading out. The bees are usually active between 7:30-11am, so it is a race against the clock to locate them in the rainforest.

A month ago I posted a photo on my social media accounts showing a group of Euglossa bees collecting fungus threads from tree bark in Costa Rica. Since then, this photo has become very popular and has been shared and retweeted thousands of times (unfortunately, a big chunk of these shares is by people who uploaded the photo to their pages without my permission). This is currently my most shared photo to date. Even as of writing this post, one month after posting the photo, it still generates new likes, shares, and comments. In fact, the title of this post, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Orchid Bees”, is taken directly from the comments, as some people noted the photo reminded them of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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

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

While I will argue that in order to truly appreciate the beauty of orchid bees one must observe them from a close distance, this photo does represent well their diversity (showing three distinct Euglossa species) and variation (the “red” and “orange” bees belong to the same species). Soon after the photo spread through the internet I was flooded with questions about orchid bees, so I thought it would make a nice opportunity to write a post about them and address some of the inquiries.

That orange bee (Euglossa hansoni) from the group photo above? This is what it looks like when viewed from up close. Words cannot describe this beauty.

That orange bee (Euglossa hansoni) from the group photo above? This is what it looks like when viewed from up close. Words cannot describe this beauty.

Are you sure these are not flies? Despite bearing a strong resemblance to bottle flies, these insects are indeed bees: orchid bees are members of tribe Euglossini which contains five genera: Euglossa, Eulaema, Eufriesea, Exaerete and Aglae. They are somewhat closely related to the eusocial honey bees and bumblebees, however most orchid bees lead a solitary lifestyle. The genera Exaerete and Aglae are cleptoparasites, developing in the nests of other orchid bees. There are about 200 species of orchid bees, distributed only in the Americas, mostly in Central and South America. Only one species occurs in the United States. Like many other bees, orchid bees collect nectar, pollen and resin from plants. They can be distinguished from other bees by their shiny metallic coloration and their extremely long tongues, which can be twice the length of the body. Most of the time the tongue is folded underneath the body and extends behind the abdomen.

Orchid bees can be easily found near fragrant orchids. This male was spotted hovering near a vanilla flower. Photographed in Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

Orchid bees can be easily found near fragrant orchids. This male was spotted hovering near a vanilla flower. Photographed in Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting resin from tree bark. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting resin from tree bark. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Are they dangerous? Can they sting? Orchid bees are far less dangerous than honey bees. Being solitary (excluding a few species that are communal), orchid bees have no colony or a queen to defend. That being said, female orchid bees do possess a stinger, which they will not hesitate to use when threatened. Interestingly, the females are very rarely encountered. I have encountered them only near stream banks, collecting clay mud for construction of their nest. Most of the bees observed in the rainforest are males. Although their folded tongue sticking behind the abdomen may look like a stinger, males have no stinger and pose no danger to anyone.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) in mid-flight, showing its long tonguefolded underneath the body. This is not a stinger! Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) in mid-flight, showing its long tongue folded underneath the body. This is not a stinger! Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Why are they called orchid bees? Male orchid bees exhibit an interesting and unique behavior – fragrance collection. They collect and store different volatile compounds, some of which are found in orchid flowers. To get the right mixture of chemicals, they sometimes travel long distances in flight. Being able to detect the tiniest amount of a desired compound in the air, the bees home-in on the scent column and navigate to it with impressive accuracy. Once landed at the site, the males scrape the odorous compounds using modified brushes on their forelegs, and then while in mid-air transfer and press them into special storage chambers in their hind legs. The process is repeated until the bee has collected enough of the chemical. The purpose of collecting the fragrant compounds is not entirely clear, but it is strongly believed that they play an important role in mate choice by the females, just as perfume is used to attract a mate in humans.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. Note the long hairs on the forelegs that assist in scraping the chemicals. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. Note the long hairs on the forelegs that assist in scraping the chemicals. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. The chemicals are stored in special chambers located in hind tibia. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Male orchid bee (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from tree bark. The chemicals are stored in special chambers located in hind tibia. Photographed in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador

To collect a variety of scents, the bees visit primarily orchids flowers, but also other flowers, tree wounds, fungi and even corpses. One species was even recorded collecting the insecticide DDT without suffering any damage from the chemical.
The fragrance collection behavior allows the attraction of males using different baits containing essential oils, and can be useful for biologists to learn about their seasonal abundance and diversity.

A carefully selected site for bating orchid bees can attract a few dozens of males, as seen here. Photographed in Cayo District, Belize

A carefully selected site for bating orchid bees can attract a few dozens of males, as seen here. Photographed in Cayo District, Belize

Some fragrant orchids have evolved different adaptations to take advantage of this perfume-seeking behavior, which involve the male bees pushing or crawling into the flowers, triggering a mechanism that glues a pair of pollen packets (called pollinia or pollinaria, depending on the type of plant tissue involved) on the bee’s head or thorax. These pollen packets will travel with the male bee to the next flower to complete the pollination process.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa cyanura) pollinating the orchid Gongora maculata. Note the pollen packets glued on the bee's back. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Male orchid bee (Euglossa cyanura) pollinating the orchid Gongora maculata. Note the pollen packets glued on the bee’s back. Photographed in Toledo District, Belize

Why are orchid bees so colorful? This question is a hard one to answer. The metallic color does not seem to have a clear function. However, it is important to note that not all orchid bees are colorful. While members of genera Euglossa, Exaerete and Aglae are flashy with colors ranging from gold, red and green to blue and violet, members of Eulaema and Eufriesea are less showy and sport dark colors and a thick coat of hairs, which make them look like fuzzy bumblebees.

Representatives of three Euglossini genera, left to right: Eulaema seabrai, Euglossa intersecta and Exaerete smaragdina.

Representatives of three Euglossini genera, left to right: Eulaema seabrai, Euglossa intersecta and Exaerete smaragdina.

Orchid bees are fascinating insects that can be observed safely without the need for special equipment or prior preparation. I would like to share with you something I like to do when I find a group of male bees in activity: I approach slowly and place my head close to their gathering spot. The bees are so busy closing in on the scent cone that they are not bothered by my presence. Then I close my eyes. The loud buzzing sounds piercing through the air make me feel like I am standing right in the middle of an insectopian highway. It is quite a unique sensation. Try it. You won’t regret.

Two horned darkling beetle – Neomida bicornis

Last week I met with Catherine Scott and Sean McCann, two talented naturalists and spider-enthusiasts (Catherine studies the mating behavior of black widows, and if you haven’t already, I recommend following her live tweets from experiments). It was great to go hiking together in the snow-covered woods, looking for arthropods hidden inside fallen logs. Before we went on the hike, they brought me a few entomological presents, one of them were lovely beetles that they found during a trip a week earlier.

A pair of two-horned darkling beetles (Neomida bicornis). Ontario, Canada

A pair of two-horned darkling beetles (Neomida bicornis). Ontario, Canada

These magnificent beetles are Neomida bicornis, a species of fungus-feeding darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae). They are tiny, measuring only a couple of millimeters in length. To the untrained eye they do not even look like darkling beetles, these beetles are like jewels! Their body is very shiny, metallic green in color. The elytra have a bluish tint. Populations of Neomida bicornis in southern North America have an orange pronotum (a true feast of colors, for a darkling beetle at least). The males are characterized by four horns, two of which prominent between the eyes, and two smaller ones on the clypeus (=lip area) above the mouth. The females have no horns. I admit, I have a soft spot for horned insects. What a fabulous gift, thanks again you guys!

These beetle are tiny! That’s the tip of a regular ruler with a millimeters scale.

Female two-horned darkling beetle (Neomida bicornis). Ontario, Canada

The female two-horned darkling beetle (Neomida bicornis) is hornless

This species is not rare, but its way of life makes it hard to find: the adults and larvae feed on bracket fungi (polypores) and burrow into this tough substrate, creating inner galleries. According to Sean, these beetles were active inside the mushroom despite the somewhat low ambient temperatures. From what I learned about eastern North American fungus-feeding tenebrionids, they have overlapping generations. In other words, both adult beetles and their larvae can overwinter inside the mushrooms. I will probably try to confirm this at some point but first I need to find out how the larvae look like. They are not the only arthropods taking advantage of a polypore-type shelter from the cold weather.

Male two-horned darkling beetle (Neomida bicornis) inside a polypore mushroom. Ontario, Canada

Male two-horned darkling beetle (Neomida bicornis) inside a polypore mushroom

You cannot afford to buy this image

Several articles about Epomis that have been published over the last few months triggered an increase in public interest and the beetles’ popularity, followed by an avalanche of requests for image use from magazines and news agencies. I should be happy about this, if not for the small fact that most of these requests are for free or discounted images. I avoid mentioning anything about pricing for my photos here on the website. It is not that they are not for sale, on the contrary. My pricing is pretty standard for a wildlife photographer these days, and I even dare say it is competitive compared to stock agencies and other photographers’ rates. At this moment, I prefer to handle licensing requests on a case-to-case basis. I know that at some point, maybe when more people show interest, I will set up an e-commerce website offering prints.

That being said, I take the aspect of rarity into account when calculating my pricing. If my photograph shows a rare event, an unusual phenomenon or something other photographers are less likely to capture, I charge a higher rate. I admit that as of now I only have a handful of such photos, and as you might expect, some photos of Epomis beetles fall under this category. Case in point:

European green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis) being lured to hunt and getting attacked by a larva of Epomis dejeani. Several news agencies, while completely ignoring my pricing, requested to license this photo for what I can only call - pennies.

European green toad being lured to hunt and getting attacked by a larva of Epomis dejeani. Several news agencies, while completely ignoring my pricing, requested to license this photo for what I can only call – pennies.

Why do I rate these photos differently from the rest of my portfolio? Wouldn’t it be wiser to charge the same rate for each image? Pricing photographs is a bit of a controversial topic. While I will not go into pricing standards, many pro photographers agree that there is nothing more insulting than receiving requests from commercial entities for free images. Some of us already have our photos spreading through the internet after being stolen (Click here for an example. Unfortunately for me I was too late to stop this one from spreading). On the other end of the spectrum there are photographers who are happy to give photos away for a simple credit mention. I try not to judge, but I honestly cannot understand this approach. There is a lot involved financially when one decides to pursue professional photography. I love this analysis by John Mueller:

“It cost me $6,612 to take this photo.
$12 in gas to go from work to this spot and then home. The camera I took this with cost $2500. The lens was another $1600. The Singh Ray Reverse Neutral Density filter was $210. The Lee Wide-Angle Adapter and Foundation kit was another $200. The Slik Tripod was another $130. The shutter-release was another $60. When I got home, I uploaded it to a computer that cost me $1200, and then I used Lightroom 3 which I got for $200. I then exported it and tinkered with it in Photoshop which costs about $500.”

OK, maybe this is a little too extreme. If I took this approach to calculate the rate for my Epomis photo, including gear and traveling costs (this photo was taken in Israel after my relocation to Canada, so there was quite a bit of traveling involved) it would easily reach over $10K. Instead, let’s keep it simple, and I will include just one aspect that is frequently missed when reviewing photographs – time.

To most people, a photo is merely a click of a button. A perfect moment captured in time. However, I hold a slightly different opinion, which I expressed briefly in this post. You see, it took me two years to take the above photo. And I am saying this while omitting the +5 years I have been studying Epomis beetles, which gave me excellent insights on where and when to find them in the field. Knowing your subject is the key to getting good shots in the wildlife photography genre, yet it still took me another two years to get the shot. Why? This is where photographic technique comes into play. I planned this shot in my mind way before I traveled back to Israel to search for my subjects. I had to know exactly where to position and how to diffuse my lights, which moment to press the shutter, and for months I perfected my technique so that when I get to that decisive moment, in which I have only a split second to record the predation interaction, it would go as smooth as possible. And you know what? Even after all this planning it still took a few attempts to get the sequence the way I wanted it.

To summarize this rant, my hard-earned knowledge and level of expertise are not up for grabs. Definitely not at a discounted rate. Oh yes, this particular photo also consists of four different exposures. Maybe I should have mentioned this as well.


UPDATE (11 Mar, 2016): In the last 24 hours this post received a lot of attention, sparking an interesting discussion on FaceBook. After reading some of the comments, I want to clarify a few things:

* The pricing calculation that appears in quotes is NOT my pricing. I only brought it as an example to show the level of financial investment for the professional photographer. If you read on, you learn that I am more realistic and do not price my photos this way.

* I know I made it sound like I never allow to use my photos free of charge but I assure you this is not the case. For most personal use, in-class educational use and scientific presentations I do not charge a fee. Other non-profit use is evaluated on a case-to-case basis, but I am very flexible in my terms. If I supply high quality photos I expect to receive something equal in return, it does not have to be currency; in the past I received books, gift cards, bits of gear, accommodation and even research support in exchange for my photos.

* Also, it is OK if you do not agree with my opinion. If you want to give your photos away for free, go ahead. I do not like it because it causes depreciation of other photographers’ work, but I cannot stop you. However, if one day you choose to start viewing your creations as valuable and decide to charge a fee for their use, making that transition from charging nothing will be hard for you, take it from someone who has been in that stage.

Good times to celebrate the diversity of Amblypygi

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by arachnids. Their high diversity, which includes a variety of morphological and behavioral adaptations, is impressive. It might be surprising though that my favorite arachnid group is not spiders, but a relatively small and not-so-diverse order: whip spiders (Amblypygi).

Juvenile <em>Heterophrynus batesii</em> from the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador

Juvenile Heterophrynus batesii from the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. The bright coloration and cute proportions fade as the amblypygid grows older.

I find it amusing that despite my obsession with Amblypygi, I have not yet written anything about them. This website had a gallery of whip spider photos since day one, but I guess I have been waiting for a good opportunity to mention them on the blog, and there is no better time than right now. A recent publication by my colleagues, describing eight new species of whip spiders found in Brazil, has given this group the much-deserved public attention.

<em>Charinus</em> sp. from Belize

Charinus is a genus of relatively small-sized whip spiders with a worldwide distribution. New species are discovered almost annually (the species described in the above mentioned paper are all members of this genus). This one is another new species from Belize soon to be formally described.

Despite their common name (see footnote †) and general appearance, whip spiders are very different from spiders. They cannot spin silk and therefore have no webs. Their first pair of legs has evolved into long, antennae-like sensory organs, which are used for navigation, detection and manipulation of prey, and social communication. It is ironic that what makes whip spiders so visually appealing to some people (myself included), is the same thing that makes them terrifying for other people: the raptorial pedipalps. Enlarged and armed with strong spines, the pedipalps are used as a catching basket for grabbing and impaling prey. They are also used in mating and fighting rituals. The long, spiny “grabbers” make many people cringe in fear at the sight of a whip spider. But make no mistake: these animals are completely harmless to us. They do not have venom, they cannot sting and never bite, and they will do whatever they can to avoid confrontation with a human. It is therefore unfortunate that whip spiders are often if not always used to provoke feelings of fear and disgust, as seen in TV programs such as “Fear Factor” and movies like “Harry Potter” (see footnote ‡).

Adult male <em>Heterophrynus batesii</em> with impressive pedipalp armature

Adult male Heterophrynus batesii with impressive pedipalp armature. This is the same species shown in the first photo above.

<em>Paraphrynus raptator</em> feeding on an assassin bug

Paraphrynus raptator feeding on an assassin bug. The spiny pedipalps are used to impale the prey and bring it closer to the mouth.

For a shy animal, whip spiders sure pack a lot of character. This is something I will address in several future posts. But newly discovered species of whip spiders are always a cause for a celebration. The new paper puts Brazil in competition with Mexico for the title ‘Country with the highest diversity of Amblypygi’ (Brazil wins. For now). One of the possible explanations for the high diversity is the large continental area within the borders of each country, following a classic principle in Ecology that says species richness increases with area. Under the same principle, the smaller neighboring countries are expected to have less species, and this is indeed what we are seeing. Or is it? There might be another reason involved. Because the small order Amblypygi is of no economical and medical importance it is often understudied, so it is very possible that the low amblypygid diversity seen in other countries reflects a lack of research or difficulties in sampling. A similar trend can be found for other groups of organisms sharing the same attributes. It all points to a problem: basic natural history and taxonomic research is becoming less common and receives fewer support, while our conservation efforts aim higher every year. This creates a conflict – how can you protect something if you do not know about its existence? And indeed, the authors of the paper discuss the issue of conservation. The newly discovered whip spiders may already be endangered due to habitat destruction by humans. Nevertheless, their formal description gives them a valid status, and together with other native plants and animals in need of protection, this serves as an incentive for conservation of their natural habitat.

Juvenile <em>Phrynus parvulus</em> found on a moss-covered tree trunk in southern Belize.

Juvenile Phrynus parvulus found on a moss-covered tree trunk in southern Belize.


† There is a bit of a confusion around the common name for Amblypygi, as several different names exist. I prefer to call them amblypygids, referring to the scientific name of the group, but if I am forced to use a common name I go with whip spiders. One other frequently used common name is tailless-whip scorpions, which refers to their tailed relatives, the whip scorpions or vinegaroons, members of order Thelyphonida (formerly Uropygi). I completely disagree with the use of tailless whip scorpions as a name for Amblypygi. A large taxonomic group cannot be defined by something it does not have, unless this character is found by default in all other related groups. If you disagree, please consider why humans are not called “tailless monkeys”.

‡ One example in particular that I find infuriating is a series of videos recently turned viral, showing a person literally abusing whip spiders to the point that the animal has no choice but to attack using its pedipalps. Because of my deep interest in amblypygids these sickening videos have been forwarded to me multiple times by friends who thought I might like them. Interestingly, the person who made these videos actually loves arthropods, yet he seems to be unaware that his videos are spreading hate and misinformation towards these remarkable arachnids, not to mention the pointless abuse and stress of wild-caught animals (I have never gone after someone with the goal of publicly shaming them and will not mention any names; those who have seen the videos know the guy and what I am talking about).

A moment of creativity: A bite from a wandering spider (Phoneutria)

I think the best way to start this post is right at the end. This is me getting tagged by a wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis), one of the most venomous and defensive spiders in the world.

Wandering spider (<em>Phoneutria boliviensis</em>) in mid-bite. Oh, the pain!

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in mid-bite. Oh, the pain!

These spiders possess a potent neurotoxic venom that, if delivered at a sufficient quantity, has the potential to kill an adult human. So, I got bitten and yet I am still alive to brag about this? What is going on?

Things are not always what they seem. This is not a real spider bite. In fact, this is not a spider. This animal is maybe 10% spider. I know one day my twisted sense of humor is going to get me into trouble. I should be careful not to ‘cry wolf’ too many times or I will be left with no friends who care for me.

You might remember that two years ago I encountered a wandering spider (also commonly known as banana spider) under my bed when I visited the Ecuadorian Amazon. That female was guarding her offspring, and what I did not know at the time is that they had already started to disperse from the nest. Some of them found their way into folds in my backpack and hitched a ride with me back home. This happens much more often than you would think. Every day small organisms such as insects, arachnids, snails, and also plant seeds, moss, and fungi find their way into new territories with our help whether we are aware of it or not. Now, there is no need to be alarmed – wandering spiders are not going to spread and take over North America. The vast majority of exotic “traveling” spiders are NOT even wandering spiders, and even if they do pop up every once in a while, the cold winter temperatures and low air humidity will finish them off. In my case, I had a dilemma: to kill the spiders immediately, or to keep them for a while in order to learn more and then donate them for scientific work. I chose the second option. It made more sense to use this opportunity to document this species’ natural history. For example, after two years, even with proper feeding, the spider did not reach its adult stage. They must be long-lived. I should also note that I have a background as a professional arthropod keeper so I knew what I was getting into. This is not something I would recommend to inexperienced hobbyists.

Wandering spider (<em>Phoneutria boliviensis</em>) aka banana spider in my kitchen.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) aka banana spider in my kitchen.

Since then, I have been meticulously following the baby spider, sometimes taking ridiculous photos that depict unrealistic situations. Surprisingly, this species seems tamer than its reputation suggests, but caution is always the key. After a while I started pondering the idea of creating an image of the spider in mid-bite. The original idea was to photograph it during feeding, but then a better idea came up. I waited months. Finally, I had what I needed – a fresh molt.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) molt.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) molt.

Yes, what you see in the photo opening this post is nothing but an empty shell. The spider itself was resting in its enclosure during the time I took the photo. Like I said, things are not always what they seem.

Even though this was not a real bite from a living spider, it was still painful. Those fangs (chelicerae) are extremely sharp, and they have no problem piercing through human skin. If you search online you will find photos of people handling Phoneutria spiders with bare hands. That, in my opinion, is pure irresponsibility and a lack of judgment. I will never, ever let these spiders anywhere near my hands. And neither should you. Learn to respect and admire these majestic animals from a distance.