One unlucky earwig

(or why you should not get attached to whatever you encounter in the wild)

Isn’t being outdoors the greatest thing in the world? Surrounded by the soothing beauty of nature, while observing species living together in harmony? It is easy to lose sense of reality sometimes. But things are not always what they seem, and this serenity is often deceiving. We do not like to think about it, but nature is a harsh environment. There is a constant struggle for survival, many animal and plant species compete with each other over resources and breeding space. In fact, many of the animals we humans encounter in the wild are already on their way out of the game, either due to senescence, diseases, pathogens or parasites. I always try to remind myself that if I stumble upon an elusive animal active beyond its normal activity time, and it is not startled by my presence, then something fishy is going on here.

That being said, I admit that many times my sound judgment is clouded by the sheer excitement of finding something I have never seen before. Case in point: During one of my visits to Mindo cloud forest in Ecuador, I came across a beautiful specimen of earwig.

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

In general, earwigs suffer from a bad reputation, or lack thereof. While many people simply ignore them because they do not find them interesting, others find them terrifying due to their menacing-looking pincers. Nevertheless, these animals are both fascinating and harmless. First, they have interesting behaviors. Pairs often construct a breeding chamber together, and females display maternal care, tending the eggs and baby earwigs until they can fend for themselves.

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.) guarding the entrance to its burrow. Breeding pairs of earwigs construct such chambers, where the female later cares for the brood. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.) guarding the entrance to its burrow. Breeding pairs of earwigs construct such chambers, where the female later cares for the brood. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Second, earwigs cannot cause any injury to us. They cannot bite, and they possess no stinger or venom. Some species have an unpleasant odor, but you should not go sniffing animals that sport a pair of pincers anyway… Earwigs are omnivorous, and although they mainly feed on plant matter, they often use their modified cerci (the pincers) to manipulate soft prey such as moths and insect larvae. Earwigs are usually seen crawling on the ground or on plants, clumsily dragging their elongated body. However, they are also good fliers – underneath those square leathery forewings are neatly folded flight wings. During flight they spread like a delicate fan.

Detail of an earwig wing. Ontario, Canada

Detail of an earwig wing. Ontario, Canada

The earwig I found in Mindo belonged to the genus Allostethus (family Labiduridae). It is a beautiful animal, with a length of up to 35mm, a shiny black body and orange legs, and each of its forewings is decorated with a bright orange patch. I found it active on a mossy tree trunk in broad daylight, something I should have regarded to as suspicious, as earwigs are nocturnal insects. In any case, I did not give it much thought and collected the specimen, hoping I could later get some behavioral shots of it preying.

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.), what a magnificent beast!

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.), what a magnificent beast!

However, I waited too long. In the evening the animal stopped moving and appeared dead. I was devastated. It still looked healthy, no signs of injury, starvation, or poisoning. I decided to keep it in the vial and moved on to other work. The next morning I had my first evidence of the culprit – the earwig started to grow some whitish “fur”.

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.) covered with entomophagic fungus. What a magnificent beast?

Giant earwig (Allostethus sp.) covered with entomophagic fungus. What a magnificent beast?

This was not, of course, fur per se, but small filaments indicating an infection by a parasitic fungus specifically feeding on insects. Parasitic entomophagic fungi (such as Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps) are extremely common in the tropics. Moreover, they are so diverse that many of their species are host-specific. In other words, a certain fungus species attacks only arthropods from a specific order or family. Typically, the growing fungus inside the still-living arthropod alters its normal behavior, causing it to roam in unusual locations, and often outside of its normal range of activity hours. In many cases the infected animal climbs on nearby tree trunks, branches, or positions itself on the underside of a leaf. This is done to allow better spread of spores from the fungus fruit bodies.

Detail of the fungus feeding on the earwig

Detail of the fungus feeding on the earwig

Seeing that stunning earwig giving in and dying was heartbreaking, but it is important to remember it happens every day in nature. When walking in a tropical forest, there are signs of death by entomophagic fungi all over the place. It is hard to avoid corpses of ants, grasshoppers, moths, and beetles, all with bright fungal horns and tubers sticking out of their bodies. However, it is extremely hard to predict if a living arthropod is already infected with the fungus or not. Many times I have seen insects that behaved like “zombies”, only to later find out that they were harboring a parasitoid wasp or a parasitic worm. Looking for early signs of a fungus infection is trickier, but at least now I am a little bit wiser. I will know what to do the next time I see an earwig climbing up a tree at daytime.

Art for scientists: Social media avatars by Ethan Kocak

If you are on twitter, you may have noticed many science peeps recently changing their profile photos to something more cartoonish, almost as if they turned into comic book heroes overnight. It has now become so common that I am surprised there are still people out there with regular profile photos.

The artist behind this interesting trend is Ethan Kocak (aka @blackmudpuppy on twitter). I first stumbled upon his work when one of the people I follow tweeted a page from his web comic “Black Mudpuppy”. It showed a young naturalist being bullied for her non-mainstream hobby, something I can easily relate to. The next page really broke my heart. As a kid I had to deal with the very same scenario countless times. Maybe I should elaborate on this one day when I sit to write my own origin story. That being said, “Black Mudpuppy” is not at all about a naturalist or a scientist. Created back in 2012, it tells the story of an Aztec god who was punished and has to spend his life trapped in the body of a salamander. I went ahead and read the whole comic and I must say, it is darn good. It is funny and action-packed, and more than anything the excellent storytelling is gripping. Also interesting to see how the artwork style has changed throughout the years. I also love the character design, and there is always a wink at pop culture and the world of herpetology. For example, the protagonist, Xolotl, sometimes looks like a salamander version of x-men’s wolverine, with the claws coming out of his head as external gills. His brother, Quezalcoatl, is modeled after…well, a Quetzalcoatlus.

But the profile pic initiative was something completely different. Kocak decided to see if his twitter followers, mostly science communication people, would be interested in a personalized avatar for their social media account. Early on in December he tweeted his idea, and almost immediately was flooded with requests.

Mark Martin is an avid microbiologist with a strong passion for tardigrades.

Mark Martin is an avid microbiologist with a strong passion for tardigrades.

After an intensive few weeks of drawing he managed to build quite an impressive collection of avatars (you can see a selection of it here), approaching a hundred completed drawings. Each one has a slightly different style, some are more realistic while others cartoonish. Some are stand alone pieces while others look like a panel taken out of a comic strip.

Andrew Farke is a paleontologist who also enjoys good homebrewed beer.

Andrew Farke is a paleontologist who also enjoys good homebrewed beer.

Joni Pini-Fitzsimmons is a marine biologist studying stingrays.

Joni Pini-Fitzsimmons is a marine biologist studying stingrays.

I could not help noticing that most avatars were of herpetologists.

Jennifer Moore is a conservation biologist and molecular ecologist focusing on reptiles and amphibians. OH MY GOD IS THAT A TUATARA???

Jennifer Moore is a conservation biologist and molecular ecologist focusing on reptiles and amphibians. OH MY GOD IS THAT A TUATARA???

Mark Mandica is the founder and CEO of The Amphibian Foundation Inc, dedicated to the conservation of those lovely animals.

Mark Mandica is the founder and CEO of The Amphibian Foundation Inc, dedicated to the conservation of those lovely animals.

Kocak has an unusual talent for drawing reptiles and amphibians, especially salamanders. I felt however, that entomologists are underrepresented in his gallery (I mean, come on ento-people!). So I set out to request my own avatar.

I'm always on the lookout for Epomis larvae.

I’m always on the lookout for Epomis larvae.

And I dare say, I love it.
Not only Kocak managed to breathe life into what I had in mind, he also nailed it in his execution of my body posture and even my facial expression. And the funny part? We have never met in person. I’m impressed. Also, he was surprisingly fast. I asked him how many of these he gets to work on each night and he said he usually does 5-6 avatars in one sitting. I think the results are fantastic, and I hope to see him successfully turning his art into a secure source of income.

And as I was writing this post, I found out that he also did one for Catherine Scott, a fellow arachnologist and a good friend of mine:

Catherine Scott is an arachnologist studying the mating behavior of black widows.

Catherine Scott is an arachnologist studying the mating behavior of black widows.

So if you are in for a personalized caricature of yourself, Ethan tells me he enjoys doing them so he will continue to accept commissions as long as there is demand. You can contact him here, here and here. By the way, they are not just for scientists!

2016 in review: a heartfelt thank you

It is that time of the year again. Time to reflect on the passing year and look forward to what is coming next. I think a lot of people will agree that 2016 was a challenging year to live through. A lot of disappointing things happened, expectations shattered, and hopes lost. Although for me the year started on a good note, by mid-2016 I found myself fighting deteriorating health and then later suffering through a depression due to a failing relationship. It was one hell of a ride, I was on the brink of mental collapse, and just when I was starting to recover my computer crashed, deleting most of my archives in the process. And I thought 2013 was bad. Little did I know.

But putting all these unfortunate events aside, 2016 was not all bad. Even with my mishaps, there were some parts of my life that needed resetting. Nothing was lost during the computer crash because I meticulously back up my most important stuff (if there is one advice I can give you for the new year, it is to back up your files. Do it RIGHT NOW). In fact, I have so much to be grateful for. I can honestly say that this year I finally feel like I got some recognition. It started with a nice article about Epomis beetles on WIRED, and continued with a few blog posts that became very popular and attracted more followers. After years of avoidance I decided to join Twitter, and even though I am still a novice there I enjoy the interaction with other people. I managed to publish a few scientific papers, including the descriptions of new species. I even gave a filmed interview for BBC’s “Nature’s Weirdest Events” which was aired a few days ago. However, what really stood out for me this year is that I got to know a lot of people. Many people, some of whom I have never met, offered their support during my rough days. I was honored to participate in Entomological Society of Ontario’s “Bug Day Ottawa”, where I exposed the public to the wonderful world of whip spiders. I was also fortunate to personally meet up with fascinating people that I have previously known only from their online presence. I would like to extend my gratitude to everyone responsible for making my life so much more meaningful and enjoyable.

Thank you. All of you.

 

I bet you want to see some photos. Because what is a photographer’s annual summary without some photos?

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Encountering this species was one of my highlights for the year. I know Macrodontia cervicornis very well from museum insect collections. It is one of the most impressive beetle species in the world, both in size and structure. But I never imagined I would be seeing a live one in the wild! Well let me tell you, it is hard to get over the initial impression. The male beetle that I found was not the biggest specimen, but the way it moved around still made it appear like nothing short of a monster. This species is very defensive, and getting close for the wide angle macro shot was a bit risky. The beetle responds to any approaching object with a swift biting action, and those jaws are powerful enough to cut through thick wooden branches, not to mention fingers!

The most perfectly timed photo

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

I have been observing orchid bees for a few years now. It is one of those rewarding experiences that I recommend to anyone with an interest in the natural world. While visiting Costa Rica I was fortunate to snap the above photo, showing four differently colored bees active together at the same spot. A second later the bees started to fight and eventually scattered. The photo drew a lot of attention and became viral, initiating interesting correspondences and new friendships, for which I will be forever thankful.

Best behavior shot

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

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

I have always wanted a photo showing a Panacanthus cuspidatus in its charismatic threat display. However, this photo is a bit misleading. The spiny devil katydid is actually a very cute and shy animal that prefers to hide rather than attack a huge predator. It took quite a lot of “convincing” to release this behavior.

The best non-animal photo

"Silkhenge" spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

“Silkhenge” spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

OK, I am going to cheat a little in this category. This photo is not exactly non-animal because it is an animal-made structure. The “silkhenge” structure is a story that gained a lot of attention in the past few years. Initially spotted in Peru by Troy Alexander, and later revealed to the world by entomologists Phil Torres and Aaron Pomerantz, this is a intricate spider egg sac, along with a protective “fence”. While the photo is ok at best, I was extremely excited to discover this structure in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The spider species responsible for this structure is still unknown at this point (although I have my own guess for its ID).

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid's wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid’s wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Another photo that I am very satisfied with is this interesting view of the bright colors hidden on the underside of a leaf-mimicking katydid. It belongs to my “This is not a leaf” series of closeups on katydids’ wings.

The best photo of an elusive subject

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

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

In 2015 I traveled to Mindo, Ecuador in hopes to find a horned fly that Paul Bertner photographed a few years back. I managed to find it, but was unhappy with the results. I returned to the same place this year, hoping to get a better photo. But oh my, these flies are annoyingly skittish. Watch this space for an upcoming post about my experience photographing them.

The best natural phenomenon observed

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

This photo is another highlight for me, because it depicts several interconnected biological interactions. The ants are shown tending a camouflaged treehopper to gain access to sweet honeydew secreted by the sap-sucking insect. The female treehopper is guarding her eggs, hidden in a foamy protective cover in the leaf’s central vein. And finally, there is a red parasitic mite feeding on the treehopper.

The best stacked photo

The focus-stacked image of the antlered caterpillar at the end of this post took hours to produce, and I am very satisfied with the result. However, for this category I decided to choose something a little different.

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

This landscape shot is actually not focus-stacked, but exposure-stacked. I was not carrying a tripod with me during that day but I still wanted to capture the majestic beauty of Albion falls located in Ontario, Canada. Exposure stacking and blending was a completely new technique for me, and I like how the final image turned out. It almost looks like a remote exotic location. I cannot believe this place is just a couple of hours from where I live.

The best wide-angle macro

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

“Arghhh! I have pollen in my eye!” Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

I really tried to push myself to the limits this year with wide angle macrophotography. Most of my attempts were of capturing pollinating insects in action, but I also tested my capabilities in other scenarios. For example, the following photo was taken using the simplest setup I have – a cheap, unmodified pancake lens and the camera’s built-in popup flash:

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

I also worked on perfecting results from more frequently-used setups:

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Best of the year

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

The above photo of a Costa Rican glass frog is probably my personal favorite from 2016. If you critically evaluate your photography work on a regular basis, it is not very often that you find yourself looking at a photograph without being able to find anything wrong with it. In the case of this photo, everything is just the way I wanted it to be. Perfect.

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

This photo would probably not be in my “best of 2016” if it weren’t for the huge positive response from other people. This is a katydid species I have encountered many times in Ecuador, yet I could not believe my eyes when I saw how brightly colored this individual was. I posted the photo on social media and it caught on like wildfire and went viral. Some people even accused me of altering the natural colors of the katydid in photoshop. And I wonder, what a time to be alive. You travel to a remote place to bring back a piece of beautiful nature to share with others, and no one believes it is real. It makes me sad.

So yes, 2016 was not easy, then again it is just a number that does not mean anything. 2017 will most likely be just as challenging. We survived last year’s events, let’s see what comes next. Bring it on!

One more thing…

To properly welcome the new year, I am offering a product for the first time. It is a calendar containing selected photographs of one of my favorite groups of insects, the orthopterans. If you do not have a 2017 calendar yet, or if you already got one but would still like to have nice photos of katydids and grasshoppers on your wall to look at, please consider ordering one. The candy-colored katydid is featured there too!

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

USA holidays calendar :
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-usa-holidays/calendar/product-22988977.html

Canadian holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-canada-holidays/calendar/product-22990362.html

Israeli/Jewish holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-israeli-holidays/calendar/product-22989647.html

 

Diaethria – a festive caterpillar with antlers!

In my last trip to the Amazon basin of Ecuador I had the fortune of meeting Paul Bertner, an acclaimed photographer and adventurer. I have been following his image posts and trip reports since I cannot remember when (and you should too!), and was excited to spend some time in the field with him, in hopes of learning some new tricks. It was great fun to discover hidden gems in the rainforest together, while discussing arthropod biology, conservation and photography.

During one of our night hikes we came across a tiny green caterpillar that was resting on a silky retreat on top of a leaf. At first glance it did not look very special, but then I noticed that its head featured two enormous antler-like horns. The horns were almost half the caterpillar’s body length! They were not simple straight horns, but rather complex structures that included many branches and hairs. I recognized the caterpillar as a member of tribe Biblidinae in the butterfly family Nymphalidae, but only later learned that it belongs to genus Diaethria.

Eighty-eight caterpillar (Diaethria sp.) with complex antler-like horns. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Eighty-eight caterpillar (Diaethria sp.) with complex antler-like horns. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Despite their small size, Diaethria butterflies are quite well-known thanks to the characteristic pattern on the underside of their hindwings. Circular bands in black and white surrounding black dots, giving the impression of the letters BB, Bd or the the numbers 88, 89, 69 etc’. The common names “88 butterfly” and “89 butterfly” are typically used for species in this genus. They are often seen puddling – an interesting behavior in which butterflies take up minerals from mud, sweat and feces.

Eighty-eight caterpillar (Diaethria sp.) is sometimes seen waving its horns while walking.

Eighty-eight caterpillar (Diaethria sp.) is sometimes seen waving its horns while walking.

Upon seeing the caterpillar I knew exactly how I want to photograph it. I wanted a frontal, head-on photo of the caterpillar’s head with the antlers stretched up in their full glory. What photo is more suitable for the holiday season than a festive caterpillar? Unfortunately, I did not have my high magnification MP-E lens with me (as mentioned, the caterpillar was tiny), so I gently collected it to photograph later. Let me tell you, photographing it was not an easy task. It seems that the caterpillar’s default behavior is to rest face down on the leaf, preventing any view of its antlers other than a dorsal one. It literally took hours to get it to change position, and I had to come up with a creative solution to get something remotely similar to the photo I had in mind.

This deer-mimicking caterpillar wishes you happy holidays and a happy new year!

This deer-mimicking caterpillar wishes you happy holidays and a happy new year!

One question that comes to mind is how do these caterpillars molt with such long head protrusions? Do the horns come out already stretched from the old head capsule or are they compressed as horn “buds” that inflate later? And what are those horns good for? They are most likely an adaptation against predators, but it is hard to say exactly how they are used. They can be used as defense to push away ants from attacking the caterpillar, or maybe the caterpillar drives away parasitoid wasps by waving the antlers from side to side. Hopefully someone will be able to document their function in the future and shed light on these remarkable structures.

 

About bullying and image use

In the past few days there is a sense of increasing tension in the air. Whether it is due to events that happened during this week or something else, I felt like I should do something to calm the spirits down, before people around me start losing their common sense or succumb to depression. So I decided to post some images that I think are calming, together with some optimistic words. Everything is going to be alright.

However, I just want to ask something that seems obvious to me but might not be so straight forward to other people: Please be respectful and considerate of others, especially if you are commenting on someone else’s work or lifestyle. No bullying please. More specifically, if you decide to share my images, and you use them to spread hate towards nature, or if you share them while personally insulting me or one of my colleagues or friends, I will not only take your post down but I will also block you from all my social media accounts. There is a page dedicated to image use on this website, make sure you head over there to read it before using my images to promote your agenda.

Case in point: In the context mentioned above, I shared a photo of a baby velvet worm on my Facebook account a couple of days ago, along with some comforting words. For the most part it was positively received, at least until one person decided to make a negative comment… For the sake of privacy, I will call her M.

bullying-1M is a stranger to me. I have never met her in person or talked with her before. She reached my post because we have a mutual friend, H, who commented on my photo. M went ahead and allowed herself to bash H for expressing her fondness for the photo.
bullying-2I replied, clarifying that there is no place for negativity on my timeline, especially when the original purpose of this post was to help people relax. I advised M to hide my post on her feed if she is bothered by it.
bullying-3M replied:
bullying-4bOh M. My frustration is not with you insulting the critter. The animal does not know you and in fact could not care less about you. It is over the fact that you show no respect towards other people and their interests.
I am not a native English speaker, so I had to look up the meaning of razz. It means to tease. Now correct me if I am wrong, but teasing someone for their passion or livelihood (in this case, M’s sister-in-law’s sister, who is a naturalist), and adding insults while you are at it, does not sound funny to me. That’s not joking. That’s bullying.

You cannot insult someone and then when finally confronted about it, avoid taking responsibility for what you have done by saying you were only joking. From the insulted person’s perspective, the damage has already been done. Believe me when I say this, I have had my fair share of abusive relationships, even during my professional training. I know exactly what I am taking about. Instead of being compassionate and understanding that there may be people out there with different interests than hers, M decides for everyone what is worth spending time on and what is not. Thank you for your contribution, M. Please tell me more what you think I should be doing with my life.

By the time M finished writing her comments I was already away from my computer and I did not see them. In her defense, she did remove my photo from her timeline. Two of my friends, professional biologists, noticed the string of comments and took the initiative to reply. Their answer reflects my opinion exactly (thank you!).
bullying-5Now, this could have very well been the end of it, if it wasn’t for the fact that M decided to re-share my post on her timeline, but this time with a big insult plastered all over it, calling me out on my awful behavior: “…this is the original post by Gil Wizen that I was called out for… F*** HIM. Who is he to tell me what I can put on my timeline??” she wrote. Well my dear M, I will tell you exactly who I am. I am the sole creator of the very content you are using to spread this negativity in the form of hate. And I say no. You cannot use it for this purpose. Sue me.

This whole incident angers me. A lot. Not only M was rude and disrespectful to me and to pretty much every naturalist out there, but she also went ahead and tried to directly insult me publicly. I tried to keep my cool about this. I know she did not mean any harm. Maybe she saw our constructive criticism as an attack on her personal beliefs. Fair enough. However, that name-bashing online defamation that she went with at the end? That is unforgivable in my book.

Needless to say I ended up blocking M. I did not do this as a result of anger or frustration. She does not enjoy seeing images of critters on her Facebook feed, and that is completely fine. She is entitled to her own opinion. I blocked M to protect her. Things can escalate and get out of control fairly quickly online, and I was trying to avoid a verbal execution by a lynch mob. I do not think that would have happened, but I did not want to find out. I just want to reiterate that bullying is a crappy way of showing someone you care about them. And if you bully because do not care about that person, if the only thing you can afford to be is inhumane, then what the hell are you doing with your life? If anything, the entomological community proved that it can stand up against bullies when they attack one of us (here and here are two recent examples). But it does not have to get to this. Come on, people. We can do better.

Baby velvet worm (Oroperipatus ecuadoriensis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

The photo from the original post. Are you grossed by this creature? Well, that’s just too bad.

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.