Review: Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

The Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens has been around on the market for several years now. I mentioned it briefly in my series of posts about wide-angle macro photography. It is currently the only wide-angle lens capable of achieving 1:1 magnification ratio. When I first heard about this lens I was intrigued to say the least, but also immediately put off by the lack of automatic aperture control (I no longer see this is a problem – more on this later). Still I was curious about it and was waiting for a chance to give it a try. Fortunately, an opportunity to play with the lens came up during my last trip to Ecuador. My initial impression was that of – oh boy, this lens is a lot of fun. I was therefore delighted when Venus Optics Laowa contacted me a few months ago and asked if I wanted to give the lens a thorough test run. Despite this fact, this is not a paid review and the content below is based entirely on my personal impressions.

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Also, this is not going to be a very technical review. If you are reading this post, I assume you already know the lens is lightweight, has full metal construction, a de-clicked aperture ring, and feature an innovative shift mechanism. What I am more interested in is its practical uses, more specifically – is it useful for wide angle macrophotography of small subjects?

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

After testing it for a while, I strongly believe that this is the most versatile lens existing on the market at the moment. It is a jack-of-all-trades. This is the one to choose when you can take only a single lens with you. However, no lens is perfect and the Laowa 15mm has its weak points (which I discuss below). I tested it on a crop sensor camera (APS-C). Unless otherwise mentioned, all photos in this post were taken at f/16 or close, with a twin macro flash used as a fill-light.

Lens attributes to note
Aside from its construction and weight, the Laowa 15mm lens is very sharp. Wide open it has very good sharpness in the center (corners are softer, typical for a wide angle lens), and it stays sharp all the way down to f/16. Diffraction starts creeping in and being noticeable at f/22, producing soft images. Overall I found f/11-f/16 to be perfect and most usable, but it depends on the desired result.

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

Chromatic aberration is typical for a wide angle lens, I did not see anything out of the ordinary. Of course if you shoot scenes that are very high in contrast (for example, sky peeking through the forest canopy) you will get very noticeable CA in the frame. If you like sunstars the good news is that this lens produces nice-looking 14-pointed sunstars. Lens flare is surprisingly well controlled in this lens. It comes with a detachable lens hood included in the box, but I never found myself using it.

Operation
The lens requires a break-in period similarly to other specialty lenses like Canon’s MP-E. The learning curve is steep at first.
Shooting with a stopped-down aperture darkens the viewfinder, making it difficult to track and focus on your subject. In this case liveview mode or a bright focusing light can help. Occasionally, when photographing with the sun behind your back the lens will cast a shadow over the subject. A setup with a diffused fill-flash is useful to light the scene. The lens can still be used in natural light, but you will benefit from holding a small reflector close to the lens in order to bounce some light onto your subject and eliminate the shadow from the front element.
One of the praised attributes of the Laowa 15mm lens is its ability to achieve 1:1 magnification ratio, taking it from wide angle to true macro realm. However, this is also its main shortcoming. Going to 1:1 will require you to get very close to the subject (about 4mm), at which point the large front element of the lens will cast a shadow over the subject, making it difficult to light it properly. I have seen creative solutions for this issue, so it is not entirely impossible.
The aperture ring is de-clicked and turns smoothly, but I found the focusing ring a bit to tight to turn. The position of the rings on the lens requires getting used to: the aperture ring sits at the front of the lens barrel, whereas the focusing ring is at the back (in sharp contrast to just about any other lens out there). I consider this a design flaw – I found myself mistakenly turning aperture ring when I intended to turn the focusing ring, and vice versa. It really does not help that the aperture ring is de-clicked in this case.

Wide Angle Macro
In my opinion this is the primary use of the Laowa 15mm lens. When used correctly, it gives an unparalleled perspective of the subject and its surroundings, shrinking us, the viewers, to become a part of its small-scale world. This is one of the only lenses on the market that can go from this:

Who's hiding here?

Who’s hiding here?

to this:

Can you spot it yet?

Can you spot it yet?

then this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

and finally this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

I find this flexibility incredible (but wait! There is more! Read on).
Here are some more examples for wide angle macro taken with the Laowa 15mm lens.

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Yellow hornet (Dolichovespula arenaria) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Yellow hornet (Dolichovespula arenaria) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

By the way, this lens produces very nice results for flower photography.

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Wide angle macro is not all about “taking it all in”. Here are some examples of this style with less emphasis on the surroundings.

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

The background rendering of the Laowa 15mm lens is unique and might be a little difficult to describe. A friend of mine described it as being “metallic”, and I somewhat agree.

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

The important thing to remember is that the closer you get to your subject and the higher magnification ratio you use, the more you are stepping into real macro and out of wide angle macro. This means that details in the background will become less and less noticeable. Even if you photograph with a closed aperture most of the background will be out of focus. See my next point.

Pure macro mode at 1:1
This is probably the lens’ most-discussed feature, but it is also its greatest weakness. I would even argue that one should not push this lens to the extreme of 1:1 magnification ratio. As a wide-angle lens it provides a wide DOF, however when taking it to the macro realm the background rendering is completely different and may putt off some users. Everything in the background turns into an unrecognized blurry mishmash. Unless you photograph a subject in a very dense or against a flat background, do not take this lens to 1:1. In fact, I would not take it anywhere above the 0.6:1 magnification ratio.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

That being said, it is still useful as a macro lens. The following two photographs were taken at f/8.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Landscape uses
I am not a dedicated landscape photographer, but will occasionally shoot the odd landscape if the opportunity presents itself. I tried the Laowa 15mm and the results are not too shabby. The following two photographs were taken at f/11.

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

“Microscope mode”
After experimenting a little with the wide-angle properties of the lens, I started wondering what else can be done with it. Let’s examine the properties of our lens here: it is an ultra wide-angle with a filter thread on the front of the lens, it has a manual aperture ring, and lastly it has a focusing range of 10cm to infinity. You can see where I am going with this. I am going to reverse-mount it.
You now understand why I no longer see the lack of auto aperture control as a disadvantage. When reverse-mounted the presence of a manual aperture ring comes as a blessing. Surprisingly the working distance for this high magnification (above x5.5 for APS-C cameras) is decent at a touch over 4cm. This is a lightweight alternative setup for Canon’s high magnification flagship, the MP-E 65mm. Keep in mind Venus Optics-Laowa are currently working on their own high magnification lens, which will be capable of 2-5x magnification.

One of the main difficulties at this high magnification is to figure out what to use it for. Many macro subjects are just too big to fit in the frame. Nevertheless using the Laowa 15mm reversed opens up a whole new world of possibilities. All of the following photographs were taken at f/5.6. My first attempts were on common household pests.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

I then moved to test the image quality of the reversed lens, using the classic “scales on a butterfly wing” approach. I was amazed by the sharpness of the lens when mounted this way. The DOF is shallow at this magnification, but this can be solved by tilting the lens towards the subject or focus stacking.

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

But what about typical macro subjects? No problem! The reversed Laowa 15mm can be used to photograph even larger subjects.

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Springtail found in decaying wood

Springtail found in decaying wood

You can even use the reversed 15mm as a base lens for a relay system. Why you would want to use one wide angle macro lens to build another wide angle macro lens system is beyond me, but it is possible. In any case, regarding reverse-mounting the Laowa 15mm, what I really want to know is how on earth no one has done this before? This lens is perfect for reverse-mounting if you are into microcosmos photography.

To summarize my impressions of the lens –

Pros:
– Super versatile lens
– Impressive focusing range, ~10cm to infinity
– Highest magnification ratio possible on a wide angle lens, up to 1:1 but even higher when reverse-mounted
– Excellent sharpness and image quality
– Manual aperture (if you plan to reverse-mount it)
– Lightweight, small size for a wide angle lens
– Shift mechanism (if angle distortion is an issue for you)

Cons:
– Manual, no auto aperture control, no auto focus
– Placement of focusing and aperture rings not intuitive. A clicked aperture ring would be nice to distinguish it from the focusing ring
– Extremely short working distance when using 1:1
– Background rendering may put off some users
– Large front element makes it difficult to sneak up on live subjects

So the question is who is this lens for? The way I see it, first and foremost it is for anyone with a desire to photograph medium-sized subjects in their habitat. It is perfect for photographing reptiles, amphibians, plants or mushrooms. Use with arthropods can vary depending on the subject and context, but the results can be impressive. Regardless, the Laowa 15mm lens is a jaw-dropping piece of gear. It is so versatile and can be used for several different styles and purposes.

You can buy the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens on Venus Optica Laowa’s website here.

Jumping spider mimicry in Brenthia moths

Many insects deploy mimicry to fool their predators into thinking they are highly defensive, venomous, or simply not to be messed with. A great fraction of mimicry cases involve adopting the appearance of ants, wasps, and spiders for these exact reasons. One of the most interesting cases, however, is predator mimicry: insects that take the appearance of their potential predators in order to expose them. I have already written about one such case in crambid moths, but in this post I want to present one of the classic examples for this mimicry in metalmark moths of the genus Brenthia.

At first glance, metalmark moths do not really resemble spiders. In my post about Petrophila moths I mentioned that observed spider mimicry might also be a case of pareidolia. In other words, we as humans seek familiar patterns surrounding us, so we recognize the image of a spider on the wings, but is it really mimicry? And indeed, after posting I was accused of having a strong imagination for thinking this is mimicry. There is a good point being made here – in the case of Petrophila there is a temporal barrier preventing the two from encountering each other under normal conditions. Petrophila moths are nocturnal while jumping spiders are diurnal. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such wing patterns in the insect world suggests that they have a role in the survival of those organisms.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) displaying its typical body posture, with wings raised like a peacock's tail.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) displaying its typical body posture, with wings raised like a peacock’s tail.

Brenthia moths are no different. It takes some imagination to strip them of their mothy characteristics to see the resemblance to jumping spiders. Members of family Choreutidae, the genus contains over 80 described species, all sharing the same appearance: a unique body posture, and wings patterns that are reminiscent of jumping spiders’ eyes. In fact their common name, metalmark moths, is due to the convincing “catchlight” area of the eyespots, often consisting of silvery scales. Brenthia species also move like jumping spiders, advancing by short bursts of movements while still retaining their wing display. Lastly, these moths are diurnal and can be seen active on top of leaves, just like salticid spiders. If you think it ends there for these moths in regards to anti-predator defenses, let me also add that their caterpillars deploy defense strategies as well. When alarmed, they launch themselves through holes chewed into the floor of their webbed feeding shelter, giving the term “teleporting through a wormhole” a new meaning.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) in frontal view, displaying wing patterns that resemble a jumping spider's face and legs.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) in frontal view, displaying wing patterns that resemble a jumping spider’s face and legs.

Brenthia moth (upper image) mimics jumping spiders (lower image) with wing markings, wing positioning, and posture. Figure from Rota and Wagner 2006 (drawing by Virginia Wagner).

Brenthia moth (upper image) mimics jumping spiders (lower image) with wing markings, wing positioning, and posture. Figure from Rota and Wagner 2006 (drawing by Virginia Wagner).

Portrait of a jumping spider (Phiale formosa). It is a little difficult to see the resemblance to the moth's wing patterns, but the important thing is that it works to the moth's benefit.

Portrait of a jumping spider (Phiale formosa). It is a little difficult to see the resemblance to the moth’s wing patterns, but the important thing is that it works to the moth’s benefit.

When discussing animals mimicking their predator, it is important to remember that we humans are not the target audience. This means that the imitator may not look too convincing in its mimicry to us, but still manages to trigger a desired response from said predator. However, when in doubt, the best way to know for sure is to put the suggested mimicry to the test through a series of experiments. Brenthia moths have become one of the best examples of spider-mimicking moths, thanks to rigorous testing. In their classic paper, Rota and Wagner placed the moths with their potential predators, jumping spiders of the species Phiale formosa, in arenas and recorded the outcome. They also used non-mimicking moths of the same size as control for the experiments. The results showed that the jumping spiders respond to Brenthia by displaying territorial behavior and waving their forelegs. In other words, upon noticing the Brenthia moths the spider predators immediately expose themselves. It comes as no surprise that Brenthia moths had a high survival rate in the experiments, as they could take off once the danger was revealed, avoiding predation. The control moths did not trigger a territorial response from the spiders and were preyed upon extensively.

Jumping spider (Phiale formosa) displaying territorial behavior in response to its own image. This is when the moth knows it is in danger.

Jumping spider (Phiale formosa) displaying territorial behavior in response to its own image. This is when the moth knows it is in danger.

One thing to keep in mind though is that this mimicry works well only because salticids are special among spiders. They do not make a web to capture prey, but instead rely on their excellent vision to detect prey. They are active predators, and therefore display a wide array of behaviors to communicate with other salticids. Jumping spiders will avoid other jumping spiders due to the risk of cannibalism. Brenthia moths take advantage of this behavior to get the higher ground by delaying the spider’s attack in order to escape. This makes them one of nature’s greatest con artists, but when survival is on the line, anything is kosher.

Papers mentioned in this post:

  • Rota, J, Wagner DL (2008) Wormholes, sensory nets and hypertrophied tactile setae: the extraordinary defence strategies of Brenthia caterpillars. Animal Behaviour 76(5): 1709-1713
  • Rota J, Wagner DL (2006) Predator Mimicry: Metalmark Moths Mimic Their Jumping Spider Predators. PLoS ONE 1(1): e45. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000045

Little Transformers: Dysodius

When I first came up with the idea of Little Transformers, what I had in mind were insects that can masquerade as other objects by changing their appearance or behavior. I consider myself a “mild” Transformers fan: I like the concept of entities taking the form of other things, very much like how mimicry or camouflage work in nature. I have said before that I am not a fan of the current iteration of Transformers, those movies are so bad. However, I am going to take advantage of the upcoming release of the new Transformers movie (and I cannot believe I am using this as my reasoning) to post about yet another Little Transformer. This one does not really transform though, but it sure looks like one of the robots in those films. While I am not sure who is behind the designs for the robots, it was clear right from the start that there is some insectoid perspective to their appearance. I have always preferred the simple “blocky” design of the original cartoon show, but I can see how that would not look very realistic.

As mentioned above, our Little Transformer may not pass as the best example for a mode-changer, but it has an alien-like appearance. Meet Dysodius, a bark bug that belongs to the family of flatbugs, Aradidae.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) crawling on a fallen log. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) crawling on a fallen log. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Aradidae are cryptic insects, spending most of their time hidden on or under bark, and inside fallen logs. They feed on fungi: at nighttime both adults and nymphs can be seen aggregating near fruit bodies of mushrooms, sticking their proboscis into the soft flesh. It is a fungi cocktail party, and everyone is invited! Some species of Aradidae even display parental care and protect their offspring. Aradids are incredibly flat, a character that helps them to squeeze into tight crevices and take advantage of the complex habitat that is the bark’s surface, in order to remain hidden from the ever-searching eyes of predators.

Lateral view of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus). So flat it could sit comfortably inside a paper envelope.

Lateral view of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus). So flat it could sit comfortably inside a paper envelope.

Members of genus Dysodius are particularly interesting because of the their unique body structure, featuring curved lobes protruding from the pronotum and a crown of “fins” surrounding their abdominal segments. They also have tiny wings, so tiny that it makes me wonder if these wings are truly functional and can create enough force to lift the insect off the ground.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), dorsal view

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), dorsal view

Dysodius are also very slow animals. They usually rely on their excellent camouflage rather than speed to avoid threats.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) camouflaged on a fallen log

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) camouflaged on a fallen log

Their body surface is rough and often mottled with moss-like splotches. It is also wettable just like tree bark, in other words the colors get darker when getting wet by rain (unlike the water-repellent integument of other bugs), ensuring that the insect is still camouflaged even in rainy conditions.

Bark bugs (Dysodius spp.) from Belize (left) and Ecuador (right) demonstrating different coloration and textures of the body surface.

Bark bugs (Dysodius spp.) from Belize (left) and Ecuador (right) demonstrating different coloration and textures of the body surface.

This begs the question why am I including Dysodius in the Little Transformers series? After all, these insects are already “transformed” and do not change their appearance any further. They already look like a piece of bark. To understand why they are mentioned within these posts, you need to view them from the underside.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), facial view. Am I the only one seeing a robot here?

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), facial view. Am I the only one seeing a robot here?

Aradidae, and Dysodius in particular, have one of the most robotic faces in the entire insect world, a face that could easily fit in the current Transformers movie franchise.
If you are not convinced yet, here is a closer look.

Portrait of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus)

Portrait of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus)

So if you think the Transformers movies are cool, insects do it better and have been doing it for far longer time. How does that quote from the trailer go?

“A thousand years we’ve kept it hidden. The secret history of Transformers…”

It was hidden all right. But not anymore. I am slowly unearthing this secret, exposing the existence of Transformers right here under our nose. You’re welcome.

Little Transformers: Pycnopalpa bicordata

It comes as no surprise that the first two “Little Transformers” presented on this blog were beetles. Many beetles are capable of folding, taking the shape of different structures, whether it is for camouflage or as a means of defense against predators. I will surely present more examples of transforming beetles in future posts. However, there are other insects out there that have the same transformation ability. I had the fortune of meeting one of those insects while staying at a jungle lodge in Honduras. My visit was in the middle of a dry spell and insects were surprisingly scarce. Many of the hikes I took in the rainforest were unfruitful. In my frustration I decided to check the screen windows outside a nearby facility because sometimes insects decide to rest on the mesh. I did spot a few nice finds, and then, I saw this.

"It's a bird! It's a plane!"

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane!”

My first thought was ‘that is one weird-looking moth’.
Let me explain.
My entomologist mind is on a constant search to find familiar patterns in objects that I see, because in the tropics deception is lurking everywhere. What I saw first was the animal’s shape and took it immediately for a winged insect. Then the coloration and the pose reminded me of some Erebidae moths (for example, genus Eutelia).
It took me a couple of short attempts to refocus my eyes on what is important before I could see that this is not a moth at all.

Now that the insect is off the net, we can take a better look. Dorsal view.

Now that the insect is off the net, we can take a better look. Dorsal view.

Another view of this amazing insect

Another view of this amazing insect

This is in fact a katydid nymph, Pycnopalpa bicordata, and it is so good at what it does that I was not able to locate it much later as it was sitting among fallen leaves in the vial I put it into. Whenever it is inactive it will assume this position, blending in with tree bark or leaf litter in the forest understory. Whether it resembles a moth or not is a matter of personal opinion at this point, because unless there is concrete evidence for an unpalatable moth model that this katydid is mimicking, the body posture this katydid takes can be within a different context altogether, such as a shredded fallen leaf or something similar.

Viewing from the side reveals that this is a leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) at rest

Viewing from the side reveals that this is a leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) at rest

The nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) in full katydid-mode

The nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) in full katydid-mode

Leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata). Clever girl!

Leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata). Clever girl!

As mentioned above, this is a nymph. A juvenile female to be more accurate, as can be seen by her sickle-shaped ovipositor. So what does the adult katydid look like? I was expecting some mind-blowing leaf appearance; maybe with flattened fins and spines on the legs, to mimic a dried leaf chewed up to its veins. You can safely say that I was exaggerating, and in the end when the nymph molted to its adult stage I was rather disappointed.

The adult Pycnopalpa bicordata is a delicate leaf-mimicking katydid. This one is a male.

The adult Pycnopalpa bicordata is a delicate leaf-mimicking katydid. This one is a male.

The adult Pycnopalpa bicordata is a very delicate insect with no major body modifications for mimicry or camouflage. Yes, it still looks very much like a leaf – having vivid green wings with transparent cells surrounded with brown margins, representing consumed parts or sunburn damage to leaf tissue. But the adult stage pales in comparison to the ingenious structural design of the nymph. Still, it is very nice to find Little Transformers outside the realm of Coleoptera. Moreover, among the orthopterans, I can think of at least one additional species of katydid and several grasshoppers that fall under my definition for Little Transformers. Hopefully we will get to learn about them in future posts.

Little Transformers: Eburia pedestris

We are back to celebrate little transformers: insects that are more than meets the eye. In this post I feature an insect whose transformation may seem a little awkward at first. It is not of cryptic nature, and it is not a case of mimicry.

While doing research about whip spiders in Belize, I also surveyed the insect biodiversity of one site, and so made sure to visit the light traps that we set up in several spots. The traps attracted an impressive diversity of insects, including moths, leafhoppers, ants, mantids, and katydids. One night a beautiful longhorn beetle (family Cerambycidae) showed up at the light trap. I did not recognize it at first so I collected it for a short Meet Your Neighbours session.

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) from Belize

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) from Belize

It was Eburia pedestris, a member in a genus of hardwood-boring longhorn beetles with a wide distribution in the Americas. I took a few decent shots. The beetle was trying to escape of course, so I reached out to grab it before it fell from the acrylic sheet. The moment I touched it something interesting happened. It crossed its legs and took a sitting position. I could not help it and I sneaked a loud laugh, because it looked like the beetle was in the middle of a yoga practice. It stayed in this comical position for a while, so I took some additional shots.

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) just sitting around

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) just sitting around

Another view of the strange pose taken by Eburia pedestris

Another view of the strange pose taken by Eburia pedestris

The strange position did not make a lot of sense to me, but I thought maybe it was a more elaborate way of playing dead, a common behavior in many beetle families (which will probably be featured more than once in this series). I finally decided not to wait for the cerambycid to “open up” so I grabbed it in my hand to put it back into the vial before releasing it outside. And then it hit me.

I mean, it literally hit me.
I felt my hand being pierced in several spots. Blood was dripping from my fingers.
You see, there is a reason why Eburia beetles take this unusual body posture. Look at the beetle’s leg joints and at the tips of the elytra. By taking a “sitting” pose, the beetle transforms into a prickly business, pointing sharp spikes in all directions, making it difficult for large predators like myself to handle the beetle. It will also not hesitate to use its other cold weapon: biting mandibles. Something I only noticed much later when I examined the photos – notice how the beetle contracts its abdomen, to make the elytral spines more prominent. Even with caution it was difficult not to get your skin punctured by the spines. They are as sharp as syringes. I would not want to imagine the experience for a mammal trying to eat this beetle. Ouch.

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) in defense posture. Grab it if you can.

Longhorn beetle (Eburia pedestris) in defense posture. Grab it if you can.

Some insects prove to us that avoiding predators is not all about hiding, mimicking other organisms, and advertising toxicity or potent venom. There are other, more creative ways to survive in the jungle out there. I will even take it a step further and say this Eburia beetle is comparable to the armadillo girdled lizard in its behavior. Nature is so awesome.

Insect art: Framed whip spiders (Amblypygi)

I have been covering a lot of insect-inspired art on this blog recently. It makes me excited; there are so many beautiful examples of artwork that incorporate insects and other arthropods into their theme. Just by reading some of the comments on the previous posts I got a gazillion new ideas for topics to write about (thank you). This time, however, I want to take the opportunity to tell you about something that I have been working on. The title for this post is a little misleading, because this is not really ”insect art”, but more like “arachnid art”.

One of the first presents I got from my parents when they realized their kid was fascinated with insects was a frame with several tropical butterflies. This frame, along with others that joined in subsequent years, decorated the wall of my room for many years. They became a part of my identity, telling every visitor what I was all about. Throughout the years my focus shifted from butterflies to spiders and scorpions, and then to beetles and other arthropod groups. Yet those framed insects remained on the wall, and even though I left that house many years ago they are still hung there to this very day.

Framed arachnids, whip spiders and a tarantula. Read on to learn what is so special about these.

Framed arachnids, whip spiders and a tarantula. Read on to learn what is so special about these.

I got so used to hearing wows every time someone noticed the spectacular sunset moth, the blue morpho butterfly, or even the less colorful dobsonfly, that when one day a friend told me she didn’t like those frames, it caught me by surprise. I asked her why, and she replied, “An animal had to die so you can enjoy this”. And by all accounts, she was right.
That reply stuck with me. I do not consider myself much of a collector, but when I do collect there is always a conflict. Is this necessary? Is this going to help anyone in the future? In my travels I have seen many dead insects, tarantulas and scorpions being offered as home decor for sale in city markets. It is shocking to realize these animals are probably harvested from their natural habitats by the hundreds for this purpose. To be fair, some butterfly and beetle species are being farmed and thus the ecological impact on their natural populations is insignificant. However, insect frames still require a dead specimen to begin with.

A framed rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracilicornis) that I made. You might not believe it, but this specimen was in very poor condition when I received it.

A framed rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracilicornis) that I made. You might not believe it, but this specimen was in very poor condition when I received it.

In the past I have sinned in trying to make my own version of such frames. In all honesty, when done correctly, they do look nice and add some character to a room. Almost like an old natural history lithograph. I did this with dead insects from my own cultures, or with specimens I already had in my collection. But recently I was wondering if there is another way to achieve the same result, one that does not require dead specimens. Something more sustainable.

Me presenting whip spiders to the general public at Bug Day Ottawa 2016. Framed specimens can be used for education along with live ones.

Me presenting whip spiders to the general public at Bug Day Ottawa 2016. Framed specimens can be used for education along with live ones.

Whip spiders, or amblypygids, are rarely offered as framed specimens, but when they do, they usually look very bad and have an unflattering, unnatural pose. I mean, look at this one for example. It looks horrible. Now look at how much this specimen costs. It makes no sense to me that an animal gave its life to be preserved in such a horrendous way, accompanied with such a hefty price tag. This is also coming from a company that claims to farm its framed specimens, however I highly doubt they farm any of their arachnid specimens. Large arachnids take years to reach their adult size, and it would not be very profitable to farm them just for the purpose of framing them later. Moreover, dead arachnids (and many insects too) often lose their vibrant colors. There has to be a different way to do this. And there is: during my time keeping amblypygids, I noticed that their empty molts retain their appearance even after many years, and when arranged properly they look like a copy of the living animal. I made some exemplars for use in public outreach and the response was phenomenal. When I presented the prepared molt next to its still-living parent, people refused to believe they are both the very same specimen.

Whip spider (Heterophrynus batesii) fresh after molting in the wild. The molt (on the left) is a hollow empty shell, but looks just like the live arachnid.

Whip spider (Heterophrynus batesii) fresh after molting in the wild. The molt (on the left) is a hollow empty shell, but looks just like the live arachnid.

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

Whip spiders molts, work in progress before framing. Oh, and that tarantula? That is a molt too.

Whip spiders molts, work in progress before framing. Oh, and that tarantula? That is a molt too.

Working with molts is not easy and resembles taxidermy in many ways. It requires deep understanding of the animal’s natural appearance, as well as how to stabilize its now-empty limbs. It took me many months of practicing until I finally mastered the technique of making a hollow arachnid look alive. The best thing about it – no animal was sacrificed during the preparation, and in fact the very same animal that produced the molt is still alive and kicking.

Framed whip spider (Paraphrynus raptator). In the background, framed molts of two additional species (Heterphrynus spp).

Framed whip spider (Paraphrynus raptator). In the background, framed molts of two additional species (Heterphrynus spp).

Now this begs the question – what am I going to do with these frames? I enjoy looking at them a lot actually. They add something authentic to my living space. I thought about putting up a page to offer them for sale at some point (update: that page is now up!). The only problem seems to be availability, because whip spiders usually molt only once a year. I will need to salvage every single molt if I want to continue making more of these.

Framed whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). This is probably my favorite work so far. Small. Simple. Perfect.

Framed whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). This is probably my favorite work so far. Small. Simple. Perfect.

By the way, if you want to hear more about whip spiders and you happen to be in Toronto this weekend, the Toronto Entomology Association and the Royal Ontario Museum are organizing “Bug Day”, an event dedicated to the keeping live arthropods. I will give a short talk on Sunday April 23rd at noon, so please come and say hi.

Little Transformers: Ceratocanthinae beetles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insect art: Transformers and other insect mecha

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

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

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

"Yes! Let's check it out!"

“Yes! Let’s check it out!”

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

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

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

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

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

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

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

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

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

"Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!"

“Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insect art: The use of insects in Japanese anime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From "Aoi Bungaku"

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From “Aoi Bungaku”

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

Life goes on. From "Steins;Gate"

Life goes on. From “Steins;Gate”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which spider family? From "Aoi Bungaku"

Which spider family? From “Aoi Bungaku”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A golden stag beetle!" From "Teekyu"

“A golden stag beetle!” From “Teekyu”

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

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

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

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

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

"Fight! Fight!" From "Samurai Champloo"

“Fight! Fight!” From “Samurai Champloo”

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

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

Vestria – the katydid that wanted to be a spider

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

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

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

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

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) hiding under a leaf

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) hiding under a leaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

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

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

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

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

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

Smile! You're on katydid camera!

Smile! You’re on katydid camera!

UPDATE (14 May, 2017): Paul Bertner photographed this amazing butterfly pupa in the Chocó rainforest of Ecuador. It bears an unbeatable resemblance to the Vestria katydid nymph!

Riodinid pupa (Brachyglenis sp.) mimicking the Vestria katydid nymph. Photo by Paul Bertner

Riodinid pupa (Brachyglenis sp.) mimicking the Vestria katydid nymph. Photo by Paul Bertner