Killing in the name of

About two weeks ago, Piotr Naskrecki, whose blog The Smaller Majority I routinely follow (and you should too), posted a nice story about his encounter with the world’s biggest and heaviest living spider, the South American Goliath Birdeater (Theraphosa blondi), while surveying a rainforest in Guyana. The blogpost gained respectable attention from everyone who appreciates a good natural history piece, but only when picked up by a “viral-content-spreading” website it started getting the full public attention it deserved. Or did it? To be honest, I do not know which website was first in line to spread the story of a “puppy-sized spider with foot-long legs” but it wasn’t long before the internet and the media snatched the story and made it spread like wildfire. The result was interesting but also horrifying to watch – almost within a day the internet was flooded with various reports and interpretations of the original blogpost, some of which were poorly written and included embarrassing inaccuracies. The story quickly climbed up in popularity and a few days ago was ranked #14 in the fastest spreading online news, along with other “popular” news stories such as the Ebola outbreak. Needless to say, the majority of those reports shamelessly used Piotr’s photographs on their own websites without permission.

A small insert about content turning viral: One simply cannot predict what will become viral on the internet. I have tried to do this myself and failed, when photographs that I thought were decent received no attention at all, whereas crappy photos that I took out of laziness just before I went to bed were instantly favored and shared. Want an example? Here are two:

Mother amblypygid (Paraphrynus raptator) protecting her babies

Mother amblypygid (Paraphrynus raptator) protecting her babies

 

Small-scaled Godzilla - baby ambush bug (Phymata monstrosa)

Small-scaled Godzilla – baby ambush bug (Phymata monstrosa)

 

When comments started pouring in on the tarantula article, the usual mix of positive (“amazing animal!”) and negative (“kill it with fire!”) responses could be seen. But among those there was a strong stream of comments calling for justice, as it was revealed that the spider was eventually collected for research and deposited in a museum collection. At first I did not know where this information originated from, after all the original post by Piotr did not include any statement about collecting the spider. Later that day I found it, in the closing paragraph of this report.

Not a South American Goliath Birdeater, but close enough; an adorable Ecuadorian Pinktoe Tarantula (Avicularia huriana)

Not a South American Goliath Birdeater, but close enough; an adorable Ecuadorian Pinktoe Tarantula (Avicularia huriana)

 

Spiders are sweet, I agree. This bashing response, however, points to an alarming problem. First, I do believe these comments truly come from people who care about nature and the environment. So why am I writing this? Because I think it is unclear to the public what scientists actually do, and in the case of biologists, why they collect data and specimens in the field and what happens to such specimens further along the road. The funny thing is that there are many blogs out there, run by scientists, trying to take a public outreach approach by explaining the routine and difficulties scientists face in their daily work. Among these blogs there are quite a few that discuss the topic of collecting insect specimens for research, like Biodiversity in Focus and Beetles in the Bush to name a few. However, I do not see people submitting the same type of preaching comments (promoting the insects’ rights to live) in these blogs. The reason is quite depressing: the general public, the same people who were exposed to the Goliath Birdeater story via the various viral news websites, do not read blogs about scientific research, even though these blogs are there for the public in the first place. Here is where Piotr’s blog is doing so well; it brings easily digestible information about the wonders of earth, in a language that can be understood by any person, without excessive technical details or jargon. The same can be said about his books. In addition, everyone loves a good photograph, and Piotr’s photos are nothing short of stunning.

So why bash a scientist for killing a single spider for research?

Piotr gave an excellent response to this issue in his subsequent post (now integrated within the original Goliath Birdeater post), I really could not have said it better myself, so make sure you head over to his blog to read it. I will just add a few things. For start, I do not think the accusing commenters are aware of Piotr’s significant contributions to nature conservation. Unfortunately, the finger is fast on the trigger keyboard, and it has become extremely easy to criticize any person one does not agree with on the internet. But the problem is much worse than trolling. Most people do not realize that the only reason they know what they know about nature, whether it is related to animals, plants or their environment, is because some scientist spent a lot of time in remote areas collecting this information, and then took the liberty of publishing it for the greater good. Without scientific knowledge no one would even know the spider in Piotr’s post is a Goliath Birdeater, it would just pass as a legendary giant arachnid. The only way to properly identify a species or describe a new one is to collect it and compare it to related species that were… also collected and killed previously. You see, from a scientific point of view, this work will never end. There are so many species out there, with many of them undescribed or unknown. Be thankful and considerate towards those who sacrifice so much of themselves not only to deliver these majestic creatures all the way to your computer screen at the comfort of your home or office, but also invest enormously towards protection of their natural habitat from destruction.

Insect art: rubber stamps

Some months ago I stumbled upon on a blog post in Japanese with many images of insect plush toys and wooden figurines. The topic was the annual Mozo Mozo exhibition in Japan. In case you have never heard about this exhibition, dedicated to the love of small creatures, every year various artists join to display and sell insect-themed artwork. The diversity of works ranges from drawings and figurines to toys, clothing, bags and accessories. I hope one day I have a chance to attend this event in person. Until then, I will have to settle for photos posted online.
Nevertheless, upon noticing some artwork that I really liked in those photos, I decided to try and contact several artists in hopes they still have something available that can be sent overseas.

This is how I discovered the amazing hand-made stamps by the talented Mayu Watanabe (check out her work here). This young artist is not only very capable of translating complex structures (not just insects) into rubber stamps, but she also finds original and intriguing ways to combine different stamping methods to create esthetically pleasing designs on almost any paper media, for example postcards or gift wrappings.

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Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), solitary form (left) and gregarious form (right). Beautiful stamp artwork by Mayu Watanabe

 

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I couldn’t think of a better packing for these! Excellent!

 

The artist also puts a lot of thinking into the packaging of her artwork (marketing departments, take notes!): Every stamp is packed separately on cotton, stapled within a piece of cardboard and cellophane. Entomologists out there, does this sound familiar? This is exactly how you would send unmounted insect specimens overseas! I even had a prepared horned dung beetle (Copris sp.) lying around and compared it to its stamp counterpart – the similarity is very entertaining.

stamps4
But if you think this ends here, think again. Flip the packaged stamp and you will find the collecting data for that “specimen”, along with the species’ ID. Again, written very accurately according to the rules of scientific collecting.

stamps5
Overall, I am very impressed with the quality of these stamps, and I look forward to seeing more work from Mayu Watanabe in the future. I find it refreshing to see someone who not only loves what they are doing, but also does it very professionally.

Cruziohyla – a dream come true

In 2003 I visited Costa Rica as a part of my first trip to Latin America. One of the hostels I stayed at had a large poster hung featuring many Costa Rican frog species, to show the high amphibian diversity that is found in this beautiful country. This was the first time I saw a photo of a splendid leaf frog, Cruziohyla calcarifer (the same frog appears also on the cover of Piotr Nascrecki’s book “The Smaller Majority”). Back then it was called Agalychnis calcarifer but in 2005, following a revision in the Hylidae family, it was placed within a new genus, Cruziohyla, along with another species.
When I saw the photo I was stunned. It looked like a massive tree frog, with eye-catching coloration: dark green (dorsal) and bright orange (ventral). The sides of its body are finely striped in black against an orange background. Its eyes, featuring a vertical pupil – an indication this animal has a nocturnal lifestyle, are orange with a grey center. In addition, the foot-webbing is wide and the adhesion discs on the fingers are large and round, giving it a cutesy appearance.
I decided to set out and look for this species in the rainforest during my time in Costa Rica. Of course at that time I knew nothing about these frogs, and as expected I failed miserably in finding them (but I did find many red-eyed tree frogs!)

Fast forward to 2014. Visiting the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, I was mainly searching for interesting insects and arachnids at night. I was fortunate to have good weather throughout this visit, until it started raining heavily on one of the nights prior to my departure. But this rain was like no other I have seen before – it was so warm that a thick fog formed, covering everything in the forest understory. I was about to declare this night a failure for observing arthropods, but very soon I learned my mistake. Following the creation of this natural sauna, hundreds, no, thousands of animals came out of their hiding spots. The forest was buzzing with orthopteran and amphibian calls, roaming arachnids and crawling velvet worms. It was magnificent, a naturalist’s dream. Among the noisy frog chorus coming from the dense canopy, there was one distinct call, louder than the others, which sounded like a short “moo” (remember those tipping-can cow-sound toys? Something like that.) unlike the typical “cluck” call characterizing tree frog species. It wasn’t long before I located the source, and upon seeing it my heart skipped a beat. Sitting on a leaf before me was the second species in the Cruziohyla genus, the fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus)!

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in its natural habitat. Photographed in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in its natural habitat. Photographed in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

 

This is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful tree frog in the world. I know that any attempt I make to describe it will not do justice to its astonishing splendor. The general appearance is similar to that of C. calcarifer, but the green dorsum is marbled with small bluish splotches that resemble moss or lichens and blend perfectly with tree leaves in the rainforest. Moreover, the body margins have “fringes” that are exceptionally long on the hind legs. Males sometimes display them to signal other males or females during courtship by extending their legs backwards.

Species of Cruziohyla are characterized by their bicolored iris, which is unique among tree frogs.

Species of Cruziohyla are characterized by their bicolored iris, which is unique among tree frogs.

 

At rest, C. craspedopus conceals its bright colors and blends perfectly with its surroundings thanks to color patches that resemble lichen spots on leaves.

At rest, C. craspedopus conceals its bright colors and blends perfectly with its surroundings thanks to color patches that resemble lichen spots on leaves.

 

A climbing C. craspedopus reveals its aposematic colors that are reminiscent of a tiger: bright orange contrasted with dark stripes. Note the fringes on the hind legs that gave this frog its common name.

A climbing C. craspedopus reveals its aposematic colors that are reminiscent of a tiger: bright orange contrasted with dark stripes. Note the fringes on the hind legs that gave this frog its common name.

 

Being a high canopy frog, C. craspedopus is cryptic and usually difficult to observe. I have never even dreamed I would have the chance of seeing one, let along in the wild. But spending some time walking in the warm fog I managed to see not one, not two but close to ten individuals. It seems that they like these conditions. After learning their favorite resting spots I could easily find them also by day. Fringe tree frogs descend from the high branches solely for breeding. Pairs in amplexus (typical anuran behavior in which the male grasps the female using his front legs and rides on her back) move about in the canopy until they locate a small body of water with an overhead cover, usually under fallen trees. The females then deposit egg clutches hanging above the water, and the hatching tadpoles drop down and start their aquatic life. Even though I checked under many fallen trees (while searching for Amblypygi) I was unsuccessful in finding egg clutches of this species. Better luck next time.

Finding a fringe tree frog during the day is a mission close to impossible. In addition to their excellent camouflage, the frogs tend to rest on tree leaves high above the ground, making it difficult (and dangerous) to access them.

Finding a fringe tree frog during the day is a mission close to impossible. In addition to their excellent camouflage, the frogs tend to rest on tree leaves high above the ground, making it difficult (and dangerous) to access them.

 

Cruziohyla craspedopus, "Meet Your Neighbours" style

Cruziohyla craspedopus, “Meet Your Neighbours” style

 

A Moment of Creativity: Naked mole rats

I decided to start a new section in this blog called “A Moment of Creativity”, where I will post about fun creative ideas I come up with, usually when I am busy doing something important. Some of these ideas might not necessarily be related to science or photography. Besides, it was not the sole purpose of this blog anyway. I do not regard myself as a master of Photoshop, but every once in a while I like to test what I can produce and sharpen my skills. It does not make me an expert in image editing. A great deal of these attempts are deleted immediately. Others come out as interesting creations. I will post those here.

Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are small underground rodents native to East Africa. They are considered the only known eusocial mammal, having different reproductive casts (and no, humans are not eusocial. Unless you want to leave all the baby-making in your neighborhood for a single person). They are also the longest-lived rodent of their size, and can sometimes reach the age of 30 years or older. Naked mole rats have an impressive resistance to tumors, thanks to a specific compound they synthesize more efficiently than other cancer-prone animals. In addition, their ribosomes produce fewer aberrant proteins, which can explain the absence of errors causing most tumors. For these reasons, and because they do well in small colonies in captivity, they are kept as lab animals for research against cancer.

Fortunately, I had an opportunity to visit the colonies kept at University of Toronto Mississauga in 2012, because the technician who took care of them was also a member of the lab I was at, and kindly agreed to give me a tour.

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Naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber). It is quite cute actually.

 

I brought along some of my photography gear, but soon found out that photographing naked mole rats is not an easy task, as they are somewhat sensitive to light and almost never sit still. I did not plan to do anything with the photos I took, but was happy to find out at least one of them was used in an article about the research (very cool, guys!).

One of the mole rats had its jaws wide open in a photo and I remember I said this reminded me of a scene from the film “Pink Floyd: The Wall”, especially due to the animal’s external appearance: it has many skin wrinkles and almost no hair. It looked just like a small naked human to me.

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Meh. I am not sure that the result delivers the gloomy atmosphere of “The Wall”. To me it looks like the mole rat is praying at the Wailing Wall. But as I was working on this image, I could not help noticing how similar naked mole rats are to the film interpretation of the Dark Lord, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. So I set out to find some Harry Potter posters I can play with.

HP7-Voldemolerat

 

Well, this didn’t exactly turn out the way I wanted. I think I made the head too small, and the fact that there is a snake crawling calmly near a potential food source does not seem… hmmm… reliable. So I had to try something else.

harry-voldemolerat

 

Aha! Now we’re talking! Lord Voldemolerat himself. This could have easily been the real movie poster. Maybe for the next film Voldemort will return as an incarnation of a naked mole rat? And cure cancer at the same time??

Mystery solved! Giant NZ lacewing is Kempynus incisus

You might remember one of the first images posted on this blog, featuring a mysterious pair of neuropterans from a forest in New Zealand:

A pair of giant lacewings (unidentified). Photographed in January 2013, Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand.

A pair of giant lacewings (unidentified). Photographed in January 2013, Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand.

 

More than a year has passed since I took that photo, and I was trying to ID these magnificent insects. There is absolutely no other photo of this species online, or at least I could not find any.
Eventually salvation came in the form of an old lithograph from “An Elementary Manual of New Zealand Entomology” by George Vernon Hudson, posted in Wikisource. In the text, describing NZ Neuroptera, this insect is mentioned as Stenosmylus incisus from the family Hemerobiidae, however after tracking it further down I found out that this name is a synonym (a name for a species that goes by a different name), and the species name is really Kempynus incisus (McLachlan, 1863). Moreover, the species does not belong to family Hemerobiidae, but rather to Osmylidae, a small family of lacewings associated with freshwater habitat. Did I mention I found those lacewings perching on a branch next to a flowing stream? Now it all makes sense. Here is a MYN shot of the pair, this could very well be the only photos of this species now available online:

A pair of Kempynus incisus (Osmylidae), male on the right, female on the left. Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand

A pair of Kempynus incisus (Osmylidae), male on the right, female on the left. Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand

 

What I find striking is the extreme sexual dimorphism. Even when placed one next to the other, the males look so different from the females, that it is hard to believe they belong to the same species. And indeed, if I had not found them together in mid-courtship in the forest, I would have thought those insects belong to two different species. The males are exceptionally beautiful:

Male giant lacewing (Kempynus incisus). Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand

Male giant lacewing (Kempynus incisus). Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand

 

Female giant lacewing (Kempynus incisus), a focus-stack of 10 exposures.

Female giant lacewing (Kempynus incisus), a focus-stack of 10 exposures.

 

 

Acrometopa syriaca – Mediterranean leaf katydid

Along with the predatory Saga katydids, Acrometopa syriaca is one of my favorite katydid species in Israel. There is something unique about its appearance; it almost looks like a tropical katydid that does not belong in the Mediterranean region. This species does not have a common name, so I suggest – “Mediterranean leaf katydid”. In my opinion, there is no other katydid in this area more deserving to be called a leaf-mimic.

When I visited Israel in early spring this year, I could only find tiny katydid babies. They were very easy to recognize as Acrometopa by the pale, extremely-long-yet-thick antennae, which are rich in sensory hairs. Apart from Acrometopa, only Saga species have thick antennae, whereas all other katydid species in Israel have relatively thin antennae.

Baby Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca) on a blade of grass, Upper Galilee, Israel. Note the thick hairy antennae, used to detect approaching predators and enthusiastic macrophotographers.

Baby Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca) on a blade of grass, Upper Galilee, Israel. Note the thick hairy antennae, used to detect approaching predators and enthusiastic macrophotographers.

 

Juvenile Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca) are characterized by the wing buds, resting on their back like miniature backpacks. Central Coastal plain, Israel

Juvenile Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca) are characterized by the wing buds, resting on their back like miniature backpacks. Central Coastal plain, Israel

 

There is very little chance to mistake adults of Acrometopa syriaca with another katydid species. It is big (can easily reach 12cm leg span, even longer if antennae are included), slow, and rarely jump. Apart from its characteristic antennae, it is always green, and has wide forewings that have both the color and texture of a leaf. This excellent camouflage makes it very difficult to find the katydid when it rests on bushes or small trees. Females are rounder in their appearance, while the males have longer hind wings that extend beyond the forewings. In addition, this species’ huge hind legs are unmistakable.

Male Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca), Golan Heights, Israel

Male Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca), Golan Heights, Israel

 

I just happened to be lucky enough to visit Israel again in early summer, and I was hoping I could find some adults. Even though this species has a relatively wide distribution throughout the country, I drove to the Golan Heights in the north, because I have always been under the impression that they are easier to locate there. But I found nothing. I returned frustrated to the Central Coastal Plain, only to find an adult female very close to the place I was staying at. Obviously, I could not resist the temptation to photograph her for Meet Your Neighbours biodiversity project.

Female Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca) from the Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Female Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca) from the Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

But it was not over just yet, for this katydid was also a fine candidate to test something I wanted to do for a very long time: photography of fluorescence under UV.
I have photographed UV fluorescence of arthropods in the past; scorpions are usually the default subjects for this style of photography, because they show intense fluorescence even under long wavelengths in the UV range (380nm-395nm). This makes photographing “glowing” scorpions very easy with cheap UV torches (you can see examples of such photos in my scorpions gallery).
Things get more interesting under a shorter wavelength, specifically 365nm and shorter. I will not go into details here because I plan to write a bigger post about UV photography, but I will just say that many unexpected things start to fluorescence when exposed to this light, including representatives of several insect groups. I suspected that Acrometopa syriaca would “glow” because other members of the same subfamily, Phaneropterinae, were also found to show fluorescence under 365nm UV light. And as expected, it did not disappoint: when I shone my torch the whole katydid became bright turquoise in color – just stunning!

Female Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca) fluorescence under UV, Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Female Mediterranean leaf katydid (Acrometopa syriaca) fluorescence under UV, Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

A pleasant surprise – Prosopistoma phoenicium

During my visit to Israel I visited the Golan Heights with colleagues from Israel and Germany. We were looking for mayflies and ground beetles in particular, but I was interested in anything I could find that would be nice to photograph.
We stopped at one of the fast-flowing springs in the Hula Valley and started flipping rocks in search for unique aquatic invertebrates. It wasn’t too long before we found something interesting: small creatures crawling on the surface of submerged rocks. There was no doubt – these were larvae of Prosopistoma phoenicium.

Typical habitat of Prosopistoma phoenicium larvae, fast-flowing streams (or springs, such as this one) with a rocky substrate.

Typical habitat of Prosopistoma phoenicium larvae, fast-flowing streams (or springs, such as this one) with a rocky substrate.

 

It is important to pause for a moment to reflect on the scientific history of this animal. Viewed from above, its appearance bears a striking resemblance to that of tadpole shrimps, branchiopods of the order Notostraca. And indeed, for many years this creature has baffled taxonomists regarding its true identity.
When Prosopistoma was discovered in 1762 by Geoffroy, he initially described it as a species of Binoculus, a crustacean, due to the curved, shield-like mesothorax. This changed in 1833, when Latreille described the genus Prosopistoma and separated it from arguloid crustaceans, but still considered it to be a branchiopod along with the tadpole shrimps. Later in 1868, more than 100 years after the first discovery, Emile Joly realized that Binoculus/Prosopistoma was in fact a mayfly larva. Viewed from below, the animal clearly shows three pairs of legs, in other words – it is an insect, not a crustacean. Finally, Hubbard completed the required transition between the taxonomic groups by providing a revision of the nomenclature in 1979. As of today, the family Prosopistomatidae contains about 20 described species with a distribution primarily in the old world, throughout the Palaearctic, Oriental, Australian and Afrotropical regions, but entirely missing from the New world, the Nearctic and Neotropic regions.

Larva of Prosopistoma phoenicium from the Golan Heights, Israel. Left: dorsal view; right: ventral view.

Larva of Prosopistoma phoenicium from the Golan Heights, Israel. Left: dorsal view; right: ventral view.

 

These insects are rarely seen, but in Israel they seem to be easy to find if one knows where to look. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Entomology course staff at Tel Aviv University in Israel, who did a splendid job with students in the field (I just realized I took this course as a student more than 10 years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun!). Without them I would not know where to look for and how to recognize this insect, as well as other cryptic species.

The biology of Prosopistoma is poorly known, but it is believed that the larvae scrape and feed on organic matter, such as algae, from the surface of rocks submerged in fast-flowing streams and springs. Adults are almost unheard of from the wild, most of the currently recognized species of Prosopistoma were described from characteristics of the larvae, and the adult mayflies are known from three species only. In the case of our site, the population was very healthy and we could afford to collect quite a few larvae for laboratory rearing at Tel Aviv University. I hope they complete their metamorphosis successfully as I am hoping to see an adult Prosopistoma one day!

The incredible tadpole shrimps

One of the creatures I wanted to find during my visits to Israel is a big crustacean, found only in temporary ponds during a specific time of the year. In previous years I was unlucky to find it – I visited in the late spring and early summer, and most of the rain-pools were already gone or in the process of drying out.

But this year I planned my trip way ahead, making sure to save some time for searching these animals.

Tadpole shrimps belong to the small order Notostraca, which contains a single family, Triopsidae, with only two genera: Triops and Lepidurus. These animals are considered living fossils, having not changed significantly in appearance since the Triassic period, about 200 million years ago. They also bear a strong resemblance to horseshoe crabs, characterized by a broad, shield-like carapace, which conceals the head and bears three eyes, a pair of compound eyes and a nauplius eye between them. The abdomen is long, and ends in two caudal filaments. But in my opinion, the real wonder about tadpole shrimps is their large size. Some species can reach a whopping length of 10cm, larger than most insects and amphibian tadpoles co-habiting in the same pond. And indeed, many people I met while surveying rain-pools could not believe that this was a crustacean until I pulled one out of the water.

Temporary ponds like this one are home to various aquatic invertebrates such as the tadpole shrimps. Unfortunately, these habitat are threatened with destruction in Israel. Here a low wooden fence is the only physical barrier between this small nature reserve and a sand quarry found behind the pond.

Temporary ponds like this one are home to various aquatic invertebrates such as the tadpole shrimps. Unfortunately, these habitat are threatened with destruction in Israel. Here a low wooden fence is the only physical barrier between this small nature reserve and a sand quarry found behind the pond.

 

Portrait of a Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis), showing two compound eyes and a middle nauplius (larval) eye.

Portrait of a Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis), showing two compound eyes and a middle nauplius (larval) eye.


There are two species of tadpole shrimps in Israel. The bigger one, Lepidurus apus, is relatively common and can be found in many ponds along the coastal plain from winter to the early spring. It is easy to recognize – not only is it big and brightly colored with red and olive-green, but it also sports a wide transparent scale at the end of its body, between the two caudal filaments.

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). The bright red color indicates presence of hemoglobin, an adaptation for life in habitats poor with oxygen.

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). The bright red color indicates presence of hemoglobin, an adaptation for life in habitats poor with oxygen.


The second, smaller species, Triops cancriformis, is much more scarce, and in fact is known only from a handful of ponds. This species is critically endangered in Israel due to habitat destruction, however it was recently recorded from a new location, a water reservoir in the Arava desert, the southernmost point in its distribution to date. A little less colorful than its close relative, it is mottled with green and grey splotches that assist in blending in with its surroundings.

Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) digging in the sediment. The green and grey splotches make excellent camouflage for concealing it from predators striking from above, such as water birds.

Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) digging in the sediment. The green and grey splotches make excellent camouflage for concealing it from predators striking from above, such as water birds.

 

A side view of a tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) revealing eleven pairs of legs. The first pair is long and modified to function as a sensory organ.

A side view of a tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) revealing eleven pairs of legs. The first pair is long and modified to function as a sensory organ.


Both species are omnivores, living on the bottom of the pond while relentlessly digging in the sediment searching for food. Occasionally they are seen swimming close to the water surface, especially in shallow parts of the pond, where they are usually mistaken for amphibian tadpoles, hence their common name.
But the most fascinating fact about the life cycle of tadpole shrimps is that similarly to other aquatic invertebrates they too must face the inevitable faith of the temporary pond: drying out. For them, it is a race against time; they must grow fast, mate and lay their eggs before the pond disappears completely, killing every one of them in the process. Once the pond fills up in the winter, the tadpole shrimps hatch from their eggs, and grow at an impressive pace, reaching their adult stage in just a few weeks. Then, they reproduce, but the context of reproduction depends on the population. In some ponds tadpole shrimps reproduce sexually, but in many populations the males are absent, and the females reproduce asexually, in a process called parthenogenesis. They release unique, long-lasting eggs that can stay dormant for many years, buried in the dry soil. This way, they can “skip” several years of drought, during which ponds have tendency of evaporating too fast. When there is sufficient precipitation and the pond fills again with rainwater, some of these eggs hatch (others stay in further dormancy for the following years), and the cycle starts again.
I was very happy to find these lively creatures in my last visit to Israel and could not resist taking some photos of them for Meet Your Neighbours project.

Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) from central Israel. The shield-like carapace gives it the appearance of a small horseshoe crab.

Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) from central Israel. The shield-like carapace gives it the appearance of a small horseshoe crab.

 

Meet Your Neighbours

I recently joined as a contributor to Meet Your Neighbours – a global photography project that sets out to connect communities with their local flora and fauna, and promotes nature conservation. The idea is to record all possible biodiversity against a clean white background using a simple field studio. By stripping the subjects off their natural surroundings they become the center of attention, provoking more interest. Another benefit from photographing against a white background using a standard protocol is that all subjects from different parts of the globe get the same level of appreciation, regardless of their location or taxonomic group. This can reveal interesting patterns: when comparing subjects from different origins it is difficult to say which is more exotic. In other cases, subjects that are physically very distant from each other share many similarities in appearance.

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) modeling for me on the white backdrop

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) modeling for me on the white backdrop

 

Checkered beetle (Trichodes affinis) is very common on Asteraceae inflorescence during the Israeli spring

Checkered beetle (Trichodes affinis) is very common on Asteraceae inflorescence during the Israeli spring

 

I discovered Meet Your Neighbours in 2010 and was immediately hooked. I liked this style of photography, which reminded me of old natural history books featuring illustrations of plants and arthropods. At that time I was already trying to achieve similar results in my photography, only I was using white paper as background so the effect was a bit different. For this reason I was delighted and honored when Clay Bolt, one of MYN founders, contacted me in 2013 with the offer to join the project. For me this meant one main goal – presenting species from Israel, even though I am based in Canada and travel quite extensively to other countries.

Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

 

Darkling beetle (Erodius gibbus). This is perhaps the most easily recognized beetle in Israel (after the overrated ladybug). Its small size, oval shape, and matte back color are unmistakable. This species also has a wide distribution range in sand dunes along the Israeli coast, and it can be found in the desert as well.

Darkling beetle (Erodius gibbus). This is perhaps the most easily recognized beetle in Israel (after the overrated ladybug). Its small size, oval shape, and matte back color are unmistakable. This species also has a wide distribution range in sand dunes along the Israeli coast, and it can be found in the desert as well.

 

Israel is located at the bridge of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. Due to its geological history and a variety of ecological conditions, Israel is characterized by a climate gradient from north to south, and to some extent from west to east. This creates many habitat types throughout the country, which are home to an impressive diversity of animals and plants. Most species in Israel are typical to the Mediterranean region, but desert species can be found in south of the country, whereas species from colder origins like Europe and Asia are found in northern Israel. For the latter Israel is the southernmost point in their distribution. Some species of tropical origin can also be found in the oases along the Great Rift Valley.

I decided to start my contribution to MYN from the very base, the creatures I know well from the places I explored as a kid.

The semi-stabilized sand dunes of Israel are home to the beautiful ground beetle Graphipterus. A recent study revealed that instead of the single species G. serrator, there are actually three similarly-looking Graphipterus species in Israel, each with its own distribution. This beetle, from the Central Coastal Plain, seems to be a new species to science and is currently being described.

The semi-stabilized sand dunes of Israel are home to the beautiful ground beetle Graphipterus. A recent study revealed that instead of the single species G. serrator, there are actually three similarly-looking Graphipterus species in Israel, each with its own distribution. This beetle, from the Central Coastal Plain, seems to be a new species to science and is currently being described.

 

I grew up in a city in the Central Coastal Plain of Israel. I had the fortune of spending my childhood with a lot of nature around me. Wildflower fields, Citrus orchards, temporary ponds and sand dunes were at walking distance from my house. Every weekend I would go out in the morning and get lost somewhere in the wilderness, looking for interesting animals. And there was much to be discovered: tame snakes, skinks, beautiful insects like beetles and mantises, frogs and spiders. I used to rear butterflies in my room because I was fascinated with the transformation from a caterpillar to the adult butterfly. I am still fascinated by this metamorphosis even today, although I focus on other insect groups.

This spring, I took a short research trip to Israel, and used this opportunity to document some of my favorite animals. I hope that through these photographs people can learn more about the diversity of the country and maybe in time will even consider visiting!

Isophya savignyi, a common flightless katydid from Israel. Top - male; bottom - female

Isophya savignyi, a common flightless katydid from Israel. Top – male; bottom – female

 

Mediterranean banded centipede (Scolopendra cingulata), one of the most commonly encountered arthropods under stones in the Central Coastal Plain during the spring season

Mediterranean banded centipede (Scolopendra cingulata), one of the most commonly encountered arthropods under stones in the Central Coastal Plain during the spring season

 

Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti, one of the smallest scorpion species in Israel. This adult female is only 3cm long, including the tail!

Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti, one of the smallest scorpion species in Israel. This adult female is only 3cm long, including the tail!

 

I was very fortunate to meet one of the most charming reptiles in Israel: the Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Every encounter with a chameleon is always a splash of spectacular coloration and behavior. This individual was very cooperative and returned to its perch after the photo shoot.

I was very fortunate to meet one of the most charming reptiles in Israel: the Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Every encounter with a chameleon is always a splash of spectacular coloration and behavior. This individual was very cooperative and returned to its perch after the photo shoot.

 

Salamander Day: 2014

Every year when the right time comes (depending on my location), I make an effort to go out and search for salamanders and newts. What started as an attempt to photograph the elusive fire salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata) in Israel has become almost an annual celebration to appreciate the local amphibian fauna.

Redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

 

Why salamanders of all things? Very early in my days as a naturalist I was under the impression that salamanders in Israel are super-rare. But at some point I realized that while they were uncommonly seen, it is not necessarily because they were rare. Salamanders have very localized populations, and the adult salamanders are active on the ground surface only a few days per year during the breeding season. You need to know exactly when and where to look for them, and then you can actually observe quite many individuals.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) from Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately I did not find them this year.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) from Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately I did not find them this year.

 

There are rare species of salamanders for sure, don’t get me wrong. And this is where knowing your local amphibian fauna plays an important role.
Salamanders, and amphibians in general, are not only super cute (see in the below photo) but they are also very important bioindicators. They breathe and absorb water through their moist skin, and they at a high risk of absorbing various chemical compounds found in their surroundings. As a result they are some of the first organisms to suffer from pollution or habitat disturbance (as well as many other factors). Surveying and monitoring the local amphibian populations can assist substantially in understanding their condition and the health of the whole ecosystem.

Portrait of the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Portrait of the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

 

In the past few years I have been “celebrating” Salamander Day in southern Ontario Canada, where I regularly find four species of salamanders right after the snow melts: the common redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus), spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale), and the rarer Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), all showing stable populations. I am sure there are more species to be found; for example, I have been trying to locate a population of Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) but was unsuccessful. This year I was a bit too late in the season to search for salamanders because of a research trip to Israel. My intention was to photograph them for Meet Your Neighbours biodiversity project (a topic for a separate post) against a white background using a potable field studio. Unfortunately, I only found two species out of the four I usually find, but they were very cooperative during the quick photoshoot.

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

 

Portrait of Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Portrait of Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

 

The setup I used for photographing the salamanders against a white background, for Meet Your Neighbours project

The setup I used for photographing the salamanders against a white background, for Meet Your Neighbours project

 

I encourage everyone to go out and look for amphibians in activity. And when you find them – be happy about it. It is a good sign that natural processes are functioning properly in your area (unless you are located in a part of the world where the only amphibians you can find are invasive species. Sigh… that is not a good sign).

Female Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) from last year's Salamander Day

Female Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) from last year’s Salamander Day