Gil Wizen http://gilwizen.com Entomologist and Photographer Thu, 14 Dec 2017 16:37:49 +0000 en hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.1 http://gilwizen.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/cropped-logo2-32x32.png Gil Wizen http://gilwizen.com 32 32 53655705 Amphibians are tougher than we think http://gilwizen.com/amphibians-tough/ http://gilwizen.com/amphibians-tough/#respond Mon, 11 Dec 2017 15:38:18 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6772 A few years ago I wrote a blog post about a dream of mine that came true – seeing the gorgeous tree frog Cruziohyla craspedopus in the wild. Even after numerous trips to Ecuador I still consider it one of the best moments I have experienced in the outdoors. Fast forward to this week, I am ... Read More

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A few years ago I wrote a blog post about a dream of mine that came true – seeing the gorgeous tree frog Cruziohyla craspedopus in the wild. Even after numerous trips to Ecuador I still consider it one of the best moments I have experienced in the outdoors. Fast forward to this week, I am excited to present a new paper I published about these frogs in Herpetology Notes.

Juvenile fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus)

Juvenile fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus)

To summarize this already short paper – the fringe tree frog (C. craspedopus), an amphibian often used as an example for species requiring pristine habitats, made itself a habit to breed in human-made infrastructure containing polluted, sewage-like water. And not only that, but the frogs are also perfectly fine with this, recruiting healthy new individuals into the population and returning every year to the same spot for more breeding.

Fringe tree frog metamorph (Cruziohyla craspedopus), still with its tail, climbing out of a septic tank

Fringe tree frog metamorph (Cruziohyla craspedopus), still with its tail, climbing out of a septic tank

Amphibian metamorphs can sometimes look like weird animals... not very froggy

Amphibian metamorphs can sometimes look like weird animals… not very froggy

On the surface this is a simple natural history report that adds to the existing knowledge about the species. However, when you look at the bigger picture there is something else hidden between the lines.

Fringe tree frog metamorph (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in the process of absorbing its tail

Fringe tree frog metamorph (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in the process of absorbing its tail

Remember back in the day when I had to sacrifice amphibians in the name of science? One of the questions that I get asked often is ‘how was this research ever approved by an ethics committee?’ After all, amphibian populations suffer a global decline, caused by various different factors: habitat loss, climate change, diseases, invasive species, etc’. Surely killing hundreds of them for science would seem like defeating the purpose of their conservation. But what if… those amphibians were never meant to be alive in the first place… You see, for the Epomis research we selectively collected tadpoles from areas where they were destined to die. These included flooded vehicle tracks, deep water holes with no climbing surface, and shallow puddles in the process of drying out. We called them “ecological traps”: sites that seemed suitable for amphibian breeding but failed to provide the right conditions to support the growth of tadpoles, or did not hold water long enough to allow for their complete development.

A classic ecological trap for amphibians: a puddle in the process of drying out, containing hundreds of tadpoles. The next day they were all dead. Photographed in Israel

A classic ecological trap for amphibians: a puddle in the process of drying out, containing hundreds of tadpoles. The next day they were all dead. Photographed in Israel

But why do amphibians choose to breed in those dangerous sites in the first place? What can I say, amphibians are idiots. Or are they? Maybe it is just their way of ensuring the survival of their species, and we are interpreting it the wrong way?
The species that breed in ecological traps are usually ones with an explosive breeding strategy: migrating to the breeding sites only for a short period of time during a specific season, and offloading massive amounts of eggs in the water, sometimes up to ten-thousands of eggs per female. With so many eggs being produced by each female, they have nothing to lose. One breeding site may fail to provide the right environment for the developing tadpoles, but others will do fine. Or, some of the tadpoles might grow faster than others and complete their metamorphosis before it is too late.

Three fringe tree frog metamorphs (Cruziohyla craspedopus) at different stages of metamorphosis

Three fringe tree frog metamorphs (Cruziohyla craspedopus) at different stages of metamorphosis

Not too many people are aware that juvenile fringe tree frogs are often active during the early morning hours. Here is one climbing up to the canopy.

Not too many people are aware that juvenile fringe tree frogs are often active during the early morning hours. Here is one climbing up to the canopy.

Back to our fringe tree frogs in Ecuador: the species is an iconic frog, representing a true Amazonian amphibian, with its unique appearance and behavior. To the best of our knowledge it is not an explosive breeder. It is reported to breed in tree holes and in water reservoirs under fallen trees, while spending the rest of its time high up in the thick tree canopy. For many it is considered elusive and hard to find. But in reality these frogs could not care less about the condition of breeding sites or water quality. Just like the aforementioned explosive breeders, while on their search for suitable water reservoirs the frogs can stumble upon something that in their eyes has potential for breeding, and they will test it. This means that to us, it may look like they are choosing the “wrong” place to breed. But what if they are right and we are missing something? Before encountering the frogs described in the paper, I would have sworn that they have no chance at successful breeding in polluted water at an unnatural or disturbed habitat. Not to mention doing it over the course of several consecutive years. And what do you know! They sure proved me wrong and I learned something new. Don’t get me wrong, amphibians still need our constant attention. I am not saying that we should stop our efforts to conserve amphibian species and save them from extinction, but maybe we should cut them some slack. Because even though they are fragile creatures, sometimes they are tougher than we think.

When I think of Cruziohyla craspedopus this is what I imagine: an toy-like animal in a lush, pristine habitat. Well, reality just slapped me in the face.

When I think of Cruziohyla craspedopus this is what I imagine: an toy-like animal in a lush, pristine habitat. Well, reality just slapped me in the face.

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A short note about ethics http://gilwizen.com/short-note-ethics/ http://gilwizen.com/short-note-ethics/#comments Mon, 27 Nov 2017 17:28:24 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6727 Last week I took this photo of a jumping spider, Phiddipus insignarius, and although I consider it a good photo, it is not a photo I am proud of. Why? I believe I pushed it a little too far here. By the time you are reading this, you may have seen photos of jumping spiders ... Read More

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Last week I took this photo of a jumping spider, Phiddipus insignarius, and although I consider it a good photo, it is not a photo I am proud of.
Why?

Female jumping spider (Phiddipus insignarius) displaying

Female jumping spider (Phiddipus insignarius) displaying

I believe I pushed it a little too far here.

By the time you are reading this, you may have seen photos of jumping spiders floating online. They are charismatic, inquisitive, and intelligent little arachnids. Their big eyes and cutesy appearance make it possible to open a door for communication between spider enthusiasts and people suffering from arachnophobia. This photo is a little different. This is the face of stressed spider. Jumping spiders have a habit of exploring the world around them, but they usually avoid confrontation. They have a typical threat display that they use when they are annoyed or feel threatened, by raising their forelegs and exposing their chelicerae. At this point they are no different from a wandering spider warning to back off. And if not left alone, they will strike. The female Phiddipus in this photo was clearly fed up with my attempts at stalking her, and wanted to show me that she had enough.

Photographs of small animals can be a great tool for communication and education by revealing the hidden beauty of overlooked creatures. However, we tend to forget how things are from their perspective. They do not like to be cornered or pushed around. The last thing they expect is a giant being trying to manipulate them to pose in a certain way. Ethics in nature photography is an important topic that should be brought into the conversation. And yet almost no one talks about it (see Nicky Bay’s fantastic resource on the topic). Paul Bertner posted a lot about it on social media during his assignment last year, sparking some of the best discussions I have seen on photography ethics and what information should be disclosed with a photo (he later coined the term EE – Ethical Exif, information that is incorporated into his photos). I would like to see transparency and compassion for the living subject becoming the standard in nature photography. Every nature photographer I know is longing for a “perfect” subject – one that displays an interesting natural behavior but also does not move too much. Yet we forget that many times photography is just another type of disturbance to animals. At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves – was this really necessary?

In the case of the spider here, I got the message loud and clear and left her alone. She was clearly not interested in playing. I will get back to photographing her some other time, maybe when she is in a better mood.

The female Phiddipus insignarius is much more charming when she is relaxed.

The female Phiddipus insignarius is much more charming when she is relaxed.

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Rhynchotermes – the best of both worlds http://gilwizen.com/rhynchotermes/ http://gilwizen.com/rhynchotermes/#comments Fri, 17 Nov 2017 14:14:02 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6659 If you read my previous post about blattodeans you might have noticed that I left something out. The post does not make a single mention of termites that belong in the same insect order. Yet my Blattodea gallery contains photos of some termite species. What is going on? Make no mistake – termites are indeed included in ... Read More

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If you read my previous post about blattodeans you might have noticed that I left something out. The post does not make a single mention of termites that belong in the same insect order. Yet my Blattodea gallery contains photos of some termite species. What is going on?

Make no mistake – termites are indeed included in order Blattodea. While they do not lay their eggs in cases (oothecae), they share many other attributes with roaches. Historically, termites were classified under their own order, Isoptera. This is what I learned at university during my entomology training a decade ago. However, times change, and with it taxonomy is rearranged according to new evidence concerning the relationships between groups. Termites have been found similar in their morphology and social behavior, as well as molecular phylogenetics, to wood-feeding roaches of the genus Cryptocercus, and both are now treated as sister groups under the infraorder Isoptera within the Blattodea. I will only say that although I welcome this update in termites’ taxonomical position, I found it difficult to get used to at first. Old habits die hard I guess.

Termites are truly unique because they are among the few hemimetabolous insects (lacking the pupal stage in their life cycle) to develop an eusocial lifestyle, with different reproductive castes, division of labor, and overlapping generations. In stark contrast to eusocial Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps), termite colonies follow a different structure, often with a single long-lived royal pair responsible for egg production (as opposed to male Hymenoptera that die soon after mating), but also include a secondary reproductive caste. Workers and soldiers can be both males and females (in Hymenoptera – all females). From an ecosystem standpoint, termites play a vital role as detrivores, feeding on and breaking down dead plant tissue and wood. For this reason they rely on gut symbionts (protozoans, bacteria, and flagellates) that assist in breaking down cellulose.

One of the things you often learn about termites in an entomology course is that there are two types, easily distinguished by their soldiers: species with mandibulate soldiers (possessing jaws), and species with nasute soldiers (with a long nose). The mandibulate soldiers use their enlarged strong mandibles to physically attack and injure intruders. They cannot use their jaws for feeding, and are therefore dependent on mouth-to-mouth feeding from the workers. In contrast, the nasutes deploy chemical defense by secreting various compounds from their nose, mainly to use as deterrents against ants, but also with some effect over much larger predators such as tamanduas.

Why this long introduction? As things usually go in nature, and more specifically in arthropods, to every rule there is an exception. Last year I travelled to Costa Rica, and one of the species I was hoping to find was a very unique termite.

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus)

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus)

This monstrous beast is a soldier of Rhynchotermes perarmatus, a nasutiform termite. However, contrary to the “rule” I mentioned above, soldiers of this species possess both a chemically armed snout and well developed mandibles. They are now treated by taxonomists as being mandibulate nasute.

The neotropical genus Rhynchotermes contains several species, all have nasute soldiers with noticeable mandibles. However, only in two species the mandibles are massive – Rhynchotermes perarmatus and R. bulbinasus.

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus). Combining elements from both nasute and mandibulate termites!

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus). Combining elements from both nasute and mandibulate termites!

Rhynchotermes perarmatus is subterranean, nesting underground or under stones. These termites usually do not expose themselves to the outside world, but instead move inside covered tunnels constructed from soil particles. Inside these dark tunnels the stout workers run clumsily, carrying debris and compressed wood fiber back to the colony for food.

An intimate look at Rhynchotermes perarmatus termites crawling in one of their covered nest tunnels

An intimate look at Rhynchotermes perarmatus termites crawling in one of their covered nest tunnels

An active tunnel contains a thick flow of worker termites, and several soldiers scattered at the periphery, on guard.

An active tunnel contains a thick flow of worker termites, and several soldiers scattered at the periphery, on guard.

Rhynchotermes seems to be associated with slightly disturbed habitats, such as cleared forest areas or meadows used for cattle grazing. There are reposts of them active under aged dried out cattle dung, suggesting they may have a role in breaking it down and recycling the nutrients. In Costa Rica I found Rhynchotermes perarmatus under a heavily decomposed fallen tree, right besides a well-maintained trail. Still, after flipping the log I could not see them. I had to break open one of the galleries to get access to the action.
And the soldiers did not like that.

Armed nasute termite soldiers (Rhynchotermes perarmatus) crawling out to defend the workers

Armed nasute termite soldiers (Rhynchotermes perarmatus) crawling out to defend the workers

While the workers kept on running seemingly undisturbed, the armed soldiers started pouring out, seeking the intruder. Maybe this is the time to mention that termite soldiers are usually blind. They have no functional eyes, and rely on chemical cues and physical proximity for defending the colony.

"Fear me, ant!"

“Fear me, ant!”

Even tough beetles like this weevil know to steer clear of active Rhynchotermes perarmatus soldiers.

Even tough beetles like this weevil know to steer clear of active Rhynchotermes perarmatus soldiers.

To the human eye it seems like despite their menacing appearance, Rhynchotermes perarmatus soldiers do not do much. They walk around aimlessly, then suddenly rise on their feet and give a mute roar, gaping their mandibles. But what seems harmless to us is actually a well thought of strategy: the soldier’s head contains a special gland that secretes a cocktail of sticky odorous compounds from an opening located in the snout. It is easy to think of nasute soldiers as nozzle heads discharging glue, but in reality what Rhynchotermes discharge is a strand, not fluid. The idea behind this is to turn your enemy into a sticky mess and incapacitate it. This is effective in case of attacking ants, perhaps termites’ worst enemies. The chemical properties of the compounds may also have a role in disrupting the ants’ chemical communication. Sometimes during the interaction the termite soldiers stick to the ants as well, sacrificing themselves for the benefit of the colony. But what if this does not work? Then they can use their secondary weapon – the mandibles.

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus) gaping its impressive mandibles

Armed nasute termite soldier (Rhynchotermes perarmatus) gaping its impressive mandibles.

The mandibles are curved (similar to those found in army ant soldiers) and double-hooked. I cannot help seeing them as reminiscent to the mandibles of young Epomis larvae. This is probably an adaptation to grab and hold on tight to whatever the termite is biting. I even tested it – not only the soldiers grab well, they also lock themselves in place. They are difficult to pull out, like a fishhook.

Let me tell you, these tiny soldiers can sure bite!

Let me tell you, these tiny soldiers can sure bite!

Another thing I noticed is that many soldiers had “broken noses”. I wonder if the snout has a breaking point to allow for a quick release of the gland’s contents onto the intruder. They too moved about clumsily looking for troublemakers to the colony, reminding me of a drunken guy trying pick a fight in a bar, broken bottle in hand.

Poor soldier got its nose broken

Poor soldier got its nose broken

Aren't these termites just stunning?

Aren’t these termites just stunning?

There is still much we do not know about Rhynchotermes. For example, in the case of Rhynchotermes perarmatus, the alate caste was described only recently. Some Rhynchotermes species tend to occupy abandoned nests of other termites, but occasionally they are also found in close proximity to active nests, bordering the neighbouring colony or right on top of it. It would be interesting to examine what kind of interaction they have with other termite species. Like a lot of things in nature, these termites do not conform to our neat labels. Their bizarre soldiers represent the best of both worlds. They serve as a reminder that nature is full of surprises, that rules are meant to be broken, and that you do not have to look hard to find something new and inspiring.

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A moment of creativity: Reconsidering blattodeans http://gilwizen.com/reconsidering-blattodeans/ http://gilwizen.com/reconsidering-blattodeans/#comments Thu, 09 Nov 2017 16:16:08 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6503 A while back someone asked me if I had any plans to put up a gallery page for blattodeans on this website. That was indeed something I had in mind; This is one of my favorite insect groups, so it would not do them justice if they are unrepresented here. I hate to admit, but ... Read More

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A while back someone asked me if I had any plans to put up a gallery page for blattodeans on this website. That was indeed something I had in mind; This is one of my favorite insect groups, so it would not do them justice if they are unrepresented here. I hate to admit, but my issue with uploading photos of blattodeans is mainly due to difficulties in identifying some of the species I photographed. Nevertheless, I am happy to report that the Blattodea gallery is now up and running.

Blattodeans suffer an extremely undeserved bad reputation. The majority of Blattodea species live in natural habitats such as forests, deserts, sand dunes, and meadows, leading a cryptic lifestyle away from humans. Only a tiny fraction of them, less than 1%, lives in proximity to humans and considered as pests. For this reason I decided to ditch the word “cockroaches” and follow Piotr Naskrecki by adopting the word “blattodeans”. In the sad reality that we live in today, the word “cockroach” often carries a negative connotation in people’s minds. It is associated with something unwanted, menacing, dirty, and harmful. This could not be further from the truth: many blattodean species help to break down decaying organic matter, making crucial nutrients available for other organisms. They are, along with ants and flies, nature’s cleaning service (you’re welcome). Some species are also important pollinators. And that is without even mentioning their numerous adaptations to avoid predators, their maternal care, and social behavior.

A forest blattodean nymph (Nyctibora sp.) with white "socks." If you don't think he's cute you might want to check your pulse.

A forest blattodean nymph (Nyctibora sp.) with white “socks.” If you don’t think he’s cute you might want to check your pulse.

A long time ago I had the idea of photographing blattodeans right after molting, while they are still fresh and pigment-free. My goal was to see whether people would recognize the animal presented to them, now that it lacks some of its identifiable characters. By the way, I have been doing the same thing with whip spiders.

Blattodean molting. Who knows what it is going to look like once pigmentation appears?

Blattodean molting. Who knows what it is going to look like once pigmentation appears?

The semi-transparent exoskeleton of a freshly molted Lanxoblatta rudis nymph allows a rare glimpse into the insect's internal network.

The semi-transparent exoskeleton of a freshly molted Lanxoblatta rudis nymph allows a rare glimpse into the insect’s internal network.

The first attempts were done with Periplaneta americana, a common species that most people associate with pests. When presented with an all-white Periplaneta, almost everyone said it looked “cute”.

Freshly molted male Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

Freshly molted male Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

Above is a freshly molted male Madagascar hisser (Gromphadorhina portentosa) from a colony we kept at the museum I worked at (for more details see my previous post). We used to isolate individuals that showed signs of an approaching molt, to use them in class displays for students. Large males like this one were always a special treat, with their impressive horns. I took this photo in 2006. Even though I have seen and photographed many freshly molted blattodeans, I still see this old photo as one of my best captures. There is something about it that speaks to people. They no longer recognize an insect they are repulsed by; instead many people see something that reminds them of a cat. Recently I was delighted to learn that this photo has provided inspiration for an artist: I stumble upon an article in Chinese encouraging people to learn more about blattodeans. It featured my photo (=copyright infringement), followed by a drawing of an innocent-looking girl wearing the male horned hisser as a hat. Cute girls with cat ears (referred to as nekomimi, or in the case of other animals’ ears – kemonomimi) is a popular theme especially in manga and anime in Japan, and the blattodean serves a similar purpose here. As a matter of fact, early on I gave my photo the title 猫ちゃん (neko-chan), which translates to “kitty” in Japanese.

Blattodean kemonomimi embeded from the article mentioned. Artwork by user 长得像人的割草机 on Weibo (see originals in the comment below)

Generally speaking, I find that a lot of people respond differently to white blattodeans compared to dark-colored ones. It is almost as if it is a completely different animal. What is it that makes us so susceptible to visual cues in the form of flat dark insects? There must be a reason for this sensitivity.

A molting forest blattodean (Nyctibora sp.) shows off its elegant golden wings

A molting forest blattodean (Nyctibora sp.) shows off its elegant golden wings

Some blattodeans are white by nature, like this beautiful species of Panchlora from Belize

Some blattodeans are white by nature, like this beautiful species of Panchlora from Belize

We used to joke at the museum that when it comes to human reaction, insects can be divided into two subgroups. The first subgroup contains “green” insects: these are insects that are perceived as friendly just by their appearance. They do not necessarily have to be green, but it helps if they are. This group contains ladybugs, grasshoppers, stick and leaf insects, smooth caterpillars, stout and furry moths, mantids, and katydids to some extent. The other subgroup contains all the other insects. Again, this division is merely a joke, but it is amazing to see just how many people follow this arbitrary division. To those who welcome ladybugs but put blattodeans in the “other” subgroup, I always remind that there are blattodeans out there that look exactly like ladybugs.

Male horned roach (Hormetica apolinari). Not as cuddly as the white "neko-chan", but pretty close.

Male horned roach (Hormetica apolinari). Not as cuddly as the white “neko-chan”, but pretty close.

Since photographing “neko-chan”, I have been working with other species of blattodeans, hoping to achieve the same result, however, I was not able to replicate that look. Maybe it was more than just timing the photo with the molting process. Maybe I also captured some of the hisser’s essence and unique personality. After all, he almost looks like he is trying to tell us something. Well, he does, all blattodeans do – but we never stop to listen.

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Halloween special: My worst bug bite http://gilwizen.com/worst-bug-bite/ http://gilwizen.com/worst-bug-bite/#comments Mon, 30 Oct 2017 13:28:14 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6431 Last week I gave a seminar in front of med students and doctors at Toronto’s University Health Network about medically significant arthropods. Because I am not a doctor I chose to focus more on the animals themselves, presenting their side of the story and what type of situations bring them to sting or bite humans. ... Read More

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Last week I gave a seminar in front of med students and doctors at Toronto’s University Health Network about medically significant arthropods. Because I am not a doctor I chose to focus more on the animals themselves, presenting their side of the story and what type of situations bring them to sting or bite humans. The talk went well, I was even able to share my first hand experience with botflies, which triggered some interesting questions from the students. After the talk, one of them approached and asked me – “So, what was your worst bug bite or sting?”
I replied that my body has a severe response to black flies and their bites, swelling like crazy that I can barely recognize myself in the mirror the day after. He seemed satisfied with my reply, however on my way back home it occurred to me that this was not the answer to his question. He did not ask me which bite or sting I disliked the most. He asked me of all the bites and stings that I’ve gotten so far, which one was the worst.
And that is a valid question. I have a history of getting injured while doing all sorts of stuff, and this includes an impressive list of arthropod bites and stings accumulated over the years. But there is one bite that holds the title “the worst”. One bite I will never forget.

Some background: Back in 2007 I took a trip to Ecuador with my colleague and mentor, Alex Shlagman. We worked together at Tel Aviv University’s Natural History Collections (now known as The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History), breeding local and exotic species of arthropods for research, teaching, and display purposes. As the manager of the live arthropods collection, Alex was, and still is, the best arthropods keeper in Israel. On the other hand, I had an extensive travel history under my belt, after crossing South and Central America a few years before. This experience gave me useful insights when tackling the husbandry needs of tropical insects we kept. Nevertheless, it bothered me that Alex, with his vast knowledge of those insects, has never experienced the rainforest and its staggering diversity in person. So I did something crazy and I decided to take him to Ecuador.

One of the places we visited was a biological station close to the Amazon region. Despite the heavy rainfall this area usually gets, it was extremely dry during our visit, which made it difficult to locate animals active during the day – it was just too hot. One afternoon we hung out close to the station’s access road, following leaf-cutter ants and other insects, and taking photos. While tracking leafhoppers I stumbled upon a bush covered with what seemed to be communal assassin bugs. They were quite unique in their appearance, with a shiny lime-green abdomen and black head and limbs. From a distance they looked like spiders.

Assassin bugs in ambush waiting for prey

Assassin bugs in ambush waiting for prey

I took a single photo and then I moved in to do something I knew I shouldn’t – I poked the bug with my finger to force it into a better “pose”.
And it got into a better pose alright, immediately grabbing my finger and punching a hole in it using its thick proboscis. The pain was so sharp that I remember falling backwards and landing hard on my buttocks, while the bug let go and escaped. I sat there, silent, holding my hand with a bitter expression on my face.

Maybe I should elaborate at this point. Assassin bugs are venomous animals. Their venom is rather complex and contains many compounds, some of which has neurotoxic properties that can lead to a systemic response (and so potentially may cause death). Some assassin bugs have venom so powerful that it is often compared to a cobra snake’s venom in its potency, easily causing paralysis in mammals much larger than the small bug. Holotrichius inessi, an assassin bug roaming the deserts of Africa and the Middle East is even known to hunt scorpions, which are feisty venomous animals themselves. That is an extreme example. The truth is, in most cases we do not know enough about assassin bugs and their venom potency. So when bitten, you just don’t know what to expect.

Black sand assassin bug (Holotrichius innesi) preying on a scorpion

Black sand assassin bug (Holotrichius innesi) preying on a scorpion

As I sat there trying to gather my thoughts about what has just happened, I felt numbed by the pain. You know how sometimes when something aches so badly you can feel it pulsating? I did not even feel that. I could not feel anything but pain. I thought to myself, this is it. This is how I go. Alex later told me it was the first time he ever saw me looking confused, like I was watching my life flashing before my eyes. To some extent it really felt this way. I could not speak and I did not want to move (from fear I would worsen my condition). I just wanted this to end. We were essentially in the middle of nowhere, with no one around, so we just waited it out. I cannot remember how long it took, as I really lost the sense of time, but I remember the pain eventually reducing to a dull itch. This is when we got up and left. The itch and stiffness stayed for a few additional days and then dissipated.

Just imagine this probe drilling into your finger. Not exactly fun, I can tell you.

Just imagine this probe drilling into your finger. Not exactly fun, I can tell you.

I always find it a bit funny that my worst bug bite actually is a bug bite. Ever since that trip I have been trying to find that species of assassin bug in my subsequent visits to Ecuador, but I always failed. It is slowly turning into my Moby Dick. The important lesson here is: kids, do not go around poking animals you do not know with bare hands. It has taken me a few more bites and stings until this lesson sank in. Nowadays I am much more careful in the field.
… and I still get bitten and stung.

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Your personal opinion means nothing to nature http://gilwizen.com/your-opinion-about-nature/ http://gilwizen.com/your-opinion-about-nature/#comments Fri, 27 Oct 2017 21:16:26 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6378 In the past month I have been involved in some pretty interesting conversations surrounding public perception of stinging and biting insects. This is in large part due to a talk I was preparing about medically significant arthropods (more on that in the next post). Some of the civilized discussions ended in surprising way for me, ... Read More

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In the past month I have been involved in some pretty interesting conversations surrounding public perception of stinging and biting insects. This is in large part due to a talk I was preparing about medically significant arthropods (more on that in the next post). Some of the civilized discussions ended in surprising way for me, with a few people unfriending or unfollowing me on social media just because they could not understand my point. I am going to try and address the issues I opened by using excerpts from those discussions. I feel like this is going to end up being a ranty post, but I must do it. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comment section – they are most welcome.

Examining a queen European hornet (Vespa crabro) found overwintering under a log.

Examining a queen European hornet (Vespa crabro) found overwintering under a log.

To put it simply, there are two topics I want to open:

1. “Aggressive” arthropods

The first discussion evolved after I shared a conversation I had with a twitter user about a photo of a wasp.
The guy immediately took the stance of “all wasps are aggressive”, and continued to give examples from his own experience of wasps nesting close to his window. I do not want to get into too many details (you can see that conversation in the screen grab), I will just mention that a) the photo showed a male wasp that is incapable of stinging, and b) the nesting wasps do not know they are using this guy’s window. They do not even know what a window is!!!
There seems to be some confusion surrounding the term “aggressive” when describing arthropods, and animals in general. Hippopotamuses are aggressive. Some bears are aggressive. Crows can be aggressive if you injure one of their members. I think you get my point. With arthropods, I am not sure I have a clear cut example of aggressiveness. Maybe “aggressive” is not the right word. Don’t get me wrong, venomous stinging animals are still somewhat dangerous and occasionally do land people in the hospital after being stung. But I ask you, when you call them aggressive, what do you mean exactly? Aggressive to who? Anyone within the range of a nest or just anyone? Do they chase and attack people without provocation? Who took the first step? Sometimes being too close to wasps triggers their defense behavior. But then again, you really have to rub it in their face and disturb them for this alarm response to occur.

Yellowjackets (Vespula germanica) feeding on a fallen pear

Yellowjackets (Vespula germanica) feeding on a fallen pear

For example, I was very close when I took this photo of the yellowjackets. The wasps were active all around me, and NOTHING happened. These wasps were very nice to me. Seriously, I do not understand why they have such a bad reputation. Don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing. I am not saying anyone else should try to do the same. That would be foolish, especially if you are not familiar with wasp behavior. But I would not call them aggressive. I see wasps and other stinging arthropods as “defensive”. I think the difference between aggression and defense is the presence of provocation. If an animal attacks without provocation, I would classify it as aggression. What is debatable is the definition of provocation. Clearly the meaning of it to us is different from that perceived by social insects. Do not forget that in their world chemical communication takes a substantial part. If the wind blows in their direction, carrying over our scent to the nest, that would be considered a provocation and will trigger a defensive behavior. Things are different if you accidentally hit a wasp nest. Then they will “aggressively” defend their nest.

For many people the sight of a hornet nest in their backyard is terrifying. But in reality these wasps are only interested in making it through the summer months.

For many people the sight of a hornet nest in their backyard is terrifying. But in reality these wasps are only interested in making it through the summer months.

Of course, no one can tell what goes on in a wasp’s mind. They cannot read our minds either. They do not know our intentions just as much as we do not know theirs. There has to be some sort of mutual respect if you want this to end peacefully. Unfortunately, that is something that a lot of people do not have towards nature today. People just see ‘wasp’ and go batshit crazy.

I agree that in some areas where they are invasive, wasps are a problem, particularly in islands. They forage on native fauna, spreading fast and wrecking havoc in their path. But is it aggressiveness? Or is it evidence that they are just very good at what they are supposed to do? It is just foraging and nothing more. Because they thrive in areas with no natural enemies, their food hunts may seem like the wasps are out of control, but they are really just doing their thing to survive and reproduce. Still, they need to be eradicated from these habitats, no doubt.

Going back to the meaning of the word “aggressive”, it shows how difficult it is to communicate without having a clear definition of the word. This is more a discussion about semantics than anything else. Now, I am guilty for being stuck in my own bubble with no idea how things are perceived by others. Each person has their own definition of what being aggressive is, and this is in part related to their personal experience as a human. As noted by a friend of mine, this is largely due to the unprovoked aggressiveness we know from human troublemakers and the unnecessarily violent overreaction that happens when someone thinks they took enough beating and lashes back out. I think the first step is to differentiate the use of the term “aggressive” for describing human behavior and animal behavior. Here is why I stopped using the term frequently when discussing animals:
It crates a negative outlook on nature.
We tend to bring our human-centric approach to nature. “Those animals are trying to hurt me”. “They built a nest on my property”. I understand that it is frustrating to discover a potentially injurious animal in one’s living space, if this had happened to me I would want them removed too. But we must learn to put ourselves out of the picture. Those animals are not there because of us. They are there because the harsh competition in nature is forcing them to do what they can to survive. It just so happens that our living space feels safe for them too, but can you blame them?

2. “Purpose” in the natural world

Perhaps one of the questions I get asked the most, even more often than which camera equipment I use, is what is the purpose of –insert pest species here-:
What is the purpose of flies?
What are mosquitoes good for?
What is the purpose of wasps in nature?

I think these questions stem from a very common human behavior. From an early age we have this innate, almost inexplicable urge to ask “why?” about everything. We are curious to break down how things work around us, and if the world is constructed from tiny pieces, then every piece must have its own purpose assigned to it.
The real question here is who assigns these purposes. Is it man? That would be a very anthropocentric view of life. Conversely, if you believe a purpose is assigned from above by an all-powerful being such as god, then you should not be asking an entomologist these questions. You should ask god. (go and do that right now. It’s OK, we’ll wait. Are you back? Good. Let’s continue) In contrast, if we look at the natural world from an evolutionary perspective, then yes, all the pieces have their rightful place in the big puzzle, otherwise they would not exist.

This is why I believe the questions mentioned above are phrased horribly. Using the word “purpose” suggests that there must also be a benefit to us, humans, to justify the existence of something. That is the wrong way to look at the world. This search for purposes, for meaning in everything, is a characteristic of human nature. Well, what is the purpose of humans then? Why are we here? This is not an easy question to answer when you start thinking about it seriously. Because one person may think humans are on this planet for one purpose, while another person will think of a different purpose for our existence. But let’s not get too philosophical and go back to arthropods and other pests.

What is the purpose of flies/mosquitoes/wasps/ticks/leeches?
To survive.
A better way to look at this would be to ask what role those animals play in nature. To this question there is a concrete answer, because every species has its natural history. The pest insects mentioned above break down organic matter, pollinate, and regulate the populations of other arthropods. I want to take this opportunity to give an example for such an inquiry gone totally wrong, and use it to forward the discussion and paint the bigger picture.

Last week I shared a photo of an African tick, Dermacentor rhinocerinus. The only reason I posted it was because I thought it was beautiful, and I wanted to show that it is possible to appreciate such an animal even though I would not want it to suck my blood.
To be honest, I already got used to getting hate comments and I expected some negative responses to arrive. And arrive they did.
Let’s analyze this conversation together.
In this first part of the conversation, a person leaves a comments that ticks are never beautiful, and that their existence has no justification. This a subjective statement, so I reply in the same manner. Then they go on by saying that ticks serve no purpose in the ecosystem, and that nature would be better off without them. This kind of comments make me cringe. If an organism exists right now as we speak, it means two things: it has a well-based role in nature, and it is extremely good at what it does.
I am copying my reply because I think it is worth reading:

The only thing that ticks do in nature, just like any other animal, is survive. That is the one job they have – to continue the existence of their species. They do so by feeding on blood of other animals. And by doing that (their “role”, if you wish), they dilute and remove the weak individuals from the mammalian population. Now, what is important to understand here, is that ticks do not exist to spread diseases. They are blood feeders. The disease pathogens come from mammals and birds. Ticks have no mutualistic relationships with the bacteria, viruses, and protozoans that they vector. Spreading diseases is more of an artifact of their feeding habits. You want a world without ticks? Fine, but just like you said ecosystems would adapt to their absence, those disease pathogens will continue to thrive in their mammalian hosts, and nature will find a way to get those diseases back into humans.
I’m going to take a risk by saying a world completely free of diseases is a world without life.

The next part is really interesting. After explaining that ticks belong in the natural world no less than other animals (as well as humans), the person who started the conversation goes back to their original stance. Suddenly they remember that they already know and understand everything that has been discussed so far, but they insist that ticks cannot be referred to as beautiful. It is blasphemy. What I find amazing is that this person accused me of having a naïve perspective of biology because I thought a tick was beautiful. This is coming from a person who spent much of his time breeding killifishes, a hobby fish that is praised and prized for its beauty. Oh, the irony.

Conclusion

What these two topics have in common is showing that people tend to bring a lot of their emotions into the conversation when they talk about arthropods they hate. I understand that you do not like insects and arachnids. I also understand that you feel like they are chasing you. However, please trust me when I say there is absolutely no stinging arthropod that is out to get you. They use their stinger for defense only. If you do feel like something is coming after you, please consult a physician or a psychiatrist – you might suffer from delusional parasitosis, entomophobia, or arachnophibia (all totally normal, and treatable by the way!). Also please be aware that there are people out there who find these creatures fascinating and beautiful, even pest insects like mosquitoes. If they can do it, maybe these bugs are not so bad after all? Give them a chance. You may find that the fear and hate you experience are only a manifestation of not knowing enough about these animals. And at the very least, be respectful and compassionate to other people, even if they hold a different opinion than yours.
At the end of the day, your personal opinion means nothing to nature. Nature will continue to function regardless of what you feel. You know what does mean a lot to nature? Your actions.

 

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Little Transformers: Myrmarachne formicaria http://gilwizen.com/myrmarachne-formicaria/ http://gilwizen.com/myrmarachne-formicaria/#comments Wed, 04 Oct 2017 12:48:42 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6260 Little Transformers is back! And this time our star is a small jumping spider that goes out of its way to masquerade as an ant. I am often accused for not writing about topics related to Canada on this blog. While this is not entirely true, I could have without doubt posted more about local ... Read More

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Little Transformers is back! And this time our star is a small jumping spider that goes out of its way to masquerade as an ant.

I am often accused for not writing about topics related to Canada on this blog. While this is not entirely true, I could have without doubt posted more about local critters. It is a great time to do so now, as I will be taking the opportunity to address several events.
Firstly, it is now October, and we are getting closer and closer to Halloween (Oct 31st). Nine years ago, the Arachtober initiative was born: why wait till the end of the month to celebrate spiders? Let’s celebrate them and other arachnids throughout the entire month of October! And so, during the month of October we give arachnids more exposure in hopes to educate the general public about these magnificent and important creatures.
Secondly, a new initiative is slowly forming, International Jumping Spider Day, on October 10th. The idea is to use the easily adored jumping spiders as the gateway arachnid for changing the often-negative public perception of spiders. I wholeheartedly support this idea and hope to see it catching on.
Lastly, a shameless plug: You may have noticed that this blog is nominated for the 2017 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online. It is a huge honor to be included with other excellent science blogs and sites on the same list. If you like the content and stories that I post, you can show your appreciation by voting following this link. I wish to thank those who already voted in support of this blog. While this nomination has nothing to do with spiders, I thought it is a great opportunity to write a blog post about an arthropod found in Canada.

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) wants your attention

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) wants your attention

After this short introduction, it is time to present our first local Little Transformer, the ant-mimicking jumping spider Myrmarachne formicaria. It is one of the nicest looking spiders here in Ontario, and it is surprisingly abundant in its habitat. Alas, there is a small catch here. While this jumping spider is local, it is not native to Canada. This species was first detected in North America in 2001, and later established in Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto in 2015. It originates in the Palearctic region, more specifically Europe and Asia. Despite this, these spiders feel right at home in Toronto, as it seems that they are spreading away from the park containing the main population. This year, Sean McCann recorded Myrmarachne in Scarborough (east Toronto), and I found them in Mississauga (west of Toronto).

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) masquerading as an ant

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) masquerading as an ant

Myrmarachne formicaria is an elongated jumping spider that takes the appearance of a small ant, and here in Ontario it is associated with the European fire ant, Myrmica rubra, also an introduced species. Isn’t it interesting how these two non-native species managed to find each other on unfamiliar land? The spider has long and slender legs just like those of an ant, and the banded forelegs are slightly thicker to resemble antennae. The cephalothorax has a depression to echo the segmentation in ants separating head from thorax. The abdomen is long with a narrow connection to the cephalothorax, reminiscent of an ant’s petiole. Surprisingly, in this species the pedipalps (normally a distinguishing character between males and females) are swollen in females, a trait usually seen only in males. Males on the other hand have enormous toothed chelicerae that stick right out of their faces. I suspected this is a sexually selected trait used in fights for females, and this was later confirmed by Sean McCann (check out his amazing shots here).

Female ant-mimicking jumping spiders (Myrmarachne formicaria) have swollen pedipalps

Female ant-mimicking jumping spiders (Myrmarachne formicaria) have swollen pedipalps

Male duck-mimicking jumping spide... um, excuse me ANT-mimicking jumping spider. Quack quack.

Male duck-mimicking jumping spide… um, excuse me ANT-mimicking jumping spider. Quack quack.

This begs the question, why do Myrmarachne spiders look like ants? Do the spiders use their appearance to fool the ants into thinking they are members of their own colony in order to sneak up on them and prey on ant workers or larvae? Not really. For starters, the ant species approached by Myrmarachne formicaria are usually not visual creatures. They rely more on their chemical communication, using volatile pheromones, for navigation and recognition. Moreover, the spiders seem to deliberately avoid any contact with the ant workers. They may walk among the ants, but they always keep their distance from them. In fact, when I experimented and isolated a few spiders within a group of ants, the spiders chose to stay still, and only when the path was clear they made a run for it. I also noticed that the ants display an aggressive response when encountering a spider. So the ants are not the target of this mimicry. Who is? Us. Or more precisely, predators. You see, the spider not only looks like an ant and spend its time close to the ants, it also moves like an ant.

Myrmarachne formicaria always keep a safe distance from Myrmica rubra workers

Myrmarachne formicaria always keep a safe distance from Myrmica rubra workers

A recent study looked into the locomotion of Myrmarachne formicaria jumping spiders and found that they do not move like their peers. First of all, instead of jumping like most salticid spiders, they move forward in a series of short sprints. But they also move in a pattern that resembles the movement of ants following a pheromone trail, back and forth in a winding wave motion, instead of random strolling and stopping often we see in other spiders. If it looks like an ant and moves like an ant… it might be good enough to fool predators that it is an ant. And I can attest to this – it is extremely difficult to keep track of a Myrmarachne spider moving about in an area with ant activity. Look away, and you will need all the luck in the world to find it again. The spiders also benefit from being close to a colony of highly defensive ants. Myrmica rubra is easily alarmed and has its reputation when it comes to stinging intruders.

Some Myrmarachne formicaria feature a two-colored cephalothorax, to emphasize the part that mimics the ant's head

Some Myrmarachne formicaria feature a two-colored cephalothorax, to emphasize the part that mimics the ant’s head

If they do not hunt the ants, what do these spiders feed on? They seem to go after soft-bodied insects, and they are especially fond of dipterans: small flies, mosquitoes, midges etc’.

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) feeding on a chironomid midge

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) feeding on a chironomid midge

A closer look at the feeding Myrmarachne male reveals the weaponized chelicerae, used in fighting other males

A closer look at the feeding Myrmarachne male reveals the weaponized chelicerae, used in fighting other males

At this point you might ask yourself why I included this jumping spider in my Little Transformers series. Sure, it mimics an ant, but that’s it. Or is it? In order to qualify as a Little Transformer the arthropod needs to change something in its appearance to transform into something different. So far we have seen that these spiders move in an atypical fashion to jumping spiders. But there is one more thing they do to conceal their salticid identity. What is the one, fail-safe characteristic of jumping spiders? Those huge front eyes! If only the spider could hide them, it would look like the perfect ant. And they do exactly that.

I look at this spider and I see an ant staring back at me.

I look at this spider and I see an ant staring back at me.

Myrmarachne often wave their forelegs in the air to mimic the ants’ antennae, but the legs also hide their most recognizable feature, the bulging front eyes. Females seem to do a better job at this than males, transforming into ants right before our eyes.

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria). Even on a side-view I still see a weird duck...

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria). Even on a side-view I still see a weird duck…

What is most intriguing here is that the rear pair of eyes evolved to be very large, bearing a striking resemblance in their size and position to ant eyes.

Ant-mimicry is quite common among arthropds, and many species of jumping spiders deploy this strategy as an anti-predator defense or to assist in foraging. While some do not consider Myrmarachne formicaria as a case of perfect mimicry, it is a gorgeous spider with intriguing behavior. Besides, mimicry does not have to be perfect to satisfy our aesthetic desires. It only has to be good enough to benefit the spider’s survival.

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Compsus: glitter weevils with structural coloration http://gilwizen.com/compsus/ http://gilwizen.com/compsus/#comments Thu, 07 Sep 2017 14:12:44 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6111 The insect world is full of great examples for flamboyant insects. From mosquitoes sporting feathery legs and electric blue scales, through the splash of vibrant colors in rainbow katydids, to shiny golden-green orchid bees and their mimics. But none are as dazzling as the glitter weevils of genus Compsus (family Curculionidae, subfamily Entiminae). Compsus is ... Read More

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The insect world is full of great examples for flamboyant insects. From mosquitoes sporting feathery legs and electric blue scales, through the splash of vibrant colors in rainbow katydids, to shiny golden-green orchid bees and their mimics. But none are as dazzling as the glitter weevils of genus Compsus (family Curculionidae, subfamily Entiminae).

Short-snout weevil (Compsus sp.) from Mindo, Ecuador. It is hard to take all these colors in.

Short-snout weevil (Compsus sp.) from Mindo, Ecuador. It is hard to take all these colors in.

Compsus is a large genus distributed mainly in Central and South America, with one species occurring in North America. It contains around 140 species, mostly small to medium sized beetles of 0.5-2.5cm in length. Several species are considered as pests of citrus trees. The adult weevils feed on plant tissue: leaves, flower petals, and pollen, but they will also go for rotting leaves and fermenting fruits. The females oviposit egg masses on the aerial parts of trees. The young legless larvae hatch, drop to the ground, and burrow into the soil where they feed on the roots of the tree. At the end of its developmental stage the larva builds a chamber in the ground and pupates, and it will stay in this state for two months until the adult’s eclosion. Compsus weevils complete their life cycle within 5-7 months.

Another species of Compsus from Mindo, this one has a bit more metallic sheen to it.

Another species of Compsus from Mindo, this one has a bit more metallic sheen to it.

Compsus weevil feeding on rotting plant tissue

Compsus weevil feeding on rotting plant tissue

Freshly-eclosed short-snout weevil (Compsus sp.) use impressive mandibles to break out of the pupal skin. These scissor-like attachments drop later.

Freshly-eclosed short-snout weevil (Compsus sp.) use impressive mandibles to break out of the pupal skin. These scissor-like attachments drop later.

But what makes Compsus weevils so special, as well as other members of subfamily Entiminae, is their eye-catching colors. I would do these beetles a disservice if I didn’t explain where the colors come from, so things are about to get technical. Animal coloration is derived from spectrally selective light reflections on the outer body parts. There are two types of coloration:
1) Pigmentary (or chemical) coloration – occurs when pigments absorb scattered light in a narrow wavelength range. This type of coloration is the most common in animals.
2) Structural (or physical) coloration – achieved by nanometer-sized structures with changing refractive indices, causing coherent light scattering. Structural coloration is less common in the animal kingdom but it is widely encountered as well, and often structural colors are modified by spectrally filtering pigments.

Scales containing photonic crystals on the head of a Compsus weevil

Scales containing photonic crystals on the head of a Compsus weevil

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of a Compsus weevil

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of a Compsus weevil

The structures causing the physical colors are referred to as photonic crystals if they have properties (periodicity) that align with wavelengths of visible light. One-dimensional photonic crystals consist of parallel thin film layers of alternating high and low refractive index materials. These structures create the metallic and polarized reflections of cephalopods skin, the elytra of jewel beetles and scarabs, and the breast feathers of birds of paradise. Two-dimensional photonic crystals are structures with periodicity in two dimensions. An example for two-dimensional photonic crystals in animals would be the coloration of peacock feathers. Three-dimensional photonic crystals have been found in the scales of weevils and other beetles, but also in butterflies like the blue morpho.

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus schoenherri) from Indonesia

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus schoenherri) from Indonesia

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus schoenherri) from Indonesia

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus schoenherri) from Indonesia

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of a Compsus weevil

Scales containing photonic crystals on the body surface of a Compsus weevil

Blue scales on the leg tarsus of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus linnei) from Indonesia

Blue scales on the leg tarsus of an Entiminae weevil (Eupholus linnei) from Indonesia

In the case of Entiminae weevils, the adult beetles have strikingly iridescent scales, sometimes immersed in pits on the weevils’ elytra and legs. This gives the weevils a festive glittery look, as if they were covered with confetti during a big party. The reason for the bright coloration in weevils is mostly misunderstood. In some ways it may serve as camouflage in green species, but blue-colored species are very conspicuous so it remains unclear whether they advertise something to potential predators. I cannot complain: for me it is always a joy to see the cute Compsus weevils in the wild, even though sometimes it makes you feel like you missed out on a celebration or something.

 

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Public outreach: Promoting the appreciation of arthropods http://gilwizen.com/public-outreach/ http://gilwizen.com/public-outreach/#comments Sat, 02 Sep 2017 02:48:24 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6013 Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in an outreach event, Guelph Bug Day, at the University of Guelph Arboretum. Bug days are public events, usually free of any admission fees, which promote the appreciation and admiration of insects and arachnids, and set out to educate anyone who is fascinated by arthropods. This ... Read More

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Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in an outreach event, Guelph Bug Day, at the University of Guelph Arboretum. Bug days are public events, usually free of any admission fees, which promote the appreciation and admiration of insects and arachnids, and set out to educate anyone who is fascinated by arthropods.

Instagram Photo

This is not the first time I participate in such an event. Last year I presented arachnids at Bug Day Ottawa. In fact, ever since I became interested in insects and their natural history, I have been involved in presenting them to whoever was interested: I brought live insects to lab sessions in high school, I led my mates in outdoor excursions to find spiders and scorpions during my military service, I collaborated with operating museums and insectariums as a consultant on exhibitions, and I incorporated the use of live insects in biology studies at universities to help students gain a better understanding of the courses material. More recently though, I have been more active in events aimed at the general public, in order to bring arthropods into the mainstream and help people overcome their fears. And so far, it has been a blast. Take this recent bug day in Guelph for example: I found myself smiling from ear to ear the whole time, and my table was always busy with no moment to rest, not that I am complaining. This was the first time Guelph holds a bug day event and to be honest, it was the best one I have ever been to. It was that good. But before I talk about the bug day, let me elaborate a little about public outreach and why I think it is important.

When working in science, especially when you acquire some expertise, it becomes difficult to expose the public to your subject of research and communicate about it. The more knowledge you gain about your study system, the harder it gets to explain it to people with little or no science background and get them to care about it. I am happy to say that this is changing thanks to the engagement of researchers and science communicators with the public on social media. Yet there is still a long way to go.

More specifically, nowadays most people go about their daily lives with little or no exposure to the wonders of nature. I once brought velvet worms to a public outreach event at the Toronto Zoo and the response was phenomenal. It was not surprising – the majority of people, biologists included, will live through their lives without even knowing these majestic animals exist, let alone see a live one. So in my opinion this exposure is critical, it can influence the public’s opinion and later have implications for nature conservation. I do think people should familiarize themselves with whatever is found in their area, both plants and animals. After all, insects and spiders are everywhere, and most of them are not out to get anyone. They are harmless and usually mind their own business.

When I present live arthropods, I love interacting with children and let them handle the animals, but I am even more interested in getting the parents into the game. You see, the reality is that the majority of kids already like bugs. They are curious about the diverse world of invertebrates, those common animals that are so different from mammals and birds, and have the appearance of small toys. Unfortunately, at some point children lose their interest in invertebrates, and sometimes even worse, replace it with fear and hate. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why that stage occurs. But it is most likely due to an environmental influence – succumbing to peer-pressure from friends or parents, and witnessing a shift in cultural appreciation as technology takes nature’s place. Parents have a huge role in preserving the view of the natural world in young people’s minds by encouraging them and nurturing their curiosity. Many times I have seen an excited kid holding an insect turn to their parents in hopes for affirmation. However, sometimes the kids are uninterested in insects, in which case I try to work directly with the parents and get them to handle the animals. Some children just need to see their parents doing something a bit unconventional to get confirmation that they are cool!

It just so happens that I stumbled upon this beautiful artwork by Tiana Cabana, a lovely composite image (inspired by another artwork) depicting my burning passion and mission –

Give small critters some room in your heart. Embrace them.
It will make you a better person, and they will appreciate it too.

https://twitter.com/spoodersNsuch/status/902678547638218752

Going back to Guelph Bug Day, I was astonished by the sheer amount of positivity expressed by the visitors attending. Even those who confessed their fears gave the arachnids a chance after listening to some facts about them and realizing that they do not pose a threat. I find this level of open-mindness incredible, and it is in great part thanks to the amazing organizers and volunteers who put so much of their energy into making this event a reality. Such a talented group of people.

I returned home from the bug day with such a “high”, almost intoxicated, feeling. At first I didn’t know what it was. Sure, the event was fun, but was it that fun? What is this smile smeared all over my face? Why am I so restless, why can’t I just sit down? And it finally dawned on me what it is that I was feeling. It was love. I was in love.
So yeah, I can get pretty emotional at times, but the important take home message for me here is that I can see myself doing this every single day, for the rest of my life. Thank you, Guelph Bug Day. You have a special place in my heart.

One lesson learned from doing these events – I need to bring a camera…

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The discovery of Charinus israelensis, a new whip spider from Israel http://gilwizen.com/charinus-israelensis/ http://gilwizen.com/charinus-israelensis/#respond Wed, 23 Aug 2017 17:12:53 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5958 When I was a kid I used to spend hours in the Israeli outdoors, looking for insects and arachnids in hopes to familiarize myself with as many arthropod species as possible. I was so darn good at finding small critters that soon enough friends requested to tag along to see what I could unearth during ... Read More

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When I was a kid I used to spend hours in the Israeli outdoors, looking for insects and arachnids in hopes to familiarize myself with as many arthropod species as possible. I was so darn good at finding small critters that soon enough friends requested to tag along to see what I could unearth during a short afternoon hike. My parents recognized my growing passion and got me the natural history “bible” at that time – the 12 volumes of Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. I studied it carefully, trying to set goals to find certain species, which led me on excursions throughout the country. Yet one arachnid seemed to remain out of reach.

Charinus israelensis, a new species of whip spider in Israel

Charinus israelensis, a new species of whip spider in Israel

It looked like a cross between a mantis and a spider, with one long pair of appendages. It was an amblypygid, a whip spider. The book listed only a single species occurring in Israel, Charinus ioanniticus, very rare. It featured a tiny photo, followed by a large illustration on the opposite page, a replication of the photo. In the days before the internet, that was my only reference for this arachnid group.

Amblypygi in: Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

Amblypygi in: Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 Arachnids. For nearly a decade this was my only reference for information about whip spiders.

I was determined to see a live one, but I always failed to find them. I kept looking at those pages in hopes to memorize every aspect of the animal, making sure I can confirm its identity in case I stumble upon one. Years have passed and I gave up on finding one in the wild. I did get a chance to see a live specimen during my high school days though, in one of the visits I paid to Pinchas “Pini” Amitai, the man who took the original photo in the book. Little did I know that 20 years into the future I would be involved in discovering a new species of whip spider living in Israel.

This discovery is not recent news. We found the new species over five years ago, and the formal description was published last year. The media intended to feature the story, but unfortunately a former president in Israel passed away on the same week the paper was published and there was no interest in a story about an obscure arachnid living inside caves in Israel. Despite that, I waited. The discovery is an important one, and I was hoping our new species could still make an appearance in the news. And as you can imagine, I am still waiting. Well, as the old saying goes – if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

So let me tell you the story of this cute arachnid. Back in 2012 I stumbled upon a photo of a whip spider from Israel in one of my social media newsfeeds. The photo was taken by Dr. Eran Levin during a cave survey for his research about bats’ hibernation sites. Since I had an approaching trip to Israel I contacted my friend and asked if he would share the location, because I was still hoping to see and document a wild whip spider in my home country. We chatted for a while, the location was a bit unexpected for amblypygids in the area, but a few months later I found myself crawling through a tight opening into the warm cave. And indeed they were there, happily roaming on the walls, waving their magnificent long legs everywhere.

A juvenile of Charinus israelensis walking on the wall in one of the caves

A juvenile of Charinus israelensis walking on the wall in one of the caves

Molts hanging from the cave's ceiling are a good sign for an active whip spider population.

Molts hanging from the cave’s ceiling are a good sign for an active whip spider population.

Charinus israelensis cleaning its leg

Charinus israelensis cleaning its leg. This specimen lost two of its legs in fights with others (see example below). They will grow back the next time it molts.

I took some photos and happily went home. When I inspected the photos later, something did not sit right with me. I still had a vivid memory of the photo and illustration in the book from my childhood. But now, I could also use information online for confirmation. The amblypygid species known from Israel, Charinus ioanniticus, has well developed median eyes. It almost looks like it is crossed-eyed. How cute.

Charinus ioanniticus' big smile. See the tiny beady eyes? Adorable!

Charinus ioanniticus’ big smile. See the tiny beady eyes? Adorable!

I looked at my photos, and none of the animals had median eyes. What is going on here?

Charinus israelensis, note the absence of median eyes

Charinus israelensis, note the absence of median eyes

Charinus israelensis can have big smiles too

Charinus israelensis can have big smiles too

In all other visible aspects the whip spiders looked like C. ioanniticus, yet the absence of eyes was enough for me to suspect that I might be dealing with a new species. I made some calls, went back to collect some specimens, and started the long process of verifying and describing the species with colleagues (you can find our paper on my publications page). I invested my energy and personal funds into that research. For me it was a mission to put the spotlight on this exciting new find. We named it Charinus israelensis. I became heavily involved with the general public and posted requests in forums and social media groups for any records or sightings of whip spiders in Israel. Slowly but surely, I started receiving responses from various people located throughout the country. Some of which mentioned whip spiders that found their way into homes, others were reported from natural caverns. It was even more interesting to visit some of those places with the people who made the sightings, and witness the whip spiders’ populations together with them. I learned a lot about caves in Israel, and how much we still don’t know about these habitat systems. But the best experience for me while searching for the new species C. israelensis was to discover new unrecorded populations of the known species, C. ioanniticus. And more than anything, I suddenly realized that they are not at all that rare as mentioned in the old encyclopedia. They are just extremely cryptic, remaining hidden in tight crevices and coming out in the darkest of nights. No wonder people never see them.

Charinus ioanniticus from a newly recorded population in the Carmel Mountain Ridge of Israel

Charinus ioanniticus from a newly recorded population in the Carmel Mountain Ridge of Israel

Why is this exciting? There are two main reasons. The first one is that this discovery doubles the Amblypygi fauna for Israel. It may not sound much, but jumping from one species to two is actually a big deal. It has implications on our understanding of food webs in caves, and these unique arachnids may give further incentives to protect and conserve cave habitats in Israel. The second reason is that the loss of eyes in cave animals (troglomorphism, a term associated with adaptation for life in dark caves) is an interesting topic for studying the evolution of traits within a phyllogenetic lineage. There are already several examples of blind Charinus whip spiders from around the globe, which may lead to fascinating research in the future. In the meantime, I continue to keep live specimens of both Charinus species from Israel, learning a ton about their biology in the process.

A freshly molted Charinus israelensis shows spectacular coloration

A freshly molted Charinus israelensis shows spectacular coloration. The color turns reddish-brown after some time.

Two females of Charinus israelensis fighting

Two females of Charinus israelensis fighting. Whip spiders have complex communication based on movements of their antenniform legs. Some encounters turn hostile, in this case because the bottom female was gravid.

Charinus israelensis female carrying an egg sac

Charinus israelensis female carrying an egg sac

Some of the adult whip spiders that were collected in the beginning of the research are still alive and kicking! Quite impressive for a small arachnid, and seems like they can even outlive some of the more “conventional” pets.

Because I eat, sleep, and breathe whip spiders, my friend Peggy Muddles aka The Vexed Muddler made this awesome portrait of mine with C. israelensis (check out more of her fabulous stuff here)

artwork by Peggy Muddles

“Whip spiders are the coolest arachnids that will never hurt you”

By the way, this weekend (Sunday August 27th, 10am-5pm) the University of Guelph is holding a “Bug Day” at the Arboretum Centre. Come for a fun day out and learn about arthropods. I will have a table with whip spiders, so please drop by and say hi. I will also have some framed whip spider molts with me so please come and check them out!

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Review: Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens http://gilwizen.com/laowa-15mm-lens-review/ http://gilwizen.com/laowa-15mm-lens-review/#respond Fri, 18 Aug 2017 07:20:37 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5698 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 ... Read More

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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.

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Jumping spider mimicry in Brenthia moths http://gilwizen.com/brenthia/ http://gilwizen.com/brenthia/#respond Sun, 09 Jul 2017 22:05:25 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5646 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 ... Read More

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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

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Little Transformers: Dysodius http://gilwizen.com/dysodius/ http://gilwizen.com/dysodius/#respond Mon, 19 Jun 2017 17:20:23 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5583 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 ... Read More

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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.

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Little Transformers: Pycnopalpa bicordata http://gilwizen.com/pycnopalpa-bicordata/ http://gilwizen.com/pycnopalpa-bicordata/#respond Fri, 12 May 2017 23:18:06 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5522 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, ... Read More

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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.

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Little Transformers: Eburia pedestris http://gilwizen.com/eburia-pedestris/ http://gilwizen.com/eburia-pedestris/#respond Thu, 27 Apr 2017 14:48:19 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5496 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 ... Read More

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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.

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Insect art: Framed whip spiders (Amblypygi) http://gilwizen.com/framed-whip-spiders/ http://gilwizen.com/framed-whip-spiders/#comments Tue, 18 Apr 2017 00:44:41 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5465 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 ... Read More

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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.

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Little Transformers: Ceratocanthinae beetles http://gilwizen.com/ceratocanthinae/ http://gilwizen.com/ceratocanthinae/#respond Thu, 13 Apr 2017 12:50:02 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5440 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 ... Read More

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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.

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Insect art: Transformers and other insect mecha http://gilwizen.com/insect-transformers/ http://gilwizen.com/insect-transformers/#respond Thu, 06 Apr 2017 20:04:16 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5402 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. I grew up in the 1980’s, a time when giant robots were popular ... Read More

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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.

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Insect art: The use of insects in Japanese anime http://gilwizen.com/insect-used-in-anime/ http://gilwizen.com/insect-used-in-anime/#respond Thu, 30 Mar 2017 17:25:28 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5337 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 ... Read More

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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.

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Vestria – the katydid that wanted to be a spider http://gilwizen.com/vestria/ http://gilwizen.com/vestria/#comments Sat, 18 Mar 2017 16:04:37 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=5298 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 ... Read More

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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

 

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