Gil Wizen http://gilwizen.com Entomologist and Photographer Wed, 10 Oct 2018 12:03:46 +0000 en hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 http://gilwizen.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/cropped-logo2-32x32.png Gil Wizen http://gilwizen.com 32 32 53655705 Spiderception: jumping spider-mimicking jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.) http://gilwizen.com/parnaenus/ http://gilwizen.com/parnaenus/#comments Wed, 10 Oct 2018 11:44:28 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=7990 After a long hiatus of nearly 5 months, I thought it is about time I shake the dust off this blog and return to posting. This month we are celebrating Arachtober, highlighting spiders and other arachnids to promote appreciation and understanding that these animals are crucial to the normal function of ecosystems, and that they ... Read More

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After a long hiatus of nearly 5 months, I thought it is about time I shake the dust off this blog and return to posting. This month we are celebrating Arachtober, highlighting spiders and other arachnids to promote appreciation and understanding that these animals are crucial to the normal function of ecosystems, and that they have their rightful place on this planet. Today is also International Jumping Spider Day, so it is a great opportunity to discuss something interesting that some of these cuties share.

Last February I was fortunate to spend a week in Colombia for a photography assignment. In one of our day hikes I checked a cluster of hanging vine flowers to see if there are interesting insects hiding inside. I did not find any insects except for ants, but as I was peeking inside the inflorescence I saw a row of shiny eyes staring back at me. I thought to myself – Oh, cool. A jumping spider. And indeed it was a salticid spider, however what I thought were eyes was nothing but a deception. In fact the spider’s head was facing away from me, and it was busy munching on a small moth.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider playing peek-a-boo. These spiders become even more interesting when viewed from behind.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider playing peek-a-boo. These spiders become even more interesting when viewed from behind.

Lateral view of a female Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia. The color pattern on the abdomen resembles jumping spider eyes.

Lateral view of a female Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia. The color pattern on the abdomen resembles jumping spider eyes.

Female jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). They are much cuter when looking straight at you!

Female jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). They are much cuter when looking straight at you!

Even though there are almost no identification keys for jumping spiders from the neotropics, I am confident that the spider I found was a female Parnaenus. For the most part these are plain looking jumping spiders, but their abdomen is usually covered with blue and green iridescent scales. On both side of the abdomen they have a row of spots that look exactly like jumping spider eyes. In fact, due to the contrast with the colorful abdomen, those spots are even more noticeable than the spider’s actual eyes. And it’s not just the female Parnaenus that possess these spots; the smaller and more colorful males have them too.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. Huge head with stunning iridescent colors.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. Huge head with stunning iridescent colors.

Dorsal view of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). From this angle you can see how easy it is to mistake the spots on the abdomen for eyes.

Dorsal view of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). From this angle you can see how easy it is to mistake the spots on the abdomen for eyes.

Jumping spiders are visual creatures. They rely on visual cues and their good eyesight to detect prey, competitive conspecifics, and potential mates. This is why many species of jumping spiders developed complex color patterns to assist in communication with other individuals. Other arthropods also take advantage of this and deploy mimicry to fool these spiders and avoid predation. One of the most common jumping spider mimicry is the presence of eyespots arranged in a row, to resemble the spiders’ large frontal eyes. I have already written about such cases on this blog, usually demonstrated by moths, but other insects as well (see here and here for examples). We have also seen jumping spiders using mimicry to resemble insects. What we have not seen yet though, is jumping spiders mimicking jumping spiders. Is this even possible? Well, yes and no.
Yes, because there are definitely jumping spider species that display a clear salticid eyespot pattern away from their head where their actual eyes are – like the Parnaenus species presented in this post. And no, because we have no evidence that they are truly mimicking other jumping spiders.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. So pretty.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. So pretty.

A closer look at the abdomen of a male Parnaenus jumping spider. False eyes between green and blue scales.

A closer look at the abdomen of a male Parnaenus jumping spider. False eyes between green and blue scales.

This spiderception is quite confusing. At first it looks like the salticids deploy a “false head” anti-predator tactic in order to fool their predators and direct their attacks away from the animal’s real head. But in the case of these spiders the eyespots pattern is located on the abdomen, the most vulnerable part of the spider’s body. On the other hand, if they really use this pattern to communicate with other jumping spiders, we would expect to see a specific behavior associated with it, like waving the abdomen or displaying it in front of another individual. And to the best of my knowledge there are no such observations in existence.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia

Male Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia

Parnaenus is not the only jumping spider genus that has eyespots on its abdomen, by the way. Other dendryphantine jumping spiders possess this character, to varying degrees. Those include the beautiful Paraphiddipus and Metaphiddipus jumpers and the scorpion spiders of genus Lurio. The latter is a very unusual jumper – the forelegs are disproportionally robust and long compared to the others, both in males and females.

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Taironaka, Colombia

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Taironaka, Colombia

Scorpion spiders (Lurio sp.) have a color pattern on their abdomen that is very similar to that of Parnaenus spiders.

Scorpion spiders (Lurio sp.) have a color pattern on their abdomen that is very similar to that of Parnaenus spiders.

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Even without the pretty colors these spiders are very unique, with their long thick forelegs.

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Even without the pretty colors these spiders are very unique, with their long thick forelegs.

The salticid eyespot pattern is quite common in nature, and it seems that possessing it positively affects the bearer’s chances of survival. Even jumping spiders themselves have it on their body. But do they really use it for active communication? Or is it more a passive way for them to say ‘I am a jumping spider inside and out’? Those are questions that are still left unanswered, at least until someone follows and documents their behavior.

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The Plot Thickens: This caterpillar ain’t big enough for the two of us http://gilwizen.com/caterpillar-parasitoid-wasps/ http://gilwizen.com/caterpillar-parasitoid-wasps/#respond Thu, 17 May 2018 23:29:25 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=7768 Some of my favorite insects to find while out in the field are hawkmoth caterpillars, or hornworms (named after the characteristic “tail”). They are big, squishy sausages that often show off dazzling colors, sometimes with interesting anti-predator adaptations like eyespots and mimicry. All these characters make the hawkmoth caterpillar look like a toy just waiting ... Read More

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Some of my favorite insects to find while out in the field are hawkmoth caterpillars, or hornworms (named after the characteristic “tail”). They are big, squishy sausages that often show off dazzling colors, sometimes with interesting anti-predator adaptations like eyespots and mimicry. All these characters make the hawkmoth caterpillar look like a toy just waiting for you to play with. The sad truth is that being big and flashy in the natural world often comes with a price. There is danger lurking in every corner. Despite the bright colors and adaptations, birds and lizards do not hesitate to snatch the caterpillars from branches, pathogens and spores of entomophagous fungi scattered everywhere increase the chance for passive infections, and parasitoids are always on the lookout for chunky hosts for their offspring. And the reality is that many of the caterpillars we get to encounter outdoors are already infected with something. I learned this the hard way: as a kid I used to rear a lot of butterflies and moths collected as caterpillars in the field, and many times I was devastated to witness my cute pets being reduced into a sticky mess while wiggly worm-like creatures emerge from their bodies. Sometimes I wonder how lepidopterans manage to keep their populations stable with so many enemies around.

On one of my visits to the beautiful town of Mindo Ecuador, I came across a young hornworm. Despite finding it at daytime, the caterpillar remained calm (many hornworms do their best to disappear from plain sight during the day) so I decided to photograph it.

A cute hawkmoth caterpillar. See that black spot on the leaf? It is important to our story.

A cute hawkmoth caterpillar. See that black spot on the leaf? It is important to our story.

After taking a few shots I noticed a black splotch in the photo that I didn’t like, so I decided to change the angle of view. Little did I know this was a wasp that just arrived at the leaf to check out the caterpillar. A few photos later its identity became clear: It was a species of Brachymeria, a tiny wasp that belongs to the large parasitoid family Chalcididae.

The hawkmoth caterpillar being visited by a parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.)

The hawkmoth caterpillar being visited by a parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.)

Chalcidid wasps can be easily recognized by their modified hindlegs that resemble mantids’ raptorial forelegs. The function of these structures is largely unclear. The adult wasps feed on nectar and other liquid foods, and do not use the legs for catching prey. There is a paper describing an interesting behavior in which the females use their legs in fighting over a host’s egg mass. Even more interesting are the last three paragraphs of the paper, with additional examples and hypotheses. It seems like there is no single function for these modified hindlegs and it really depends on the species and its biology. One example really stands out: “The female of Lasiochalcida igiliensis literally jumps into the jaws of antlions and holds the mandibles agape with her hind legs while ovipositing.”

Going back to our little Brachymeria and the hawkmoth caterpillar, at first the wasp just strolled peacefully on the leaf next to the caterpillar, but within a few minutes it hopped, quite literally, on the caterpillar and started walking on it, exploring its body surface while frantically moving its antennae.

The wasp jumped on the caterpillar's proleg and started crawling on its body

The wasp jumped on the caterpillar’s proleg and started crawling on its body

In general, the caterpillar doesn’t enjoy this attention, and often swiftly moves its head backwards in an attempt to drive the parasitoid away. It usually does not work. Once a caterpillar has been spotted and marked by a parasitoid as a host, it will be attacked (here’s a fantastic video showing this behavior, notice that the fly sitting nearby is another parasitoid of hornworms – a tachinid fly!).

A closeup of the parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.) as it was walking on the hawkmoth caterpillar

A closeup of the parasitoid chalcidid wasp (Brachymeria sp.) as it was walking on the hawkmoth caterpillar

As I was taking photos of the tiny wasp antennating the caterpillar, from the corner of my eye I noticed a bright yellow object flashing in. A second wasp, a golden Conura species, swooshed into the scene and started harassing the busy Brachymeria wasp.

While the Brachymeria was busy exploring the caterpillar, another wasp (Conura sp.) rushed in to fight for it

While the Brachymeria was busy exploring the caterpillar, another wasp (Conura sp.) rushed in to fight for it

For a short while, the Conura striked from above repeatedly, yet the Brachymeria stood her ground. Eventually the Conura got fed up and attempted to grab onto the other wasp and pull her away from the host. After several tries she succeeded, and the two started swirling in the air, before the Brachymeria returned to her business on top of the caterpillar. The golden wasp did not give up and returned for a second attack and then a third.

The two chalcidid wasps (Brachymeria sp. and Conura sp.) fighting over the host. This was taken moments before the Conura grabbed the other wasp's head and dislodged it from the caterpillar.

The two chalcidid wasps (Brachymeria sp. and Conura sp.) fighting over the host. This was taken moments before the Conura grabbed the other wasp’s head and dislodged it from the caterpillar.

This was very exciting to watch, but to be honest I was waiting eagerly to see if the wasps would use their modified hindlegs during the fight. Unfortunately, I was not able to detect any special maneuvers that involved grabbing with those legs.

Why did this happen? There are several possible explanations. The simplest one is that there is a shortage of caterpillar hosts and the two wasps are competing for the same source of food for their larvae. However, an alternative explanation suggests that the caterpillar has already been infected with a parasitoid before the first wasp found it. Many chalcidid wasps are hyperparasitoids – they do not feed on the big hosts (the caterpillar) directly, but instead attack larvae of other parasitoids already feeding inside the host. In other words they are parasitoids of parasitoids.
Parasitoidception.
Watch this excellent video explaining the complex relationship between several wasp species living on a tobacco hornworm:

This can explain the intense antennation performed by the Brachymeria wasp on the caterpillar for a long period of time. Maybe the wasp was trying to determine if there are parasitoid larvae already present in there. One of the most common sights when it comes to infected hawkmoths is a caterpillar with a cluster of white silk cocoons dangling from its body. Those cocoons belong to braconid wasps, and there is a good chance that the Bracymeria wasp was after their larvae, as some species of in the genus are parasitoids of Braconidae. The golden Conura wasp could then compete for access to those parasitoid larvae or even go after the Brachymeria larvae. It can get pretty complicated with chalcidid wasps.

Hawkmoth caterpillar with cocoons of a braconid parasitoid wasp. The caterpillar is still alive, and can move its head to deter predators like ants and other parasitoids from approaching the developing wasps.

Hawkmoth caterpillar with cocoons of a braconid parasitoid wasp. The caterpillar is still alive, and can move its head to deter predators like ants and other parasitoids from approaching the developing wasps.

So who won in the end? The wasp that was more persistent. At the end of the fight the black Brachymeria wasp was nowhere to be seen, and the golden Conura wasp took over the caterpillar and started antennating it.

The winning chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) with its hawkmoth caterpillar prize

The winning chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) with its hawkmoth caterpillar prize

The interesting thing here is that members of genus Conura are usually associated with butterfly and moth’s pupae, yet the wasp here decided to chase off a competitor and take over a caterpillar.

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa. This innocent face hides a dark secret.

Chalcidid wasp (Conura sp.) on a swallowtail butterfly pupa. This innocent face hides a dark secret.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the scene to catch a bus so I could not continue following this interaction. Without further observations, it is difficult to say with certainty what exactly was going on between the two wasps and the hawkmoth caterpillar. Parasitoids are so diverse, and many species have such complex biology. Even though several chalcidid wasp species are being studied closely as potential biological control agents, there are far more species out there about which we simply don’t know enough!

 

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Insect art: Animal sculptures by Skink Chen http://gilwizen.com/skink-chen/ http://gilwizen.com/skink-chen/#respond Fri, 27 Apr 2018 14:55:04 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=7705 Art comes in many forms. In my previous insect art posts I focused mainly on graphic art that closely follows natural appearance, from natural history illustrations to arthropod-based characters. What these creations have in common is that they attempt to portray nature as accurately as possible. However, when we look at different media around us, there ... Read More

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Art comes in many forms. In my previous insect art posts I focused mainly on graphic art that closely follows natural appearance, from natural history illustrations to arthropod-based characters. What these creations have in common is that they attempt to portray nature as accurately as possible. However, when we look at different media around us, there are many imaginary creatures that borrow heavily from existing organisms. To say that fictional creatures are often inspired by real animals would be an understatement, and invertebrates play an important role in this (I’m still waiting for your call regarding Epomis beetles, Hollywood!). There are many aspects in invertebrates’ external appearance that may look out of this world because of how different they are from us humans, so when these characters are exaggerated and taken out of their normal proportions the results can be quite impressive. This is exactly what Skink Chen is doing with his sculptures. If you have never heard of Skink and don’t know his work, boy you’re in for treat. All artwork shown here is courtesy of Skink Chen and posted with his permission.

Undead membracid treehopper by Skink Chen (based on Notocera)

Undead membracid treehopper by Skink Chen (based on Notocera)

Skink is a very talented individual. You might not know it, but I have already shared some of his work – a tutorial for making a wide angle macro relay lens (at the bottom of this post). Based in Taiwan, he designs monsters and creatures and meticulously constructs them into 3D models. The sculptures are made of polymer clay, and are quite big, standing at 20-30 cm height. Not all of them are based on arthropods, but looking through his work shows that these animals provide most of the inspiration for the designs. The way I see it, Skink’s animal-inspired artworks consist of three separate lines:

Hyper-realistic models: These are sculptures modelled after existing animals, accurate to the very last detail. Skink began making those in 2008, and selected Taiwanese animals as the theme. By modeling his sculptures after real animals, he sharpened his skills to present animal morphology and structure in the most accurate way possible. This required long hours of data collection and examination of biological properties. Occasionally he would find a roadkill animal and collect the specimen for further study. There are many reptile and amphibian models (you can see photos of them in his online shop), but also some mammals and insects. They look just like the real thing, and can be used as stunning pieces on display in a natural history museum. I cannot express the amount of precision that goes into these artwork pieces and just how realistic they look. Take this male antlered flower beetle (Dicronocephalus wallichii) for example. Skink not only captured its physical appearance in great detail, but also nailed the pose perfectly. This is something that only someone who has seen the live beetles can appreciate, and as someone who kept them in captivity for years I can tell you this model is just like looking at the real beetle (you can compare to a live beetle here. It’s a different species, but the video is excellent).

Antlered flower beetle (Dicranocephalus wallichii). Artwork by Skink Chen

Antlered flower beetle (Dicranocephalus wallichii). Artwork by Skink Chen

Fusion between animals and humans: This is the most surreal category. I haven’t seen many works, so I guess Skink doesn’t make a lot of them. The idea is to merge the human body with components from animals to create a super organism. I find them very appealing and interesting to look at. It makes you think what it would be like to have grasshopper legs or raptorial limbs.

The incredible Grasshopper-man! Artwork by Skink Chen

The incredible Grasshopper-man! Artwork by Skink Chen

Jumping spider woman in mid-leap. Artwork by Skink Chen

Jumping spider woman in mid-leap. Artwork by Skink Chen

“Undead Creature” series: This is where Skink unleashes his imagination and lets it go truly wild. He began working on this series in 2014. Skink explains the idea behind it as “dead animals transformed into giant undead creatures returning to the world for revenge.”

Undead membracid treehopper (based on Centrotypus) playing with a human. Artwork by Skink Chen

Undead membracid treehopper (based on Centrotypus) playing with a human. Artwork by Skink Chen

They all start from an existing species, but then selected characters are stretched and exaggerated, until you end up looking at a completely new creature. These monsters are not restricted to insects, by the way. I have seen deep ocean fish, reptiles, and even plants.

Carnivorous pitcher plants (based on Nepenthes) by Skink Chen. If you look closely, there is a fly "king" sitting at the throne.

Carnivorous pitcher plants (based on Nepenthes) by Skink Chen. If you look closely, there is a fly “king” sitting at the throne.

Surinam toad (Pipa pipa) by Skink Chen. Even though it belongs to the "Undead Creatures" series, I see this as highly realistic and true to the real animal. It is one of those works that the more you look at it, the more detail you discover.

Surinam toad (Pipa pipa) by Skink Chen. Even though it belongs to the “Undead Creatures” series, I see this as highly realistic and true to the real animal. It is one of those works that the more you look at it, the more detail you discover.

There are almost no limits to what is possible here. And even though these are not real creatures, the amount of detail in them is impressive. The body postures and surface textures look so realistic, that it is easy to forget you are looking at something that came out of someone’s imagination. I cannot imagine how long it must take to finish them. What I like about Skink’s models is that they are always doing some kind of activity: fighting, reflecting, leaping etc’. They are never boring to look at. It is a little difficult to judge Skink’s work solely from photographs. I found that the more I look at them, the more hidden details I discover. I can only imagine what an interesting experience it is to see them in person.

Undead Cordyceps-infected ant meditating by Skink Chen. There is a lot of hidden detail in this work, and I hate to say this but the photo doesn't do it enough justice.

Undead Cordyceps-infected ant meditating by Skink Chen. There is a lot of hidden detail in this work, and I hate to say this but the photo doesn’t do it enough justice.

Caterpillars fighting by Skink Chen (based on Polyura and Acherontia caterpillars)

Caterpillars fighting by Skink Chen (based on Polyura and Acherontia caterpillars)

Antlered stag beetle (based on Rhaetulus) rests after defeating an atlas beetle in a fight. One of my favorite works by Skink Chen, and also one of my favorite stag beetle species.

Antlered stag beetle (based on Rhaetulus) rests after defeating an atlas beetle in a fight. One of my favorite works by Skink Chen, and also one of my favorite stag beetle species.

You can see more of Skink’s stunning work by following him on Facebook or Twitter. You can also order selected models as resin kits from his online shop.

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Little Transformers: Bolitotherus cornutus – the first dinobeetle? http://gilwizen.com/bolitotherus-cornutus/ http://gilwizen.com/bolitotherus-cornutus/#respond Sun, 22 Apr 2018 22:40:04 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=7641 Little Transformers are back with another coleopteran representative. I usually use this platform to present insect adaptations from the tropics, however this time I am focusing on a local species with a wide distribution in central and eastern North America: the forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus). It is one of the most iconic North American ... Read More

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Little Transformers are back with another coleopteran representative. I usually use this platform to present insect adaptations from the tropics, however this time I am focusing on a local species with a wide distribution in central and eastern North America: the forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus). It is one of the most iconic North American beetle species, and I remember that flipping through pages of insect books as a kid, there was always an image of a forked fungus beetle under the darkling beetles section. In fact, as soon as I arrived to Canada this was the first species I sought after. And as much as I hate to admit, I looked for it in all the wrong places. I thought it was associated with wood (it is, but in a more indirect way), and cracked open fallen logs in search for adults. Of course I found nothing. Eventually the first fungus beetles I found were under a huge woody bracket mushroom in a conservation area near Price Edward, Ontario. Today this makes me laugh because back then we drove so far, and a year later I found out that I can find the beetles within just a mere 5 mins bus ride from my house.

I must say I am puzzled why this beetle is shown as an example for darkling beetles in books. Family Tenebrionidae is big and diverse, but there are some common characteristics that stay uniform across different genera. Bolitotherus cornutus, however, is not exactly a “typical” darkling beetle. And even though this beetle is widespread and common, it is often hard to find. When I presented this beetle in a talk to a group of local naturalists and asked how many people have seen it in the wild, only one hand was raised, surprisingly or not it came from a mushroom expert.

A pair of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus), dorsal view

A pair of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus), dorsal view

At first glance, forked fungus beetles look like they were designed by a drunk military engineer. Like most members of tribe Bolitophagini, they are built like small tanks, and to some extent they also look like ones. A compact and rugged body, sealed to the outside thanks to the tight elytra forming a protective shell. The body surface is heavily granulated to provide further shock protection in case of falling to the ground, as well as camouflage against tree bark and dried bracket mushrooms that the beetles feed on. Male beetles have two sets of horns, each with a different function.

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

The curved thoracic horns are hairy and used for pushing an opponent off the surface while fighting for territory and mates. The length of these horns is variable depending on various conditions (both genetic and environmental), with two extreme male morphs: major with long arching horns, and minor with short stout horns.

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), frontal view. The thoracic horns can be long!

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), frontal view. The thoracic horns can be long!

The other set of horns are found on the beetle’s head. These are called cephalic horns and they are sometimes missing. Their function is very peculiar: males use them as a pitchfork to scrape, lift, and throw off minor individuals that cling tightly to females. By the way, other members of Bolitophagini have horns as well, for example genus Byrsax has impressive horns that make it look like a perfect samurai helmet!

Another frontal view of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), showing its orange pom-poms.

Another frontal view of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), showing its orange pom-poms.

Ok, but what does Bolitotherus cornutus have to do with Little Transformers? Sure, touch the beetle and it folds its legs tightly close to its body, creating an impenetrable structure. We have seen similar defense behavior in other beetle transformers, like the Ceratocanthinae pill scarab and the shiny leaf beetle. In addition, the fungus beetles also secrete a smelly mixture of chemicals when disturbed. But the reason I am mentioning it here as a transformer is because of its horns. You see, many phylogenetically distant species share similar morphological adaptations. Studying these cases of convergent evolution can teach us something about the processes these adaptations go through, as well as their function. To be more specific, how is this…

Portrait of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

Portrait of a male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus)

…any different from this?

Portrait of Machairoceratops cronusi. Art by Andrey Atuchin, used with permission.

Portrait of Machairoceratops cronusi. Art by Andrey Atuchin, used with permission.

This fabulous artwork by Andrey Atuchin shows Machairoceratops cronusi, a recently described member of the rhino-like dinosaurs, and a relative of the famous triceratops. Yes, Bolitotherus cornutus is basically a miniature six-legged dinosaur in disguise. Now I know what you are thinking. The beetle’s horns are hairy, and the dinosaur’s aren’t. That is probably true. The Machairoceratops dinosaur might have had hairy horns. We don’t know for sure (ask yourself why). But regardless, you have to agree that there is some uncanny resemblance between the two animals’ head structure. A set of flat horns arching over the head, another pair of spiky horns pointing upwards from the head, a granular neck shield… Of course, we don’t know how the dinosaurs used their horns, but we can speculate. Maybe observing the forked fungus beetles fighting can help us understand a behavior in an animal that no longer exists. The relationship between form and function in animal horns is a fascinating topic for discussion and hopefully I will write about it in more depth in the future. But I cannot help it, the more illustrations of Machairoceratops cronusi I look at, the more I see forked fungus beetles in them. It is almost as if someone placed an enormous beetle on top of the dinosaur’s skull.

Bracket mushrooms (Fomitopsis betulina) growing on birch. Bolitotherus cornutus beetles prefer to feed on old mushrooms (dark-colored, coated with moss and algae in the photo) rather than fresh ones.

Bracket mushrooms (Fomitopsis betulina) growing on birch. Bolitotherus cornutus beetles prefer to feed on old mushrooms (dark-colored, coated with moss and algae in the photo) rather than fresh ones.

The diet of forked fungus beetles is unique and restricted to bracket mushrooms (such as Fomitopsis, Ganoderma, Ischnoderma) growing on weak standing trees as well as fallen logs (by the way, they are not the only darkling beetles feeding on mushrooms). They prefer old, hardened bracket mushrooms.

Major male forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) fighting on top of a bracket mushroom. Notice that their granular body surface often attracts mites and tiny springtails.

Major male forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) fighting on top of a bracket mushroom. Notice that their granular body surface often attracts mites and tiny springtails.

On spring and summer nights males gather on the mushroom surface, where they engage in fighting tournaments to win territories (=food for the them and their offspring) and matings with the females waiting nearby. What is even more interesting is that while major males with impressive horns are distracted fighting and showing off their capabilities, the minor males sneak up on them and mate with some of the females.

A minor male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) guarding a female after mating

A minor male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) guarding a female after mating

The courtship process is long and elaborate, and includes climbing over the female and stridulating (acoustic communication). Males also tend to stay and guard the female to prevent other males from mating with her. After mating, females lay their eggs separately on the mushroom surface, and cover each egg with frass. This protects the eggs from desiccation as well as from predators and parasitoids.

Bolitotherus cornutus eggs appear as dark bumps on the surface of a bracket mushroom (there are 4 eggs in this photo)

Bolitotherus cornutus eggs appear as dark bumps on the surface of a bracket mushroom (there are 4 eggs in this photo)

Within 1-2 weeks the larvae hatch and immediately burrow into the mushroom. They are not the typical darkling wireworms, but instead look like hairy, soft-bodied grubs.

Young Bolitotherus cornutus larvae

Young Bolitotherus cornutus larvae

They spend their entire life inside their feeding substrate. The mushroom fruit body protects them from the elements, so they also use this space for pupation. Surprisingly, some larvae grow faster than others, and complete their metamorphosis before winter. This means that the beetles can overwinter inside the mushroom as larvae, pupae or fresh adults.

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) emerging from a bracket mushroom

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) emerging from a bracket mushroom

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) burrowing into decomposing wood

Male forked fungus beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus) burrowing into decomposing wood

If you live in North America within the distribution range of this species I encourage you to get out there and look for these magnificent creatures. First of all, it is fun, and you might find other cool stuff while searching. And second, these beetles are really cool, and they can teach us a lot. They are also embarrassingly easy to keep, all they need is some pieces of the mushrooms they were collected on, the slightest humidity, and that’s it. They live for a few years as adults and readily breed in captivity, displaying all the behaviors mentioned above and more!

An active captive colony of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus)

An active captive colony of forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus)

Adult forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) aggregating on the mushroom underside

A closeup on adult forked fungus beetles (Bolitotherus cornutus) aggregating on the mushroom underside

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Lyssomanes – the spider from the upside down http://gilwizen.com/lyssomanes/ http://gilwizen.com/lyssomanes/#respond Fri, 06 Apr 2018 12:07:36 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=7544 Out of all the different microhabitats plants provide for organisms, the living leaf is arguably the most underrated one. On the surface it seems that it pales in comparison to the rich leaf litter of the forest understory, or to the complex bark of trees that provide hiding and hunting spots for many animals. However, ... Read More

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Out of all the different microhabitats plants provide for organisms, the living leaf is arguably the most underrated one. On the surface it seems that it pales in comparison to the rich leaf litter of the forest understory, or to the complex bark of trees that provide hiding and hunting spots for many animals. However, although the green leaf may look innocent, it in fact holds many stories of deception and survival. The upper surface of the leaf offers exposure to sunlight and water, as well as additional nutrients coming from above. It can serve as a solid base for the growth of ferns, mosses, lichens, and fungi. It can also be folded and glued to create a nest or shelter for an animal or its eggs. Not to mention that in many plants the entire leaf comprises of edible material available for herbivores. But there is another plane of existence, a much darker reality. It is located in a parallel dimension – an inverted copy of the leaf upper surface. This is the upside down world of the leaf underside. Many organisms live here; some only take shelter during the day and resume activity on the upside world at night, others prefer to feed under the leaf to avoid predators. But one of the most fascinating examples is a group of predators that learned to utilize the leafy upside down for ambushing prey. I have already written about two of those, and today I would like to present another member of this guild: Lyssomanes, the green jumping spider.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.). The spider's pale color helps it to blend in with the leaf it is sitting on.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.). The spider’s pale color helps it to blend in with the leaf it is sitting on.

At first glance Lyssomanes doesn’t look like a typical jumping spider. It has very long and slender legs, and prefers to move by running and using short leaps as opposed to the jumps that characterize most members of the salticid spider family. In addition, the spider is almost completely hairless, sporting a pale body color, usually (but not always) green, and occasionally semi-translucent. Unlike other jumping spiders, the only scales covering the body are clustered as a crown on its head. Those can be white, yellow, orange, red, or any combination of these colors, depending on the species and developmental stage. Sometimes dark banding is present on the legs, usually in adult males.

Green jumping spiders (Lyssomanes sp.) often have a glossy, semi-translucent body, with a crown of colorful scales on their head.

Green jumping spiders (Lyssomanes sp.) often have a glossy, semi-translucent body, with a crown of colorful scales on their head.

The genus Lyssomanes contains around 90 species, all distributed in the Americas. Many species have similar external appearance. The type species from which the genus was described is named Lyssomanes viridis (from Latin – green jumping spider), but if I want to be completely honest, almost every species I encounter looks ‘viridis’ to me. They are just so green!

Not all Lyssomanes jumping spiders are green. Some are lemon yellow like this species from Belize.

Not all Lyssomanes jumping spiders are green. Some are lemon yellow like this species from Belize.

One of the most noticeable features of Lyssomanes jumping spiders is their enormous anterior median eyes. Because of the spider’s pale color, it is also very easy to observe the internal retinal movements as the spider angles and focuses its field of view. The eyes may appear black at times, or pale green, crossed, or alternating (here’s a fantastic video showing this, and watch what happens when an ant passes by!).

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) staring straight back with its huge eyes. If you don't think it is cute you might want to check your pulse.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) staring straight back with its huge eyes. If you don’t think it is cute you might want to check your pulse.

Female Lyssomanes are very modest in their appearance. Males on the other hand, are impressive beasts with long pedipalps and elaborate chelicerae, often armed with thick setae and teeth. The latter are used in male fights for mates. Males also have extremely long legs, which they use for pushing an opponent and waving to females as a part of the courtship process.

Male Lyssomanes spiders have long legs and pedipalps for signalling conspecifics, and often sport impressive chelicerae for fighting other males.

Male Lyssomanes spiders have long legs and pedipalps for signalling conspecifics, and often sport impressive chelicerae for fighting other males.

Closeup on a male Lyssomanes spider. Notice the teeth on the long chelicera.

Closeup on a male Lyssomanes spider. Notice the teeth on the long chelicera.

Portrait of a male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) with his long chelicerae

Portrait of a male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) with his long chelicerae

Similarly to other predatory dwellers of the leafy upside down, Lyssomanes spiders deploy an ingenious hunting technique. The spider’s huge eyes are a good indication of its hunting method – it uses its excellent vision to locate prey. Lyssomanes jumping spiders are diurnal sit-and-wait predators of dipterans and other soft-bodied arthropods. They prefer to sit on leaves that are exposed to the sun, waiting in ambush for a visitor on the upper surface to cast a dark shadow. If the shadow is of the right size and shape the spider will shoot itself from the underside to the upper leaf surface and snatch the unsuspecting prey.

Male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) ambushing prey on the underside of a leaf backlit by the sun

Male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) ambushing prey on the underside of a leaf backlit by the sun

Occasionally, if sunlight is obstructed, the spider will explore the leaf and actively search for passing insects. It does not, however, stay loyal to one leaf. Once spotted, the spider usually does not take any chances and relocates to a nearby leaf.

Snap! When startled, the green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) swiftly moves to the other side of the leaf.

Snap! When startled, the green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) swiftly moves to the other side of the leaf.

Although jumping spiders rarely use silk for hunting, most of them build a small silky sleeping bag inside a crevice or a folded leaf for resting at night and molting. Lyssomanes is unique in that it does not construct such a shelter. Instead, it lines the underside of the leaf with a thin carpet of silk, and rests on it completely exposed.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) spinning silk on the underside of a leaf

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) spinning silk on the underside of a leaf

Gravid females construct a similar web for their eggs. Passing insects often trample the sheet, which triggers a predation response from the spider.

Female green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) protecting her eggs

Female green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) protecting her eggs

Cannibalism is common in salticids. Here, a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) is preying on a smaller spider that happened to walk on its leaf.

Cannibalism is common in salticids. Here, a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) is preying on a smaller spider that happened to walk on its leaf.

Unfortunately, this habit of Lyssomanes to sit exposed also means that they are sitting ducks for other predators, usually other species of jumping spiders. Remember – it is a harsh world out there and it’s not easy being green!

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence - a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) has fallen prey to another jumping spider!

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence – a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) has fallen prey to another jumping spider!

 

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Review: Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens http://gilwizen.com/laowa-25mm-ultra-macro-lens-review/ http://gilwizen.com/laowa-25mm-ultra-macro-lens-review/#comments Thu, 29 Mar 2018 18:40:54 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=7415 High-magnification macrophotography was once a niche mostly reserved for Canon users, thanks to the unique MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens, and for photographers willing to experiment with microscope objectives and focus-stacking techniques. This has recently changed, and slowly more macro lenses with a reproduction ratio higher than 1:1 are being introduced into the market. Two ... Read More

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High-magnification macrophotography was once a niche mostly reserved for Canon users, thanks to the unique MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens, and for photographers willing to experiment with microscope objectives and focus-stacking techniques. This has recently changed, and slowly more macro lenses with a reproduction ratio higher than 1:1 are being introduced into the market. Two of them belong to Venus Optics Laowa: the 60mm f/2.8 2X Ultra Macro lens that was introduced in 2015, and the new addition Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens. Since I have been a user of Canon’s MP-E lens since 2006 I was intrigued by this new Laowa lens, especially how it compares in regards to ease of use and versatility. Venus Optics Laowa were kind enough to send me a pre-production copy for review. This is not a paid review and the content below is based entirely on my personal impressions.

Portrait of a katydid nymph with erythrism (intense pink coloration)

Portrait of a katydid nymph with erythrism (intense pink coloration)

Before we begin, a warning: The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X is a high magnification macro lens. As such it gives an unusual perspective of even the most mundane subjects. I could have gone through this review using closeups of everyday objects as examples, but I am a wildlife macrophotographer. There will be spiders.

Portrait of a male jumping spider (Phidippus arizonensis)

Portrait of a male jumping spider (Phidippus arizonensis)

The boxed lens comes with front and rear caps, but also a tripod collar that is compatible with the arca-swiss mouting system (note that I did not receive the tripod collar with my copy, so I cannot share any thoughts about it). Upon opening the box I was struck by how small and lightweight the lens is compared to the tank that is the Canon MP-E. That being said, the lens is definitely well built, mostly metal construction (with some exceptions, see below), and has some heftiness to it, weighing around 430g. It does not feel cheap or fragile in any way.

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Vs. Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X

Size matters? Next to the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x lens, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X looks cute. Both lenses are fully extended to their maximum length here (5x magnification).

If you missed my previous review of the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens, I don’t get too technical in my reviews to avoid repeating information that is widely available online. If you are reading this, I assume that you are mostly interested in the practical uses of the lens, what it can be used for, and how well it performs. If you are interested in a dry summary of its specs I will gladly refer you to the product page or Nicky Bay’s excellent technical review.

I tested the lens on a crop sensor camera (APS-C), which I found somewhat limiting because of the tight range and high magnification values, nevertheless I enjoyed using it. The lens is also suitable for use on a full frame camera body. For most of the photos shown here I used my existing Canon MT-24EX macro twin lite system, and occasionally a speedlite with a softbox as the main light.

Male jumping spider (Thiodina sylvana). Spiders make excellent subjects for the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens.

Male jumping spider (Thiodina sylvana). Spiders make excellent subjects for the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens.

Caterpillars are often difficult subjects to photograph well, not to mention when using a high magnification macro lens. However, this camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora sp.) posed nicely.

Caterpillars are often difficult subjects to photograph well, not to mention when using a high magnification macro lens. However, this camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora sp.) posed nicely.

Lens construction
Compared to its massive counterpart from Canon, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a narrow lens barrel that ends with a small front element. The tip of the lens is slightly conical. The lens does not have a filter thread. I am not sure why Laowa went with this design, as it may put off some people who prefer using filters and similar lens attachments. Instead the lens has a special bayonet with grooves that click and lock the front metal cap in place (for those interested – the lens tip diameter is 41mm, however externally it is closer to 43mm due to the bayonet). It is an interesting feature, and very useful in preventing the small cap from accidentally snapping off and getting lost. Here I must warn fellow photographers: The interlocking parts on the lens tip and front cap are made of plastic (whereas the rest is aluminum). If you like to tinker with and customize your gear (like me), and plan to come up with an adapter to allow the attachment of a threaded filter or hood, use extreme caution because you can damage the tiny knobs that lock the lens cap in place! The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has an 8-blade aperture, which produces nice looking bokeh compared to the hexagons coming out of the MP-E lens.

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro

The lens itself is very sharp and produces high quality images. Depth of field, sharpness, and the level of diffraction change depending on the magnification used and aperture value dialed in.
When used at its lowest magnification an aperture of f/8-f/11 gives good results and good depth of field.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 2.5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. Notice the difference in color rendition by the Laowa.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 2.5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. Notice the difference in color rendition by the Laowa.

The above photos were taken under the same light conditions and camera settings, and they are unedited (except for cloning out sensor dust). I used a glittery backdrop because I wanted to emphasize specular highlights in order to show the difference in Bokeh between the two lenses. That did not work, however I discovered something else. At lower magnifications, the color rendition of the two lenses is slightly different, with the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X being more “punchy” than the Canon MP-E 65mm. I am not sure what can cause such a difference, but in any case this becomes less apparent as the magnification increases.
When taking the Laowa 25mm lens to higher magnification values I mostly used it at f/4-f/5.6 to get the best results, and wide open at its highest magnification. Comparison with the Canon MP-E at 5x shows very little difference in image quality, with the Laowa lens showing slightly more sharpness at f/2.8 and f/4.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. The image quality is nearly identical, with the Laowa having the edge at low apertures settings.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. The image quality is nearly identical, with the Laowa having the edge at low apertures settings.

These settings only serve as examples; it all depends on the desired end result, of course. If anyone is interested to view the high-resolution photos for pixel-peeping, I uploaded them to a Flickr album. Some people mention a higher depth of field achieved with the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X because of its shorter focal length compared to the Canon MP-E 65mm, but I will argue that because these lenses are constructed differently, this difference in DOF (if exists) is insignificant. There is a small difference in the field of view between the two lenses, but that is expected.

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a DOF that can be a little shallow when photographing highly 3-dimensional subjects like this long-snout weevil (Hammatostylus sp.). Still, it manages to squeeze in enough detail to make the image visually pleasing.

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a DOF that can be a little shallow when photographing highly 3-dimensional subjects like this long-snout weevil (Hammatostylus sp.). Still, it manages to squeeze in enough detail to make the image visually pleasing.

Chromatic aberration is well controlled and barely noticeable. One thing I noticed is that depending on the angle light is coming from, lens flare can sometimes be an issue. This can make some images look washed out or hazy, so in my opinion the lens can benefit from a small dedicated hood.

"Blizzard" - These scales on the hindwing of a brassolid butterfly reminded me of snowfall at night. In this case the lens flare in the image was intentional, to mimic the light reflecting from falling snow.

“Blizzard” – These scales on the hindwing of a brassolid butterfly reminded me of snowfall at night. In this case the lens flare in the image was intentional, to mimic the light reflecting from falling snow.

One of the points I heard people making against the lens was that it is unappealing in appearance (see the comments section of this post for example). I cannot understand why the external appearance of a lens is so important. If you buy a lens only to impress other people, you should take an honest look at yourself. As a photographer you should be more interested in the images you can create with it. More importantly, does the lens work and is it any good? Let’s see.

Operation
Although the operation of the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X is pretty straightforward, the lens requires a break-in period similarly to other specialty lenses like Canon’s MP-E. The learning curve is steep at first.

Thanks to its white face mask, I was able to locate and photograph this spotted jumping spider (Phiale guttata) quite easily.

Thanks to its white face mask, I was able to locate and photograph this spotted jumping spider (Phiale guttata) quite easily.

Shooting with a stopped-down aperture means that the viewfinder will be dark, making it difficult to track and focus on your subject. However, thanks to the narrower lens barrel compared to the MP-E I found it much easier to locate the subject in the viewfinder and follow it, even at the highest magnification. This is a huge plus, especially after years of exhaustion trying to chase down subjects in the viewfinder when using the Canon MP-E.

Although extremely active and skittish, I was able to track this ant-mimicking planthopper nymph through the viewfinder while using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Although extremely active and skittish, I was able to track this ant-mimicking planthopper nymph through the viewfinder while using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

It should be noted that due to its high magnification values the lens cannot be used in natural light alone, and requires a flash as an additional light source. A good focusing light is also essential if using the higher magnifications but not always necessary. Surprisingly, even though the lens extends forwards a lot as you change the magnification from 2.5x to 5x (from 83mm to 137mm, respectively), the working distance stays consistent at around 40mm. This is another huge plus compared to the MP-E, for which the working distance changes considerably while changing magnifications.

The lens is fully manual. The aperture ring is located at the end of the lens barrel, it is clicked and turns easily, perhaps a little too loosely. That is not really a problem, and when the lens is extended you do not need to reach out and look for the aperture ring in order to turn it – you can just turn the whole front lens tube to change the aperture, pretty cool! The magnification/focusing ring turns smoothly as well with adequate resistance, however one should be very observant of its behavior. If the lens is pointing down gravity can pull the weight of the lens barrel causing it to extend further on its own and change the magnification in the process. Many times when I captured frames for later focus-stacking I found that the magnification has changed between exposures.

High magnification macro in the field
One of the main difficulties at this high magnification range of the lens is to figure out what to use it for. It sometimes forces you to think outside of the box in order to find a subject that is just the right size. Many macro subjects are just too big to fit into the frame, however the lens can still offer an intimate perspective on those.

This juvenile whip spider (Phrynus barbadensis) was exactly the right size to fit its face into the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X field of view.

This juvenile whip spider (Phrynus barbadensis) was exactly the right size to fit its face into the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X field of view.

The long-nosed fulgorid planthopper nymph was too big to fit in the frame, but it made for an interesting and intimate perspective.

The long-nosed fulgorid planthopper nymph was too big to fit in the frame, but it made for an interesting and intimate perspective.

Portrait of a membracid treehopper (Membracis sp.)

Portrait of a membracid treehopper (Membracis sp.)

Small subjects like these marching nasute termite soldiers are easy to photograph using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Small subjects like these marching nasute termite soldiers are easy to photograph using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Anyone ordered a noodle salad? Just kidding, these are whip spider babies (Phrynus barbadensis) clinging to their mother's back.

Anyone ordered a noodle salad? Just kidding, these are whip spider babies (Phrynus barbadensis) clinging to their mother’s back.

The lens' small size makes it easy to sneak up on unsuspecting critters in order to capture some action shots, like this jumping spider enjoying a freshly caught cicadellid leafhopper.

The lens’ small size makes it easy to sneak up on unsuspecting critters in order to capture some action shots, like this jumping spider enjoying a freshly caught cicadellid leafhopper.

No high magnification lens review is complete without a classic shot of a butterfly wing, because it is a good method to test the lens’ sharpness.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly, coming at an angle results in a shallow depth of field.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly, coming at an angle results in a shallow depth of field.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly

Focus-stacking is not really necessary with this lens, but is a good technique for achieving a greater DOF. I almost never do “deep” frame stacks, most of the stacked images that are shown here were comprised of 2-10 frames. If you are into deep focus-stacking, I recommend checking out the test John Hallmén’s performed in his review here (in Swedish).

This focus-stacked image of a butterfly egg was composed of 10 frames taken at 5x magnification.

This focus-stacked image of a butterfly egg was composed of 10 frames taken at 5x magnification.

"Behind Bars" - A deep focus-stacked portrait of a whip spider (Heterophrynus armiger)

“Behind Bars” – A deep focus-stacked portrait of a whip spider (Heterophrynus armiger)

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens also has potential for producing wildlife images with a more artistic style.

"Liquid Rainbow" - Detail on the pronotum of a jewel beetle (Chrysochroa ephippigera)

“Liquid Rainbow” – Detail on the pronotum of a jewel beetle (Chrysochroa ephippigera)

Closeup on the eyes of a jumping stick (Proscopiid grasshopper)

Closeup on the eyes of a large jumping stick (Proscopiid grasshopper)

"Ghost Bunny" - Black and white silhouette of a membracid treehopper (Notocera sp.)

“Ghost Bunny” – Black and white silhouette of a membracid treehopper (Notocera sp.)

Brightly colored bark lice nymphs aggregating on tree bark

Brightly colored bark lice nymphs aggregating on tree bark

Dramatically lit portrait of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

Dramatically lit portrait of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

One thing I regret is not being able to test this lens for snowflakes and frost photography. Even though we had some cold snowy days here in Canada, the flakes were not of the right type (needles as opposed to star-shaped) and the ambient temperature was too high for the flakes to retain their structure after hitting the ground. I believe this lens has high potential for this type of photography, especially when taking into account its excellent optics and overall size. It should be easier to photograph snowflakes with this lens compared to other lenses.

To summarize my impressions of the lens –

Pros:
– Lightweight, small size for a high-magnification macro lens
– Highest magnification lens available for non-Canon users
– Excellent sharpness and image quality
– Consistent working distance
– Narrow lens barrel makes it easy to find and track subject
– Affordable

Cons:
– Manual, no auto aperture control
– No filter thread (but still customizable with caution)
– Dark viewfinder when closing aperture makes focusing difficult in poor light conditions
– Magnification range is short 2.5-5x compared to the competition

The key question is who is this lens for? First and foremost, this lens is for any non-Canon user who is interested in high magnification macrophotography. Aside from a Canon EF mount, the lens comes in Nikon N, Sony FE, and Pantax K mounts, making it accessible for a wide range of users. But I would also recommend it for Canon users who are not yet invested in the high magnification flagship, the MP-E 65mm. The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro is a smaller and lightweight alternative for the MP-E lens, and in some situations it is easier to use. With its superb optics the Laowa lens packs a lot for its value, and with a price tag of USD$399 it is very affordable, especially when you cannot shell out USD$1050 for the Canon MP-E lens. On the other hand, the MP-E lens offers auto aperture control and a larger magnification range. Regardless of the brand, there is no doubt that it takes time and experimentation to get used to a high magnification macro lens. However, I would argue that the investment is well worth it, because it opens a whole new world of possibilities for macrophotography. When using it, you will see even the most boring subjects in a new light.

You can buy the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens on Venus Optics Laowa’s website here.

 

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The Plot Thickens: Staring into the eyes of a dying Cephalotes http://gilwizen.com/cephalotes/ http://gilwizen.com/cephalotes/#comments Sat, 10 Mar 2018 15:00:12 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=7366 If you are an entomologist or an insect enthusiast, it is highly probable that you like ants. It is hard not to be impressed with their diversity, abundance, complex social structure and behaviors, as well as their interactions with other organisms. Ants are everywhere and do almost anything you can think of. To most people ... Read More

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If you are an entomologist or an insect enthusiast, it is highly probable that you like ants. It is hard not to be impressed with their diversity, abundance, complex social structure and behaviors, as well as their interactions with other organisms. Ants are everywhere and do almost anything you can think of. To most people however, ants could not be any less exciting. They are often seen as a generic insect, with a relatively uniform appearance. They always show up when unwanted, find their way into our homes, take refuge in dark and hard to reach corners, and steal our food.
I like ants. I think they are fascinating creatures. But every now and then I find myself talking people into looking beyond “that boring-looking ant”, to try and catch a glimpse of their busy life. It is not always easy to communicate ants to the public (which is why I praise myrmecologists – people who study ants for a living), however I find that it is quite easy in the case of one ant genus in particular: Cephalotes.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Cephalotes is a large genus of arboreal ants found in the neotropics. There are over 130 species, all inhabit tree hollows or utilize cavities in other plant tissues. Looking like they were designed by someone with overflowing imagination, they easily come off as cute. Their flattened head and armored body, often decorated with long sharp spines for protection, their thick legs and perfectly round abdomen, along with their matte color finish, give them the appearance of a plastic toy. In addition, Cephalotes ants move relatively slowly and cannot bite or sting, making them user-friendly. Can you ask for a more perfect ant?

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

They are commonly known as turtle ants, but also got the name gliding ants, thanks to their incredible ability to parachute from high in the canopy and land back on the trunk of their home tree. Their unique body structure and flattened legs allow them to slow down and change their course while falling (some spiders can do the same, by the way). In some species the soldier cast evolved a large head to function as a living door, plugging the entrance to the nest.

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

In regards to interspecific interactions, Cephalotes ants are often seen tending sap-sucking hemipterans such as membracids and small fulgorids to gain access to sugary secretions from those insects. They also act as the model in a mimicry complex, where crab spiders masquerade as the ants in order to sneak up and prey on them.

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Did I mention they are cute? I have written before that you should never become too attached to insects you encounter in the field. And as much as I love the adorable Cephalotes ants, it is important to remember that there are many dangers lurking for them in the forest. During my recent trip in Colombia, I stumbled upon a Cephalotes nest in a tree outside my room. The ants were very active and did not present good photographic opportunities.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

One of them however, stood out among the rest. There was something different about its behavior. This worker moved franticly in what appeared to be an aimless run. It did not follow the other workers, and seemed more interested in reaching a higher spot on the tree. I collected the ant for a closer look, and once I inspected her carefully I believe I found the culprit for her unusual behavior. This ant had a reddish abdomen, as opposed to the black abdomen of her sisters. The red color, coupled with erratic behavior suggests this worker has been infected with a parasite, a nematode worm.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

The parasitic worm lives and breeds inside the body of birds, which spread the worm’s eggs in their droppings. The ants collect nutrients from the bird droppings (along with the eggs) and feed them to their larvae, where the worm matures. In order to complete its life cycle the parasite needs to return into a bird’s body, so it changes the host ant’s appearance to look like a ripe red fruit, and causes it to climb higher on the tree to become more accessible to hungry birds. As much unique character this worker ant might have had, the sad truth is that it was destined to die prematurely. And there was nothing I could do about it. There is a great lesson here – sometimes, the raw essence of nature is difficult to take in. We would like to see it as a peaceful place where all the animals and plants live together in harmony. But the reality is that nature is harsh. It is full of conflict, violence, disease, and death. And we must accept it as an integral part of the world we live in.

Cephalotes ants offer a great opportunity to peek into the life of a small insect and learn about its survival (as well as failure) in various habitats. Before I end this post, there is one thing I would like clarified – going back to their name, why did Cephalotes get the name turtle ant, whereas some leaf beetles were named tortoise beetles? Is there any justification for the turtle designation when it comes to the ants? After all, both insects are terrestrial. If there is an etymologist in the audience, maybe you can help the entomologist?

 

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Little Transformers: Forcipomyia, the midge that turns into a balloon http://gilwizen.com/forcipomyia/ http://gilwizen.com/forcipomyia/#comments Thu, 08 Feb 2018 14:46:15 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=7246 It is time to introduce another Little Transformer! I know what you are thinking. Am I ever going to run out material for these blog posts? Maybe. Probably not. As long as there are arthropods around, their life history and morphological diversity guarantees that I will always find examples for interesting deceptions and transformations. Up ... Read More

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It is time to introduce another Little Transformer! I know what you are thinking. Am I ever going to run out material for these blog posts? Maybe. Probably not. As long as there are arthropods around, their life history and morphological diversity guarantees that I will always find examples for interesting deceptions and transformations. Up until now I mostly focused on animals that can change form quickly, assuming the appearance of something else as a defense response against predators and to avoid detection. The case presented in this post is a little different because it does not follow a quick change of form, but rather a slow one, over the course of a life stage. I should be cautious here, because under this definition every insect that goes through complete metamorphosis from larva to adult can be considered a Little Transformer (butterflies, beetles etc’). Even amphibians fall under this loose definition. And to some extent they ARE transformers, because the changes they go through during development are extreme. But this is not the topic for this series of posts. When I talk about a big change happening within a life stage, I mean that the animal starts as one thing, and by the end of the stage its appearance and function has changed into something else completely. And no example is better to show this than the parasitic midges of the genus Forcipomyia.

Biting midge (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a moth caterpillar. Photographed in Belize

Biting midge (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a moth caterpillar. Photographed in Belize

Here is the Forcipomyia midge with the whole caterpillar to give a better sense of scale

Here is the Forcipomyia midge with the whole caterpillar to give a better sense of scale

Forcipomyia is a large genus in the midge family Ceratopogonidae, with a worldwide distribution and diverse habitat preferences. There are now over 1,000 described species of Forcipomyia. The adults of some species are known as important pollinators of cacao and other plants of economic importance in tropical and subtropical areas. However, many species in the genus are blood-feeders, somewhat characteristic to ceratopogonids as the common name to the family suggests (biting midges). These parasites have interesting relationships with different insect hosts, and they can be found feeding on the hemolymph (insect blood) of grasshoppers, katydids, stick insects, butterflies, true bugs, and even skittish dragonflies. In fact, these interactions are so fascinating and overlooked, that only after spending some time in the field one can notice the midges have a preference for certain host species to feed from.

Sometimes the biting midges sneak into the photo without me noticing. I photographed these mating grasshoppers (Cloephoracris festae), but they have an accompanying Forcipomyia. Can you spot it?

Sometimes the biting midges sneak into the photo without me noticing. I photographed these mating grasshoppers (Cloephoracris festae), but they have an accompanying Forcipomyia. Can you spot it?

But let’s go back to the transformation they go through, because in one group of species, subgenus Microhelea, it is truly remarkable. The female Forcipomyia midge begins her adult stage with an active lifestyle. She flies about in the forest, feeding on nectar from small flowers. As days go by, she starts craving for blood and search for insects to bite. When she locates her preferred host, using her serrated mouthparts she proceeds to bite it in an area that has soft tissue: antennae, legs joints, wing veins, or between body segments. Once she found the right spot that will fulfill her dietary needs, the female midge attaches to it firmly, and… doesn’t let go, thanks to specialized claws on her feet. She sucks and gulps the insect’s blood, filtering the nutrients and secreting the excess fluids as clear droplets.

Tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a walking stick

Tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) feeding on the hemolymph of a walking stick

The midge stays attached like this for quite a while, and soon this sessile lifestyle starts taking its toll on the small parasite. She starts to put on weight. Then, she usually losses her wings – she will not need them anymore because the added mass from the developing eggs prevents her from taking off.

Female Forcipomyia swelling while feeding. She lost her wings but can still use her legs to hold firmly onto the host

Female Forcipomyia swelling while feeding. She lost her wings but can still use her legs to hold firmly onto the host

Forcipomyia getting fatter... but not quite there yet

Forcipomyia getting fatter… but not quite there yet

As she continues to swell like a grapefruit, the Forcipomyia midge also losses the ability to use her legs. She does not need to leave anyway, but she is so bloated that she cannot even hold onto the body of the host, and the only thing keeping the two connected are the midge’s mouthparts.

Female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) at the final stage of feeding. Her legs released their grip on the host and at this point the midge has fully transformed into a passive parasite that looks like a balloon.

Female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) at the final stage of feeding. Her legs released their grip on the host and at this point the midge has fully transformed into a passive parasite that looks like a balloon.

Stick insect (Pseudophasma bispinosum) carrying tick flies (Forcipomyia sp.) at different stages of feeding. Photographed in Ecuador

Stick insect (Pseudophasma bispinosum) carrying tick flies (Forcipomyia sp.) at different stages of feeding. Photographed in Ecuador

At this point, the engorged biting midge is no different than a tick, and indeed many refer to these parasitic Forcipomyia as tick-flies. Sometimes I like to imagine these fat dipterans disconnecting from their host and floating upwards like a balloon filled with helium, reaching above the forest canopy and flying into space. In reality, the exact opposite happens. The Forcipomyia female eventually leaves the host and drops to the ground, where she lays her eggs and finishes her role. And the male Forcipomyia? They are mostly unknown. Because males are never found feeding on insect hosts, it is safe to assume that they do not feed on blood, and prefer to keep a vegan diet of sweet nectar.

An engorged female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) after dropping from its host

An engorged female tick fly (Forcipomyia sp.) after dropping from its host

What about the larvae, are they parasites too? The majority of the research on biting midges has focused on the adults, due to their economic and medical significance, as well as their important role in aquatic ecosystems. Larvae of most ceratopogonids are unknown because finding them in their natural habitats can be challenging. They usually inhabit aquatic and semiaquatic habitats, but in the case of Forcipomyia the larvae are terrestrial and prefer to feed on moist detritus and organic matter under bark or in moss. In some species they feed on algae.

This stick insect is staring at me with tired eyes. I wonder if it is aware of the two hitchhikers it is carrying?

This stick insect is staring at me with tired eyes. I wonder if it is aware of the two hitchhikers it is carrying?

With so many aspects of their life history still unknown, and especially due to their ecological and economical importance, you would expect to see more active research on Forcipomyia. The bad news is that there is not enough research going on. A few years ago, I approached Dr. Stephen Marshall, a dipterologist from University of Guelph, and suggested doing a PhD study about Forcipomyia’s biology, phylogenetics, and their relationships with their hosts. I was politely refused, unfortunately. I still believe there is potential for a cool project involving Forcipomyia, maybe someone will pursue it in the future.

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A Moment of Creativity: Unwanted Neighbours http://gilwizen.com/unwanted-neighbours/ http://gilwizen.com/unwanted-neighbours/#comments Fri, 02 Feb 2018 18:58:51 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=7153 It has been a while since I started photographing for Meet Your Neighbours global biodiversity photography project, and throughout the years I have assembled a collection of some fantastic beasts (along with the information where to find them). But early on I had the idea of creating another collection of photos, a spinoff to the original MYN ... Read More

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It has been a while since I started photographing for Meet Your Neighbours global biodiversity photography project, and throughout the years I have assembled a collection of some fantastic beasts (along with the information where to find them). But early on I had the idea of creating another collection of photos, a spinoff to the original MYN concept, bringing together neighbours that we often do not want to meet, or the way I refer to them: Unwanted Neighbours.

Human flea (pulex irritans). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Human flea (pulex irritans). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Unwanted Neighbours include household pests, biting and blood-sucking arthropods, disease vectors, venomous animals, parasites, and the like. Most of the photos can be found in my original MYN gallery, and it is only natural that this new collection will be smaller in size. Nevertheless it can be used as a reference for animals with any negative significance to humans, whether it is medical or economical. For example, brown recluse spiders are known for their potency, but are often misidentified. There are very helpful initiatives out there to help and fight the misinformation, like Recluse or Not. I decided that detailed high-quality photos of the spiders can help clarify doubts about their physical appearance.

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Black widow spiders also suffer the same public treatment as brown recluses, for no good reason. Sure, they are venomous, but they do not tend to bite unless they have to, even if you poke them.

Mediterranean black widow spider (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) from Israel. Widow spiders are shy and usually keep to themselves.

Mediterranean black widow spider (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) from Israel. Widow spiders are shy and usually keep to themselves.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

This is not a gallery of “bad” animals. Despite their bad reputation, it is important to mention that there is no such thing as “bad” in nature. Many of these species are not even out to get us (excluding blood-feeders and parasites). Every creature has its rightful place on this planet. I was carful not to include just about any species that possesses venom, or incidental biters. Many times a bad interaction with an animal is our own fault. I am trying to avoid pointing fingers and propagating hatred towards nature, because in most cases these animals are doing exactly what they are supposed to, and we are just in their way. For this reason the representation of household pests, like ants, termites, wasps, and cockroaches will be kept to the minimum.

Everyone's favorite nightmare parasite - the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Although unpleasant, in reality they are not so bad.

Everyone’s favorite nightmare parasite – the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Although unpleasant, in reality they are not so bad.

Telson and stinger of black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor). Scorpions will always try to avoid an encounter with a human.

Telson and stinger of black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor). Scorpions will always try to avoid an encounter with a human.

At this point in time the Unwanted Neighbours page is still being constructed, but I expect it to stay relatively small in size. This is because most critters out there are harmless to us, and even those that have the potential to harm us, usually don’t. It is all about impact significance.

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Why I rejected your request for free photos http://gilwizen.com/requesting-free-photos/ http://gilwizen.com/requesting-free-photos/#comments Wed, 17 Jan 2018 15:27:05 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6929 This post is dedicated to all the people who have completely lost their sense of common decency. I have a destructive humbleness that most people do not understand (myself included). I do not have a Patreon page, I do not run ads on this website, I have never asked for donations*. However, for some reason ... Read More

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This post is dedicated to all the people who have completely lost their sense of common decency.

I have a destructive humbleness that most people do not understand (myself included). I do not have a Patreon page, I do not run ads on this website, I have never asked for donations*. However, for some reason I get the feeling that this leads people to believe I do everything for free. This could not be further from the truth. You want to use my work? Great! How about you pay me for it? No? Of course not, what was I thinking. I’m sorry.

I don’t know how I can make this easier to understand: asking a professional (any professional – not only photographers) for free work is disrespectful, rude, and insulting. You do not want to be that person. Also, let’s make one thing clear, people: unless we have an agreement in place, you don’t get to decide for me how to use my photos.

This reminds me of my first PhD supervisor, who said that giving photos away was the “humane” thing to do. Ok. Explain to me how giving up your copyright is considered humane. After all, I don’t see authors putting their texts on the public domain for humanity to enjoy or adapt without expecting some sort of payment. Don’t get me wrong. I do like to put myself out there for the right cause, by volunteering or providing imagery free of charge. However, I feel that more and more entities are trying to take advantage of my good will, almost as if it became a trend. Some of you might not know, but I am completely self-funded as of last year (cough* Know a project/position I can fit in? Want me to give a presentation for your group? Let me know!). This lifestyle is not for the faint of heart, and it is often ridden with periods of anxiety and frustration. In any case, when too many people ask me to give away free stuff, how do you expect me to buy food? Pay for the roof above my head?
“Well, how about you get a real job?”, you might ask.
Fair enough. But you know what turns the content I create into a paid job? The fact that someone wants to use it. Maybe you do not like viewing photography, entomology, or science communication as a job, in that case I cannot help you. A lot has been said and written about working for free (here’s an excellent post for example, and here’s an analysis why professional photographers cannot work for free), I even wrote about this issue in the past. Needless to say, nowadays I almost never give photos for free. One thing I learned in this business is that there will always be some people who will hate you. Whether it is because you refuse to give photos for free, or because your rates are too high, or maybe because they are jealous of your work. I am not even counting people who just hate insects, yet still bother to comment on their photos instead of looking away. Whatever it may be, it is impossible to satisfy everyone, so I do not try. People are judgmental. I recall one interesting incident in which a stranger commented on a friend’s post, calling me “just an annoying photographer”. I reached out to them and asked if we knew each other, and why they think so. We ended up chatting for some time and eventually I think they realized that I am really not that bad of a person. I still think that from time to time, it is important to make a contribution to a cause you support (more on that later). However, when someone takes advantage of your generosity and tries to make a personal gain from it – run home! And don’t stop until you get there.

All these publishers paid for the rights to use my photos. So why shouldn't you?

All these publishers paid for the rights to use my photos. So why shouldn’t you?

I must say, if you got a negative response to your request, be respectful. Whether I choose to give something for charity is entirely up to me, not the person requesting the image. I go over the photos and the intended use, and analyze each case by its characteristics. If I decide to reject it, it is not personal; it means that I just could not see how it fits my mission. Another reason for a refusal is when I do not see how the use can promote me further as a photographer. In any case, if your request was refused please do not start throwing insults. That’s not going to win you any fans, and will definitely not get you the photo for use free of charge, not this time and not the next time around. Also, if you inquire about free images and you also receive a paycheck for doing this, there is a 100% chance that I will refuse to give photos for free. Allow me to demonstrate by using typical examples for this behavior.

Case #1 – The Networking Card

A person who I do not know contacts me to request a photo for their upcoming publication. It is a small production, a personal project. There is a section in the book describing a rare phenomenon or a rarely encountered species, and my photos are perfect to illustrate said subject. Alas, there is no budget for photographs.
In this case I reject the request on the basis that anything rarely documented has its own value. Examples for such subjects are Epomis beetles, swarming locusts, tusked weta, adult botflies etc’. All these subjects took a substantial investment of time, money, and physical preparation to get the final shot. Giving those photographs away free of charge devalues my personal investment, and makes it harder to charge normal fees for use of similar photos later. It would also be unfair towards those who have already paid a licensing fee to use the photos.
To my understanding, some people do this to “test the waters” and see if the photographer is someone worthy of working with abusing in the future. In one specific case, when I rejected the request I got this reply: “Good luck making a living with the images, you have some nice shots, and publishing does not pay well…. I have for instance plenty of pictures of the ****. I just thought it might be a nice connection.”
Oh, really? So you just wanted to make acquaintances? How very nice of you. How about you start respecting someone’s work and time instead of expecting to get free stuff.

Case #2 – The Exposure Card

Many of us in the creative scene have been there: photographers, artists, illustrators, and designers. Someone from a highly reputable institution contacts to request free work in return for exposure to the creator.
Here’s the thing. You claim that by sharing my work I will gain exposure. Correct me if I am wrong, but you contacted me to ask about using my work. It seems to me that my name is already out there; I do not need any further exposure. Why don’t you take a minute to think about it and get back to me, hopefully with a budget next time.

Case #3 – The Unintentional Infringement Card

This case is a little different because it starts with a copyright infringement. A user uses my photo as a thumbnail for their video/article/social media profile. Since this use is without permission, I take it down as a copyright infringement. The user contacts me and requests to undo the DMCA take down, so they can have their original post back online. I explain that take downs are being recorded, and the only way to reverse one is to comply with the conditions of use, in other words – licensing the photo. I also add that putting my photo as the thumbnail encourages people to click the post when being shared on social media, therefore my photo directly promotes the post. I suggest to the user the fair solution of reuploading their post minus my photo. Then hell breaks loose and I am being accused of greed, trying to extort money and what not.
I wish to clarify two things:
1) A DMCA take down is not an attempt to extort payment via licensing fees. It is what it is – regaining control over a copyrighted image that has been used inappropriately or without prior permission.
2) Professional and polite communication is key in addressing cases of copyright infringements, as well as any image use inquiries. It is crucial to be clear, concise, but still provide all the relevant details. I have often been accused of having a “patronizing/condescending tone” by infringers. I can understand how polite speech can seem this way when explaining to someone their unauthorized use of intellectual property. If you cannot communicate in a civilized manner, you are not helping to solve the issue.
I will mention one specific instance here, in which someone used my photo on their personal page on social media. When I called them out on it, I got this amazing reply (see closing paragraph):

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Way to go on winning an argument. No better way to get me to block you than diverting from the main topic of discussion into accusatory politics.

Case #4 – The “you owe me” Card

A person who I know requests photos for commercial use (and that’s important) free of charge. They also inform me that they do not intend to credit me as the photographer, sign a licensing agreement detailing the specific use, or pay anything for the use. Every time I confront this, I think I misheard. You said no credit, no licensing agreement, AND no pay? So absolutely nothing in return? Truly an offer I cannot refuse.
I refuse.
Then I receive the classic response of “Well I didn’t need those photos anyway, I just gave you the chance to be human again” (see case #1). First of all, thank you for giving me that chance to prove myself! Highly appreciated. But let me ask you – What did you think was gonna happen? You think just because we know each other you can take my work and do with it as you please? I don’t think so. That ain’t how it works around here. And if you did not really need the photos, why did you waste my time?

It's not just about photos of insects, by the way. Several instances include requests for free photos of landscapes, portraits, and even commercial products (in the photo: pendant designed by Mio Konfedrat)

It’s not just about photos of insects, by the way. Several instances include requests for free photos of landscapes, portraits, and even commercial products (in the photo: pendant designed by Mio Konfedrat)

It is not all bad

I understand that some of these examples can paint me as a jerk, someone who never makes a personal contribution towards others in need. I therefore want to point out that occasionally I do allow the use of my photos with little or no return (the bare minimum is a copy of the publication though). I was recently contacted by a friend who requested photos for an upcoming book about arachnids in Israel. Since there was no budget for it, I would normally reject the request. However, in this case the two authors are responsible for my professional background: one served as my mentor and guide to the wonders of the natural world when I was a kid, the other taught me entomology at university. It is thanks to their amazing nurturing that I am who I am today. In addition, I see the importance of publishing a popular book about arachnids in Israel as something that can spread the knowledge and promote appreciation of this often-mistreated arthropod group. The authors offered a signed copy of the book when published, which I see as a valuable return. I was happy to respond positively to this request for photos, and I hope the new book will be well-received.


* A recent discussion I had with several friends made me realize that people often want to help, and that I should not stop them from doing so. After much thinking, I have decided to add a PayPal.me donation link to this website, located on the sidebar to the right (or bottom of the page in the mobile version). If you find the content I post on this website interesting and wish to show your support by giving something in return, please consider donating. Think of it as buying me a hot cocoa to keep me fuelled!

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Little Transformers: Lamprosoma, the living Christmas ornament http://gilwizen.com/lamprosoma/ http://gilwizen.com/lamprosoma/#respond Fri, 12 Jan 2018 17:00:42 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6980 Ah, the joy of transforming beetles. The first Little Transformer that opened this series of posts was a beetle – a Ceratocanthinae pill scarab that transforms into a perfect sphere and drops off to escape predators. It is an impressive evolutionary achievement that merges a successful body design and anti-predator behavior. I should mention though ... Read More

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Ah, the joy of transforming beetles. The first Little Transformer that opened this series of posts was a beetle – a Ceratocanthinae pill scarab that transforms into a perfect sphere and drops off to escape predators. It is an impressive evolutionary achievement that merges a successful body design and anti-predator behavior. I should mention though that many beetle species from other families use this strategy to avoid predation, some more successfully than others. One such example is a genus of small beetles from the leaf beetle family (Chrysomelidae): Lamprosoma.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

When I first encountered a Lamprosoma beetle I thought it was a piece of plastic that someone discarded in the rainforest. There is something almost artificial about their appearance, shiny metallic colors combined with a compact shape. Not all species are colorful, by the way. The genus contains about 130 species, all with a neotropical distribution, some of which are completely black in color. With a body length of less than 1cm they are easy to miss in the dense vegetation of the tropical forest. Nevertheless, over the years I have encountered them more and more frequently. Unfortunately for me, identifying these beetles to the species level requires an expertise that I do not have, because there are many similar-looking species, and possibly also new species that have not been described yet.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from Honduras

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) from Honduras

The beetles are dome-shaped, and have very short legs. I think “cute” is the best way to describe them. As mentioned above, Lamprosoma can transform into a ball when threatened. In contrast to Ceratocanthinae beetles that have dedicated grooves to hold the legs and head in place, members of genus Lamprosoma have no such features. The beetle tucks in its head and holds its legs tightly close to its body, making it a neat impenetrable package.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.), a ventral view showing how neatly they press their legs against the body when forming the ball

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.), a ventral view showing how neatly they press their legs against the body when forming the ball

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) in ball-mode. Mimicking a Christmas ornament.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) in ball-mode. Mimicking a Christmas ornament.

In species with shiny metallic colors it is hard not to see the resemblance to the glass balls used as Christmas ornaments (maybe an idea for a future product?). Once the danger is out of sight, the beetle loosens its legs and walks away.

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) transformation sequence from ball-mode to beetle-mode. How can you not fall in love with those stubby feet?

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.) transformation sequence from ball-mode to beetle-mode. How can you not fall in love with those stubby feet?

Lamprosoma are phytophagous beetles, meaning that they feed on plants. Both adults and larvae feed on leaves, and can be potential pests due to damage they can cause to foliage. The species shown here seem to be associated with cacao trees, and were found under leaves during the day. While the adults are very showy, the larvae are cryptic to avoid predators: they construct a case from frass and wood debris, and carry it around throughout their lifetime. The case is often shaped like a bent thorn, and blends perfectly with the branches the larvae live on. When threatened the larva retreat into the case and hold it firmly against the branch, preventing predators (such as ants and wasps) from accessing inside.

Another example of Lamprosoma sp. in ball-mode

Another example of Lamprosoma sp. in ball-mode

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.). Full beetle-mode!

Shiny leaf beetle (Lamprosoma sp.). Full beetle-mode!

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Insect art: Arthropod girls by Jun (Kemono Friends fanart) http://gilwizen.com/jun-kemono-friends-fanart/ http://gilwizen.com/jun-kemono-friends-fanart/#comments Wed, 03 Jan 2018 13:40:08 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6871 Imagine a world where humans have disappeared, while animals transformed into humanoid form but stayed true to their natural behavior and preferred habitats. This is the premise of Kemono Friends, an anime series from last year that surprised everyone and became very successful despite its seemingly low production value. It presents the dreamworld of Japari ... Read More

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Imagine a world where humans have disappeared, while animals transformed into humanoid form but stayed true to their natural behavior and preferred habitats. This is the premise of Kemono Friends, an anime series from last year that surprised everyone and became very successful despite its seemingly low production value. It presents the dreamworld of Japari Park, a mysterious deserted zoo that houses animals from around the world (in the form of cute girls). In fact it was so successful that it generated a global cult following, regardless of gender, origin, and even species (if you are not familiar with the story of the old male penguin that fell in love with a cardboard cutout of one of the characters, read it here – it will melt your heart …and then its tragic ending will break your heart). Full disclosure: I did not watch the series, so I decided to test it out and watched one episode. I must say that despite my low expectations, I found it entertaining. You see, to enjoy Kenomo Friends you have to look beyond what it is on the surface. Leaving the plot and the quirky animation style aside, the naturalist in me liked the way animals were portrayed in the series, and appreciated the information presented to make viewers more familiar with their real-life counterparts. I am sure the series itself has great potential (want to see an interesting take on it? watch this). Anyway, the series deals with cute girls modeled after animals (mainly mammals and birds), also known as gijinka, however invertebrates were left out of the series. This is a real shame, because the huge diversity of invertebrates could inspire a similar diversity of characters, sparking interest and evoking respect and appreciation for these animals.

But do not fret. Several independent artists decided to do just that: designing their own arthropod-themed characters, while drawing inspiration from the anime series. One of them is Jun (@ni075 on twitter), an artist from Malaysia, who has spent the last months creating incredibly detailed arthropod gijinka. After discovering his art and following his posts he quickly became one of my most favorite artists. He kindly agreed to talk about his work and describe the process of creating the characters.

Chiasognathus grantii, stag beetle artwork by Jun

Chiasognathus grantii, stag beetle artwork by Jun

What exactly is gijinka?
Jun: “Gijinka (擬人化) means anthropomorphized characters based on any non-human subject (non-human characters, organisms, non-living things etc’). However, not all characters inspired by non-human subjects are gijinka unless the artist states they are (for example, characters with cat ears and tail are not always meant to be a cat’s anthropomorphism). There are no guidelines for gijinka but in general, instead of a non-human characters bearing human-like features, gijinka always come with a full human body at least in appearance, which sometimes makes them looks more like a cosplay based on their model. This type of anthropomorphism is also called Moe gijinka (萌え擬人化, see here for more details). There are many examples for gijinka products that follow these rules in Japan, such as Kantai Collection (warship girls), Touken Ranbu (sword boys), Houseki no Kuni (genderless human-like minerals), and Kemono Friends (animal girls).”

How did the idea of creating arthropod-inspired characters come to life?
Jun: “The idea of arthropod gijinka originated few years ago (during my high school days), but I started working on this series in May 2017, so only about half a year. I do not have any background in character design, the same goes for fashion and cloth design. This is my first original character series ever made. I think I was inspired by Kantai collection, a web browser game with the theme of warship gijinka, which I played throughout several years. The biggest inspiration came from the Kemono Friends series and the twitter user 小森雨太 (@comori_uta) who makes insects and other bugs gijinka as fanart “friends” (friend = gijinka individual in Kemono Friends). I love arthropods since childhood, from the infamous terrestrial bugs to the rather famous crustaceans. As the arthropd gijinka series took off, I decided to also debunk the common misconceptions people have on this fascinating and important group of animals.”

Xya japonica, pygmy mole cricket. Artwork by Jun

Xya japonica, pygmy mole cricket. Artwork by Jun

How do you choose which arthropod species to use as the model?
Jun: “Most of them simply come on a whim, and few are requests I get from other users. If possible, I will choose a ‘typical’ species at first. For example, I chose the water flea Daphnia pulex for having typical characteristics and being a well-known representative of its taxonomical group. Later I decided to make another character from the same group but based on a different species – Leptodora water flea. So in this case I used the first work as a basic design, and then added the characteristics that differentiate between the species. In some cases I make an exception and choose the “unique” species as the first character of its group, like in the cases of Chiasognathus grantii for a stag beetle and Rhagodes melanus for a camel spider. Both have quite a different body plan compared to other representatives of their groups (small-headed; short-legged, respectively). Though the creation process is still somewhat the same, in which I at least try to imagine how the ‘typical’ one looks like. For the examples mentioned above I chose Prosopocoilus stag beetle and the camel spider family Galeodidae, and used those as the basic design and made changes to it.”

Leptodora richardi, a water flea. This is one of my favorite designs by Jun; if you are not familiar with this animal please search for it online. He really captured the essence of this crustacean.

Leptodora richardi, a water flea. This is one of my favorite designs by Jun; if you are not familiar with this animal please search for it online. He really captured the essence of this crustacean.

One thing I love about Jun’s work is his attention to detail. His designs are not only flawless in execution, but also show a great deal of accuracy when it comes to arthropod morphology. Here are a few examples:

Crematogaster ants have a characteristic, elegant abdomen. Artwork by Jun

Crematogaster ants have a characteristic, elegant abdomen. Artwork by Jun

Pseudoscorpion by Jun. Accurate. I don't think I need to add anything here.

Pseudoscorpion by Jun. Accurate. I don’t think I need to add anything here.

In the case of Myrmarachne, Jun not only captured the lively and inquisitive nature of the jumping spider, but also the intricate details of its appearance. I would like to draw your attention to the color of the eyes, and to the dark stripe running along the second pair of legs in the spider, and its corresponding element on the girl’s arms. Brilliant.

Myrmarachne, an ant-mimicking jumping spider by Jun. Excellent depiction of morphology, coloration, and posture.

Myrmarachne, an ant-mimicking jumping spider by Jun. Excellent depiction of morphology, coloration, and posture.

By the way, Jun was not joking when he mentioned getting work requests from other people. After discovering and admiring his work, I half-jokingly asked if we are ever going to see a girl modeled after Epomis beetle. He gave it a shot using the first-instar larva as the model, and created the following jaw-dropping artwork. Ground beetle larvae are hard to characterize to begin with, so needless to say I was very impressed.

Epomis circumscriptus larva by Jun. She is missing a pet frog by her side, but I will let this one slide...

Epomis circumscriptus larva by Jun. She is missing a pet frog by her side, but I will let this one slide…

What do you do to get the information you need for creating the characters?
Jun: “Almost all of the information is obtained through an online search. My personal experience and records will be included as well if I have encountered the species in real life. Photographs of live individuals and specimens are a major part of my research. I also search for identification keys since many arthropods can look very similar between species or even higher classifications. Searching for taxonomy and behavior publications written by specialists is a must-do as well.”

As a side note, when you follow Jun’s posts on Twitter you get a first-row seat in viewing his entire creative process, and I do not mean just random posts showing work-in-process. You are exposed to the initial research, morphology studies, first sketches and outfit design, head design, and final character design. I find this not only fascinating to watch, but also quite engaging.

Jun: “I mainly express the species characteristics through clothes design, while leaving the hairstyle and face for last, because it has a big influence on the character’s personality. As all of my gijinka are created down to species level, I want to make them different from each other, each one with its own unique look. The Introduction corner is based on the one used in Kemono Friends anime, which appears on the screen when the animal girl makes her first appearance. The format I use is slightly different from the anime, and includes: class-order-family; Japanese name; scientific name.”

Rhagodes melanus, a camel spider by Jun. Another very impressive achievement; this is an animal that rarely gets any positive attention, not to mention the difficulty to portray it well in art form.

Rhagodes melanus, a camel spider by Jun. Another very impressive achievement; this is an animal that rarely gets any positive attention, not to mention the difficulty to portray it well in art form.

“I try to avoid including religion, culture, narrative or any other human-related elements of the animals in my gijinka’s design. The main reason is that those are not the characteristics of the animal itself. Moreover, many of those elements are based on misconception, which is something I try to debunk through the design itself. I want to show the true nature of the animal, instead of repeating people’s wrong impressions and stereotypes.”

How long does it take to complete each work, from conception to finished artwork?
Jun: “The time can range from 3 days to 2 weeks. In most cases I spend up almost a week throughout the process: 1-3 days for research and concept, 2-4 days for the final artwork.”

Another interesting aspect in Jun’s characters is the eyes. “While most of the gijinka will have the animal’s eyes reconstructed around the character’s head like an accessory, I decided to go against this rule and make the human eye more similar to the species’ eye itself. In extreme cases like huge eyes or stalked eyes, I reconstruct it as an accessory in a non-eye-like design.”

This is very apparent in the following examples, the split-eyes of Chiasognathus grantii stag beetle, or the six clustered stemmata (simple eyes) of Epomis larva are perfectly depicted in the characters’ eyes.

A Composite image to show the level of detail in characters' eyes. Chiasognathus beetles have split eyes, while Epomis larvae eyes consist of six stemmata arranged in a cluster. Jun expressed these features within the iris of both characters.

A Composite image to show the level of detail in characters’ eyes. Chiasognathus beetles have split eyes, while Epomis larvae eyes consist of six stemmata arranged in a cluster. Jun expressed these features within the iris of both characters.

How many characters do you plan to make?
Jun: “Actually I haven’t set any limit for the number of characters, so the plan is to make as many as I possibly can. But I want to make more characters representing different taxonomical groups. For example I still lack myriapods, and I have only two crustaceans.”

Damon diadema, a whip spider by Jun. Another personal favorite that shows the essence of the model species, from the presence of spines and sensory whips to the banded legs depicted here by belt straps.

Damon diadema, a whip spider by Jun. Another personal favorite that shows the essence of the model species, from the presence of spines and sensory whips to the banded legs depicted here by belt straps.

Do you have any future plans for these designs like publishing a book or running an exhibition?
Jun: “Currently I only made this series as Kemono Friends’s fanart, so I still don’t have any future plans for it.”

I must admit that reply to my last question left me a little bitter. There is something about Jun’s work that makes me wish for more. For someone who is passionate about arthropods, it is pure eye candy. I would love to see it becoming something big, a collection perhaps. Hey, I even find myself fantasizing about a spinoff anime series or a manga following the arthropod girls’ adventures. For the time being, I will continue to enjoy whatever I can find on Jun’s twitter. But I can dream, right?

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2017 in review: …wait, what was the question? http://gilwizen.com/2017-in-review/ http://gilwizen.com/2017-in-review/#comments Sun, 31 Dec 2017 13:49:11 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6849 At last, this year is coming to an end. I really wanted to end this year with a rant post, because for me 2017 was downright just awful. Don’t worry, that rant is coming. It will join similar posts like this one and this one. I’m just waiting for the right timing. This post has ... Read More

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At last, this year is coming to an end. I really wanted to end this year with a rant post, because for me 2017 was downright just awful. Don’t worry, that rant is coming. It will join similar posts like this one and this one. I’m just waiting for the right timing. This post has a more personal tone to it compared to my usual texts, and I apologize for anyone following my through my RSS feed – if you are expecting insects or wildlife photos in this one, skip it.

To say that I haven’t felt productive this year would be an understatement. I am still recovering from last year’s depression, and while things have improved a lot, having no one close to talk to and nothing to keep me occupied (and yeah, poverty too) only perpetuated my dreadful condition. I did not feel inspired or motivated enough to produce new photographs, even though we had a beautiful summer this year. You know those days you have to force yourself out of the house to feel more alive? I could barely bring myself to do that. One thing I did try was to keep this blog active, which is why you saw some kind of a posting spree going on here. Among my personal highlights were launching a series of posts that combine a few of my interests, my first detailed lens review as well as my first gear-bashing, and two opinion pieces (here and here) that became very popular with readers. Statistically speaking, during 2017 I posted more articles on the blog than ever before, and you know what? I still have many planned posts waiting their turn. I guess this is a good thing.

I wonder if one day I will be brave enough to share an honest account of everything I have gone through in the last year and a half. I am actually amazed that I managed to keep a calm tone in my posts this year. Especially because in today’s blogosphere (or whatever is left of it) it is all about excitement and surprises. Here’s a fun exercise for you: open a random blog and count how many exclamation marks appear on the most recent post. I know, right? Why is everyone talking loudly all of a sudden? Calm down and breathe, you guys.

This year, along with some presentations and public events, I also managed to publish two natural history notes. I need to do this more often. Not only because I enjoy it, but also because natural history data rarely gets published at all, “It is not interesting enough to justify a publication”. These are not my own words, but a response I got from a journal editor, believe it or not. What a shame, and a waste for anyone thirsting for knowledge. Working scientists need access to natural history information too. The funny thing is that every time I publish a scientific paper I get indirect comments from people asking, ‘What’s up with this guy? He’s no longer in academia, why is he still wasting his time and energy publishing research papers? He’s getting nothing from it!’
This might be true to some extent, but here is the way I see it: different people have different goals in life. Some want to become rich or famous. Others want a career working for a big company. For me, it was never about those things.

I might have failed in some aspects of my life. However, the most important thing for me is to leave something of myself behind, a legacy of some sort. This is why I try to infect others with my enthusiasm for insects, arachnids, and other small animals. This is why I still publish whatever knowledge I think can be useful to someone else at some point in the future. For me, leaving something valuable behind is the very essence of success. Too bad the habit of doing so at self-expense will drag me to the grave.

As I am sitting here waiting for my impending homelessness (oh, and it’s coming alright), I am also struck with an urge to share more knowledge and initiate more projects. Not sure how long I can do this at my current state, but hey, whatever I put out there will stay long after I’m gone.

Sayonara, 2017. Adios. Au revoir. Ciao.
Here’s to a more productive 2018.

Season's Greetings

Season’s Greetings

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Hello, Hedwig (snowy owl) http://gilwizen.com/snowy-owl/ http://gilwizen.com/snowy-owl/#respond Thu, 28 Dec 2017 13:28:27 +0000 http://gilwizen.com/?p=6820 Birds, on this blog?? I must be out of my mind. Posts covering birds are almost unheard of on this website. It’s not that I do not find birds fascinating. There are just so many bird-dedicated websites out there that I do not feel I can contribute anything unique, and if I want to be ... Read More

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Birds, on this blog?? I must be out of my mind. Posts covering birds are almost unheard of on this website. It’s not that I do not find birds fascinating. There are just so many bird-dedicated websites out there that I do not feel I can contribute anything unique, and if I want to be completely honest – I am not exactly the best bird photographer out there. I will always prefer looking at insects and other ground-dwelling creatures. This is something that I need to change: I need to make a habit to switch from arthropod-seeking to bird watching once winter hits Canada and it gets too cold for insect activity. I decided to force myself out and go searching for snowy owls in my area. Living in Mississauga on the shore of Lake Ontario, I always knew I have a good chance of finding snowy owls, but it takes dedication to look for birds in below-zero temperatures, even more so in my case because I am fine-tuned for searching smaller animals.

A resting snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is like a sitting duck. On a dock.

A resting snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is like a sitting duck. On a dock.

Snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) are truly stunning animals. It is one of the largest and heaviest owl species, and easily recognized thanks to its unmistakable appearance: a hefty white bird, with a black beak and bright yellow eyes. Female snowy owls are bigger and heavier than males, and their feathers are mottled in black. The smaller males are entirely white.

Who left this pile of snow on the dock? hehe

Who left this pile of snow on the dock? hehe

It's transforming!

It’s transforming!

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Try not to get hypnotized by these eyes.

Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Try not to get hypnotized by these eyes.

Despite being big and showy, snowy owls made it to the mainstream only in the late 90’s thanks to the Harry Potter book series. In the story, Harry has a pet snowy owl named Hedwig, used for delivering messages to other wizards, but also serving as a companion to Harry. The popularity of snowy owls has increased also thanks to a famous meme, perhaps one of the oldest internet memes in existence, focusing on their somewhat goofy facial expressions.

These owls are native to and breed in the Arctic tundra. Every year a part of the population migrates south to winter in the North American prairies, whereas the others remain in the Arctic year-round. The migration is triggered by seasonal population fluctuations of their prey – small mammals, mainly rodents. When hungry they will go after birds as well.

Snowy owls probably hunt small rodents like this meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

Snowy owls probably hunt small rodents like this meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

Snowy owls are very unique among owls for nesting in shallow mounds that they build on the ground. Even outside of the breeding season they stay active close to the ground level. Because they prefer open habitats, they are often found in areas disturbed by human activity. They utilize boat docks, airstrips, and arable land, which probably host their prey. Here in Southern Ontario I bet they hunt voles because, let’s face it, those are quite common in semi-urban areas, and judging by my experience they are extremely easy to catch.

O RLY?

O RLY?

The nice thing about snowy owls is that they do not seem to care too much about humans. Ok, I should clarify this – they will not care *only* if you respect their privacy and keep your distance. I want to prevent a situation where people harass these beauties. It is also important to mention that this species is currently classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN. When undisturbed, the owl will keep its position, and even display some natural behavior like cleaning, scratching, and… grinning. However, once the observer gets too close and is spotted by the owl, it ends right there. A snowy owl will not hesitate to take flight if it feels threatened. If you decide to go and look for these birds please be respectful, and you will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience that will stay with you forever.

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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 (as well as on his own website), 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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