Archive For: Hemiptera

Halloween special: My worst bug bite

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.

Little Transformers: Dysodius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), dorsal view

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), dorsal view

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

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) camouflaged on a fallen log

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) camouflaged on a fallen log

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus)

Portrait of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus)

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

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

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

2016 in review: a heartfelt thank you

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

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

Thank you. All of you.

 

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

The most unpleasant subject

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

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

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

The most perfectly timed photo

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

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

Best behavior shot

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

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

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

The best non-animal photo

"Silkhenge" spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

“Silkhenge” spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

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

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

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

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

The best photo of an elusive subject

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

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

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

The best natural phenomenon observed

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

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

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

The best stacked photo

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

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

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

The best wide-angle macro

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the year

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

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

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

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

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

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

One more thing…

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

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

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

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

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

 

Time for some self-evaluation

Without warning, 2016 sneaked up on me. I had quite a few planned posts for this blog, and I was hoping I could still post them during 2015. But other plans got in the way, and I had to postpone. Hopefully I can find the time and motivation to post more this year.
One of the things I like to do at the end of a year is going over my photo archive in order to see if something has changed in my style. I do not necessarily mean getting better at taking photos, even though some kind of progress is expected from year to year. What I am really after are changes in the way I use my equipment, compose my frames, and in my post-processing techniques. This is something I encourage every photographer to do. There is an unfortunate consequence of digital photography: we tend to shoot a lot, then we transfer the files to our collection for storage, we might look at the photos in the first weeks after the shoot, but then we forget about them for a while. This is in contrast to what it was like in the film age; developing film was pricy and you had a limited number of photos you could take, therefore much more planning went into each single photo. Plus the experience of going over the new prints or flipping pages in a photo album is pretty much lost nowadays. In addition, skipping the film lab stage and the ease of post-processing digital files allow for speed learning, and beginners can see major improvements in their photography skills within weeks.

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Typophyllum sp.). Chapare Province, Bolivia

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Typophyllum sp.). This photo is in fact a scanned film slide, originally taken in Bolivia in 2003.

This year I had a chance to go back and evaluate my entire collection straight from the beginning. When I went over photographs from my film era (mostly 90’s and early 2000’s), I could only find a handful of images that I considered pleasing and worth keeping. In other words, something has definitely changed throughout the years in the way I perceive photographic subjects. Even when I look at the results of my early years in digital photography, I cannot help but wonder what made me choose that composition and those particular camera settings. Surprisingly, the most substantial change in the way I photograph happened only recently. Overall, 2013 was not a good year for me, but I was fortunate to have the time and solitude to dig into what I already know about photography, and more important, what I do not know. I tried new gear configurations, different composition styles and stepped out of my comfort zone. The main result was making the transition from a “snapper”, who hastily clicks the shutter from fear the subject will be gone, to a “composer”, who plans the desired frame during the shot and sometimes even before encountering the subject. By the way, I just made those terms up. It is interesting to compare photos taken before and after this period. Not always you get a chance to compare a photo of the same subject taken in different years. Take this shield bug nymph for example. This photo was taken in Belize in 2013:

Shield bug nymph (Brachystethus rubromaculatus). This is the only photo of this species that I have from my visit in 2013. Why?

Shield bug nymph (Brachystethus rubromaculatus). This is the only photo of this species that I have from my visit in 2013. Why?

And this one was taken exactly a year later, in 2014:

Shield bug (Brachystethus rubromaculatus) nymph. Photographed at the same site, in 2014.

Shield bug (Brachystethus rubromaculatus) nymph. Photographed at the same site, in 2014.

Both photos show the same animal and environment, but have completely different visual styles. The 2013 photo is not particularly bad, I just prefer the one taken in 2014.

I cannot stress enough the importance of self-evaluation, and this goes far beyond photography. With so much content out there, anyone who creates something needs to learn how to view their work without bias, and be honest about it. Become your worst critic.

Insect art: Cordyceps cicada vase

I have always been inspired by art, and I try to express this through my photography or in my drawings (not that I draw much these days). It is therefore understood why I love artwork and designs that are directly connected to my other passions: nature and small creatures. It is not difficult to find nature-inspired art or designs; they are everywhere, especially nowadays, where the biomimicry concept has become very popular in engineering and technology.

Insect-inspired art/design is also found out there, but it is much more scarce. In particular, it is difficult to find pieces that represent species other than iconic ones (for example, the monarch butterfly, the ladybug or the stag beetle), or a biological phenomenon.

Since an early age I was interested in such artwork and representation of insects in different cultures. Luckily, there is an excellent blog dedicated to this topic, The Endless Swarm, which allows me to follow my interest. I recommend checking it out if you are interested in insect art. I hope to follow the same path – whenever I stumble upon artwork that I find interesting, I will present it in this blog.

In this first insect art post, I would like to present a beautiful product from Japan: The Cordyceps cicada vase.

Singing cicadas have been a part of the Japanese culture for many years. They are depicted in drawings and small figurines on pottery and wood art. This vase is a relatively new product, it was released in spring 2013. Surprisingly, the vase depicts a cicada nymph, in contrast to adult cicadas that are more commonly seen in similar artwork. The idea is to show an insect that is infected with Cordyceps, a genus of parasitic fungi that attack arthropods, and through complex mind-control alter their behavior to reach a preferred spot for releasing the spores. When the host reaches its destination, the fungal fruiting body emerges from its head, killing it in the process.

cicada_vase1

 

The cicada nymph vase come secured in a box that makes it look like it rests in its preferred habitat: underground, between roots of trees that are its food.
The box is decorated with beautiful artwork by Takuhiko Yokoyama, showing different insects infected with Cordyceps fungus. I highly recommend checking the artist’s personal webpage for more beautiful insect art (his digital paintings and insect food logos are especially recommended!).

cicada_vase2

Cordyceps artwork on the box by Takuhiko Yokoyama

 

cicada_vase5

Original Cordyceps artwork, courtesy of Takuhiko Yokoyama

 

The detail and finish on the vase is very impressive. It has the appearance of a big caramelized cicada nymph. Almost anything placed into the vase (even flowers and branches) makes it look like a Cordyceps fungus emerging from the cicada’s head. I decided to demonstrate this using something a little more faithful to the charismatic parasite – Buna-shimeji mushrooms I had in my fridge.

cicada_vase4

Almost like the real thing

 

cicada_vase3

Rear view of the cicada vase

 

Jewelled geckos

A couple of days ago I left the Otago Peninsula, a place that was a home for me for the last two weeks. While I am still trying to get used to being on the road again, I thought I’d share with you my second “must-see” NZ animal: the jewelled gecko.

The jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus, is endemic to the South Island of New Zealand. They are beautiful vivid green in color with yellow and white markings. Some individuals have “diamond” markings, while others have two yellow stripes running along the sides of their back. Combinations of the two color patterns also occur. There are two main subgroups of jewelled geckos: those living in Otago Peninsula and those living in the Banks Peninsula. One main difference between the groups is the color of the males: in Banks Peninsula they are grey with yellow markings while in Otago Peninsula both sexes are green.

I can honestly say these are among the most beautiful geckos I have ever seen, and only members of genus Phelsuma from Madagascar and Lygodactylus williamsi from Tanzania come close to this.

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus ("diamonds" color morph)

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus (“diamonds” color morph)

 

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus ("striped" color morph)

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus (“striped” color morph)

 

Jewelled geckos are active during the day and are usually found in dense spiny bushes such as Coprosma species, but also in gorse and manuka bushes. They are insectivores and feed mainly on flies, moths and beetles. The geckos are pretty well camouflaged despite their bright green color – it took me a few hours to find my first gecko basking in the sun. Because they are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and diurnal, jewelled geckos regulate their body temperature by moving in and out of the shadows provided by the plants they live in. They are excellent climbers, and use their strong tail like another leg. For this reason they are less likely to drop their tail (a defense mechanism against predators) than other geckos.

Typical habitat of the jewelled geckos, Coprosma bushed in the Otago Peninsula

Typical habitat of the jewelled geckos, Coprosma bushed in the Otago Peninsula

 

Can you spot the gecko on the Coprosma bush?

Can you spot the gecko on the Coprosma bush?

 

Sometimes you see something bright green sitting on a bush, and you think "yay! a jewelled gecko!" Not this time. Only a Kikihia sp. cicada.

Sometimes you see something bright green sitting on a bush, and you think “yay! a jewelled gecko!” Not this time. Only a Kikihia sp. cicada.

 

Along with the New Caledonian rough-snouted gecko (Rhacodactylus trachyrhynchus), New Zealand Geckos are the only geckos in the world to give birth to live young. Surprisingly, the gestation period is similar to that of humans, and usually lasts eight to nine months. Gecko live-births are not exactly like mammalian live births: the baby geckos develop in the eggs which remain in the oviduct within the female’s body until they hatch prior to birth. This process is known as ovoviviparity (now try to picture me saying that). Usually two “twin-geckos” are born and it takes three years for them to reach sexual maturity.

Portrait of a juvenile jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus. If you haven't seen my talking gecko, click here.

Portrait of a juvenile jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus). If you haven’t seen my talking gecko, click here
(ולגירסא לדוברי עברית הקליקו כאן)

 

Loss of habitat is the largest threat to the jewelled gecko, followed by rats, cats, stoats and other introduced predators. Contrary to expectation, a study found that grazing of the vegetation by sheep can actually help the geckos survive, by clearing grass (which is often associated with high rodent densities) and making the Coprosma bushes more compact and thus harder to access for these predators. However unfortunately, the main enemy of these jewels is us humans. This attractive gecko is highly prized on the illegal pet market, with a single gecko worth as much as $8000. Naultinus gemmeus is classified as a threatened species by the Department of Conservation, they are highly protected and it is illegal to capture or disturb them. Even low levels of poaching can place small populations of jewelled gecko at risk of extinction. Lately, the fines and periods of imprisonment for anyone attempting to poach them were increased. As a personal experience I can say that even I was thoroughly inquired for my business when I was taking photographs of the geckos. I can only wish that every threatened species in the world in need for conservation had gotten the same treatment.

Scared by a photographing entomologist, this jewelled gecko is trying to assess the danger from a safe hiding spot inside the coprosma bush.

Scared by a photographing entomologist, this jewelled gecko is trying to assess the danger from a safe hiding spot inside the coprosma bush.

 

I already miss the Otago Peninsula. I hope these stunning geckos will still be around when I come back in the future.

 

NZ Forest critters – first impressions

The insects I am currently after in NZ are nocturnal (meaning they are active at night) – this ensures me some interesting encounters with animals that are usually shy and cryptic. I thought I would start by describing to you my few readers (most likely my friends, family, and if I am lucky maybe one or two of my former students) what my night activities are like at the moment.
So what kind of animals you can find while taking a night walk in the forest?
Surprisingly for me, the most common animal to encounter in the NZ forest during the night is not a cricket or spider, but representatives of a genus of cockroach. These relatively small cockroaches (15mm) belong to the genus Celatoblatta of which 16 species are known. Very similar in appearance to the northern hemisphere German cockroach, they occupy the leaf litter and low forest plants. I mainly found them on ferns, and although I cannot tell them apart, I am certain that I saw more than one species.

Forest cockroach (Celatoblatta sp.)

Forest cockroach (Celatoblatta sp.)

 

Another common insect active in the dark forest is the crane fly. Here too, several species are seen, but I am talking about a particular species. One that is so massive, especially during flight with its thick leathery wings, that often I was not really sure what I was looking at. Unfortunately I have no idea about the species name.

Crane fly (unidentified)

Crane fly (unidentified)

 

Slugs are also seen frequently, usually climbing on tree trunks, on logs and sometimes on leaves (lower left). The slugs I have seen so far are very different from the ones I know, and I will dedicate a separate post for them. Ground weta (genus Hemiadnrus, lower right) are common on tree trunks and low plants. A very interesting insect group and the core of my current study – they will receive more attention in future posts.

Leaf-veined slug (Athoracophorus antipodarum)

Leaf-veined slug (Athoracophorus antipodarum)

Ground weta (Hemiandrus "onokis") nymph

Ground weta (Hemiandrus “onokis”) nymph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will end this post with two creatures that are not as common as the ones above, but can be easily found with a little patience.

Antlions (order Neuroptera) are sometimes seen on the vegetation. This pair was sitting on a branch and were probably communicating using their antennae. It is a relatively large species, so at first I thought they belong to the family Myrmeleontidae. However, looking at their antennae, I see that they are simple and not curved as in Myrmeleontid antlions. Therefore I am guessing that these are big lacewings, but I am still not sure regarding the family or genus.

A pair of antlions (unidentified)

A pair of antlions (unidentified)

 

If you are lucky, you might stumble upon cicada larvae as they emerge from the soil and climb nearby objects to molt for the last time into adult cicadas. I was fortunate enough to see this beautiful individual drying its wings after molting. It belongs to the highly diverse genus Kikihia, with about 30 species. Unfortunately, further identification is very difficult because there is no identification key available to the species level. This is one of the most beautiful insects I have seen. Vivid green in color with red “socks”, and rows of golden hairs on the abdomen.

A newly emerged cicada, Kikihia sp., with the moon shining in the background

A newly emerged cicada, Kikihia sp., with the moon shining in the background