Archive For: Orthoptera

Little Transformers: Pycnopalpa bicordata

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

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

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane!”

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

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

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

Another view of this amazing insect

Another view of this amazing insect

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

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

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

The nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) in full katydid-mode

The nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) in full katydid-mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vestria – the katydid that wanted to be a spider

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) hiding under a leaf

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) hiding under a leaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

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

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

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

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

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

Smile! You're on katydid camera!

Smile! You’re on katydid camera!

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

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

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

 

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

 

A plague of locusts

A couple of years ago, I was driving on a desert road in Israel on my way to several night hiking locations. There was nothing too exciting on the sides of the road vegetation-wise, most plants have finished their short flowering period and dried out. It was a late afternoon, and I got carried away in my thoughts about my approaching night hike. Suddenly I saw a vivid yellow splotch on the ground in the distance. Then another one, and another one. Flowers? Maybe, if it wasn’t for the fact that those spots were moving.
No, not flowers. Insects. Grasshoppers, to be more exact.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs, Negev Desert, Israel

The desert in bloom? Not exactly.

It is a common mistake to think that locust grasshoppers are a single species. More accurately, “locust swarm” is the name of a natural phenomenon, in which conditions are favorable for the grasshopper population to increase substantially in size. The phenomenon is known from several species of grasshoppers, all members of family Acrididae. The most famous species is the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), found mainly in Africa, but there are other species, mostly found in the Old World and Oceania. Only one species was known from North America, the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus), but it mysteriously disappeared in the late 19th century.

Migratory locust (Locusta migratoria), the most widespeard locust species. Photographed in New Zealand

Migratory locust (Locusta migratoria), the most widespeard locust species. Photographed in New Zealand

Grasshoppers usually spend their relatively short lives alone, as solitary animals. In the case of locusts however, when food is abundant and space is tight, they start overcrowding and then an interesting chain of events ensues. The physical contact between individuals triggers a set of physiological and behavioral changes, mediated by the neurotransmitter Serotonin. The grasshoppers start moving and feeding together, they change their appearance from harmless-looking, camouflaged nymphs to bold, frantic ones, sporting aposematic coloration of yellow and black. The group stays together even as they mature into adults, then they turn pinkish in color.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymph in solitary phase, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymph in solitary phase, Negev Desert, Israel

The adult pink grasshoppers soon double, triple, quadruple in their numbers, and food sources become scarce. Then they start taking off, one by one, and glide with the wind until they find a location with food. Very soon they change their color again, this time without the aid of molting, into yellow. At this stage they are sexually active, and the females start laying eggs in the soil.
About three months later, tiny baby grasshoppers hatch. They move together, as a group, crawling and feeding on any green plant they come across. They grow fast, and soon they form small “streams” of yellow, trying to satisfy their enormous appetite.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs in gregarious phase, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs in gregarious phase, Negev Desert, Israel

When I visited the Israeli desert in 2013 I knew about the locusts that arrived from Egypt several months earlier. They had already been “taken care of”, and the only traces of them were dead bodies scattered across the desert. Nevertheless, those grasshoppers had already planted the seeds for a new generation, and sightings of dark “spots” made of grasshoppers started to surface and accumulate. I admit not paying much attention to these reports. To be honest, from what I knew about the Ministry of Agriculture and the Plant Protection Services in Israel, I was certain that the locusts would be exterminated immediately. But apparently they decided to wait. Spraying insecticides from the air is a tough decision, because the harming effects can carry on to non-target insects, some of which are beneficial to us (for example bees), and in turn this could also influence the health and survival of insect-feeding animals such as birds and reptiles.
I only noticed the locusts while I was driving near desert sand dunes, when I suddenly saw what appeared to be the road lifting above the ground. The hoppers were trying to avoid being crushed by the wheels of my vehicle, and man, there were thousands of them.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

This was the first time I have seen this phenomenon in its full glory. I was too hesitant to go when the first recent wave of desert locusts arrived in southern Israel in late 2004, and I kicked myself for missing it. I lucked out again as I was out of the country during the next incoming swarm, but was extremely lucky to be around to witness their offsprings.

The interesting thing about the “marching stage” of locusts is that they are very aware of themselves and of their surroundings. I found it extremely difficult to get close to them without triggering an escape response. As a matter of fact, even when I was lying flat on the ground to seem less intimidating to the grasshoppers, they would still approach and stop at 30cm distance. They would then wait for a few minutes, as if to judge what it is in front of them. If one grasshopper either turned back or jumped, the whole band followed. As much as photography goes I believe the only way to photograph them from up close is to use a timer or lie under some kind of camouflaged blanket.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Seeing locusts in the flesh (as opposed to black and white photos of them taken in the 50’s) is impressive. The nymphs move in broad paths that seem endless. Occasionally, a spider or a mantis grabs a nymph as prey, however birds and lizards seem to avoid attacking the hoppers. At night, the locusts can be seen resting in high numbers as they cover bushes and branches, already defoliated from leaves. Some will molt during this time. In the morning they quickly heat up in the sun rays, and go on their way.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs crowding at night. Surprisingly, there is one nymph in solitary phase among them (bottom center). Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs crowding at night. Surprisingly, there is one nymph in solitary phase among them (bottom center). Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs basking in the sun during the morning hours. Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs basking in the sun during the morning hours. Negev Desert, Israel

The sad part about this story is that we usually do not wait long enough to see what happens next. Locust swarms are a destructive force of nature. They can defoliate a crop field within hours. Historically, international alerts were sent whenever a locust swarm was observed airborne. So it came as no surprise to me when I visited the exact same spot the following day, only to find all the locusts dead. Their yellow bodies piled by the thousands under trees and bushes. They were most likely sprayed with insecticides early in the morning, before becoming active. Of all things, this looked like a horrible waste to me. Neither predator nor scavenger came to feed from these now dead grasshoppers, and for a very good reason – they were poisoned. It is none other than a holocaust (of children nonetheless!), but we do not like to think about it this way. We as humans tend to justify our actions when it comes to our own survival as a species. Survival, or world domination? You decide. If only we could accept that grasshoppers are a good food source for ourselves, I believe the response to locust swarms and end result would be slightly different.

Thousands of dead desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs after extermination. Negev Desert, Israel

Thousands of dead desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs after extermination. Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) adult in solitary phase. This individual was found in the same location two months after I witnessed the extermination of the gregarious nymphs. It is most likely a survivor of that swarm.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) adult in solitary phase. This individual was found in the same location two months after I witnessed the extermination of the gregarious nymphs. It is most likely a survivor of that swarm.

Here is a short video of the majestic marching of grasshoppers:

 

2014 in review: traveling, wide-angle macro and great finds!

As the clock counting towards the end of 2014, it is time for another year-in-review post. This was a good year. What a refreshing change from 2013. The main element this year seems to be traveling – I did lots of it. I think I broke my own record for traveling by air, sometimes squeezing multiple destinations into the same month, all thanks to the leave of absence I took from the university. It does not necessarily mean I visited new places; there is still a ton I want to see. The surprising thing is that I do not feel like I photographed enough this year. Many of these trips relied heavily on research, and very occasionally I found myself in a conflict between collecting data and photographing.

Here are my best of 2014. I tried to keep the same categories as last year.

 

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

 

Well, botfly again in this category, just like last year. I actually had a human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) in my own body last year as well as this year (there is a scientific publication about it on the way – a topic for a future blog post!). Although I have to say this year’s cute parasite was not at all unpleasant, on the contrary! For this reason I decided to go all the way through and have it complete its larval development inside my body, and now I am eagerly waiting for it to emerge as an adult fly.

 

The best landscape shots

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

 

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

 

I’m afraid I did not take too many landscape photographs this year. I was more concentrated in other methods (see below) that I completely neglected this photography sytle. In fact, I have just sold my trustworthy Tokina AT-X Pro 17mm lens, because I found that I am not using it anymore. I did have a chance to visit some breathtaking places this year, and chose two shots from Belize as my favorite landscapes for 2014.

 

The most perfectly timed photo

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

 

This photo is not exactly “perfectly timed” in the sense that I had to wait in order to capture the right moment. As I was walking to my cabin in the Ecuadorian Amazon I saw this pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) resting on a wall that was painted to show a scene from the rainforest. To my amazement the spider picked the “correct” spot in the painting to rest on, a palm leaf, just as it would be in the real vegetation. The cutesy ants painted marching nearby add a nice twist to this photo.

 

Best behavior shot

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

 

This molting amblypygid (Euphrynichus bacillifer) takes this category. I like how it looks like a version of Alien’s Facehugger from this angle.

 

The best non-animal photo

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

 

I regard this as one of my best super-macro shots. I have already written a short post about how this unique inflorescence sent me 20 years back in time for a trip down memory lane. What I love about this photo is that I managed to produce exactly what I envisioned.

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in "threat posture". Amazon Basin, Ecuador

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in “threat posture”. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

You can read more about my scary encounter with the huge Phoneutria spider here. I admit that my hands were shaking as I was getting closer and closer to take a photo. These spiders are fast. And usually quite aggressive too. In the end this female turned out to be very docile, and she also kindly warned me when I was getting too close.

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

 

Never in my wildest dreams I imagined I would be photographing a coral snake from a close distance, not to mention doing it alone with no assistance. These snakes have extremely potent venom and should be left alone when encountered. However, in my case an opportunity presented itself and I could not pass on the chance to photograph this beautiful creature. It was carefully released back to the rainforest immediately after the shoot.

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

 

There is almost nothing I can say about Sabethes that I haven’t already said in this post. This mosquito is nothing short of amazing, and for some insect photographers it is a distant dream to photograph one in action. Too bad they are tiny, super-fast, and oh yes – transmit tropical diseases that can kill you. So I guess it fits the previous category as well.

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

 

I have seen army ants in the past but this year I was happy to walk upon a bivouac (a temporary camp in which they spend the night). It is such an impressive sight. It is also quite painful if you are standing a bit too close. Taking close ups of the bivouac’s “ant wall” was an unpleasant process, to say the least.
I also love this scene where a small roach watches by while the ants form their crawling “rivers”.

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

 

I rarely take deep focus stacks. The reason is that I like to photograph live animals and this method requires an almost perfectly still subject. This stack of nine images shows one of the most impressive jumping spiders I had the fortune of finding. You can tell I went all “Thomas Shahan-y” here.

 

The best wide-angle macro

If there is one style I was obsessive about this year, it is wide-angle macro. I decided to dive in, and experimented with different setups and compositions. I have now gathered enough experience and information to write a long post (most likely split in two) about this method. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here are my favorites from this year.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

The next photo comes with its own story: On the way to the 700-Feet Waterfalls in Belize for an Epiphytes survey, Ella Baron (manager of Caves Branch Botanical Gardens), Alex Wild and I joked that it would be cool to take a wide-angle macro shot of a frog against the background of the waterfalls, and to use this “postcard shot” to promote future BugShot Belize workshops. 15 minutes after that, I had the shot on my memory card… This is probably my favorite photo from 2014.

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at the beautiful 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

 

The best Meet Your Neighbours photos

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

 

Along with wide-angle macro photography, I also photographed intensively against a white background, as a contributor for Meet Your Neighbours project. This technique is easy and produces stunning results that it is difficult to choose favorites. I think I like best the photos that still incorporate some part of the habitat, such as the ones below.

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Memes

Shooting for Meet Your Neighbours not only gives a chance to appreciate organisms out of the context of their surroundings, but also makes it super easy to use the images in creative ways. I do not consider myself a competent meme creator, but there are times that I have no better way for expressing myself.

I slept too much

One of those mornings.

 

Kung Fu weevil

Sometimes I feel like…

And the most exciting subject…

Ah, where to start? There were so many great finds this year: timber flies, fringed tree frogs, velvet worms, freshly molted whip spiders, eyelid geckos, tadpole shrimps and more. I cannot simply pick one favorite subject. They were all my favorites, so I decided not to end this post with a trail of random photos. I cannot wait to see what I will encounter next year. Have a good 2015!

My NZ ordeal (part 2)

Some time ago I wrote about my NZ accident and I mentioned that the story did not end there. One of the most frustrating experiences I had upon leaving NZ was a slow and thorough inspection of everything I had in my luggage by the customs officers. I am not sure what they were expecting to find, because I had collecting and import permits for all the research material I obtained. After discussing this with other visitors to NZ (not necessarily scientists) I learned that it is a standard procedure that some lucky individuals must endure. But imagine spending a couple of hours in an isolated part of the airport with other “suspects”, where you are being treated like trash for doing nothing. I will not go into details but it was definitely some of the most nerve-racking time I had in my life.

It was not before I returned to Canada when things started to take a wrong turn. I purposely delayed writing a post about it, mainly because I needed time to digest what has happened and to understand the details of my case. My plan was to write it down eventually because I believe it can be important for other graduate students facing a similar situation, and I think I am ready to share.

So cut back to early 2013, I spent several months in NZ, most of the time observing mating behavior of ground weta (ensiferan insects of the genus Hemiandrus) as a part of my PhD research, but I also found the time for experimenting with my photography. There is something about being all alone, in a foreign place, that sparks your creativity to try new and interesting ideas. Some of the shots I managed to capture in NZ were surprising even for me (see some of them here).

(Feel free to skip this paragraph if you only want to read the “juicy” parts of the story. It explains the research I was conducting in NZ)
Before I detail my story, let me elaborate a bit on weta mating behavior. One of the things I aimed to capture was the mating process in “short-tailed” Hemiandrus species. “Short-tailed” means that, unlike most members of suborder Ensifera, the females do not possess a long ovipositor (a device used to inject the eggs into different substrates, such as soil, wood, leaves, etc’). This character was found to be associated with a high level of maternal care: the ground weta females seal themselves in an underground burrow, spending several months tending their eggs and the hatching nymphs. As for the mating process, in most ensiferan insects the male transfers a nuptial gift for the female to feed on during mating. This gift comes in the form of a protein-rich spermatophore, attached by the male to the female’s genitalia. In “short-tailed” ground weta however, the males deposit their nuptial gift on a modified segment on the females’ abdomen, and in some species they even display mate-guarding behavior while the females consume their nutritious gift.
The result of my photography trials was a series of shots that I am very proud of, showing the whole mating process:

Hemiandrus-mating1

The mating process in Hemiandrus pallitarsis. 1. The male (bottom) attached to the female; 2. The male attaches the sperm ampullae to the female’s genitalia; 3. The male disconnects from the female’s genitalia and extends two phalli; 4. The male’s phalli start secreting the nuptial gift; 5. The nuptial gift is deposited on the female’s modified sixth abdominal segment; 6. The male displays mate-guarding behavior while the female consumes the nuptial gift.

It is important to mention that during my time in NZ this information about the ground weta mating behavior was already known and published. My intention was to use these photos in presentations and perhaps in my PhD thesis as a communication aid. And indeed, I presented them to several faculty members during a meeting and they were impressed.

From that point on things started to go downhill.
My PhD supervisor back then requested to use a photograph of a wasp for a textbook chapter he was working on, and I replied that I would gladly license it for publication. That is, after payment of a small licensing fee. Then happened the thing I was worried about the most: he asked how this sits with use of my weta photos in his future publications. My reply was the same.
I have always allowed the use of my photos for presentation purposes, whether it was an in-class presentation, conference talk, poster, etc’. My only issue is with publication and distribution of my photographs. This is a legal matter (Copyright Law is a real thing) that involves a license in order to manage who has copyrights over the use of the photo by transferring all or part of the copyrights from the photo owner to someone else. Anyone who is not familiar with this and those who wish to know more, you can refer to my Image Use page.

My refusal to give the photos away triggered an unfortunate chain of events that ended with the supervisor kicking me out of the lab and terminating his supervision, essentially shutting down my PhD research. I was accused of being greedy:

 

“Even after agreeing that I have been more than generous with funding all your New Zealand doctoral research and that your work and all expenses were, in fact, fully covered by my NSERC Discovery grant, you insisted on going ahead in charging me for the use of the photographs. It is for this reason alone that I no longer wish to supervise your doctoral research. While I think that you have the skills, background and experience necessary for tackling this project, I cannot continue to supervise a student with such a mercenary approach to the student-supervisor relationship…”

 

(As a side note I should say that this person now avoids mentioning this small detail and tells a different story, trying to make it look like my departure from his lab was a mutual decision. It was not. This infuriates me because I did want to go on with my PhD research. To him I say – take responsibility for your actions!)

I think the supervisor was missing a crucial detail of what copyright protection is meant for. Notice how nothing is mentioned about how much I was going to charge for the photos? That is because this was never discussed, the supervisor did not even bother to inquire about my image use policy, for him it was enough that I intended to charge for the use. Protecting my copyrights?? Nonsense, in his eyes I was all in it for the money! While there are photographers out there who routinely take copyright infringements to court in order to collect the damages, I cannot brag for having such a history.

What is even more surprising was that I was handed a copy of the university’s Intellectual Property Policy with a friendly remark that everything I create during my term as a graduate student is owned by the university. Really? Everything?…
Well, this is not exactly how it works. According to this policy, the university owns any idea, invention or pretty much any data that you collect or create while conducting research (raw data cannot be copyrighted anyway). This applies to any form of media that may contain such relevant data, including photos. But it is important to understand that while the university legally owns the data concealed within a photo (or a disk, flash drive, laptop etc’), it does not own the media itself unless it was the university’s property in the first place. In my case, the photos were captured by me using my photography gear, therefore the university did not own the photos and had no copyrights over use of the photos themselves. When requested, I provided low-resolution files for data acquisition purposes; nevertheless the university cannot use those photos in future publications without my consent.

Some will say that I should have agreed to give away the photos to maintain a healthy working relationship with my supervisor. This may sound like the right thing to do, however in my opinion a relationship in which someone is using you for their own personal gain is not a healthy relationship. Do take the time to think about it. Moreover, everyone has the right to choose whether they want to share their creation with someone else. I chose not to, and while my choice may seem strange to some people, it comes after a history of bad experiences. I learned my lesson the hard way, and I will not devalue my work any longer.

Here I turn to every grad student out there – you DO NOT owe anything to your supervisor other than working on your project. A supervisor cannot force you to give away your rights on something you created. If they do, that’s academic bullying. For example, if you produce an artwork piece depicting your research subject, does the university or your supervisor immediately own it? Of course not.
Universities as institutions have committees or unions that can advise grad students how to deal with such disputes. I know now that I should have taken this case straight to both the university’s Research Ethics Board and Copyrights Office. The end result of me moving to a different academic department might have been the same, but the supervisor’s disgraceful behavior would have been recorded on file, which could later act as a warning sign for prospective students.
Lastly, I think it is a real shame that a professor who spends so much time and energy fighting the disease of academic plagiarism is completely unaware of Copyright Law.

As for those ground weta photos, they will probably never see the light of day. I hope at least that you enjoyed viewing them here, and that you learned something about politics in academia at the same time.

Acrometopa syriaca – Mediterranean leaf katydid

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

BugShot Belize: Treat yourself to something good

I have been meaning to write about BugShot Belize straight after my return, while I was still excited about it, but upcoming deadlines and a small entomological ordeal took most of the attention.
But don’t get me wrong – whenever I think about this trip to Belize I get a huge grin on my face. It was THAT good.

If you have some interest in macrophotography, you probably heard about the BugShot workshop series – a get-together of photography and arthropods enthusiasts, over the course of several days, led by some of the best macrophotographers out there.
The notice about an upcoming workshop in Belize caught me while I was conducting my research fieldwork in New Zealand. I was thrilled to hear there would be four instructors instead of three: Alex Wild, Thomas Shahan, John Abbott, and, joining them for the first time, Piotr Naskrecki. I knew I had to secure my place in that workshop.

By the way, do not mistake this for an in-depth review of BugShot. This post is not going to be a list of what we did during the workshop. If you search online, you will find several such reports. I believe that if you consider going to one of these workshops, you should stop reading about them online and start working on getting there yourself. I will, however, highlight a few things that made the whole experience worthwhile for me.

I came to BugShot Belize with three main goals: to improve in taking photos in high magnification, to learn more about wide-angle photography, and to hear about high-speed photography.

Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) carrying a leaf as food source for mushrooms cultivated inside their nest. These ants almost never stand still, and require some concentration to photograph. In addition, some backlighting helps to make the leaf "pop out".

Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) carrying a leaf as food source for mushrooms cultivated inside their nest. These ants almost never stand still, and require some concentration to photograph. In addition, some backlighting helps to make the leaf “pop out”.

 

We stayed at Caves Branch, a beautiful Lodge set in the middle of the Belizean jungle. The owner attended one of the earlier BugShots, so we were lucky to have the best host one can ask for. Although being acquainted with only one other person before the workshop, I immediately felt connected to everyone else.

One of the questions I was repeatedly asked during the workshop was “is any of this new to you?”, and I have to say I found it a bit odd at first. I am not known as a photographer and at that time I had only a handful of photos uploaded to this website. But then it hit me – I do have some experience in photography (I started the photography hobby when I was 14, so I must have learned a thing or two since then), and I do have background in Entomology. Nevertheless many things were new to me – every person brings his own approach to photography and for being out in nature. It was interesting to listen to both the instructors and the people attending the workshop. In fact, here I feel I need to apologize before my fellow BugShotees (and anyone else I might meet in the future) – Most of the time I am quiet and I do not strike as being a very talkative person. But once I “break-in” I do not cease talking, and unfortunately I can get a little annoying then. So I apologize if I never interacted with some of the people, or was simply impossible to shut up when talking with others.

We had a small light trap to attract flying insects at night, which proved quite promising in the first night when we had no clue what to expect. One of the moths that arrived was so adorable that it led to a collaborative post with Nash Turely, who recorded a hilarious video of the moth settling into its resting pose.

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) aka bunny moth. Cute furry legs!

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) aka bunny moth. Cute furry legs!

 

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) employs a defense posture when camouflage fails, revealing aposematic colors to scare off predators.

Periphoba arcaei (Hemileucinae) employs a defense posture when camouflage fails, revealing aposematic colors to scare off predators.

 

But the main highlight for me was not waiting for the insects to come, but being able to go on night walks in a tropical jungle and actively search for whatever I could find. Man, how I missed doing this! If you like nature but have never done it, I highly recommend! Just be aware of all the possible dangers lying ahead and care for you own safety. And DO NOT do this alone, especially at night (speaking from personal experience, you can easily get lost).

A juvenile whipspider (possibly Phrynus parvulus) feeding on a caterpillar, found during a night walk.

A juvenile whipspider (possibly Phrynus parvulus) feeding on a caterpillar, found during a night walk.

 

Let’s get back to my goals though. Unfortunately, I did not give myself too many opportunities to photograph in high magnification. There were so many things to see and photograph in the jungle, that very often I found myself making the mistake of sticking with one lens throughout most of the day just for the sake of not missing a subject. In addition, the intense humidity made it very annoying to switch lenses because they would fog up very quickly.

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

 

Scales on hindwing of an owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) - it reminded me of a tiger!

Scales on hindwing of an owl butterfly (Caligo sp.) – it reminded me of a tiger!

 

One of the techniques I was eager to know more about was wide-angle macrophotography, and you can image my excitement when I realized I could learn it from one of the best. Good thing I was not lazy and decided to bring my tripod.

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

 

This was my first attempt to shoot wide-angle macro in BugShot:

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

 

It is OK, but could be better. Apparently I was doing a few things incorrectly, which led to a poor composition and lighting in the photos.
And below is the photograph I took while learning from the master, Piotr Naskrecki. Some people might actually prefer the previous photo. I like this one much better.

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

 

Of course, in these techniques, practice makes perfect. There is still plenty of room to improve. But I am slowly getting there.

Apart from some interesting arachnids that we found, the best find in my opinion was a tiny scarab beetle (Ceratocanthinae, identified as Ceratocanthus sp. by Dr. Alberto Ballerio) that can roll into a ball. Unfortunately, I did not take a photo while the beetle was open and moving about. If anything, this is a good reason to go back to Belize, I think this animal is incredible. I have known rolling isopods, pill millipedes, pill roaches, even some flies and wasps evolved to roll up into the shape of a sphere for protection from enemies, but this animal was something that was completely new to me. This beetle is so tightly packed when rolled-up, every leg is inserted into a dedicated slot, that it almost looks like a transformer.

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

 

But my all-time favorite photo from the workshop was not of an insect (well, not entirely). One of the people who attended the workshop was Roy Dunn, an acclaimed photographer specializing in high-speed photography (and an avid arachnophile). I enjoyed listening to his and John Abbott’s comments about this technique, and we were lucky to have the opportunity to get a hand-on experience with it. While I was impressed with Cognisys demonstration, I was more interested in controlling the light using few accessories as possible while taking high-speed photos. When we visited a nearby butterfly farm we could not take our eyes off the stunning hummingbirds coming to feed on sugar water. Many people tried to photograph them from up close using a flash (to whom Roy remarked: “That’s not how you do it!”). Although macro shots of hummingbirds can be amazing, the flash created a harsh light. So I tried to photograph in ambient light using my telephoto lens (Canon 500mm) with no flash, playing with the settings in the camera. Carefully framing to get the light reflected behind the birds, I ended up with some impressive shots, one of them is clearly my favorite of all my BugShot portfolio. Actually, I consider it to be my best photo from 2013. And it even has an insect in it.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) and a paper wasp passing by

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) and a paper wasp passing by

 

So my tip to you: if you have any interest in small creatures (they do not have to be insects!), and you like to photograph, go to one of these workshops. It does not matter if you are an amateur or a professional. Even if you think you have enough photography experience I still recommend attending – just being around people who share similar interests might spark you to try something new. There is already a new BugShot Belize workshop planned with similar content and instructors. If you read this far, you probably want to be there.

2013 in review: Good riddance!

In response to Alex Wild’s call in Scientific American, here is my list of “2013 photographic achievements”.

I thought about how I should start this. I want to say that 2013 was a crazy year. But if you read many of these “year-in-review” posts you will soon find out that they are very repetitive, usually starting with “this was a _______ year for me” (insert your favorite adjective: crazy, busy, intensive, productive). I would like to try something a bit different:

2013 was the worst year I have had. Ever. Here is a partial list of my mishaps – got a warning from my university department for trespassing overseas, got my face broken while doing research and went through a reconstruction surgery, had my luggage searched extensively by airport customs officials on my way out of NZ, got a warning for having 300ml 70% ethanol for research in my one of my bags prior to flight, was mistakenly charged the $1000 excess fee upon returning a rented vehicle (twice!) and got my credit card locked, had my PhD research terminated and lost my main source of income, dealt with overseas bureaucracy, broke my main flash unit a few days before a photography workshop, got the return flight cancelled a day before I left the country for the workshop, served as a host for six internal parasites, and the list goes on. I saved you from the gross bits.

So you can understand why I am eager to wave this year bye bye. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of good things happened too – I met new interesting people, I learned and experienced new things and I finally attended BugShot macrophotography workshop in Belize – an event that will surely remain as a good memory for years to come.

And now without further due, here are my best-of-2013:

 

The photo that got me into the most trouble

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

 

This is definitely not one of my best photos. I do not like the light, the composition could be a lot better, and I could have improved the focus. However, it is an important behavior shot.
This photo was taken during my PhD research trip in New Zealand, in which I was recording the mating behavior of ground weta. The male, under the female, has finished depositing the sperm ampulae on the female’s genitalia (white blobs) and is preparing for depositing a nutritious nuptial gift close to her secondary copulatory organ. Unfortunately, this series of photos caused a dispute regarding image use and copyright and had cost me great pain. [Stay tuned for “My NZ ordeal (part 2)”]

 

The most unpleasant subject

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

 

I have always been interested in the fuzzy botflies and their biology as internal parasites of mammals, and I have been waiting for an opportunity to photograph a larva. This year, I got my chance when a former student collected one from a rabbit. I think this creature is amazing, but I could not bring myself to accept that this larva was burrowing into the flesh of a live rabbit just a few days earlier. Little did I know that I would become a host of several such larvae just a couple of months later…

 

The best landscape shots

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

 

This photo was a real game changer for me. My photography has changed substantially through experimentation during the trip to New Zealand. I decided to make a quick rest stop from a long drive at the waterfalls, and took only my camera and a fisheye lens with me. This is ended up being one of the best photos I have ever taken. Not only it is completely hand-held with no help of filters, I also managed to squeeze in a sun-star in between the top trees. After this I realized how much I know about photography and that I am already at a good level (before this I always thought I was not good enough).

 

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

 

Slope Point is known as the southernmost point of the South Island of New Zealand. Because of its close proximity to the South Pole, extremely intense and uninterrupted winds from Antarctica blow and smash into the trees here, severely disturbing their growth and forcing them into twisted shapes.

 

The most perfectly timed photo

The break of dawn over Allan's Beach. Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

The break of dawn over Allan’s Beach, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

 

I did not plan taking any photos that morning – it was pretty rainy with a thick overcast. I was walking a friends’ dog up a hill when I suddenly saw the sunrays breaking through the clouds. I ran back to the house and grabbed my camera. The only lens that was effective to record the scene was my Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro, so I panned and took 42 shots and stitched them together later to get a high quality super-image.

 

Best behavior shot

Paper wasp tending plant hoppers (Guayaquila sp.), Belize

Paper wasp tending plant hoppers (Guayaquila sp.), Belize

 

One of my main goals in documenting ants’ mutualistic relationships was to photograph an ant collecting a drop of honeydew from a tended homopteran (aphid, scale insect, plant hopper etc’). I have tried to do it many times, but was too slow to “catch” the drop. You can imagine my enthusiasm when an opportunity to photograph a tending wasp presented itself!

 

The best non-animal photo

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

 

I hate to admit it, but I am biased about my photo subjects. When photographing, most times I will prefer a small animal subject to a plant or scenery. I lost many good photographic opportunities in the past this way. But every once in a while I come across something so different, so unique, that it blows my mind. This species of filmy fern from New Zealand is such a plant.

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

 

This male scorpion was so tame while being photographed that it was tempting to try and handle it. Only afterwards I found out that this species possesses quite a potent venom, and is even responsible for several death cases in Central America.

 

Portrait of horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes), Northern Negev Desert, Israel

Portrait of horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes), Northern Negev Desert, Israel

 

One of my “most wanted” for 2013, and I almost gave up after looking for it unsuccessfully for several nights during my visit in Israel. Luckily, just when I was about to leave the dunes, I found this beautiful male snake a few steps away from my car. It did a defensive display upon noticing me but later calmed down and stayed still, allowing me to frame a nice close-up portrait.

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus), Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus), Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

 

This photo could be a deserving candidate for “the photo that got me into the most trouble” category, however the troubles found me not as a result of taking the photo, but more because I was hiking in the geckos’ highly protected habitat looking for them. All in all, I am very glad I got a chance to see these gorgeous reptiles, and hope they live long and prosper.

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

 

There were two recent outbreaks of desert locusts in Israel (originating in Africa): in November 2004, and March 2013. Unfortunately for me, I missed both. However, two months after the swarms were exterminated billions of locust eggs started hatching and feeding on any green plant, causing damage to several crops in their way. I was extremely lucky to be in Israel during this time, and I managed to photograph and record the juvenile locusts before the order to exterminate them took effect.

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Trapdoor spider, Belize

Trapdoor spider, Belize

 

I have been manually stacking images for some time now to get deeper depth of field in macro photographs, but had mixed results. This trapdoor spider came out very nice, revealing good detail in hairs and claws.

 

The best wide-angle macro

I had my eyes on this technique since 2005, but I never got myself to actually try it. Inspired by Piotr Naskrecki’s books and blog I decided to look more into it:

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

 

One of my first attempts to shoot wide-angle macro using a fisheye lens and a fill-flash. Now I know I was doing it “wrong” (or differently from my inspiration), but even so, the photo came out quite nice and received a lot of attention. The only things I wish the photo would also deliver are the strong wind and the loud cicadas singing in the background.

 

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

 

This is one of Israel’s largest katydid species (only Saga ephippigera is bigger). I always wanted to have a wide-angle macro shot of Saga, showing its large head and spines. However, in the end I decided not to move too close to the katydid, giving the impression that it is about to step out of the photo.

 

Male orchid bees (Euglossinae) collect fragrances from tree, Belize

Male orchid bees (Euglossinae) collect fragrances from tree, Belize

 

This photo would not have been possible without the help of Joseph Moisan-De Serres who gave me informative advice about orchid bees, and Piotr Naskrecki, who encouraged me to attempt a wide-angle shot of them. It took a lot of time and patience to get the “right” shot; I suspect this was also the time when I got infected with the human botfly.

 

The most exciting subject

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

 

To me, there is nothing more fun and rewarding than discovering something new. This is one of three potential new species of whipspider (genus Charinus), found in Israel this year and currently being described. Whipspiders (Amblypygi) have become one of my favorite groups of arthropods in the last years and I hope to learn more about them!

So in conclusion, out of these, which is my most favorite best photo of 2013?
The answer is none.

There is another photo that I like better than all of these, one in which I experimented in a technique I know absolutely nothing about and got a lovely result. However, I will leave that photo for my summary of BugShot Belize, which hopefully will be posted before the next BugShot event!

 

 

Six-legged mammoths

I usually don’t keep lists of “must-see” things when going on trips overseas, because past experiences have taught me that the best discoveries come when you least expect them. However, I must confess that I broke my rule before I taking the flight to New Zealand, and I decided that there are three NZ native animals I would like to see in the wild. The first one was undoubtedly the tusked weta.

Tusked weta belong to family Anostostomatidae. These creatures look like they were designed by Hollywood film industry (and yes, I can’t believe I am saying this about an insect): Males posses curved elephant-like tusks that extend forward from their mandibles. The tusks are used to push a male opponent during fighting over females or territories. The females have standard mandibles and do no have protruding tusks.

"Minor" male of Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

“Minor” male of Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

Female Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Female Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

There are three species of tusked weta in New Zealand:

The Mercury Island tusked weta, Motuweta isolata, is the biggest species of the tusked weta group, with a body length of 80-100mm and a weight of up to 28g. They are extremely rare and have a limited distribution in Middle Island in the Mercury Islands group. Like other native NZ invertebrates, human-introduced rodents are the greatest threat to these insects. The Mercury Island tusked weta is a protected species and a captive breeding and re-introduction programme was developed by Department of Conservation in order to introduce this species into other islands in the Mercury group. The Northland tusked weta, Anisoura nicobarica, was once considered a species of ground weta because of its small size (up to 20mm long). It is relatively common throught its distribution range in the far north of New Zealand North Island, occupying cavities in trees similarly to tree weta.

The third species and the one I was after is the Raukumara tusked weta, Motuweta riparia, a moderate-sized weta in comparison to the other two species, with a body length of 30-40mm. It was the most recent one to be discovered, only in 1996. It is found along the banks of forested, slow-flowing streams in Raukumara Range, East Cape of the North Island.

Typical habitat of Raukumara tusked weta - forested, second order streams in the Raukumara range.

Typical habitat of Raukumara tusked weta – forested, second order streams in the Raukumara range.

 

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

Tusked weta are nocturnal. During the day they hide under stones in a wide chamber made from silt. The juvenile weta are very common in the habitat and can be easily found even during the day while resting in their burrows. However, the tusks are fully developed only in adult weta, and they are much harder to find by day (although not impossible). They appear to prefer to come out on dark moonless nights when conditions are moist and humid, and climb on the vegetation. Because of their small body size and lack of tusks, the juvenile tusked weta can easily be mistaken for ground weta. However, small morphological differences give them away – mainly the number of spines on the legs but a more useful character is the presence of tympani (the insect equivalent of ears) on the forelegs. These “ears” are missing on the forelegs of ground weta.

Juvenile Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Juvenile Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

The adults seem to spend more time on branches and on the ground than on leaves in comparison to the juveniles. Interestingly, there is variation in the length of tusks in males, and “minor” adult males can also be found. These weta are mainly carnivorous, feeding on worms and insects. They are long lived, completing their development from juvenile to adult in two-three years. When disturbed, they immediately jump into the water and after swimming a short distance they press their body against the rocky bottom of the stream. Under running water, they are practically invisible for predators. The weta can stay in this state, completely submerged, for several minutes, after which they poke their heads and first thoracic segment out of the water, trying to assess if the danger has passed. I loved watching them swimming in the water, however it is not the safest place for escaping predators: one of the females I photographed decided to walk towards a small waterfall and vanished between the rocks. After a split second I heard a slurping sound and saw her crawling back up. An eel was lurking in the water below and tried to grab the weta!

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

Photographically speaking, the tusked weta are insects that you love to hate. At night, they usually stand in the most awkward angles and will not move (unless you want to try to make them move and risk the diving of your beautiful weta). By day, they just never stop running, and their dark shaded habitat makes it unusually challenging to capture a crisp photo. I was lucky to have a piece of white paper lying around to use as a background. All in all, I am very glad I saw these marvelous insects, shaped by years of natural and sexual selection. They truly are a wonder of nature.