Archive For: New Zealand

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.

Mystery solved! Giant NZ lacewing is Kempynus incisus

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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!

 

 

My NZ ordeal (part 1)

Entomology has a small component of risk that comes with the job. You might get stung or bitten by an insect or several insect soldiers defending a colony, you can catch an insect-borne disease, or you can serve as a host for a small parasite. The chemicals used by Entomologists to kill and preserve insects are very often harmful also for humans. In addition, fieldwork can get you into a lot of trouble – you might unintentionally find yourself being accused for trespassing, you can get lost or stranded in an unknown place in a foreign country, or you can accidentally hurt yourself while working.
I hate to say I have some degree of experience in each of the cases mentioned above, but it is the last one that scared (or maybe I should write scarred) me the most.

I have been working alone for two months already in NZ. I decided to survey a well-known hiking area in Canterbury for potential night fieldwork. This is something I always do before night surveys – hiking the area at daytime to make sure it is safe enough for night work and that there are no “surprises” like loose rocks or hidden abysses along the path.
At first the area looked very promising for tracking ground weta activity – I found many occupied burrows. After about 3km of zigzagging between steep slopes and wide riverbeds I decided that this track is far too dangerous to repeat in the dark. And to make things worse it was raining all morning so most of the path was slippery. I turned around and started walking back. I was less than 5 minutes into my return trip, when it suddenly happened.
I lost my step.

At first I thought I stepped on a loose rock but the more I think about it I recall I felt no resistance back when placed my foot, so I believe this must have been a part of the path that was missing, washed down to the river as runoff by the rain. But how it happened is not really important.
The weight of my backpack (lots of heavy photography gear) pulled me down, I fell several meters into a riverbed and felt a strong hit to the right side of my face. Apparently my head was knocked against a large rock. But the funny thing is – it was the simplest stupidest accident ever. A stupid fall. Actually my first fall ever while hiking. I was not taking any photos, I was not running. I did not even reach down to look at something on the ground. Nothing. The pain was unbearable. I did not pass out, but I noticed my nose was bleeding like crazy. “I can’t believe this. How could this happen to ME?” Two thoughts immediately came into my head: first, are my teeth still in place? They were. Thank goodness. Second, what am I going to say to my girlfriend and my family? I promised them that I will be safe and that nothing bad can happen. How will I even let them know?! Only then I realized that I was in the middle of a river, off track, and that it was already afternoon. “I might get stuck here!” However, I was extremely lucky – two kiwi hikers saw me and came down to help. They concluded that I had a broken cheekbone and we tried to walk back together but I could only walk a few hundred meters before losing my balance. I guess I might have had a minor concussion. They decided that it is better to split – one of them took my backpack and went uphill to get cell phone reception, the other one stayed with me. While we were waiting in the river, swarms of sandflies (New Zealand’s version of blackflies, Simulidae) were sucking every single drop of blood I had left in my body. I was so desperate I was ready to walk back at any cost. But deep inside I knew I was just being a pain in the neck to my helpers. I felt the remaining blood draining from my face when the first hiker came back without my backpack. He left it somewhere on the track because it was heavy. My camera gear!!! Aaarrrggghhh!!! Now I was really desperate to walk back.
We waited a couple of hours for a land Search and Rescue team to show up (with my backpack. Thank goodness again). They were very nice and professional, and I was surprised to learn that they were all volunteers. They decided to call a chopper because we were too deep into the steep track, and carrying a stretcher was out of the question. I think the waiting was the worst part. It was already getting dark, the wind was chilly (left my coat in the car) and the sandflies were having their feast on our bodies. Eventually the chopper did arrive and pulled me up on a stretcher. We landed at Christchurch hospital, where the doctor congratulated me on my broken face. The first time I break something, and it had to be my face?? Wow, seems like I am really good at getting into trouble. Surprisingly, my nose has survived the hit, but I had a broken cheekbone and a swollen black right eye. I looked hideous. I could just as well say I got into a street fight. Apart from that all was well, no harm done to my already shaky mental state or to my vision. The car with all my stuff (including my weta) was taken to the local police station, so the following day I had a nice police escort to reunite with my belongings. I drove back to Christchurch in weepy eyes – they were super sensitive but I was also so happy to be alive and well to tell this story.

WARNING: Disturbing and gruesome image. But you know you want to click it. Go on, click it. And while you’re at it, look into my eye and watch the beautiful sunrise at Marfells Beach. 

 
Fast forward a few days, after resting and stuffing myself with pain killers I had to go through a small surgery to restore my face back to normal. They did a good job. I think. You might not believe it but I actually looked worse before the accident! My right eye socket now features a metal plate. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get one of those.

skull

…and the moral of the story kids: Don’t go banging your head on hard surfaces. Unless you want a metal plate and a cool x-ray like this one.

 

I had to stay in New Zealand as planned and could not fly to Canada earlier because of potential damage to sinuses. This has also screwed up my research plans for the end of the trip – so I did not have enough weta material collected.

I cannot thank enough to the kind people that helped me through this horrible accident and nursed me back to health. I am indebted to you all and I hope our paths cross again sometime in the future, no accidents involved of course!

One last thing I want to say: if you have a hiking accident, New Zealand is one of the best places in the world to be at. ACC took responsibility for the rescue and treatment expenses. Again my luck – I could have ended paying more than $20000 for the chopper and surgery. Yikes.
Now you realize how important it is for entomologists to have high risk insurance!

Unfortunately for me, the story does not end here. There is a second part to this ordeal, much worse than the accident, and it happened after I returned to Canada. I am still recovering from this mess so I do not feel confident enough to write about it. But things are starting to look up recently, and I do intend to come back and share my experience, because I think many grad students may find themselves in a similar situation.

New Zealand – the sad side

I cannot end my NZ report without mentioning one sad truth.
New Zealand is full of invasive species.

At first I was not sure if the European blackbird I saw when I landed in Auckland was indeed the one I know from home or some NZ-specific species. Soon I learned that there are so many introduced birds species in New Zealand. Moreover, New Zealand has no native terrestrial mammals (except for two bat species), yet many introduced mammal species are widespread and frequently seen. The same goes for other groups of animals as well as plants.
New Zealand, being a group of islands, is exceptionally prone to such species “invasions”. Many non-native species, introduced deliberately by man or naturally by immigration from nearby continents, found suitable environmental conditions to colonize the country and in absence of their natural enemies there is no control on their population growth.

One of the best examples is the Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), introduced intentionally from Australia by European settlers in the 1850s. The reasons behind this were to use the animals as a source for food and to use their soft fur for clothing. However, some possums escaped from the farms and established wild populations, and by the 1980s they were widely spread throughout NZ in a variety of habitats. Possums are herbivores, feeding on leaves, fruits and seeds. They have some negative impact on the NZ flora by reducing the diversity of plant species in a given habitat, in addition to damaging agricultural crops. But their main impact is transmitting diseases to other mammals. They are vectors for bovine tuberculosis, which is a major threat to farm animals. Department of Conservation (DoC) as well as several other agencies are putting substantial efforts to control and reduce the numbers of possums by trapping and poisoning them, with some success.

Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) in Fiordland National Park, South Island. Do you think this guy is cute? Not only it defoliates trees and damages crops, it can also transmit diseases to farm animals.

Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) in Fiordland National Park, South Island. Do you think this guy is cute? Not only it defoliates trees and damages crops, it can also transmit diseases to farm animals.

 

Another interesting example for an invasive species in New Zealand is the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Rabbits were initially introduced as a food animal by European settlers, but were later liberated from farms to use as game for the export of skins and fur. They have multiplied and reproduced well and by the 1870s, they were reported as a serious pest. The rabbits depleted the soil through erosion and negatively affected the diversity of plant species. In farming areas the rabbits reduced the sheep-carrying capacity by competing with sheep on food sources.

Do you think this guy is cute? Well he is, but he is also responsible for eroding the soil and reducing vegetation cover, ultimately changing the landscape (Otago Peninsula, South Island).

Do you think this guy is cute? Well he is, but he is also responsible for eroding the soil and reducing vegetation cover, ultimately changing the landscape (Otago Peninsula, South Island).

 

Soon after the establishment of wild rabbit populations, farmers demanded a solution to the problem. They suggested introducing the rabbits’ natural enemies as a means of population control, and in the 1880s mustelids (stoats and weasels) were introduced from Britain into New Zealand. It was not long before the mustelids learned that instead of wasting time and energy chasing rabbits, they can easily prey on the native ground-nesting and flightless bird species. These birds have evolved in the absence of mammalian predators and were essentially sitting ducks (pun intended) for the mustelids. And soon enough, a drastic drop in numbers of several New Zealand bird species was recorded.

Today mustelids are widespread in New Zealand and there is a DoC program to control their populations. Traps for mustelids can be seen in many nature reserves and national parks. In fact even Fiordland National Park, which is considered one of the world’s heritage nature reserves, is not immune to invasive species and during my short visit there I observed dozens of possums and a baby mustelid – a bad sign that they are breeding in the park, despite DoC’s efforts to trap and hunt them down. In one of my hikes in Fiordland I found a small base harboring two small choppers. My first thought was that those were rescuing choppers and I felt relived that if got stranded in the park I would have a good chance of coming back alive and in one piece (and how ironic is it that I actually needed such a rescue a week later?). But when the DoC personnel showed up they explained that every couple of months DoC sends hunters into the park to go after wild roaming deer, mustelids and possums, and those choppers are used to transfer the hunters in and out of the park.

Choppers used to bring DoC hunters in and out of Fiordland National Park

Choppers used to bring DoC hunters in and out of Fiordland National Park

 

These are just several examples for invasive animal species in New Zealand. There are hundreds more. I did not mention rats, mice, cats, Australian magpies, german wasps, as well as other notoriously-known species.

European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) were introduced from Britain in the late 1800s and since then have become extremely common throughout NZ. I have never had a chance to photograph a group of goldfinches in my home country, so I find it ironic that I succeeded only after traveling to the other side of the world (Okiwi Bay, South Island).

European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) were introduced from Britain in the late 1800s and since then have become extremely common throughout NZ. I have never had a chance to photograph a group of goldfinches in my home country, so I find it ironic that I succeeded only after traveling to the other side of the world (Okiwi Bay, South Island).

 

An introduced slug species from Dunedin

An introduced slug species from Dunedin, South Island.
All native NZ slugs have a characteristic leaf-vein pattern on their dorsal side.

 

On the topic of invasive plants, New Zealand border control is doing the best it can to prevent visitors from introducing unwanted species. After you land you are greeted by a nice officer that inquires about the contents of your luggage (including gifts!) to make sure you are not carrying any fruits. Then he takes a good look at your shoes for any sign of dirt, soil, or seed stuck in your shoelaces. If something looks suspicious, you are asked to remove your shoes and after a short inspection you receive them thoroughly washed and clean. Very impressive and reminds me of my visit to the Galapagos Islands when my bags were searched and I was asked to dip my shoes in some sort of disinfecting solution. Unfortunately, invasive species are a global problem not limited to islands only, but still in most world countries such ‘visitor checks’ are relatively minimal. I have more to say about this but it will have to wait for another post.

The land of amphipods

In my earlier post I mentioned that New Zealand is often referred to as the “land of birds”. I can understand the reasons behind this, but I cannot say I agree.
In the three months I have been traveling around New Zealand I got to explore many nature reserves as well as some disturbed habitats and I have to say that while birds seem to be very common and very diverse, they do not appear to be (at least in my opinion) the dominant animal. If I had to choose one living organism that thrives in almost any spot on these islands, it would be amphipods.

An amphipod climbing a leaf in search for food (Dunedin, South Island)

An amphipod climbing a leaf in search for food (Dunedin, South Island)

 

Amphipods are small crustaceans (usually less than 10mm) that occupy both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. I do not know much about aquatic amphipods, but when I studied amphibians in the past I have seen amphipods roaming the muddy banks of ponds and scavenging in urban gardens. As crustaceans, they breathe through gills and as a consequence they are restricted to very humid niches, such as leaf litter on the forest floor, or under stones.

Amphipods share the habitat with many invertebrate predators, such as flatworms. If the two meet, even the fast-moving amphipod does not stand a chance against the tight grip of the worm (Otago Peninsula, South Island)

Amphipods share the habitat with many invertebrate predators, such as flatworms. If the two meet, even the fast-moving amphipod does not stand a chance against the tight grip of the worm (Otago Peninsula, South Island)

 

In New Zealand, it seems that amphipods have a significant role in the ecosystem, as either detritivores or herbivores. The high humidity and frequent rainfall in New Zealand allow them to exist in many types of habitat. They are abundant in extremely high numbers, and in addition to their effect on the vegetation and soil composition they serve as food for many predators. I remember several times when I was out on night surveys and heard a continuous crunching noise in the background. When I shone a light on the ground I saw hundreds of amphipods chewing on plants’ leaves. They were just everywhere. Some NZ species are “giants” among the terrestrial amphipods and their bodies reach the whopping length of 14mm!

Amphipods nibbling leaves at night (Titahi Bay, North Island)

Amphipods nibbling leaves at night (Titahi Bay, North Island)

 

A huge amphipod from Fiordland National Park (South Island)

A huge amphipod from Fiordland National Park (South Island)

 

One can definitely get an amphipod “fix” just by being exposed to so many species in one place in such a short time. After this trip, I will never look at NZ as a haven for birds. In my opinion, it should definitely be called “the land of amphipods”.

My two favorite NZ birds

New Zealand is home to an astounding high number of endemic birds, for this reason it is often referred to as the “land of birds”. As the end of my research trip approached, I tried to think which of the bird species I came across left the most impact on me.
To my surprise it was not any of the famous NZ birds; I never had a chance to get to Maud Island to see the Kakapo; the Tui and the bellbird are beautiful but I didn’t find them that interesting, the same can be said for the yellow-eyed penguins and the giant NZ Pigeon; and kiwi reminded me of a beaked rat with bad case of platfus. Could it be that something happened to me in Canada that was clouding my judgment?

You see, I was born in Israel, and the most common animals I saw in the vicinity of my house were crows, stray cats and rats. Do not get me wrong: I am not saying that Israel does not have an interesting fauna, on the contrary! The biodiversity in Israel is amazing (and from many aspects even much more interesting that that of… New Zealand). However, if you live in a big city, these animals I mentioned are the ones you will see most frequently.
But I had already been living for a year in Canada before I took the trip to New Zealand, and being surrounded by tame squirrels, brave chipmunks and fluffy rabbits had its effect (well actually, I always had a thing for rabbits). I am not even going to talk about the freakishly tame deer that are all over the place. So when I got to New Zealand the first animals that left an impression on me were the ones who were not afraid to check me out from up close.

I met the first bird species on my first night alone in New Zealand. I left my PhD supervisor at the ferry terminal and drove to a town called Okiwi Bay, a lovely place. I found a good spot to pass the night in the forest, looking for weta. In the morning, I woke up to an amazing view of the turquoise blue water of the bay, peeking through the canopy. Just as I was appreciating this magnificent sight, I heard a loud “Nee! Nee! Nee!”
Of course the first thing that came into my mind were the knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I set out to look for this mysterious animal. And it was sitting on a branch right above my head. First I saw a white hand waving to me from the branches and I had to pause for a second because I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

“Nee! Nee! Nee!” (translated: hello!)

 

Then I saw that this was actually a bird the size of a swallow.
It was a fantail.

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

 

The New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa) is probably the bird you are most likely to see if you come to NZ. It is a very common, relentless bird, constantly moving and calling. These birds are not afraid of people, and very often approach to feed on flying insects that hover above your head. This behavior made it very difficult to photograph the bird, because when using a long telephoto lens the fantail would often come too close for an appropriate working distance. When I think about this, I kick myself in the head because these birds are everywhere in NZ, and I cannot believe I do not have a single decent photo of a fantail… They are grey in color with a white or pale grey tail, which they display open almost all the time. There is also a “black version” of this bird, I got to see it twice throughout my trip, but it was too concealed to get a good photo.
I immediately fell in love with this bird. There is something so adorable in its rapid movements and cutesy calls that it looks like it came straight out of a cartoon.
Do check that link by the way, you will not regret it.

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa), displaying its tail

New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa), displaying its tail

 

The second bird species took interest in me while I was searching for Holacanthella springtails. I was digging inside a rotten log when suddenly I saw a beak snatching a spider that I exposed while working. I raised my head, and saw a small grey songbird standing 15cm from my face. I cannot even describe the feeling to you. The fact that this wild bird, which I have never seen before, was interested in what I was doing and decided to join me. It was priceless.

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

 

I soon learned that the South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis) is another brave bird that will often come to check what humans are doing in its territory.  I took advantage of this, and experimented just how close the bird would get. The answer – pretty darn close! If you are exposing prey items, or better, if you are offering the robin a prey item, it will come fearlessly to take it from your hand. Unbelievable. This is a wild bird, I remind you!

Feeding South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis) from my hand

Feeding South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis) from my hand

 

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

South Island Robin (Petroica australis australis)

 

This behavior also creates excellent opportunities for some macro photography, something that is sometimes difficult to achieve with small birds. It is very rewarding to see all the tiny details in head feathers. At the end of the day I felt bad for leaving the bird alone in the forest. It really felt like there was someone else there with me. This is probably something that only people who work alone in the field can relate to.

Working together in the field to discover arthropods, me and my new buddy

 

I will probably write a post about the other NZ birds that I mentioned, or at least post some photos of them. But if you like birds, the best tip I can give you is – go to New Zealand. You’ll feel like you’re in heaven.

SIRobin7

My final NZ “must-see”

In my previous posts I mentioned that there are three animals I was eagerly expecting to see during my time here in New Zealand. It’s time to end the series and present my final “must-see”, which includes two of my most favorite invertebrates (I cheated a little. Not a single “must-see” animal but two. But who cares? The more the merrier!).

I spent two weeks at Otago Peninsula, in southeast South Island of New Zealand, and overall the area looked relatively dry to me, with very little tree coverage. For this reason I was very surprised when I heard about a population of velvet worms in the nearby city of Dunedin. Immediately I packed my gear and drove to the place. I soon learned that the site not only harbors a relatively large population of these amazing creatures, but also functions as an actual nature reserve for protecting the velvet worms.

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae) from Dunedin (South Island)

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae) from Dunedin (South Island)

 

Velvet worms belong to phylum Onychophora (“claw-bearers”) which shows characteristics common to both phylums Annelida (segmented worms) and Arthropoda (insects, arachnids, crustaceans and myriapods) but is now accepted as closely related to the the latter. They have a soft, segmented body with a velvety appearance, tiny beady eyes, thick antennae and multiple pairs of legs. Each leg ends with a hardened pair of claws, hence the group’s name. The first pair of legs is highly modified to shoot slime during prey capture. Yes, cute as they may seem, all velvet worms are nocturnal predators, actively hunting insects and other invertebrates on the forest floor. They are highly sensitive to dessication and move away from light. During the day they rest in humid hiding spots such as in rotting logs and between leaf litter.

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae). The cutest antennae ever.

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae). The cutest antennae ever.

 

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae) from Okere Falls (North Island)

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae) from Okere Falls (North Island)

 

The only species I saw in New Zealand is Peripatoides novaezealandiae which is the most common. It is variable in body coloration – the Dunedin population is mostly brown-orange in color, while in other locations they seem to have a predominant blue color speckled with orange. This species is ovoviviparous – the eggs retain inside the female’s body until hatching. There are also oviparous species in New Zealand (genus Ooperipatellus) in which the female uses an ovipositor to lay eggs.

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae) from Okere Falls (North Island)

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae) from Okere Falls (North Island)

 

As a side note, I think everyone should know this animal, children and adults alike. It is both “kawaii” and a voracious predator. I has “guns” that shoot glue. Some species have stunning colors such as indigo blue, orange and even pink. It is one of the coolest invertebrates out there. I confess that I wish I could get a toy onychophoran. WeirdBugLady took the initiative and created the first velvet worm plush toy (check out more of her awesome stuff here). While it looked great (especially the blue one!), I felt that something was missing to give it a genuine velvet worm look (for example, I wish the legs were facing downwards and bore claws). This is where I cease from talking science and turn to all you plush toys manufacturers out there – why aren’t there more invertebrate toys? Children are more likely to encounter small creatures rather than panda bears, elephants and penguins in their lifetime so I don’t see any reason why they should not learn something about them. In turn, this will help to create a better educated public that will respect instead of unjustifiably fear these misunderstood wonders of nature. For your consideration.

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae). Gotta love the color of those "socks"

Velvet worm (Peripatoides novaezealandiae). Gotta love the color of those “socks”

 

Someone throw him some sneakers.

Someone throw him some sneakers.

 

Back to velvet worms: Onychophorans remained largely unchanged in structure for about 500 million years. They are a relic from the ancient continent Gondwanaland, and are distributed in tropical and temperate regions of the Southern Hemisphere. So why did I insist on seeing them in New Zealand of all places? I could have found them in Africa, India, Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia, South and Central America, even in one of the Galapagos Islands. The answer involves another one of those “six legged-mammoths” New Zealand is most famous for.

Six legged mammoths? Tusked weta again? No, this time I am talking about an arthropod many times smaller. But it is still a giant among its kind – the huge springtails of the genus Holacanthella.
Springtails (Collembola) are fascinating little creatures that are found in leaf litter, under logs and stones and in the soil. They resemble insects by having six legs, however, they are excluded from this order for having internal mouthparts and being wingless. Most springtails have a device called furcula at the tip of their abdomen, which they use for jumping when threatened. Their small body size (usually just a few millimeters) allows them to leap out of range of danger. Holacanthella species however, have a larger body size (up to two centimeters in length!) and are too big and heavy to lift themselves up to the air. For this reason they have lost the furcula and cannot jump. They are blue-grey in color, and their body is usually covered in brightly colored spiky projections, making them look like minute porcupines. These beasts are saproxylic organisms that are associated with dead or decaying wood, but they are not very common. While searching for Peripatoides inside a rotting log, I was very happy to find two species of Holacanthella. The first one was H. brevispinosa – not huge like I expected (body length is up to 6mm) but very hedgehog-like in appearance, with yellow tipped digitations.

Giant springtail (Holacanthella brevispinosa)

Giant springtail (Holacanthella brevispinosa)

 

Once I started going in deeper into the decomposing wood I exposed a large group of a second species, H. paucispinosa. This species is much larger (body length of 13mm), flatter, with less spikes, and the lateral spikes are longer than the dorsal ones. The ones I found had yellow digitations, but I know there are variations among different populations, and some individuals have orange or red digitations.

Giant springtail (Holacanthella paucispinosa)

Giant springtail (Holacanthella paucispinosa)

 

Despite their large size, apparent aposematic coloration and pointy projections, the sad truth is that giant springtails are defenseless. Without the springing mechanism that allows them to escape predators, they are essentially sitting ducks. Many of them fall prey to spiders, centipedes and yes, velvet worms, which occupy the same habitat.

Typical habitat of Holacanthella springtails, mossy forest floor with decaying beech logs

Typical habitat of Holacanthella springtails, mossy forest floor with decaying beech logs

 

Giant springtail (Holacanthella paucispinosa)

Giant springtail (Holacanthella paucispinosa)

 

The interesting thing about Holacanthella is that these springtails are usually skipped over by Entomologists when mentioning New Zealand unique invertebrate fauna. I cannot see the reason why. They are big, colorful, relatively speciose with most species overlapping in distribution (which makes it easier to locate them in the field), and they have an important role in breaking down organic matter in decaying wood. How can these beauties be overlooked?

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.

 

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.