Archive For: Places

Petrophila: Salticid-mimic moths

A few months ago, I returned to Belize to conduct a small arachnid survey. While I was there, I took part in designing insect light traps for Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. The concept of a light trap is simple – flying nocturnal insects use the moonlight to navigate at night, and when there is a brighter light source present (like a light bulb) they are attracted to it. We wanted to have a few traps set up before the beginning of BugShot, and we ran a few trials in several locations using different lighting settings to see what works best and which insects show up at the traps. Very soon we realized that the traps attracted an impressive diversity of insects, but also their predators – spiders, frogs and bats quickly learned the locations of the traps and came regularly to feed. In several occasions fire ants showed up to raid the unsuspecting insects.

Petrophila sp. in typical resting posture, partially exposing the hindwings

Petrophila sp. in typical resting posture, partially exposing the hindwings

 

One of the insects that we saw in great numbers every night was a small, plain-looking moth from the family Crambidae. I would probably not pay attention to it if it were not for four black dots arranged in a row on the margin of each of its hindwings. Many moths rest with their hindwings concealed by the forewings, however these moths, belonging to genus Petrophila, had a unique body posture at rest, exposing only the dotted part of their hindwings. This pattern looked very familiar to me, but I could not pinpoint from where exactly. Then a few nights later one of these moths decided to rest pointing sideways with its head rather than upwards like most moths. And it finally hit me: this moth has an image of a jumping spider on its wings looking straight at you. The mimicry is so convincing that the moth wings even have hair-like scales where supposedly the spider’s head is.

Side view of Petrophila sp.

Side view of Petrophila sp.

 

I should be careful here. Pareidolia is a known phenomenon in which one searches for known patterns just about anywhere. It is what makes people see the face of Jesus Christ on a burnt piece of toast, it is what makes you see a face on a rocky terrain on Mars, and it what makes you see a number when looking at the wings of Diaethria species.
What I mean to say is that the color pattern on the wings of Petrophila species reminds me of a salticid spider, and perhaps it works the same for other animals as well. There is also a behavioral display that makes the mimicry even more deceiving: the moth moves its wings to mimic the movements of a jumping spider. In search for a second opinion, I turned to someone who breathes and sleeps jumping spiders. Thomas Shahan, who fortunately was around for BugShot, confirmed my suspicion and even came up with an ID for a possible model spider: a female Thiodina sp. And so we went on to find a jumping spider that looked like the one shown on the moths’ wings. In any case, to my untrained eyes it seems that this pattern is common in several moth genera, and in other insects as well. Some will debate whether this apparent image actually evolved to depict what we want it to be, but I can only imagine the reaction of a jumping spider to this image and behavior by the moth. Jumping spiders are known to have good vision; a jumping spider will stall to examine an opponent to avoid conflict. This may give the moth a few seconds to escape. A good analysis of similar mimicry in other species is discussed here.

A different species of Petrophila, recorded from the same light trap. This one is smaller and seems to have a slightly different spider image.

A different species of Petrophila, recorded from the same light trap. This one is smaller and seems to have a slightly different spider image.

 

The same Petrophila species as above, here with a possible salticid model - female Thiodina sp. from the same location in Belize. What I find amazing is that the wings even show some of the iridescence seen in the spider's eyes.

The same Petrophila species as above, here with a possible salticid model – female Thiodina sp. from the same location in Belize. What I find amazing is that the wings even show some of the iridescence seen in the spider’s eyes.

 

Petrophila moths are unique among Lepidoptera for having aquatic caterpillars. They occupy running freshwater habitats, rivers and streams, where they feed on algae by scraping the surface of submerged rocks and stones. The genus has a wide distribution across the Americas and many species occur in temperate zones in addition to tropical regions.

You know the moths are successful in their mimicry when you find others deploying the same strategy: Nectopsyche is a genus of caddisflies (order Trichoptera) that shows a similar pattern – moth-like adults have four tiny black spots arranged in a row at the margin of their forewings, along with pale stripes.

You know the moths are successful in their mimicry when you find others deploying the same strategy: Nectopsyche is a genus of caddisflies (order Trichoptera) that shows a similar pattern – moth-like adults have four tiny black spots arranged in a row at the margin of their forewings, along with pale stripes.

 

Not only moths, but also many other insects orders were represented in our trap catch. I hope that Caves Branch continues to make good use of these sturdy light traps to record the insects surrounding the lodge. There is great potential for scientific work to be done here.

Light trap in Caves Branch, Belize

Light trap in Caves Branch, Belize

 

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.

Cruziohyla – a dream come true

In 2003 I visited Costa Rica as a part of my first trip to Latin America. One of the hostels I stayed at had a large poster hung featuring many Costa Rican frog species, to show the high amphibian diversity that is found in this beautiful country. This was the first time I saw a photo of a splendid leaf frog, Cruziohyla calcarifer (the same frog appears also on the cover of Piotr Nascrecki’s book “The Smaller Majority”). Back then it was called Agalychnis calcarifer but in 2005, following a revision in the Hylidae family, it was placed within a new genus, Cruziohyla, along with another species.
When I saw the photo I was stunned. It looked like a massive tree frog, with eye-catching coloration: dark green (dorsal) and bright orange (ventral). The sides of its body are finely striped in black against an orange background. Its eyes, featuring a vertical pupil – an indication this animal has a nocturnal lifestyle, are orange with a grey center. In addition, the foot-webbing is wide and the adhesion discs on the fingers are large and round, giving it a cutesy appearance.
I decided to set out and look for this species in the rainforest during my time in Costa Rica. Of course at that time I knew nothing about these frogs, and as expected I failed miserably in finding them (but I did find many red-eyed tree frogs!)

Fast forward to 2014. Visiting the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, I was mainly searching for interesting insects and arachnids at night. I was fortunate to have good weather throughout this visit, until it started raining heavily on one of the nights prior to my departure. But this rain was like no other I have seen before – it was so warm that a thick fog formed, covering everything in the forest understory. I was about to declare this night a failure for observing arthropods, but very soon I learned my mistake. Following the creation of this natural sauna, hundreds, no, thousands of animals came out of their hiding spots. The forest was buzzing with orthopteran and amphibian calls, roaming arachnids and crawling velvet worms. It was magnificent, a naturalist’s dream. Among the noisy frog chorus coming from the dense canopy, there was one distinct call, louder than the others, which sounded like a short “moo” (remember those tipping-can cow-sound toys? Something like that.) unlike the typical “cluck” call characterizing tree frog species. It wasn’t long before I located the source, and upon seeing it my heart skipped a beat. Sitting on a leaf before me was the second species in the Cruziohyla genus, the fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus)!

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in its natural habitat. Photographed in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in its natural habitat. Photographed in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

 

This is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful tree frog in the world. I know that any attempt I make to describe it will not do justice to its astonishing splendor. The general appearance is similar to that of C. calcarifer, but the green dorsum is marbled with small bluish splotches that resemble moss or lichens and blend perfectly with tree leaves in the rainforest. Moreover, the body margins have “fringes” that are exceptionally long on the hind legs. Males sometimes display them to signal other males or females during courtship by extending their legs backwards.

Species of Cruziohyla are characterized by their bicolored iris, which is unique among tree frogs.

Species of Cruziohyla are characterized by their bicolored iris, which is unique among tree frogs.

 

At rest, C. craspedopus conceals its bright colors and blends perfectly with its surroundings thanks to color patches that resemble lichen spots on leaves.

At rest, C. craspedopus conceals its bright colors and blends perfectly with its surroundings thanks to color patches that resemble lichen spots on leaves.

 

A climbing C. craspedopus reveals its aposematic colors that are reminiscent of a tiger: bright orange contrasted with dark stripes. Note the fringes on the hind legs that gave this frog its common name.

A climbing C. craspedopus reveals its aposematic colors that are reminiscent of a tiger: bright orange contrasted with dark stripes. Note the fringes on the hind legs that gave this frog its common name.

 

Being a high canopy frog, C. craspedopus is cryptic and usually difficult to observe. I have never even dreamed I would have the chance of seeing one, let along in the wild. But spending some time walking in the warm fog I managed to see not one, not two but close to ten individuals. It seems that they like these conditions. After learning their favorite resting spots I could easily find them also by day. Fringe tree frogs descend from the high branches solely for breeding. Pairs in amplexus (typical anuran behavior in which the male grasps the female using his front legs and rides on her back) move about in the canopy until they locate a small body of water with an overhead cover, usually under fallen trees. The females then deposit egg clutches hanging above the water, and the hatching tadpoles drop down and start their aquatic life. Even though I checked under many fallen trees (while searching for Amblypygi) I was unsuccessful in finding egg clutches of this species. Better luck next time.

Finding a fringe tree frog during the day is a mission close to impossible. In addition to their excellent camouflage, the frogs tend to rest on tree leaves high above the ground, making it difficult (and dangerous) to access them.

Finding a fringe tree frog during the day is a mission close to impossible. In addition to their excellent camouflage, the frogs tend to rest on tree leaves high above the ground, making it difficult (and dangerous) to access them.

 

Cruziohyla craspedopus, "Meet Your Neighbours" style

Cruziohyla craspedopus, “Meet Your Neighbours” style

 

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.

 

 

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

 

A pleasant surprise – Prosopistoma phoenicium

During my visit to Israel I visited the Golan Heights with colleagues from Israel and Germany. We were looking for mayflies and ground beetles in particular, but I was interested in anything I could find that would be nice to photograph.
We stopped at one of the fast-flowing springs in the Hula Valley and started flipping rocks in search for unique aquatic invertebrates. It wasn’t too long before we found something interesting: small creatures crawling on the surface of submerged rocks. There was no doubt – these were larvae of Prosopistoma phoenicium.

Typical habitat of Prosopistoma phoenicium larvae, fast-flowing streams (or springs, such as this one) with a rocky substrate.

Typical habitat of Prosopistoma phoenicium larvae, fast-flowing streams (or springs, such as this one) with a rocky substrate.

 

It is important to pause for a moment to reflect on the scientific history of this animal. Viewed from above, its appearance bears a striking resemblance to that of tadpole shrimps, branchiopods of the order Notostraca. And indeed, for many years this creature has baffled taxonomists regarding its true identity.
When Prosopistoma was discovered in 1762 by Geoffroy, he initially described it as a species of Binoculus, a crustacean, due to the curved, shield-like mesothorax. This changed in 1833, when Latreille described the genus Prosopistoma and separated it from arguloid crustaceans, but still considered it to be a branchiopod along with the tadpole shrimps. Later in 1868, more than 100 years after the first discovery, Emile Joly realized that Binoculus/Prosopistoma was in fact a mayfly larva. Viewed from below, the animal clearly shows three pairs of legs, in other words – it is an insect, not a crustacean. Finally, Hubbard completed the required transition between the taxonomic groups by providing a revision of the nomenclature in 1979. As of today, the family Prosopistomatidae contains about 20 described species with a distribution primarily in the old world, throughout the Palaearctic, Oriental, Australian and Afrotropical regions, but entirely missing from the New world, the Nearctic and Neotropic regions.

Larva of Prosopistoma phoenicium from the Golan Heights, Israel. Left: dorsal view; right: ventral view.

Larva of Prosopistoma phoenicium from the Golan Heights, Israel. Left: dorsal view; right: ventral view.

 

These insects are rarely seen, but in Israel they seem to be easy to find if one knows where to look. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Entomology course staff at Tel Aviv University in Israel, who did a splendid job with students in the field (I just realized I took this course as a student more than 10 years ago. Time flies when you’re having fun!). Without them I would not know where to look for and how to recognize this insect, as well as other cryptic species.

The biology of Prosopistoma is poorly known, but it is believed that the larvae scrape and feed on organic matter, such as algae, from the surface of rocks submerged in fast-flowing streams and springs. Adults are almost unheard of from the wild, most of the currently recognized species of Prosopistoma were described from characteristics of the larvae, and the adult mayflies are known from three species only. In the case of our site, the population was very healthy and we could afford to collect quite a few larvae for laboratory rearing at Tel Aviv University. I hope they complete their metamorphosis successfully as I am hoping to see an adult Prosopistoma one day!

The incredible tadpole shrimps

One of the creatures I wanted to find during my visits to Israel is a big crustacean, found only in temporary ponds during a specific time of the year. In previous years I was unlucky to find it – I visited in the late spring and early summer, and most of the rain-pools were already gone or in the process of drying out.

But this year I planned my trip way ahead, making sure to save some time for searching these animals.

Tadpole shrimps belong to the small order Notostraca, which contains a single family, Triopsidae, with only two genera: Triops and Lepidurus. These animals are considered living fossils, having not changed significantly in appearance since the Triassic period, about 200 million years ago. They also bear a strong resemblance to horseshoe crabs, characterized by a broad, shield-like carapace, which conceals the head and bears three eyes, a pair of compound eyes and a nauplius eye between them. The abdomen is long, and ends in two caudal filaments. But in my opinion, the real wonder about tadpole shrimps is their large size. Some species can reach a whopping length of 10cm, larger than most insects and amphibian tadpoles co-habiting in the same pond. And indeed, many people I met while surveying rain-pools could not believe that this was a crustacean until I pulled one out of the water.

Temporary ponds like this one are home to various aquatic invertebrates such as the tadpole shrimps. Unfortunately, these habitat are threatened with destruction in Israel. Here a low wooden fence is the only physical barrier between this small nature reserve and a sand quarry found behind the pond.

Temporary ponds like this one are home to various aquatic invertebrates such as the tadpole shrimps. Unfortunately, these habitat are threatened with destruction in Israel. Here a low wooden fence is the only physical barrier between this small nature reserve and a sand quarry found behind the pond.

 

Portrait of a Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis), showing two compound eyes and a middle nauplius (larval) eye.

Portrait of a Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis), showing two compound eyes and a middle nauplius (larval) eye.


There are two species of tadpole shrimps in Israel. The bigger one, Lepidurus apus, is relatively common and can be found in many ponds along the coastal plain from winter to the early spring. It is easy to recognize – not only is it big and brightly colored with red and olive-green, but it also sports a wide transparent scale at the end of its body, between the two caudal filaments.

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). The bright red color indicates presence of hemoglobin, an adaptation for life in habitats poor with oxygen.

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). The bright red color indicates presence of hemoglobin, an adaptation for life in habitats poor with oxygen.


The second, smaller species, Triops cancriformis, is much more scarce, and in fact is known only from a handful of ponds. This species is critically endangered in Israel due to habitat destruction, however it was recently recorded from a new location, a water reservoir in the Arava desert, the southernmost point in its distribution to date. A little less colorful than its close relative, it is mottled with green and grey splotches that assist in blending in with its surroundings.

Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) digging in the sediment. The green and grey splotches make excellent camouflage for concealing it from predators striking from above, such as water birds.

Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) digging in the sediment. The green and grey splotches make excellent camouflage for concealing it from predators striking from above, such as water birds.

 

A side view of a tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) revealing eleven pairs of legs. The first pair is long and modified to function as a sensory organ.

A side view of a tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) revealing eleven pairs of legs. The first pair is long and modified to function as a sensory organ.


Both species are omnivores, living on the bottom of the pond while relentlessly digging in the sediment searching for food. Occasionally they are seen swimming close to the water surface, especially in shallow parts of the pond, where they are usually mistaken for amphibian tadpoles, hence their common name.
But the most fascinating fact about the life cycle of tadpole shrimps is that similarly to other aquatic invertebrates they too must face the inevitable faith of the temporary pond: drying out. For them, it is a race against time; they must grow fast, mate and lay their eggs before the pond disappears completely, killing every one of them in the process. Once the pond fills up in the winter, the tadpole shrimps hatch from their eggs, and grow at an impressive pace, reaching their adult stage in just a few weeks. Then, they reproduce, but the context of reproduction depends on the population. In some ponds tadpole shrimps reproduce sexually, but in many populations the males are absent, and the females reproduce asexually, in a process called parthenogenesis. They release unique, long-lasting eggs that can stay dormant for many years, buried in the dry soil. This way, they can “skip” several years of drought, during which ponds have tendency of evaporating too fast. When there is sufficient precipitation and the pond fills again with rainwater, some of these eggs hatch (others stay in further dormancy for the following years), and the cycle starts again.
I was very happy to find these lively creatures in my last visit to Israel and could not resist taking some photos of them for Meet Your Neighbours project.

Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) from central Israel. The shield-like carapace gives it the appearance of a small horseshoe crab.

Tadpole shrimp (Triops cancriformis) from central Israel. The shield-like carapace gives it the appearance of a small horseshoe crab.

 

Meet Your Neighbours

I recently joined as a contributor to Meet Your Neighbours – a global photography project that sets out to connect communities with their local flora and fauna, and promotes nature conservation. The idea is to record all possible biodiversity against a clean white background using a simple field studio. By stripping the subjects off their natural surroundings they become the center of attention, provoking more interest. Another benefit from photographing against a white background using a standard protocol is that all subjects from different parts of the globe get the same level of appreciation, regardless of their location or taxonomic group. This can reveal interesting patterns: when comparing subjects from different origins it is difficult to say which is more exotic. In other cases, subjects that are physically very distant from each other share many similarities in appearance.

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) modeling for me on the white backdrop

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) modeling for me on the white backdrop

 

Checkered beetle (Trichodes affinis) is very common on Asteraceae inflorescence during the Israeli spring

Checkered beetle (Trichodes affinis) is very common on Asteraceae inflorescence during the Israeli spring

 

I discovered Meet Your Neighbours in 2010 and was immediately hooked. I liked this style of photography, which reminded me of old natural history books featuring illustrations of plants and arthropods. At that time I was already trying to achieve similar results in my photography, only I was using white paper as background so the effect was a bit different. For this reason I was delighted and honored when Clay Bolt, one of MYN founders, contacted me in 2013 with the offer to join the project. For me this meant one main goal – presenting species from Israel, even though I am based in Canada and travel quite extensively to other countries.

Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

 

Darkling beetle (Erodius gibbus). This is perhaps the most easily recognized beetle in Israel (after the overrated ladybug). Its small size, oval shape, and matte back color are unmistakable. This species also has a wide distribution range in sand dunes along the Israeli coast, and it can be found in the desert as well.

Darkling beetle (Erodius gibbus). This is perhaps the most easily recognized beetle in Israel (after the overrated ladybug). Its small size, oval shape, and matte back color are unmistakable. This species also has a wide distribution range in sand dunes along the Israeli coast, and it can be found in the desert as well.

 

Israel is located at the bridge of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. Due to its geological history and a variety of ecological conditions, Israel is characterized by a climate gradient from north to south, and to some extent from west to east. This creates many habitat types throughout the country, which are home to an impressive diversity of animals and plants. Most species in Israel are typical to the Mediterranean region, but desert species can be found in south of the country, whereas species from colder origins like Europe and Asia are found in northern Israel. For the latter Israel is the southernmost point in their distribution. Some species of tropical origin can also be found in the oases along the Great Rift Valley.

I decided to start my contribution to MYN from the very base, the creatures I know well from the places I explored as a kid.

The semi-stabilized sand dunes of Israel are home to the beautiful ground beetle Graphipterus. A recent study revealed that instead of the single species G. serrator, there are actually three similarly-looking Graphipterus species in Israel, each with its own distribution. This beetle, from the Central Coastal Plain, seems to be a new species to science and is currently being described.

The semi-stabilized sand dunes of Israel are home to the beautiful ground beetle Graphipterus. A recent study revealed that instead of the single species G. serrator, there are actually three similarly-looking Graphipterus species in Israel, each with its own distribution. This beetle, from the Central Coastal Plain, seems to be a new species to science and is currently being described.

 

I grew up in a city in the Central Coastal Plain of Israel. I had the fortune of spending my childhood with a lot of nature around me. Wildflower fields, Citrus orchards, temporary ponds and sand dunes were at walking distance from my house. Every weekend I would go out in the morning and get lost somewhere in the wilderness, looking for interesting animals. And there was much to be discovered: tame snakes, skinks, beautiful insects like beetles and mantises, frogs and spiders. I used to rear butterflies in my room because I was fascinated with the transformation from a caterpillar to the adult butterfly. I am still fascinated by this metamorphosis even today, although I focus on other insect groups.

This spring, I took a short research trip to Israel, and used this opportunity to document some of my favorite animals. I hope that through these photographs people can learn more about the diversity of the country and maybe in time will even consider visiting!

Isophya savignyi, a common flightless katydid from Israel. Top - male; bottom - female

Isophya savignyi, a common flightless katydid from Israel. Top – male; bottom – female

 

Mediterranean banded centipede (Scolopendra cingulata), one of the most commonly encountered arthropods under stones in the Central Coastal Plain during the spring season

Mediterranean banded centipede (Scolopendra cingulata), one of the most commonly encountered arthropods under stones in the Central Coastal Plain during the spring season

 

Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti, one of the smallest scorpion species in Israel. This adult female is only 3cm long, including the tail!

Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti, one of the smallest scorpion species in Israel. This adult female is only 3cm long, including the tail!

 

I was very fortunate to meet one of the most charming reptiles in Israel: the Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Every encounter with a chameleon is always a splash of spectacular coloration and behavior. This individual was very cooperative and returned to its perch after the photo shoot.

I was very fortunate to meet one of the most charming reptiles in Israel: the Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Every encounter with a chameleon is always a splash of spectacular coloration and behavior. This individual was very cooperative and returned to its perch after the photo shoot.

 

Salamander Day: 2014

Every year when the right time comes (depending on my location), I make an effort to go out and search for salamanders and newts. What started as an attempt to photograph the elusive fire salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata) in Israel has become almost an annual celebration to appreciate the local amphibian fauna.

Redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

 

Why salamanders of all things? Very early in my days as a naturalist I was under the impression that salamanders in Israel are super-rare. But at some point I realized that while they were uncommonly seen, it is not necessarily because they were rare. Salamanders have very localized populations, and the adult salamanders are active on the ground surface only a few days per year during the breeding season. You need to know exactly when and where to look for them, and then you can actually observe quite many individuals.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) from Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately I did not find them this year.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) from Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately I did not find them this year.

 

There are rare species of salamanders for sure, don’t get me wrong. And this is where knowing your local amphibian fauna plays an important role.
Salamanders, and amphibians in general, are not only super cute (see in the below photo) but they are also very important bioindicators. They breathe and absorb water through their moist skin, and they at a high risk of absorbing various chemical compounds found in their surroundings. As a result they are some of the first organisms to suffer from pollution or habitat disturbance (as well as many other factors). Surveying and monitoring the local amphibian populations can assist substantially in understanding their condition and the health of the whole ecosystem.

Portrait of the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

Portrait of the redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus)

 

In the past few years I have been “celebrating” Salamander Day in southern Ontario Canada, where I regularly find four species of salamanders right after the snow melts: the common redback salamander (Plethodon cinereus), spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale), and the rarer Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), all showing stable populations. I am sure there are more species to be found; for example, I have been trying to locate a population of Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) but was unsuccessful. This year I was a bit too late in the season to search for salamanders because of a research trip to Israel. My intention was to photograph them for Meet Your Neighbours biodiversity project (a topic for a separate post) against a white background using a potable field studio. Unfortunately, I only found two species out of the four I usually find, but they were very cooperative during the quick photoshoot.

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

 

Portrait of Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Portrait of Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

 

The setup I used for photographing the salamanders against a white background, for Meet Your Neighbours project

The setup I used for photographing the salamanders against a white background, for Meet Your Neighbours project

 

I encourage everyone to go out and look for amphibians in activity. And when you find them – be happy about it. It is a good sign that natural processes are functioning properly in your area (unless you are located in a part of the world where the only amphibians you can find are invasive species. Sigh… that is not a good sign).

Female Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) from last year's Salamander Day

Female Jefferson salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) from last year’s Salamander Day

 

A monster under my bed

After a long break from updating this blog and some travels for fieldwork I am happy to return. And I have many stories up my sleeve. In fact, too many of them.

I have been extremely fortunate to travel to the rainforest in Ecuador, one of my favorite destinations. It is somewhat difficult to explain my attraction to the tropics – it is not a friendly environment, especially if one is actively seeking for “trouble” like I do. However, the opportunity to disconnect and escape from the noisy, crowded urban environment that overwhelms my senses with stimuli, and replace this with lush natural habitat, with equally overwhelming stimuli, but ones that actually make me think and not vice versa, is the meaning of true happiness for me.

I returned a third time to a reserve in Napo province within the Amazon Basin of Eastern Ecuador. Many things have changed since my last visit but it also felt like I never left. One of the only places I feel “at home out of home”.

On my third morning at the reserve, I could not help noticing that there are tiny spiders everywhere in my room: they were on the mosquito net, crawling on my backpack, climbing on my gear, and resting inside my clothes. They were everywhere. I knew there had to be a hatched egg sac somewhere close, and it seemed to be inside my room. After some time observing the baby spiders, I traced the source of the spiderlings to one wall, somewhere close to the floor, in the area where my bed stood.

You can imagine my surprise when I looked under the bed and saw this:

Female wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) and her thousands of babies under my bed.

Female wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) and her thousands of babies under my bed.

 

Not only there were literally thousands of spiderlings under the bed, right beside them rested one of the biggest “non-tarantula” spiders I have ever seen. Its body length was 45mm but with its leg span it could easily cover my hand. I immediately recognized the genus: Phoneutria, a wandering spider that belongs to the family Ctenidae.

Wandering spiders receive a lot of attention from the media mainly due to their medical importance but also due to misidentification of spiders that occasionally arrive with cargo originated in Latin America (a detailed explanation for this is here). Members of the genus Phoneutria are known to be harmful to humans due to their aggressive behavior and potent venom. However, this is usually over-exaggerated, and only two species from the genus are considered to be dangerous: P. nigriventer and P. fera. According to the distribution on the west side of the Amazon basin, I suspect the spider I found to be P. boliviensis, the smallest species of the genus, and also the least aggressive and dangerous.

This was not the first time I see this species, by the way. In 2007, I visited the same reserve with a colleague, and on our first night I saw an adult Phoneutria running across the outside wall of the very same room. At that time I had no clue what I was looking at, and it registered as a “huge ctenid spider as big as my hand”.

The Phoneutria boliviensis spider was feeding while guarding the babies. Good to know that there was someone taking care of those tropical roaches and kissing bugs under my bed!

The Phoneutria boliviensis spider was feeding while guarding the babies. Good to know that there was someone taking care of those tropical roaches and kissing bugs under my bed!

 

I slowly approached the spider, crawling on my belly, camera-in-hand. When I got close enough I noticed that the mother was feeding on a large insect. From bits and pieces that were scattered below the spider I realized the prey is a blattodean nymph, member of the genus Blaberus. These are among the largest species of cockroaches, so this prey was not only challenging to capture, but also provided a decent meal for the hungry female while guarding her offspring. In general, Phoneutria spiders are efficient nocturnal hunters that feed on large insects but also on vertebrates, such as frogs, lizards and small rodents.

The Phoneutria boliviensis mother enjoying her meal unalarmed by my presence

The Phoneutria boliviensis mother enjoying her meal unalarmed by my presence

 

While I was very happy to find this spider, I was a bit reluctant to sleep above one of the world’s most venomous spiders. I had a series of unfortunate events lately, and I did not want to add that kind of story to my résumé. I debated whether I should take the adult spider out of the room. I did not like the thought of separating the mother from her babies, but spiderlings are known to be independent right after their first molt, and most of them end up being cannibalized by their siblings anyway. In addition, there are several reports stating that Phoneutria females guarding an egg sac are a bit more toxic than females without egg sacs. For these reasons I decided to gently direct the spider into a container without aggravating it, and then release it into the rainforest.

Surprisingly, the spider was not aggressive during this short transfer. In fact, it was one of the most docile spiders I have seen. It is possible that it was relaxed from feeding, though. When I took a step back, the spider immediately erected its body and lifted its front legs, revealing beautiful aposematic coloration on its underside. It stayed like this for some time, allowing me to get a little closer and to experiment with photography. I started to get used to its behavior and got closer with my camera until I almost touched the spider with the front element of the lens. It seemed that the spider couldn’t care less for this. Then it scared me to death when it decided to climb on the lens.

Phoneutria boliviensis warns me to back off, and for a very good reason. This spider possess a highly potent venom and typically displays a defensive behavior prior to biting.

Phoneutria boliviensis warns me to back off, and for a very good reason. This spider possess a highly potent venom and typically displays a defensive behavior prior to biting.

 

By the way, spiders are not monsters and I am not afraid of them. But whenever I stumble upon a large invertebrate there is always a split second of sudden surprise and amazement. I guess it is one of those overwhelming nature-related stimuli that I mentioned above.