Archive For: Plants

A Moment of Creativity: Cartoon cells in real-life

Very frequently I find myself staring at an object and seeing something else, something that may only be understood by me because of my background and past experiences. In such events it is frustrating to try and explain to others why I find that object so exciting. But sometimes I manage to get the message through.

While enjoying a morning in my apartment I came across something I thought was pretty cool. It reminded me of the French-Japanese animated television series Once Upon a Time… Life produced by Procidis (those unfamiliar with the program, click here). I eagerly followed every episode of this show as a kid, and did it again when the rerun was on. Looking back, I think it is incredible how much information can be squeezed into an educational TV show for kids (the same can be said another popular TV series from the same studio – Once Upon a Time… Man).
Anyway, back to my story – what I saw was a real-life representation of the way cells were depicted in the program. Without thinking too much, I grabbed my camera and tried to photograph what I have just seen.

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Cartoon cells. Or are they?

 

The similarity to the cells illustrated in the cartoon series is astonishing to me. The “cells” were actually flowers from one of my Caladium bicolor plants:

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Unopened male flowers of Caladium bicolor

 

To make the flowers red, I fired a flash through one of the semi-transparent leaves, which added some color.

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Caladium bicolor flower and leaf

 

 

 

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!

 

 

Why sometimes it is important to remember small details from your childhood

One of the things I intend to write about every once in a while is the use of insects in art or popular culture. I am still not sure if these will be independent posts or inserts within other posts. I thought I would start by talking about keeping insects as pets or insects drawn in Japanese manga and anime, but this week while walking atop one of the hills at Otago Peninsula, New Zealand, I was inspired to write about something more personal.

When I was 10, I used to collect stamps. This hobby was largely encouraged by my grandfather, who was a serious stamp collector. I remember how just by looking in his albums at stamps from all over the world I sometimes imagined myself drifting away to a far away places. I could stare at them forever, and I also enjoyed the smell of old paper. Despite my grandfather attempts to infect me with his obsession, collecting any stamp from just about anywhere in the world was not very interesting for me. I decided to collect stamps of animals and plants only, but my favorite ones were insect-themed stamps, and I had many of them.
Among the first stamps I got were two that I found especially peculiar. They depicted butterflies and came from New Zealand. I remember them very well – they were probably very common because I had dozens of them. But the reason I was intrigued by them is because something about the butterflies looked a bit off. I knew that one of them looked like Vanessa atalanta in a way (I was able to read English at the time, but I did not know what a red admiral is), the wing pattern seemed wrong though, especially for the hind wings. And the art looked, well, a bit like cubism.

NZbutterflystamps

This week, over 20 years later, I got my answer.
While I was starting to make my way down hill, I caught a glimpse of some bright red color from a nearby gorse bush. I went closer, and the butterfly took off. Still, it did look like a red admiral during flight, and knowing the territorial nature of this species, I decided to wait. And lo and behold, a few seconds later the butterfly returned to the exact same spot, only this time it landed on a rock.

Vanessa gonerilla, New Zealand red admiral

Vanessa gonerilla, New Zealand red admiral

Vanessa atalanta, red admiral (photographed in Canada)

Vanessa atalanta, red admiral (photographed in Canada)

Now I could take a good look at it. Yes, definitely the same butterfly from the stamp, and the wing pattern fits perfectly. New Zealand red admiral, Vanessa gonerilla. Obviously this is a different species from V. atalanta that occurs in Europe and North America, but the similarity between the two species is striking, both in upper and lower sides of the wings.

Vanessa gonerilla, New Zealand red admiral

Vanessa gonerilla, New Zealand red admiral

Vanessa atalanta, red admiral (photographed in Israel)

Vanessa atalanta, red admiral (photographed in Israel)

While the upper side has the same type of contrasty combination of aposematic coloration – black, white and red (probably to deter predators), the lower side is an explosion of colors (especially in V. gonerilla), and is used mainly for camouflage.

Vanessa gonerilla, detail of lower side

Vanessa gonerilla, detail of lower side. Click for full size.

The red admirals belong to the butterfly family Nymphalidae, and it is a good opportunity to mention that members of this family look like they have four legs only (instead of six legs like all other insects. See photos above). But a close inspection reveals that the adult butterflies do have six legs. The forelegs are shortened and hairy, and held close to the body. They are used for cleaning the butterfly’s antennae from pollen and sometimes even for tasting nectar.

Portrait of Vanessa gonerilla, showing the specialized forelegs for cleaning antennae

Portrait of Vanessa gonerilla, showing the specialized forelegs for cleaning antennae. They also have hairy eyes, how cute!

By the way, similarly to the European and North American red admiral, the caterpillars of the New Zealand red admiral feed on nettle. The endemic nettle, Urtica ferox, also known as ongaonga, is a large stiff bush (can reach a few meters in height), covered with large stinging spines that remind me of the NYC skyline. I hear these plants are something you want to avoid at all cost, and they sound as bad as the nasty Urtica pilulifera I know from Israel. There was even one case of death caused by this plant (a similar event is reported here).

Urtica ferox (ongaonga). Insert: I see a row of Chrysler Buildings, I don't know about you.

Urtica ferox (ongaonga). Insert: I see a row of Chrysler Buildings, I don’t know about you.

By the way, I also got to see the tussock butterfly depicted in the second stamp during my first visit to Otago Peninsula a month ago. They were very abundant, flying slowly between the grasses. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived to the site the second time, they were all gone. It was nice to revive a piece of my childhood while visiting a foreign country many years later. Sometimes you have to go halfway around the world to come full circle.