Archive For: Lizards

Bachia lizards – look, no hands!

Legend tells the story of Oedipus, who faced the sphinx guarding the gates to the city of Thebes. To enter, the monster presented him with a riddle:
“Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
Oedipus was able to solve the sphinx riddle, granting him entrance to the city. He later became the king of Thebes and married his own mother – but that’s another story.
The answer to the sphinx riddle can be quite intuitive if you stop to think about it, but what if I told you there are animals that fit that description quite easily? It is with my own eyes that I have seen arachnids staring their life with eight legs, losing some of them during growth, and then growing them back like nothing happened in the amazing process of regeneration. Some hemimetabolous insects and even amphibians can do it just as well. And what if I told you there is an animal that is born with legs, and by the end of its life it loses all of them but one? Introducing Bachia, a genus of strange long-bodied lizards.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale), a limbless microteiid lizard from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale), a limbless microteiid lizard from the Ecuadorian Amazon

The adult Bachia lizards resemble snakes, having an elongated body and reduced limbs. They have small eyes and no external ear openings. These are adaptations for a subterranean lifestyle, as these lizards spend most of their time moving through the leaf litter and in the soil looking for their favorite food – soft-bodied insects. They usually hunt termites and ant brood in underground nests. Occasionally they make their way into decomposing wood, where they will not hesitate to snag a juicy beetle larva if the opportunity presents itself. I encountered my first Bachia while it was hunting termites moving on a trail.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Termite soldiers surrounding the intruding Bachia lizard to defend their colony workers on the trail

Termite soldiers surrounding the intruding Bachia lizard to defend their colony workers on the trail

Closeup on a Bachia's head, showing small eyes and no external ear opening - adaptations for a subterranean lifstyle.

Closeup on a Bachia’s head, showing small eyes and no external ear opening – adaptations for a subterranean lifstyle.

Bachia are not to be confused with other snake-like lizards such as limbless skinks, slowworms, glass lizards, or amphisbaenids, all members of other groups. Bachia lizards belong to family Gymnophthalmidae, also known as microteiids or spectacled lizards. Their closest relatives are the skittish whiptail lizards. The name “spectacled” refers to their transparent eyelids, allowing these lizards to see even when their eyes are closed. Most members of the family are normal looking lizards, like this common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis).

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

As the name suggests, microteiid lizards are generally small. How small? Very small.

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis) on finger for scale

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis) on finger for scale

Ok, I’m cheating here a little, after all this is a juvenile specimen. But generally speaking, a microteiid lizard can sit comfortably in the palm of your hand, and you will still have room for two or three more lizards.

Portrait of Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale)

Portrait of Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale)

The genus Bachia contains about 30 species, many of which are endemic. The species I have encountered the most is Bachia trisanale, it is one of the more common species with a wide distribution in South America, occurring in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Brazil.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale), full body view

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale), full body view

One of the most interesting aspects of Bachia lizards is their limbs. All species have a long body with very small limbs. Members of the genus can be easily divided into groups by their limb structure and the level of reduction in the hindlimbs. In many species the hindlimbs are extremely reduced to tiny hooks or absent altogether. Few species, like the Bachia trisanale appearing in this post, lack hindlimbs and show digit reduction in the forelimbs as well. Interestingly, limbs can also be lost throughout the lizard’s lifetime. Although a leg can be lost following an injury, it can also happen due to tissue erosion caused by the lifestyle of digging and burrowing through coarse soil containing clay particles. The hind legs (if present) usually go first, shrinking to tiny knobs or disappearing completely. The stronger forelimbs are eventually eroded as well, first the tiny digits, and then the remainder of the leg. Judging by several specimens that I have encountered, the forelimb loss is even a directional change – usually it is the right forelimb that disappears first, followed by the one on the left side. It is common to find old Bachia lizards with only one limb! Usually by that time the remaining leg has lost its digits entirely, and looks like a small stub.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale), closeup on its head and stubby foreleg

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale), closeup on its head and stubby foreleg

Surprisingly this has no negative effect on the lizard’s locomotion. One might even argue that losing the limbs makes it more terradynamic, allowing it to “swim” freely in the substrate with no drag.

Bachia trisanale with only one foreleg

Bachia trisanale with only one foreleg

So when you are feeling down, remember that there are small lizards that look like a noodle, diving face first into the dirt after pesky termites and ants. And they do it with no hands!

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

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

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

 

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

 

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

 

The best landscape shots

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

 

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

 

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

 

The most perfectly timed photo

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

 

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

 

Best behavior shot

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

 

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

 

The best non-animal photo

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

 

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

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

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

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

 

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

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

 

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

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

 

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

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The best focus-stacked shot

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

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

 

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

 

The best wide-angle macro

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The best Meet Your Neighbours photos

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Memes

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

I slept too much

One of those mornings.

 

Kung Fu weevil

Sometimes I feel like…

And the most exciting subject…

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

An unexpected encounter

Earlier this summer I spent a couple of weeks in Israel. I like these home visits – regardless of the joy of seeing my family and friends and catching up, there is something rewarding about coming to Israel as a tourist. Sure, it will always be my home country, but since things around are constantly changing, I feel that in many aspects Israel is a home far from being a home. And I love it. It is all mine to re-explore every single time!

In one of my free evenings I planned a herping trip to the dunes in the Western Negev region. I was hoping to find one of the country’s most elusive venomous snakes: the horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). But what I found was way better.

I arrived to the site two hours before sunset. It was disturbingly quiet, as if the desert was teasing you to reveal all the treasures hidden within it. I did what I always do before a night survey – I went for a walk. There were many footprints decorating the sand, a sign for busy activity of lizards, ants and darkling beetles. The few green plants around were crawling with insects, juvenile locusts to be more exact (this is a topic of a future post). At the top of one of the sand dunes I found a baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). This reptile is considered critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, so you can imagine how happy I was to find evidence for successful breeding of this species!

Baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). Super cute!

Baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). Super cute!

 

When I reached down to check an Artemisia monosperma, I noticed movements in the sand at the base of the bush. With a small spade I managed to “fish” out the reptile, it was a cute Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). This elongated skink almost never shows up on the sand surface. It has very short legs, and prefers to “swim” inside the sand in snake-like movements, like a terrestrial eel.

Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides)

Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides)

 

Sunset over the Western Negev desert. Soon the fun begins!

Sunset over the Western Negev desert. Soon the fun begins!

 

The sun started disappearing behind one of the dunes. I armed myself with LED flashlights and tweezers and set out looking for trouble.
And trouble found me alright. At the loess grounds leading to the dunes I stumbled upon a painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). This is a venomous snake I do not like to meet up close, because of its typical aggressive behavior. It was hiding in a deserted rodent burrow, and did not pose a serious threat though. A few hundred meters away I found a second snake of the same species, juvenile. I always feel like I am safer with smaller snakes even if they are venomous, but this is just an illusion. The juvenile snakes are as unpredictable and dangerous as the adults ones, and I would not want to find myself in a situation where I am getting bitten. Fortunately for me, this snake was just not in activity yet, so it was slow and sluggish. I could carefully examine it from a close distance.

Painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus)

Painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus)

 

Juvenile painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). The pink and white patches serve as camouflage between the rocks.

Juvenile painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). The pink and white patches serve as camouflage between the rocks.

 

Short-fingered geckos (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus and Stenodactylus petrii) were out and about in search for small prey insects. Their color blends so well with the sand that I had to be carful not to step on them while walking. These are some of my favorite geckos, with their wide heads and big colorful eyes they look like animated plush toys.

Lichtenstein's Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus)

Lichtenstein’s Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus)

 

Anderson's Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus petrii). Their "hands" looks like human hands!

Anderson’s Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus petrii). Their “hands” looks like human hands!

 

It was getting late and even though I saw many interesting reptiles and arthropods, I failed to find the snake I was looking for. I decided to walk even further, to another area with tall dunes. It was not there, too. I reached down to photograph a fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) when I suddenly heard the alarming sound of heavy breathing behind me.

Fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) - one of my favorite scorpion species in Israel. Now while watching this, imagine someone breathing heavily behind you.

Fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) – one of my favorite scorpion species in Israel. Now while watching this, imagine someone breathing heavily behind you.

 

I quickly snapped a single photo and stood up. The breathing sound became louder. This is not the best scenario one would like to find himself in – alone, in the dark, in the middle of the desert and far from any human settlement. That breathing sounded so heavy, that I blindly assumed I was being watched by a large mammal. My guess was that there is a striped hyena standing behind me. Another one of those animals I do not want to meet up close and personal.

I turned around, but there was nothing there. Suddenly I heard the breathing again, from a few meters away. I aimed my flashlight, and saw this guy:

Desert monitor (Varanus griseus)!

Desert monitor (Varanus griseus)!

 

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus) is a lizard one really does not see very often in Israel. I consider myself extremely lucky, because I have seen it on several occasions (thanks to my military service which I spent in one of the country’s best locations for observing Varanus) but it is unbelievably impressive every single time. This individual was about a meter in length including its tail, and I presume it is not even an adult. The monitors feed on invertebrates and small vertebrates such as rodents and ground-dwelling birds. They spend most of their life in a large underground burrow, only coming out to feed and reproduce. In fact, the reason this individual was so upset (hence the defensive breathing/hissing) was that I was standing right above its burrow entrance. Once I moved away following the lizard, it took advantage of the situation and quickly rushed inside.

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus)

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus)

 

The desert monitor was my prize for the night. I had already forgotten what else I was looking for. On my way back to the car, while feeling exhausted and ready to call it a night, I suddenly saw it. Hiding between two small Artemisia bushes, trying to blend in.
The horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes).

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes)

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes)

It was a small male, but it was beautiful nevertheless. Tiny azure scales decorated his back, and two devilish horns extended above his cat-like eyes. It flattened its body and started rubbing its scales together, producing a loud Velcro sound. G-o-r-g-e-o-u-s snake. This is Israel’s most beautiful snake in my opinion, and can easily make a fine candidate for one of the most beautiful snakes in the world. I will definitely come back to find it again sometime in the future.

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). Here, kitty kitty.

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). Here, kitty kitty.

 

** I bet you are asking yourself – why does someone who present himself as an Entomologist spend so much time posting stories just about anything but insects?? Well, the truth is I have plenty of stories to tell about insects too, but I do not limit myself to six-legged creatures only. I like to appreciate all nature wonders, especially the small and cryptic organisms we tend to ignore/miss. I hope you would do the same.

In two days I will be joining BugShot, a macrophotography workshop in Belize led by some of the world’s finest macrophotographers. I hope to return not only with more photographs and stories but also with better skills, both as an Entomologist and a photographer.