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The discovery of Charinus israelensis, a new whip spider from Israel

When I was a kid I used to spend hours in the Israeli outdoors, looking for insects and arachnids in hopes to familiarize myself with as many arthropod species as possible. I was so darn good at finding small critters that soon enough friends requested to tag along to see what I could unearth during a short afternoon hike. My parents recognized my growing passion and got me the natural history “bible” at that time – the 12 volumes of Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. I studied it carefully, trying to set goals to find certain species, which led me on excursions throughout the country. Yet one arachnid seemed to remain out of reach.

Charinus israelensis, a new species of whip spider in Israel

Charinus israelensis, a new species of whip spider in Israel

It looked like a cross between a mantis and a spider, with one long pair of appendages. It was an amblypygid, a whip spider. The book listed only a single species occurring in Israel, Charinus ioanniticus, very rare. It featured a tiny photo, followed by a large illustration on the opposite page, a replication of the photo. In the days before the internet, that was my only reference for this arachnid group.

Amblypygi in: Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia

Amblypygi in: Plants and Animals of the Land of Israel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 Arachnids. For nearly a decade this was my only reference for information about whip spiders.

I was determined to see a live one, but I always failed to find them. I kept looking at those pages in hopes to memorize every aspect of the animal, making sure I can confirm its identity in case I stumble upon one. Years have passed and I gave up on finding one in the wild. I did get a chance to see a live specimen during my high school days though, in one of the visits I paid to Pinchas “Pini” Amitai, the man who took the original photo in the book. Little did I know that 20 years into the future I would be involved in discovering a new species of whip spider living in Israel.

This discovery is not recent news. We found the new species over five years ago, and the formal description was published last year. The media intended to feature the story, but unfortunately a former president in Israel passed away on the same week the paper was published and there was no interest in a story about an obscure arachnid living inside caves in Israel. Despite that, I waited. The discovery is an important one, and I was hoping our new species could still make an appearance in the news. And as you can imagine, I am still waiting. Well, as the old saying goes – if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

So let me tell you the story of this cute arachnid. Back in 2012 I stumbled upon a photo of a whip spider from Israel in one of my social media newsfeeds. The photo was taken by Dr. Eran Levin during a cave survey for his research about bats’ hibernation sites. Since I had an approaching trip to Israel I contacted my friend and asked if he would share the location, because I was still hoping to see and document a wild whip spider in my home country. We chatted for a while, the location was a bit unexpected for amblypygids in the area, but a few months later I found myself crawling through a tight opening into the warm cave. And indeed they were there, happily roaming on the walls, waving their magnificent long legs everywhere.

A juvenile of Charinus israelensis walking on the wall in one of the caves

A juvenile of Charinus israelensis walking on the wall in one of the caves

Molts hanging from the cave's ceiling are a good sign for an active whip spider population.

Molts hanging from the cave’s ceiling are a good sign for an active whip spider population.

Charinus israelensis cleaning its leg

Charinus israelensis cleaning its leg. This specimen lost two of its legs in fights with others (see example below). They will grow back the next time it molts.

I took some photos and happily went home. When I inspected the photos later, something did not sit right with me. I still had a vivid memory of the photo and illustration in the book from my childhood. But now, I could also use information online for confirmation. The amblypygid species known from Israel, Charinus ioanniticus, has well developed median eyes. It almost looks like it is crossed-eyed. How cute.

Charinus ioanniticus' big smile. See the tiny beady eyes? Adorable!

Charinus ioanniticus’ big smile. See the tiny beady eyes? Adorable!

I looked at my photos, and none of the animals had median eyes. What is going on here?

Charinus israelensis, note the absence of median eyes

Charinus israelensis, note the absence of median eyes

Charinus israelensis can have big smiles too

Charinus israelensis can have big smiles too

In all other visible aspects the whip spiders looked like C. ioanniticus, yet the absence of eyes was enough for me to suspect that I might be dealing with a new species. I made some calls, went back to collect some specimens, and started the long process of verifying and describing the species with colleagues (you can find our paper on my publications page). I invested my energy and personal funds into that research. For me it was a mission to put the spotlight on this exciting new find. We named it Charinus israelensis. I became heavily involved with the general public and posted requests in forums and social media groups for any records or sightings of whip spiders in Israel. Slowly but surely, I started receiving responses from various people located throughout the country. Some of which mentioned whip spiders that found their way into homes, others were reported from natural caverns. It was even more interesting to visit some of those places with the people who made the sightings, and witness the whip spiders’ populations together with them. I learned a lot about caves in Israel, and how much we still don’t know about these habitat systems. But the best experience for me while searching for the new species C. israelensis was to discover new unrecorded populations of the known species, C. ioanniticus. And more than anything, I suddenly realized that they are not at all that rare as mentioned in the old encyclopedia. They are just extremely cryptic, remaining hidden in tight crevices and coming out in the darkest of nights. No wonder people never see them.

Charinus ioanniticus from a newly recorded population in the Carmel Mountain Ridge of Israel

Charinus ioanniticus from a newly recorded population in the Carmel Mountain Ridge of Israel

Why is this exciting? There are two main reasons. The first one is that this discovery doubles the Amblypygi fauna for Israel. It may not sound much, but jumping from one species to two is actually a big deal. It has implications on our understanding of food webs in caves, and these unique arachnids may give further incentives to protect and conserve cave habitats in Israel. The second reason is that the loss of eyes in cave animals (troglomorphism, a term associated with adaptation for life in dark caves) is an interesting topic for studying the evolution of traits within a phyllogenetic lineage. There are already several examples of blind Charinus whip spiders from around the globe, which may lead to fascinating research in the future. In the meantime, I continue to keep live specimens of both Charinus species from Israel, learning a ton about their biology in the process.

A freshly molted Charinus israelensis shows spectacular coloration

A freshly molted Charinus israelensis shows spectacular coloration. The color turns reddish-brown after some time.

Two females of Charinus israelensis fighting

Two females of Charinus israelensis fighting. Whip spiders have complex communication based on movements of their antenniform legs. Some encounters turn hostile, in this case because the bottom female was gravid.

Charinus israelensis female carrying an egg sac

Charinus israelensis female carrying an egg sac

Some of the adult whip spiders that were collected in the beginning of the research are still alive and kicking! Quite impressive for a small arachnid, and seems like they can even outlive some of the more “conventional” pets.

Because I eat, sleep, and breathe whip spiders, my friend Peggy Muddles aka The Vexed Muddler made this awesome portrait of mine with C. israelensis (check out more of her fabulous stuff here)

artwork by Peggy Muddles

“Whip spiders are the coolest arachnids that will never hurt you”

By the way, this weekend (Sunday August 27th, 10am-5pm) the University of Guelph is holding a “Bug Day” at the Arboretum Centre. Come for a fun day out and learn about arthropods. I will have a table with whip spiders, so please drop by and say hi. I will also have some framed whip spider molts with me so please come and check them out!

Insect art: Framed whip spiders (Amblypygi)

I have been covering a lot of insect-inspired art on this blog recently. It makes me excited; there are so many beautiful examples of artwork that incorporate insects and other arthropods into their theme. Just by reading some of the comments on the previous posts I got a gazillion new ideas for topics to write about (thank you). This time, however, I want to take the opportunity to tell you about something that I have been working on. The title for this post is a little misleading, because this is not really ”insect art”, but more like “arachnid art”.

One of the first presents I got from my parents when they realized their kid was fascinated with insects was a frame with several tropical butterflies. This frame, along with others that joined in subsequent years, decorated the wall of my room for many years. They became a part of my identity, telling every visitor what I was all about. Throughout the years my focus shifted from butterflies to spiders and scorpions, and then to beetles and other arthropod groups. Yet those framed insects remained on the wall, and even though I left that house many years ago they are still hung there to this very day.

Framed arachnids, whip spiders and a tarantula. Read on to learn what is so special about these.

Framed arachnids, whip spiders and a tarantula. Read on to learn what is so special about these.

I got so used to hearing wows every time someone noticed the spectacular sunset moth, the blue morpho butterfly, or even the less colorful dobsonfly, that when one day a friend told me she didn’t like those frames, it caught me by surprise. I asked her why, and she replied, “An animal had to die so you can enjoy this”. And by all accounts, she was right.
That reply stuck with me. I do not consider myself much of a collector, but when I do collect there is always a conflict. Is this necessary? Is this going to help anyone in the future? In my travels I have seen many dead insects, tarantulas and scorpions being offered as home decor for sale in city markets. It is shocking to realize these animals are probably harvested from their natural habitats by the hundreds for this purpose. To be fair, some butterfly and beetle species are being farmed and thus the ecological impact on their natural populations is insignificant. However, insect frames still require a dead specimen to begin with.

A framed rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracilicornis) that I made. You might not believe it, but this specimen was in very poor condition when I received it.

A framed rhinoceros beetle (Eupatorus gracilicornis) that I made. You might not believe it, but this specimen was in very poor condition when I received it.

In the past I have sinned in trying to make my own version of such frames. In all honesty, when done correctly, they do look nice and add some character to a room. Almost like an old natural history lithograph. I did this with dead insects from my own cultures, or with specimens I already had in my collection. But recently I was wondering if there is another way to achieve the same result, one that does not require dead specimens. Something more sustainable.

Me presenting whip spiders to the general public at Bug Day Ottawa 2016. Framed specimens can be used for education along with live ones.

Me presenting whip spiders to the general public at Bug Day Ottawa 2016. Framed specimens can be used for education along with live ones.

Whip spiders, or amblypygids, are rarely offered as framed specimens, but when they do, they usually look very bad and have an unflattering, unnatural pose. I mean, look at this one for example. It looks horrible. Now look at how much this specimen costs. It makes no sense to me that an animal gave its life to be preserved in such a horrendous way, accompanied with such a hefty price tag. This is also coming from a company that claims to farm its framed specimens, however I highly doubt they farm any of their arachnid specimens. Large arachnids take years to reach their adult size, and it would not be very profitable to farm them just for the purpose of framing them later. Moreover, dead arachnids (and many insects too) often lose their vibrant colors. There has to be a different way to do this. And there is: during my time keeping amblypygids, I noticed that their empty molts retain their appearance even after many years, and when arranged properly they look like a copy of the living animal. I made some exemplars for use in public outreach and the response was phenomenal. When I presented the prepared molt next to its still-living parent, people refused to believe they are both the very same specimen.

Whip spider (Heterophrynus batesii) fresh after molting in the wild. The molt (on the left) is a hollow empty shell, but looks just like the live arachnid.

Whip spider (Heterophrynus batesii) fresh after molting in the wild. The molt (on the left) is a hollow empty shell, but looks just like the live arachnid.

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

Heterophrynus batesii molts being prepared for framing

Whip spiders molts, work in progress before framing. Oh, and that tarantula? That is a molt too.

Whip spiders molts, work in progress before framing. Oh, and that tarantula? That is a molt too.

Working with molts is not easy and resembles taxidermy in many ways. It requires deep understanding of the animal’s natural appearance, as well as how to stabilize its now-empty limbs. It took me many months of practicing until I finally mastered the technique of making a hollow arachnid look alive. The best thing about it – no animal was sacrificed during the preparation, and in fact the very same animal that produced the molt is still alive and kicking.

Framed whip spider (Paraphrynus raptator). In the background, framed molts of two additional species (Heterphrynus spp).

Framed whip spider (Paraphrynus raptator). In the background, framed molts of two additional species (Heterphrynus spp).

Now this begs the question – what am I going to do with these frames? I enjoy looking at them a lot actually. They add something authentic to my living space. I thought about putting up a page to offer them for sale at some point (update: that page is now up!). The only problem seems to be availability, because whip spiders usually molt only once a year. I will need to salvage every single molt if I want to continue making more of these.

Framed whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). This is probably my favorite work so far. Small. Simple. Perfect.

Framed whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). This is probably my favorite work so far. Small. Simple. Perfect.

By the way, if you want to hear more about whip spiders and you happen to be in Toronto this weekend, the Toronto Entomology Association and the Royal Ontario Museum are organizing “Bug Day”, an event dedicated to the keeping live arthropods. I will give a short talk on Sunday April 23rd at noon, so please come and say hi.

New species of Charinus in Belize

I am happy to announce that our new paper, describing two new species of whip spiders (Amblypygi) from Belize, was recently published (the paper can be downloaded here). This culminates work that started in 2013, in collaboration with Gustavo Miranda and Alessandro Giupponi.

Charinus reddelli from Waterfall Cave, Cayo District, Belize

Charinus reddelli from Waterfall Cave, Cayo District, Belize

The new species were found during the BugShot Belize workshop at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge and its surroundings. The smaller species of the two, now named Charinus belizensis, was discovered under a fallen log during a night hike, concealed inside the decomposing wood and sharing the space with Diplocentrus maya scorpions and platydesmid millepedes. The second species was found within several nearby cave systems, hiding under stones and running on the sandy bottom of the cave. As soon as I found these whip spiders I knew I had something that probably no one has seen before. These were new, undescribed species. Charinus species have been described from almost every continent, they are well-recorded in South America, but so far no species have been described from Central America. Only two reports mention presence of the genus Charinus in Central America: one report from Panama mentions an epigean species with well-developed eyes. I knew the Charinus that I found were different species due to their “blindness” – the two new species have no median eyes, an adaptation for life in closed dark spaces, such as caves and deep crevices. The other report from 1982 is by James Reddell, mentioning a whip spider “troglobite of uncertain generic affinities” in the Footprint Cave in Belize, probably the same species that I found in the very same cave, three decades later. We therefore decided to pay tribute to James Reddell for this discovery and for his enormous contribution to the study of the arachnids by naming this new species after him: Charinus reddelli.

The entrance to Waterfall Cave, where specimens of the new species C. reddelli have been found.

The entrance to Waterfall Cave, where specimens of the new species C. reddelli have been found.

Charinus reddelli, a freshly molted specimen besides its molt in Waterfall Cave

Charinus reddelli, a freshly molted specimen besides its molt in Waterfall Cave

It is not surprising that these species have not received any attention up until now. To begin with, they are very small. The leg span of the bigger species, C. reddelli, is just over 2.5cm. They constantly take shelter inside decomposing wood (C. belizensis) or in rock crevices in caves (C. reddelli). Also, to the untrained eye they may appear as juveniles of the much bigger Amblypygi genera found in the same area, Paraphrynus and Phrynus. As such small arachnids, one might wonder what they feed on. It is possible that C. belizensis feeds on termites and other soft arthropods found inside the wood cavity, whereas C. reddelli was observed feeding on cave crickets nymphs and was even spotted taking down another arachnid – a cave schizomid. Moreover, the live specimens that I keep in captivity have been found to be very fond of eating isopods, so it is possible that they are an important component in these species’ diet. Another interesting observation relates to their breeding strategy. Whip spider females are excellent mothers and demonstrate a high level of maternal care, carrying and protecting the eggs and then later carrying the hatched babies for a while until they can fend for themselves. As small-sized arachnids, Charinus species confront a problem. If they go the same path as the other whip spider genera, producing several dozens of tiny offsprings, then they might run into survival challenges, as the tiny babies must track down and hunt for even smaller prey, and at the same time deal with predators. Instead, C. reddelli‘s egg sac contains only 4–10 eggs, and the hatching whip spider babies are quite large. This ensures that the offspring have a slightly better start in life as they can exploit the common prey size in their surroundings.

Whip spiders females are good mothers and Charinus reddelli is no exception. Here, a female carrying her newborn baby on her back. Three other babies are still in the process of hatching under the mother's abdomen.

Whip spiders females are good mothers and Charinus reddelli is no exception. Here, a female carrying her newborn baby on her back. Three other babies are still in the process of hatching under the mother’s abdomen.

Charinus belizensis fresh after molting before pigmentation appears. Found under a fallen log in Caves Branch forest.

Charinus belizensis fresh after molting before pigmentation appears. Found under a fallen log in Caves Branch forest.

It took a long process to obtain the proper permits, collect, export, and describe the new species, in which I received tremendous help from Ella Baron from Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. The important thing is that now these two small arachnids are known, they have a name and a valid presence, which will make it easier to protect them and their habitat. I hope that in the near future more species of Charinus will be discovered in Central America, filling the gap in their known distribution.

Good times to celebrate the diversity of Amblypygi

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by arachnids. Their high diversity, which includes a variety of morphological and behavioral adaptations, is impressive. It might be surprising though that my favorite arachnid group is not spiders, but a relatively small and not-so-diverse order: whip spiders (Amblypygi).

Juvenile Heterophrynus batesii from the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. The bright coloration and cute proportions fade as the amblypygid grows older.

Juvenile Heterophrynus batesii from the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. The bright coloration and cute proportions fade as the amblypygid grows older.

I find it amusing that despite my obsession with Amblypygi, I have not yet written anything about them. This website had a gallery of whip spider photos since day one, but I guess I have been waiting for a good opportunity to mention them on the blog, and there is no better time than right now. A recent publication by my colleagues, describing eight new species of whip spiders found in Brazil, has given this group the much-deserved public attention.

Charinus is a genus of relatively small-sized whip spiders with a worldwide distribution. New species are discovered almost annually (the species described in the above mentioned paper are all members of this genus). This one is another new species from Belize soon to be formally described.

Charinus is a genus of relatively small-sized whip spiders with a worldwide distribution. New species are discovered almost annually (the species described in the above mentioned paper are all members of this genus). This one is another new species from Belize soon to be formally described.

Despite their common name (see footnote †) and general appearance, whip spiders are very different from spiders. They cannot spin silk and therefore have no webs. Their first pair of legs has evolved into long, antennae-like sensory organs, which are used for navigation, detection and manipulation of prey, and social communication. It is ironic that what makes whip spiders so visually appealing to some people (myself included), is the same thing that makes them terrifying for other people: the raptorial pedipalps. Enlarged and armed with strong spines, the pedipalps are used as a catching basket for grabbing and impaling prey. They are also used in mating and fighting rituals. The long, spiny “grabbers” make many people cringe in fear at the sight of a whip spider. But make no mistake: these animals are completely harmless to us. They do not have venom, they cannot sting and never bite, and they will do whatever they can to avoid confrontation with a human. It is therefore unfortunate that whip spiders are often if not always used to provoke feelings of fear and disgust, as seen in TV programs such as “Fear Factor” and movies like “Harry Potter” (see footnote ‡).

Adult male Heterophrynus batesii with impressive pedipalp armature. This is the same species shown in the first photo above.

Adult male Heterophrynus batesii with impressive pedipalp armature. This is the same species shown in the first photo above.

Paraphrynus raptator feeding on an assassin bug. The spiny pedipalps are used to impale the prey and bring it closer to the mouth.

Paraphrynus raptator feeding on an assassin bug. The spiny pedipalps are used to impale the prey and bring it closer to the mouth.

For a shy animal, whip spiders sure pack a lot of character. This is something I will address in several future posts. But newly discovered species of whip spiders are always a cause for a celebration. The new paper puts Brazil in competition with Mexico for the title ‘Country with the highest diversity of Amblypygi’ (Brazil wins. For now). One of the possible explanations for the high diversity is the large continental area within the borders of each country, following a classic principle in Ecology that says species richness increases with area. Under the same principle, the smaller neighboring countries are expected to have less species, and this is indeed what we are seeing. Or is it? There might be another reason involved. Because the small order Amblypygi is of no economical and medical importance it is often understudied, so it is very possible that the low amblypygid diversity seen in other countries reflects a lack of research or difficulties in sampling. A similar trend can be found for other groups of organisms sharing the same attributes. It all points to a problem: basic natural history and taxonomic research is becoming less common and receives fewer support, while our conservation efforts aim higher every year. This creates a conflict – how can you protect something if you do not know about its existence? And indeed, the authors of the paper discuss the issue of conservation. The newly discovered whip spiders may already be endangered due to habitat destruction by humans. Nevertheless, their formal description gives them a valid status, and together with other native plants and animals in need of protection, this serves as an incentive for conservation of their natural habitat.

Juvenile Phrynus parvulus found on a moss-covered tree trunk in southern Belize

Juvenile Phrynus parvulus found on a moss-covered tree trunk in southern Belize


† There is a bit of a confusion around the common name for Amblypygi, as several different names exist. I prefer to call them amblypygids, referring to the scientific name of the group, but if I am forced to use a common name I go with whip spiders. One other frequently used common name is tailless-whip scorpions, which refers to their tailed relatives, the whip scorpions or vinegaroons, members of order Thelyphonida (formerly Uropygi). I completely disagree with the use of tailless whip scorpions as a name for Amblypygi. A large taxonomic group cannot be defined by something it does not have, unless this character is found by default in all other related groups. If you disagree, please consider why humans are not called “tailless monkeys”.

‡ One example in particular that I find infuriating is a series of videos recently turned viral, showing a person literally abusing whip spiders to the point that the animal has no choice but to attack using its pedipalps. Because of my deep interest in amblypygids these sickening videos have been forwarded to me multiple times by friends who thought I might like them. Interestingly, the person who made these videos actually loves arthropods, yet he seems to be unaware that his videos are spreading hate and misinformation towards these remarkable arachnids, not to mention the pointless abuse and stress of wild-caught animals (I have never gone after someone with the goal of publicly shaming them and will not mention any names; those who have seen the videos know the guy and what I am talking about).

BugShot Belize: Treat yourself to something good

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

 

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

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

 

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

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

 

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

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

 

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

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

 

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

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

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

 

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

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

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

 

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

2013 in review: Good riddance!

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

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

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

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

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

 

The photo that got me into the most trouble

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

 

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

 

The most unpleasant subject

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

 

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

 

The best landscape shots

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

 

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

 

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

 

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

 

The most perfectly timed photo

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

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

 

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

 

Best behavior shot

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

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

 

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

 

The best non-animal photo

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

 

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

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

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

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

 

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

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

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

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

 

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

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Trapdoor spider, Belize

Trapdoor spider, Belize

 

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

 

The best wide-angle macro

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

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

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

 

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

 

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

The most exciting subject

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

 

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

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

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