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Farewell 2019, hola 2020’s!

I’ll open this post with my usual mantra – have you backed up your files this week? In case you have, pat yourself on the back. If not, stop reading and back up your stuff first. Thank you.
Ah, 2019. What a strange year this was. Just as I thought, the previous year ended on such a high note, that it was difficult to shake off the sense of euphoria that came right after and get back to being productive as a freelancer. It’s funny to think that I wrote 2018’s wrap up way into 2019, so things were already stalling a little for me. Nevertheless, last year was full of surprises and new experiences, as well as meeting new people. Not to imply that all of these happenings went the way I thought they would, there is always good and bad and it’s unavoidable. I am happy to say that most of these were indeed positive experiences, there were no major failures this year (yay) and I definitely learned from the less favorable moments. So all in all this was a good year professionally speaking. On the personal level it could have been better, my attempts at dating were mostly embarrassingly hilarious and sad. But my love life isn’t the topic of this blog haha. If you follow my year-in-review posts, then you already know I no longer do the “best photos of the year” roundup. I gave that format up for “highlights of the year”, but I will spice it up with photos so it isn’t too boring.

Dung beetle (Scarabaeus sp.). Western Negev desert, Israel

Dung beetle (Scarabaeus sp.). Western Negev desert, Israel

Trip to Israel

Perhaps my most anticipated event last year was a trip back home. I actually planned two trips in 2019, but had to cancel my annual trip to Ecuador due to a nation-wide unrest. I haven’t been to Israel since 2015, and it showed. Not only did I miss my family, but I was also craving some of the amazing food my home country has to offer. Alas, this trip was short. Way too short! I am used to being busy when I visit Israel, but this time I barely got to meet any friends. Things have definitely changed in some of the nature sites I used to frequent, some areas are now closed nature reserves (good) and some were wiped clean to make space for development or construction (bad bad bad). Still it is a magnificent country with great finds.

Desert black widow (Latrodectus revivensis) preying on Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). Western Negev Desert, Israel

Desert black widow (Latrodectus revivensis) preying on Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). Western Negev Desert, Israel

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) swarming on a tree branch. Upper Galilee, Israel

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) swarming on a tree branch. Upper Galilee, Israel

Male jumping spider (Cyrba algerina). This was one of the species I was hoping to find during my visit.

Male jumping spider (Cyrba algerina). This was one of the species I was hoping to find during my visit.

Catching up with the past

Much of what I did in 2019 was backstage work, in other words not things that I usually post about here or on social media. Only briefly mentioned on this blog, one of the things I do aside from nature photography and consulting is breeding arthropods professionally for different purposes. Usually it is for public outreach events, but occasionally I supply animals for live displays in museums or to research labs. It is a full-time job on top of all my other projects, but this is something that I also do for my own mental health. I have been doing this since… forever. Being occupied with keeping insects and arachnids calms me down and leaves no time for negative thoughts. Unfortunately, my busy schedule with trips and the ROM’s spider exhibit in 2018 also meant that I neglected some of my breeding projects. Sometimes that’s a good thing because it forces you to reevaluate which species are more important and worth keeping around. In any case, I decided to get back on track with some species, for example beetles. One of the main goals I had for my visit to Israel was to relocate lab supplies to my place in Canada. No sense in keeping it unused in Israel, and I can totally benefit from using it. One of the objects I wanted to bring to my Canadian home was a large industrial bin that I used for making leaf compost as substrate for breeding beetles. I had my doubts about carrying such a weird object on a commercial flight, but it worked out fine.

The rare sapphire flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa cyanochlora) in captive breeding

The rare sapphire flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa cyanochlora) in captive breeding

Another hidden project I started working on last year was clearing up my backlog. I hate to admit it, but since moving to Canada I have not put much effort into managing my digital photography assets, and many file folders on my computer are still unorganized. After a long hiatus, I made the decision to go back to working on my photo collections and clear the backlog. This is a difficult task to accomplish, because while you are working on old photos, you keep adding new ones. I cannot put opportunities on hold just because I have stuff from the past to sort out, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Sadly, I do not know how long it will take to finish the work, but what a great way to pass the dreaded wintertime in Ontario, am I right? Too bad I actually like the winter.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. The winter is a great time to edit some wide angle macro shots from the summer. By the way, if I had to pick the best photo I took in 2019, it would probably be this one. It took 4 hours to get it!

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. The winter is a great time to edit some wide angle macro shots from the summer. By the way, if I had to pick the best photo I took in 2019, it would probably be this one. It took 4 hours to get it!

Public outreach in 2019

In 2019 I continued to take part in public outreach to promote the appreciation of insects and arachnids. I really enjoy acting as an ambassador for these animals and striking up conversations with people I meet at the events. I gave two talks at Nerd Nite Toronto, one about non-spider arachnids and another about Epomis beetles. Quite unbelievable – this was the first time I ever presented my MSc research to the general public, up until now it was only to academic listeners. How come I have waited for so long? The audience loved it!
I also returned for my third time as a medical entomology expert for the Global Health Education Initiative at University of Toronto. And of course, I returned with my whip spiders for the third Guelph Bug Day. This event is becoming an annual thing for me, I really love it, and you can tell that the people organizing it are very passionate about insects and science communication. I plan to continue participating for as long as I can.

Our "Arachnids & Art" table at Guelph Bug Day 2019. Photo by Brian Wolven

Our “Arachnids & Art” table at Guelph Bug Day 2019. Photo by Brian Wolven

Filming “Bug Hunter”

Speaking of education and public outreach, over the summer of 2019 I assisted in the production of an educational series called “Bug Hunter”. The project is a New Zealand-Canada collaboration in which a NZ entomologist (the wonderful Morgane Merien) travels between the two countries and explores different aspects in the life of insects, while comparing species from the Southern Hemisphere to ones found in the Northern Hemisphere.

Morgane Merien in "Bug Hunter"

Morgane Merien in “Bug Hunter”

I must admit that when the producer approached me at first I did not fully grasp the scale of the project. The series is a part of an augmented reality app that will eventually be distributed into the school system. I was initially hired as a consultant and a field expert to the team, but later on I was written into the script. This means that occasionally I appear in the episodes to give some information about insects native to Canada. Kind of like an Non-Player Character that always shows up (if you know Baelin the fisherman, something like that, hopefully not as repetitive). If I had to pick one thing in 2019 as the best highlight, it would be working on this series. The team chosen for this project was stellar, extremely professional but also good people. We all worked hard, had good laughs, and I got to hear some interesting stories about the industry. An amazing learning experience. On top of that, I dragged them to Guelph Bug Day (it coincided with one of the filming dates) and they were able to use it to get some useful footage for the series. The Canada portion is more or less wrapped up, and now a second team is filming the NZ portion with Morgane. I can’t wait to see the final result when it’s completed.

Filming "Bug Hunter" in Southern Ontario

Filming “Bug Hunter” in Southern Ontario

Commercial work in 2019

In July I was contracted by Doritos Canada to help promoting the “SpiderManFar From Home” movie. The idea was to design and set up a box with live spiders as a fun challenge for people to get a chance to win an authentic Spider-Man suit. After some discussions with the PR company, we settled on having local wolf spiders and a tarantula inside the box. I had no idea how it was going to turn out, but it was a lot of fun! Being the science communicator that I am, I tried to turn this into an educational opportunity to show people that there is no reason to be afraid of spiders. The activity was covered by several news outlets too. I was debating whether to upload the video, but then I thought why should I be the only one to enjoy it. Hopefully it won’t be taken down.

In October I was involved in another cool project: filming a music video for the Finnish symphonic metal group Apocalyptica. The director wanted to incorporate live arthropods in the final video and asked for my assistance with providing and wrangling the animals. This was not my first music video work, but it was the first one on an international scale. Obviously, this was very different from filming news interviews or the educational show mentioned above. I brought in a handful of different animals, not all of which were used and made it to the final cut. Yet still, when I watch the video it sparks nice memories of some of the critters I keep. Two of my favorite animals, whip spiders and velvet worms, are shown in great detail in the video, and it make me very happy. This is probably the first time a velvet worm is shown in a music video, now that I think about it. And I was also surprised to discover my name mentioned in the end credits!

Social media

Despite toning down my social media activity in the past few years, I still remain somewhat active. In fact, my follower counts increased substantially over the past year (more on that later). Twitter is still my favorite platform for several reasons. Facebook used to be OK, but has deteriorated over the years. And then there is Instagram. I really tried to like Instagram, however after 1.5 years of using it I still find it mediocre for interacting with people. It’s not surprising; Instagram is a phone app, and as such it is designed to be used for killing time while staring at your smartphone screen. I hardly use my cellphone for that purpose, and to be honest I barely use my cellphone at all. I still post there, mainly because I already post in the other platforms, and it’s just a click away. You might recognize my checkered pattern of posting, which I do solely for my Instagram. Not sure how long I can keep this going, but hey at least it looks cool.

Checkered pattern of posting on my Instagram

Checkered pattern of posting on my Instagram

I mentioned follower counts earlier. I never really cared that much about them. Okay, that’s not entirely true: I recently stumbled upon a list I made in my early days on Facebook (2010), listing all 90 friends I’ve made. That’s a little sad… Anyway going back to 2019, I sometimes find myself ticked if I see that my follower count is stuck showing an unbalanced, nearly round value. And I am sure I am not the only person with this problem, right? So every now and then I try to round that number upwards by posting something nice. Usually I follow the excellent advice given to me a while back, but it really depends on what I have available. Now, I have said many times that it is impossible to predict what is going to go viral on social media. But at least one time this year I posted something with the sole intention for it to go viral, and it actually worked. It was this photo of Euglossa hansoni from this blog post:

Male orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

Male orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

That post exploded on Facebook and even more so on Twitter. There was no surprise, it is one of my most stolen photos and that’s why I posted it. And sure enough, I was able to round the follower count up, before it went completely nuts and returned to an unbalanced state, only with a few additional hundreds of new followers. So what I did next was pretty cool. I tweeted this in hopes that as many people as possible will get to see it:

“This tweet has taken off a little, so I am told this is when I am supposed to take advantage of the situation and divert everyone’s attention to me promoting something. But I am not going to do that. Instead I will request something that I believe can be beneficial for everyone: Be kind to each other. Talk to each other. I mean actual talking – not just in texts messages! You’d be surprised how exhilarating it is. Spend time really listening. Respect and support others, especially those who are smaller and weaker than yourself (including smol friends!). I could go on, but I think this is the core of my message to the world. Practice being a good person. Do your best to be the hero in someone else’s story, I cannot stress this enough. Thanks for the love and support.”

This is my message for 2019. Actually scratch that. This is my message for the new decade.

Gilwizen.com in 2019 and what’s next

OK, this one is a bit embarrassing. In 2019, I published a “whopping” record of only three posts. That is a new low. It’s not because I had nothing to write about (I have dozens of stories “sitting”, awaiting their turn) or because I was busy. Writing blog posts is still a huge time and energy investment for me. Unlike some people who write a single four-line paragraph and call it a blog post, I try to make some decent content. I mean, look how long this post has become by now. In addition, every post goes through about 40 revisions before I hit publish, because I get pretty antsy about typos and grammatical errors (they still happen). This year I had very little motivation to sit and write. It’s almost like I need to be in a specific mood for it. I guess the good news is that there were no rant posts this year. But this posting drought needs to end.
I hope to return to regular posting in 2020. I also want to showcase more art that I have been exposed to, and bring back the Little Transformers post series. Following some helpful discussions with friends, I decided to add a media page to the website with some of the interviews and filmed activities that I have done over the years. Maybe I should also add portfolio page? I’ve never liked portfolios, do they really make a difference on a website’s appearance? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Framed tarantula molt (Brachypelma hamorii) for sale

Framed tarantula molt (Brachypelma hamorii) for sale

Selling Ethical Ento-Mounts was a bit slow this year, but I have not made many new pieces. One thing I finally put together is a “deluxe” series: these are frames containing one species or more arranged in a pattern. It involves an insane amount of work, mainly gluing broken beetles and selecting them for size to fit the arrangement. Because the specimens originate from my breeding projects, the “deluxe” items will be extremely limited editions, probably two or three per year, and will be priced higher than my usual work. I think they look nice.

Ethical Ento-Mount "deluxe": a group of flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa jousselini) in flight around a Scarabaeus dung beetle. Sold even before I listed it online.

Ethical Ento-Mount “deluxe”: a group of flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa jousselini) in flight around a Scarabaeus dung beetle. Sold even before I listed it online.

I just updated my shop page with new work, and to celebrate the new year I am offering a 20% discount on all items until the end of January 2020. Please check it out! If you ever thought about getting one of my framed molts, now is the time to do so. There are prints available too!

Final words (getting personal and emotional here)

2019 is also the end of a decade. As someone who was born in 1980, it is impossible for me not to look at the change of decades as an age-transition into a new point in life. This year also marks the end of my 30’s, and that’s kind of a big deal.

I started my insect journey 30 years ago with rearing butterflies when I was 9 years old. In 2019 I closed the circle by going back to my roots. How can you not fall in love with this black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)? So adorable.

I started my insect journey 30 years ago with rearing butterflies when I was 9 years old. In 2019 I closed the circle by going back to my roots. How can you not fall in love with this black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)? So adorable.

For me, the 2010’s were a decade where everything just went to sh*t. Especially during the second half. If my 20’s were all about getting my education in order and relocating out of Israel, during my 30’s came the hard realization that I’m probably better off outside of academia, that my past few relationships were all abusive, and that knowing what you want to do in life can actually get you stuck instead of moving forward. It is amazing that even though it is already buried in my past, I still refer to mid-2016 as the point in time when my life went downhill. Yet I came back from it stronger, more confident, and a better person overall. So I must show some gratitude to the bad experiences I had, after all they made me who I am today. Also looking back, alongside the bad occurrences there were heaps of positive ones, culminating in 2019. Not only growing professionally and developing a unique style, but also finding an audience; Learning to manage myself as a business; Changing locations and making new friends; Learning not only what is right, but also what feels good, and making more of it. These are all things that I am grateful for as I am stepping into the new era. It is important to remember however that there is still much work ahead. I often find myself arguing with friends that I am not famous. It is very flattering, but there is a problem with that statement that I will try to communicate using one of my favorite quotes, actually from a YouTuber: “I am very pleased that you call me a celebrity, I think of myself as barely having a career.”
But you know what I do have? My face on a greeting card.


Insect art: Whip spider tattoo

Looking back at my posts about arthropod-inspired art, I’ve covered natural history illustration, monster and character design, animated media, sculptures, taxidermy, and even rubber stamps. I find it surprising that I have not written anything about tattoos so far. Not only are insects and arachnid tattoos fairly popular and commonplace, but on a more personal level my first exposure to arthropod tattoos takes me back to my teenage years – My brother showed up one day with a large black widow spider tattooed on his front left shoulder… a spider that I drew on paper only a few weeks earlier. You can imagine my surprise as a 13-year old, realizing that my brother decided to permanently have one of my early drawings on his body, not to mention I never considered that particular drawing to be good, thanks to my imposter syndrome. To make a long story short, for a while afterwards I examined tattoo magazines in search of inspiring pieces and later helped designing more tattoos for my brother as well as other people. Which brings me to today’s post: designing and inking a whip spider tattoo on my friend Peggy Muddles, aka The Vexed Muddler.

Whip spider (Charinus israelensis) showing bright coloration after molting

Whip spider (Charinus israelensis) showing bright coloration after molting

The idea was to tattoo a bluish Charinus israelensis, a species that I discovered and the topic of this blog post. But why blue? If you look through my photos of Amblypygi, you will probably notice that most of them have dull colors, and members of genus Charinus in particular are typically orange-brown in coloration. During molting, however, Charinus comes out entirely white in color due to minimal pigmentation, and gradually turns bluish-grey as time passes, eventually becoming brown once its exoskeleton hardens. The teneral stage shows not only blue-teal tones but also a lot of fiery orange-red color on the bristles and mouthparts. This classic orange and teal contrast is what led Peggy to select the species, followed by choosing a complimentary plant: Cyclamen coum, a tiny protected species that occurs in the same areas where the whip spider is found.

Cyclamen coum in bloom. Such a cute plant.

Cyclamen coum in bloom. Such a cute plant.

We sent some reference photos to the talented Jacqueline Pavan, who owns Storm Horse Tattoo in Toronto, and after some brainstorming we settled on a detailed design.

This is not Peggy’s first tattoo, by the way. Her back right shoulder tattoo was loosely based on a framed Goliath beetle specimen I made a few years ago (although a different species). Designing that piece was a collaborative effort together with Jacqueline. It combines Peggy’s love for microbes, space, and insects, resulting in what is in my opinion one of the best tattoos ever made. You just have to stare at it. It’s a lot to take in.

Peggy Muddles' Goliath beetle tattoo

Peggy Muddles’ Goliath beetle tattoo

Back to our whip spider tattoo, I decided that I want to be present when it is being applied. No doubt I was curious about how it is going to turn out, but I also wanted to make sure some important details are preserved since we are dealing with real existing species. Now, I have walked in on people midway through their experience of being inked before, but this time I had a chance to sit through the entire process, from preparing the workstation to the last drop of ink injected. Joined by Catherine Scott and Brian Wolven, we spent our Saturday afternoon with Peggy at Storm Horse Tattoo, getting her Charinus israelensis tattoo! How exciting!

As preparations began, one of my first thoughts about Storm Horse Tattoo was ‘this has got to be one of the cleanest studios I have ever seen’. Everything is so well-organized and spotless, it’s already my cup of tea… I don’t know why but every time I think about tattoo studios I imagine blood splashes on the walls. It is possible that I’ve watched too many gory movies. Anyway, I decided to document the inking progress, hopefully you’ll find it interesting.

Jacqueline and Peggy discussing the best placement for the new piece

Jacqueline and Peggy discussing the best placement for the new piece

Before inking, a stencil was prepared to transfer the design onto the skin and confirm the best placement for it. This was also the time to make sure Peggy is aware of and understands the cultural implications of her subject of choice hehe (sorry, it’s my twisted sense of humor).
Then black ink was applied to the outlines of the design.

Jacquline working on the outlines. The whip spider is already done!

Jacquline working on the outlines. The whip spider is already done!

At this point Catherine showed up and gave us an update about her black widow tattoo that she had done a week before to celebrate her PhD defense. Her amazing piece was designed by non other than Thomas Shahan!

Catherine showing her black widow tattoo

Catherine showing her black widow tattoo

Let's add some color! Starting with the Cyclamen flowers and leaves

Let’s add some color! Starting with the Cyclamen flowers and leaves

After sunset I noticed the light changed dramatically inside the studio, and I couldn’t help thinking how much the workstation now looked like an old operating table. I’m getting strong 17th century vibes from this photo. Think “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” vibes.

Inking in dramatic light

Inking in dramatic light

Slowly getting there. The plant is finished, now to add shade and color to the whip spider.

In this photo the whip spider's abdomen is a little too green. Peggy caught that, and we fixed it in post.

In this photo the whip spider’s abdomen is a little too green. Peggy caught that, and we fixed it in post.

Tattoo sessions can be quite long in duration, so in order to keep everyone entertained Brian started reading astronaut stories about life in space. This resulted in one of the weirdest photos I have ever taken of someone. Viewed out of context, this will probably provoke many questions.

"They had to use the robotic arm to break off a two-foot-long icicle of frozen urine and wastewater that was dangling from the space shuttle"

“They had to use the robotic arm to break off a two-foot-long icicle of frozen urine and wastewater that was dangling from the space shuttle”

Everyone is entranced by Brian's reading

Everyone is entranced by Brian’s reading

In case you were wondering, working accurately on the tattoo was made possible by using references. In this case, a line art draft of the original design and a photo reference for the colors.

The work-in-progress tattoo and reference materials

The work-in-progress tattoo and reference materials

Getting the right shades and highlights of all the different colors is a long process. It was so mesmerizing to see Jacqueline breathing life into these drawings.

Adding some teal color to the highlights. The reference photo is very helpful here.

Adding some teal color to the highlights. The reference photo is very helpful here.

The last step was to apply a little bit of white ink to emphasize the arachnid’s lateral eyes and spikes.

Everyone wants to see the last droplet of ink applied

Everyone wants to see the last droplet of ink applied

And voilà!

Peggy happy with her new tattoo!

Peggy happy with her new tattoo!

The finished piece is simply stunning, I dare say. Jacqueline did an amazing job with the information she received. I remind you that she is an artist, not a scientist, and she didn’t know that these arachnids even existed before taking on this project. The result is a morphologically accurate Charinus israelensis and Cyclamen coum plant. I’m surprised that I like the plant even more than the whip spider!

A closer look at the finished Charinus whip spider and Cyclamen tattoo. I'm super impressed and proud at the same time.

A closer look at the finished Charinus whip spider and Cyclamen tattoo. I’m super impressed and proud at the same time.

As I was sitting at the studio observing the inking process and listening to a mixture of needle buzz and astronaut tales, I noticed something interesting. I do not have tattoos on me and have never considered getting any. But I found that if you sit long enough in a tattoo studio while someone else is getting theirs done, you ease into the idea that ‘hey. it’s not so bad. I guess I can get one too at some point’. Am I going to? Nah, probably not. But I found the whole experience of following Peggy’s journey quite eye opening. I definitely learned a lot from this, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Peggy and Jacqueline for being kind enough to let me stick around and watch. And thank you for choosing my whip spider for your tattoo, it makes me so happy!

Insect art: Monsters and creepy crawlies by Jonathan Wojcik

Warning: This post contains monster art. If you are a squeamish person or suffer from trypophobia, you might want to skip this one. 

From day one this website had a links page, and one of the first links to appear was for a website called “The Insidious bogleech”, an artistic platform for all-things-scary created by Jonathan Wojcik. The reason I initially included the link was his Pokemonology page that I wished more people would know about (and I secretly wish will be updated with more creatures). There is also a page with species that should have made it into Pokemon. But bogleech is so much more than just a dive into Pokemon science. Wojcik is a monster fanatic who dedicated his life to studying and celebrating the creepy. He is also an amazing artist with a hell of an imagination. All artwork shown here is courtesy of Jonathan Wojcik and posted with his permission.

Imaginary creature inspired by a scorpionfly (Mecoptera)

Imaginary creature inspired by a scorpionfly (Mecoptera)

On bogleech every day is Halloween. The website, which I stumbled upon in late 2004 and has been in my bookmarks ever since, is probably the largest repository of anything gruesome or monster-related in existence. Jonathan tells me an early version of the site already existed in 2001, so it is a piece of history! Bogleech has entire pages dedicated to reviewing monsters in any form imaginable (fiction, media, toys etc’), popular science articles about misunderstood animals and parasites, reviews of store finds around Halloween, a printable horror game, and heaps of original artwork by Wojcik. There is an extensive webcomic that allows you to get to know some of his original monster creations better and see how they would act in different scenarios. The website has a large community of followers, many of them actively add content to it. There are even hidden corners on the site, like these toy octopus and mummy character pages. Jonathan is also active outside of his own kingdom on Tumblr and Devianart, and he also has an Etsy store where he sells some bogleech merchandise. He used to write articles for cracked.com as well.

Leeches by Jonathan Wojcik

Leeches by Jonathan Wojcik

The image above is taken from the article about leeches, check it out if you want to learn more about these magnificent animals. This is what I like about bogleech – it takes subjects that most of us will never dwell upon, and delivers them in a friendly and informative manner. Where else can you read about the different types of leeches and at the same time get a personal perspective on these animals? Bogleech is the place. When my Epomis research was published, Jonathan and I talked about it and he dedicated a page on his website to the beetles, including some first-hand impressions from me about the study. You can say that this was my first featured interview. Since then, I have not checked his website for some time, and… he has been busy.

Thanks to its long existence, the website is like a labyrinth full of surprises. You can spend an entire day going through its content and still have plenty more left to explore. Spiderween is a series of posts attempting to present information about spiders in a non-threatening way using cartoonish drawings, a one-of-a-kind spider guide for the arachnophobe. I think it is absolutely brilliant. It contains a lot of interesting facts about spider biology but also debunks common misconceptions (for example about widow spiders, brown recluses, and others). Remember the ogre-faced spiders from a few posts ago? Here is a family-friendly, anthropomorphized version of the spider by Wojcik:

Ogre-faced spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Ogre-faced spider by Jonathan Wojcik

There is also series of articles about flies that is still in progress and worth checking out. One page I like in particular is Mortasheen, where Jonathan allows himself to go wild with creating his own world of monsters, occasionally inspired by real-life animals or by science fiction. When I find myself bored I like to get lost in this section of his website. This is where it’s fun to go and search for animals and plants you know, and see them from a slightly different perspective. When it comes to arthropods and other invertebrates, making the jump into imaginary creatures and monsters is almost expected and too easy. This is something I have already discussed in the previous insect art post on this blog – many of them seem alien to us because they are so different from other animals in their body structure, and some of them are so small that they are simply overlooked. Just to give a few examples, here is a creature based on a globular springtail:

Globular springtail by Jonathan Wojcik

Globular springtail by Jonathan Wojcik

Formicrawl is based on an Eciton army ant soldier:

Formicrawl - army ant by Jonathan Wojcik

Formicrawl – army ant by Jonathan Wojcik

Horrida is loosely based on a jumping stick:

Horrida - jumping stick by Jonathan Wojcik

Horrida – jumping stick by Jonathan Wojcik

Katydread is modelled after what seems to be a spiny devil katydid (Panachanthus cuspidatus):

Katydread - spiny devil katydid by Jonathan Wojcik

Katydread – spiny devil katydid by Jonathan Wojcik

Exothresher is based on a camel spider. It makes you wonder how fortunate we are! As humans we are much larger in size than these voracious predators, so we do not have to worry about being chased and eaten alive by them.

Exothresher - camel spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Exothresher – camel spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Rotsucker is inspired by a botfly larva:

Rotsucker - botfly larva by Jonathan Wojcik

Rotsucker – botfly larva by Jonathan Wojcik

Eldoon is a cute worm-like creature that is inspired by hammerhead flatworms:

Eldoon - hammerhead flatworm by Jonathan Wojcik

Eldoon – hammerhead flatworm by Jonathan Wojcik

And it’s not just invertebrates. Other animals get representation in Wojcik’s work as well, here’s one for example:

Abysmal by Jonathan Wojcik. If you are unfamiliar with anglerfish, they have a fleshy protrusion on their head to use as a lure for prey. This monster is an interesting interpretation when the prey is human

Abysmal by Jonathan Wojcik. If you are unfamiliar with anglerfish, they have a fleshy protrusion on their head to use as a lure for prey. This monster is an interesting interpretation when the prey is human

Fungi and plants are also represented. This guy is based on latticed stinkhorn (Clathrus ruber):

Funguslyme by Jonathan Wojcik

Funguslyme by Jonathan Wojcik

In addition to the bogleech website, Jonathan has a Patreon page, where he shares even more creature designs and bits from his creative process with his supporters. The characters in the sketch below were designed after carnivorous plants. You have to be very familiar with the plants to fully appreciate the small details in each of these drawings. For example, I have been keeping butterworts (Pinguicula) for years, and I can attest that they look exactly like the one in the top left corner!

carnivorous plants by Jonathan Wojcik

carnivorous plants by Jonathan Wojcik

But Wojcik’s work is still so much more. It’s not just about animals and plants. He takes notes from whatever is around us, even everyday objects, letting his imagination dictate what is possible. Here are some examples (again, from his Patreon posts), check out that sawdust monster!

Angelworm, Mushroom berserker, and Sawdust juggernaut. Creatures by Jonathan Wojcik

Angelworm, Mushroom berserker, and Sawdust juggernaut. Creatures by Jonathan Wojcik

Bogleech also contains a lot of information about parasites. After all, they are a wonder of nature that most of us don’t want to think about, but they do deserve respect for their importance and their evolutionary success. The influence of real-world parasites can be found throughout many of Wojcik’s creations. For example, the following monsters were inspired by Leucochloridium, a parasitic flatworm that infects snails:

Leucochloridium-inspired creatures by Jonathan Wojcik (Paraseethe, Eyezome, Parasidious, Pestare, Paraslob)

Leucochloridium-inspired creatures by Jonathan Wojcik (Paraseethe, Eyezome, Parasidious, Pestare, Paraslob)

Speaking of parasites, Jonathan is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to launch the next series of enamel pins bearing his artwork – parasites.

Parasite pins by Jonathan Wojcik

Parasite pins by Jonathan Wojcik

I think they are simply stunning (they glow in the dark too, so cool!). One day I hope to see an artistic interpretation of Epomis larvae through his eyes. Until then, I recommend checking out bogleech if you have the time. There is a lot to see and learn from, and what I presented here is only a tiny fraction of the gigantic web-monster that bogleech really is. If you want to support Jonathan’s work and get access to even more cool stuff, including a chance to have a monster designed at your request, feel free to check out his Patreon page.

Insect art: Animal sculptures by Skink Chen

Art comes in many forms. In my previous insect art posts I focused mainly on graphic art that closely follows natural appearance, from natural history illustrations to arthropod-based characters. What these creations have in common is that they attempt to portray nature as accurately as possible. However, when we look at different media around us, there are many imaginary creatures that borrow heavily from existing organisms. To say that fictional creatures are often inspired by real animals would be an understatement, and invertebrates play an important role in this (I’m still waiting for your call regarding Epomis beetles, Hollywood!). There are many aspects in invertebrates’ external appearance that may look out of this world because of how different they are from us humans, so when these characters are exaggerated and taken out of their normal proportions the results can be quite impressive. This is exactly what Skink Chen is doing with his sculptures. If you have never heard of Skink and don’t know his work, boy you’re in for treat. All artwork shown here is courtesy of Skink Chen and posted with his permission.

Undead membracid treehopper by Skink Chen (based on Notocera)

Undead membracid treehopper by Skink Chen (based on Notocera)

Skink is a very talented individual. You might not know it, but I have already shared some of his work – a tutorial for making a wide angle macro relay lens (at the bottom of this post). Based in Taiwan, he designs monsters and creatures and meticulously constructs them into 3D models. The sculptures are made of polymer clay, and are quite big, standing at 20-30 cm height. Not all of them are based on arthropods, but looking through his work shows that these animals provide most of the inspiration for the designs. The way I see it, Skink’s animal-inspired artworks consist of three separate lines:

Hyper-realistic models: These are sculptures modelled after existing animals, accurate to the very last detail. Skink began making those in 2008, and selected Taiwanese animals as the theme. By modeling his sculptures after real animals, he sharpened his skills to present animal morphology and structure in the most accurate way possible. This required long hours of data collection and examination of biological properties. Occasionally he would find a roadkill animal and collect the specimen for further study. There are many reptile and amphibian models (you can see photos of them in his online shop), but also some mammals and insects. They look just like the real thing, and can be used as stunning pieces on display in a natural history museum. I cannot express the amount of precision that goes into these artwork pieces and just how realistic they look. Take this male antlered flower beetle (Dicronocephalus wallichii) for example. Skink not only captured its physical appearance in great detail, but also nailed the pose perfectly. This is something that only someone who has seen the live beetles can appreciate, and as someone who kept them in captivity for years I can tell you this model is just like looking at the real beetle (you can compare to a live beetle here. It’s a different species, but the video is excellent).

Antlered flower beetle (Dicranocephalus wallichii). Artwork by Skink Chen

Antlered flower beetle (Dicranocephalus wallichii). Artwork by Skink Chen

Fusion between animals and humans: This is the most surreal category. I haven’t seen many works, so I guess Skink doesn’t make a lot of them. The idea is to merge the human body with components from animals to create a super organism. I find them very appealing and interesting to look at. It makes you think what it would be like to have grasshopper legs or raptorial limbs.

The incredible Grasshopper-man! Artwork by Skink Chen

The incredible Grasshopper-man! Artwork by Skink Chen

Jumping spider woman in mid-leap. Artwork by Skink Chen

Jumping spider woman in mid-leap. Artwork by Skink Chen

“Undead Creature” series: This is where Skink unleashes his imagination and lets it go truly wild. He began working on this series in 2014. Skink explains the idea behind it as “dead animals transformed into giant undead creatures returning to the world for revenge.”

Undead membracid treehopper (based on Centrotypus) playing with a human. Artwork by Skink Chen

Undead membracid treehopper (based on Centrotypus) playing with a human. Artwork by Skink Chen

They all start from an existing species, but then selected characters are stretched and exaggerated, until you end up looking at a completely new creature. These monsters are not restricted to insects, by the way. I have seen deep ocean fish, reptiles, and even plants.

Carnivorous pitcher plants (based on Nepenthes) by Skink Chen. If you look closely, there is a fly "king" sitting at the throne.

Carnivorous pitcher plants (based on Nepenthes) by Skink Chen. If you look closely, there is a fly “king” sitting at the throne.

Surinam toad (Pipa pipa) by Skink Chen. Even though it belongs to the "Undead Creatures" series, I see this as highly realistic and true to the real animal. It is one of those works that the more you look at it, the more detail you discover.

Surinam toad (Pipa pipa) by Skink Chen. Even though it belongs to the “Undead Creatures” series, I see this as highly realistic and true to the real animal. It is one of those works that the more you look at it, the more detail you discover.

There are almost no limits to what is possible here. And even though these are not real creatures, the amount of detail in them is impressive. The body postures and surface textures look so realistic, that it is easy to forget you are looking at something that came out of someone’s imagination. I cannot imagine how long it must take to finish them. What I like about Skink’s models is that they are always doing some kind of activity: fighting, reflecting, leaping etc’. They are never boring to look at. It is a little difficult to judge Skink’s work solely from photographs. I found that the more I look at them, the more hidden details I discover. I can only imagine what an interesting experience it is to see them in person.

Undead Cordyceps-infected ant meditating by Skink Chen. There is a lot of hidden detail in this work, and I hate to say this but the photo doesn't do it enough justice.

Undead Cordyceps-infected ant meditating by Skink Chen. There is a lot of hidden detail in this work, and I hate to say this but the photo doesn’t do it enough justice.

Caterpillars fighting by Skink Chen (based on Polyura and Acherontia caterpillars)

Caterpillars fighting by Skink Chen (based on Polyura and Acherontia caterpillars)

Antlered stag beetle (based on Rhaetulus) rests after defeating an atlas beetle in a fight. One of my favorite works by Skink Chen, and also one of my favorite stag beetle species.

Antlered stag beetle (based on Rhaetulus) rests after defeating an atlas beetle in a fight. One of my favorite works by Skink Chen, and also one of my favorite stag beetle species.

You can see more of Skink’s stunning work by following him on Facebook or Twitter. You can also order selected models as resin kits from his online shop.

Insect art: Arthropod girls by Jun (Kemono Friends fanart)

Imagine a world where humans have disappeared, while animals transformed into humanoid form but stayed true to their natural behavior and preferred habitats. This is the premise of Kemono Friends, an anime series from last year that surprised everyone and became very successful despite its seemingly low production value. It presents the dreamworld of Japari Park, a mysterious deserted zoo that houses animals from around the world (in the form of cute girls). In fact it was so successful that it generated a global cult following, regardless of gender, origin, and even species (if you are not familiar with the story of the old male penguin that fell in love with a cardboard cutout of one of the characters, read it here – it will melt your heart …and then its tragic ending will break your heart). Full disclosure: I did not watch the series, so I decided to test it out and watched one episode. I must say that despite my low expectations, I found it entertaining. You see, to enjoy Kenomo Friends you have to look beyond what it is on the surface. Leaving the plot and the quirky animation style aside, the naturalist in me liked the way animals were portrayed in the series, and appreciated the information presented to make viewers more familiar with their real-life counterparts. I am sure the series itself has great potential (want to see an interesting take on it? watch this). Anyway, the series deals with cute girls modeled after animals (mainly mammals and birds), also known as gijinka, however invertebrates were left out of the series. This is a real shame, because the huge diversity of invertebrates could inspire a similar diversity of characters, sparking interest and evoking respect and appreciation for these animals.

But do not fret. Several independent artists decided to do just that: designing their own arthropod-themed characters, while drawing inspiration from the anime series. One of them is Jun (@ni075 on twitter), an artist from Malaysia, who has spent the last months creating incredibly detailed arthropod gijinka. After discovering his art and following his posts he quickly became one of my most favorite artists. He kindly agreed to talk about his work and describe the process of creating the characters.

Chiasognathus grantii, stag beetle artwork by Jun

Chiasognathus grantii, stag beetle artwork by Jun

What exactly is gijinka?
Jun: “Gijinka (擬人化) means anthropomorphized characters based on any non-human subject (non-human characters, organisms, non-living things etc’). However, not all characters inspired by non-human subjects are gijinka unless the artist states they are (for example, characters with cat ears and tail are not always meant to be a cat’s anthropomorphism). There are no guidelines for gijinka but in general, instead of a non-human characters bearing human-like features, gijinka always come with a full human body at least in appearance, which sometimes makes them looks more like a cosplay based on their model. This type of anthropomorphism is also called Moe gijinka (萌え擬人化, see here for more details). There are many examples for gijinka products that follow these rules in Japan, such as Kantai Collection (warship girls), Touken Ranbu (sword boys), Houseki no Kuni (genderless human-like minerals), and Kemono Friends (animal girls).”

How did the idea of creating arthropod-inspired characters come to life?
Jun: “The idea of arthropod gijinka originated few years ago (during my high school days), but I started working on this series in May 2017, so only about half a year. I do not have any background in character design, the same goes for fashion and cloth design. This is my first original character series ever made. I think I was inspired by Kantai collection, a web browser game with the theme of warship gijinka, which I played throughout several years. The biggest inspiration came from the Kemono Friends series and the twitter user 小森雨太 (@comori_uta) who makes insects and other bugs gijinka as fanart “friends” (friend = gijinka individual in Kemono Friends). I love arthropods since childhood, from the infamous terrestrial bugs to the rather famous crustaceans. As the arthropd gijinka series took off, I decided to also debunk the common misconceptions people have on this fascinating and important group of animals.”

Xya japonica, pygmy mole cricket. Artwork by Jun

Xya japonica, pygmy mole cricket. Artwork by Jun

How do you choose which arthropod species to use as the model?
Jun: “Most of them simply come on a whim, and few are requests I get from other users. If possible, I will choose a ‘typical’ species at first. For example, I chose the water flea Daphnia pulex for having typical characteristics and being a well-known representative of its taxonomical group. Later I decided to make another character from the same group but based on a different species – Leptodora water flea. So in this case I used the first work as a basic design, and then added the characteristics that differentiate between the species. In some cases I make an exception and choose the “unique” species as the first character of its group, like in the cases of Chiasognathus grantii for a stag beetle and Rhagodes melanus for a camel spider. Both have quite a different body plan compared to other representatives of their groups (small-headed; short-legged, respectively). Though the creation process is still somewhat the same, in which I at least try to imagine how the ‘typical’ one looks like. For the examples mentioned above I chose Prosopocoilus stag beetle and the camel spider family Galeodidae, and used those as the basic design and made changes to it.”

Leptodora richardi, a water flea. This is one of my favorite designs by Jun; if you are not familiar with this animal please search for it online. He really captured the essence of this crustacean.

Leptodora richardi, a water flea. This is one of my favorite designs by Jun; if you are not familiar with this animal please search for it online. He really captured the essence of this crustacean.

One thing I love about Jun’s work is his attention to detail. His designs are not only flawless in execution, but also show a great deal of accuracy when it comes to arthropod morphology. Here are a few examples:

Crematogaster ants have a characteristic, elegant abdomen. Artwork by Jun

Crematogaster ants have a characteristic, elegant abdomen. Artwork by Jun

Pseudoscorpion by Jun. Accurate. I don't think I need to add anything here.

Pseudoscorpion by Jun. Accurate. I don’t think I need to add anything here.

In the case of Myrmarachne, Jun not only captured the lively and inquisitive nature of the jumping spider, but also the intricate details of its appearance. I would like to draw your attention to the color of the eyes, and to the dark stripe running along the second pair of legs in the spider, and its corresponding element on the girl’s arms. Brilliant.

Myrmarachne, an ant-mimicking jumping spider by Jun. Excellent depiction of morphology, coloration, and posture.

Myrmarachne, an ant-mimicking jumping spider by Jun. Excellent depiction of morphology, coloration, and posture.

By the way, Jun was not joking when he mentioned getting work requests from other people. After discovering and admiring his work, I half-jokingly asked if we are ever going to see a girl modeled after Epomis beetle. He gave it a shot using the first-instar larva as the model, and created the following jaw-dropping artwork. Ground beetle larvae are hard to characterize to begin with, so needless to say I was very impressed.

Epomis circumscriptus larva by Jun. She is missing a pet frog by her side, but I will let this one slide...

Epomis circumscriptus larva by Jun. She is missing a pet frog by her side, but I will let this one slide…

What do you do to get the information you need for creating the characters?
Jun: “Almost all of the information is obtained through an online search. My personal experience and records will be included as well if I have encountered the species in real life. Photographs of live individuals and specimens are a major part of my research. I also search for identification keys since many arthropods can look very similar between species or even higher classifications. Searching for taxonomy and behavior publications written by specialists is a must-do as well.”

As a side note, when you follow Jun’s posts on Twitter you get a first-row seat in viewing his entire creative process, and I do not mean just random posts showing work-in-process. You are exposed to the initial research, morphology studies, first sketches and outfit design, head design, and final character design. I find this not only fascinating to watch, but also quite engaging.

Jun: “I mainly express the species characteristics through clothes design, while leaving the hairstyle and face for last, because it has a big influence on the character’s personality. As all of my gijinka are created down to species level, I want to make them different from each other, each one with its own unique look. The Introduction corner is based on the one used in Kemono Friends anime, which appears on the screen when the animal girl makes her first appearance. The format I use is slightly different from the anime, and includes: class-order-family; Japanese name; scientific name.”

Rhagodes melanus, a camel spider by Jun. Another very impressive achievement; this is an animal that rarely gets any positive attention, not to mention the difficulty to portray it well in art form.

Rhagodes melanus, a camel spider by Jun. Another very impressive achievement; this is an animal that rarely gets any positive attention, not to mention the difficulty to portray it well in art form.

“I try to avoid including religion, culture, narrative or any other human-related elements of the animals in my gijinka’s design. The main reason is that those are not the characteristics of the animal itself. Moreover, many of those elements are based on misconception, which is something I try to debunk through the design itself. I want to show the true nature of the animal, instead of repeating people’s wrong impressions and stereotypes.”

How long does it take to complete each work, from conception to finished artwork?
Jun: “The time can range from 3 days to 2 weeks. In most cases I spend up almost a week throughout the process: 1-3 days for research and concept, 2-4 days for the final artwork.”

Another interesting aspect in Jun’s characters is the eyes. “While most of the gijinka will have the animal’s eyes reconstructed around the character’s head like an accessory, I decided to go against this rule and make the human eye more similar to the species’ eye itself. In extreme cases like huge eyes or stalked eyes, I reconstruct it as an accessory in a non-eye-like design.”

This is very apparent in the following examples, the split-eyes of Chiasognathus grantii stag beetle, or the six clustered stemmata (simple eyes) of Epomis larva are perfectly depicted in the characters’ eyes.

A Composite image to show the level of detail in characters' eyes. Chiasognathus beetles have split eyes, while Epomis larvae eyes consist of six stemmata arranged in a cluster. Jun expressed these features within the iris of both characters.

A Composite image to show the level of detail in characters’ eyes. Chiasognathus beetles have split eyes, while Epomis larvae eyes consist of six stemmata arranged in a cluster. Jun expressed these features within the iris of both characters.

How many characters do you plan to make?
Jun: “Actually I haven’t set any limit for the number of characters, so the plan is to make as many as I possibly can. But I want to make more characters representing different taxonomical groups. For example I still lack myriapods, and I have only two crustaceans.”

Damon diadema, a whip spider by Jun. Another personal favorite that shows the essence of the model species, from the presence of spines and sensory whips to the banded legs depicted here by belt straps.

Damon diadema, a whip spider by Jun. Another personal favorite that shows the essence of the model species, from the presence of spines and sensory whips to the banded legs depicted here by belt straps.

Do you have any future plans for these designs like publishing a book or running an exhibition?
Jun: “Currently I only made this series as Kemono Friends’s fanart, so I still don’t have any future plans for it.”

I must admit that reply to my last question left me a little bitter. There is something about Jun’s work that makes me wish for more. For someone who is passionate about arthropods, it is pure eye candy. I would love to see it becoming something big, a collection perhaps. Hey, I even find myself fantasizing about a spinoff anime series or a manga following the arthropod girls’ adventures. For the time being, I will continue to enjoy whatever I can find on Jun’s twitter. But I can dream, right?

A Moment of Creativity: Reconsidering blattodeans

A while back someone asked me if I had any plans to put up a gallery page for blattodeans on this website. That was indeed something I had in mind; This is one of my favorite insect groups, so it would not do them justice if they are unrepresented here. I hate to admit, but my issue with uploading photos of blattodeans is mainly due to difficulties in identifying some of the species I photographed. Nevertheless, I am happy to report that the Blattodea gallery is now up and running.

Blattodeans suffer an extremely undeserved bad reputation. The majority of Blattodea species live in natural habitats such as forests, deserts, sand dunes, and meadows, leading a cryptic lifestyle away from humans. Only a tiny fraction of them, less than 1%, lives in proximity to humans and considered as pests. For this reason I decided to ditch the word “cockroaches” and follow Piotr Naskrecki by adopting the word “blattodeans”. In the sad reality that we live in today, the word “cockroach” often carries a negative connotation in people’s minds. It is associated with something unwanted, menacing, dirty, and harmful. This could not be further from the truth: many blattodean species help to break down decaying organic matter, making crucial nutrients available for other organisms. They are, along with ants and flies, nature’s cleaning service (you’re welcome). Some species are also important pollinators. And that is without even mentioning their numerous adaptations to avoid predators, their maternal care, and social behavior.

A forest blattodean nymph (Nyctibora sp.) with white "socks." If you don't think he's cute you might want to check your pulse.

A forest blattodean nymph (Nyctibora sp.) with white “socks.” If you don’t think he’s cute you might want to check your pulse.

A long time ago I had the idea of photographing blattodeans right after molting, while they are still fresh and pigment-free. My goal was to see whether people would recognize the animal presented to them, now that it lacks some of its identifiable characters. By the way, I have been doing the same thing with whip spiders.

Blattodean molting. Who knows what it is going to look like once pigmentation appears?

Blattodean molting. Who knows what it is going to look like once pigmentation appears?

The semi-transparent exoskeleton of a freshly molted Lanxoblatta rudis nymph allows a rare glimpse into the insect's internal network.

The semi-transparent exoskeleton of a freshly molted Lanxoblatta rudis nymph allows a rare glimpse into the insect’s internal network.

The first attempts were done with Periplaneta americana, a common species that most people associate with pests. When presented with an all-white Periplaneta, almost everyone said it looked “cute”.

Freshly molted male Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

Freshly molted male Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

Above is a freshly molted male Madagascar hisser (Gromphadorhina portentosa) from a colony we kept at the museum I worked at (for more details see my previous post). We used to isolate individuals that showed signs of an approaching molt, to use them in class displays for students. Large males like this one were always a special treat, with their impressive horns. I took this photo in 2006. Even though I have seen and photographed many freshly molted blattodeans, I still see this old photo as one of my best captures. There is something about it that speaks to people. They no longer recognize an insect they are repulsed by; instead many people see something that reminds them of a cat. Recently I was delighted to learn that this photo has provided inspiration for an artist: I stumble upon an article in Chinese encouraging people to learn more about blattodeans. It featured my photo (=copyright infringement), followed by a drawing of an innocent-looking girl wearing the male horned hisser as a hat. Cute girls with cat ears (referred to as nekomimi, or in the case of other animals’ ears – kemonomimi) is a popular theme especially in manga and anime in Japan, and the blattodean serves a similar purpose here. As a matter of fact, early on I gave my photo the title 猫ちゃん (neko-chan), which translates to “kitty” in Japanese.

Blattodean kemonomimi embeded from the article mentioned. Artwork by user 长得像人的割草机 on Weibo (see originals in the comment below)

Generally speaking, I find that a lot of people respond differently to white blattodeans compared to dark-colored ones. It is almost as if it is a completely different animal. What is it that makes us so susceptible to visual cues in the form of flat dark insects? There must be a reason for this sensitivity.

A molting forest blattodean (Nyctibora sp.) shows off its elegant golden wings

A molting forest blattodean (Nyctibora sp.) shows off its elegant golden wings

Some blattodeans are white by nature, like this beautiful species of Panchlora from Belize

Some blattodeans are white by nature, like this beautiful species of Panchlora from Belize

We used to joke at the museum that when it comes to human reaction, insects can be divided into two subgroups. The first subgroup contains “green” insects: these are insects that are perceived as friendly just by their appearance. They do not necessarily have to be green, but it helps if they are. This group contains ladybugs, grasshoppers, stick and leaf insects, smooth caterpillars, stout and furry moths, mantids, and katydids to some extent. The other subgroup contains all the other insects. Again, this division is merely a joke, but it is amazing to see just how many people follow this arbitrary division. To those who welcome ladybugs but put blattodeans in the “other” subgroup, I always remind that there are blattodeans out there that look exactly like ladybugs.

Male horned roach (Hormetica strumosa). Not as cuddly as the white "neko-chan", but pretty close.

Male horned roach (Hormetica strumosa). Not as cuddly as the white “neko-chan”, but pretty close.

Since photographing “neko-chan”, I have been working with other species of blattodeans, hoping to achieve the same result, however, I was not able to replicate that look. Maybe it was more than just timing the photo with the molting process. Maybe I also captured some of the hisser’s essence and unique personality. After all, he almost looks like he is trying to tell us something. Well, he does, all blattodeans do – but we never stop to listen.

Public outreach: Promoting the appreciation of arthropods

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in an outreach event, Guelph Bug Day, at the University of Guelph Arboretum. Bug days are public events, usually free of any admission fees, which promote the appreciation and admiration of insects and arachnids, and set out to educate anyone who is fascinated by arthropods.
This is not the first time I participate in such an event. Last year I presented arachnids at Bug Day Ottawa. In fact, ever since I became interested in insects and their natural history, I have been involved in presenting them to whoever was interested: I brought live insects to lab sessions in high school, I led my mates in outdoor excursions to find spiders and scorpions during my military service, I collaborated with operating museums and insectariums as a consultant on exhibitions, and I incorporated the use of live insects in biology studies at universities to help students gain a better understanding of the courses material. More recently though, I have been more active in events aimed at the general public, in order to bring arthropods into the mainstream and help people overcome their fears. And so far, it has been a blast. Take this recent bug day in Guelph for example: I found myself smiling from ear to ear the whole time, and my table was always busy with no moment to rest, not that I am complaining. This was the first time Guelph holds a bug day event and to be honest, it was the best one I have ever been to. It was that good. But before I talk about the bug day, let me elaborate a little about public outreach and why I think it is important.

When working in science, especially when you acquire some expertise, it becomes difficult to expose the public to your subject of research and communicate about it. The more knowledge you gain about your study system, the harder it gets to explain it to people with little or no science background and get them to care about it. I am happy to say that this is changing thanks to the engagement of researchers and science communicators with the public on social media. Yet there is still a long way to go.

More specifically, nowadays most people go about their daily lives with little or no exposure to the wonders of nature. I once brought velvet worms to a public outreach event at the Toronto Zoo and the response was phenomenal. It was not surprising – the majority of people, biologists included, will live through their lives without even knowing these majestic animals exist, let alone see a live one. So in my opinion this exposure is critical, it can influence the public’s opinion and later have implications for nature conservation. I do think people should familiarize themselves with whatever is found in their area, both plants and animals. After all, insects and spiders are everywhere, and most of them are not out to get anyone. They are harmless and usually mind their own business.

When I present live arthropods, I love interacting with children and let them handle the animals, but I am even more interested in getting the parents into the game. You see, the reality is that the majority of kids already like bugs. They are curious about the diverse world of invertebrates, those common animals that are so different from mammals and birds, and have the appearance of small toys. Unfortunately, at some point children lose their interest in invertebrates, and sometimes even worse, replace it with fear and hate. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why that stage occurs. But it is most likely due to an environmental influence – succumbing to peer-pressure from friends or parents, and witnessing a shift in cultural appreciation as technology takes nature’s place. Parents have a huge role in preserving the view of the natural world in young people’s minds by encouraging them and nurturing their curiosity. Many times I have seen an excited kid holding an insect turn to their parents in hopes for affirmation. However, sometimes the kids are uninterested in insects, in which case I try to work directly with the parents and get them to handle the animals. Some children just need to see their parents doing something a bit unconventional to get confirmation that they are cool!

It just so happens that I stumbled upon this beautiful artwork by Tiana Cabana, a lovely composite image (inspired by another artwork) depicting my burning passion and mission –

Give small critters some room in your heart. Embrace them.
It will make you a better person, and they will appreciate it too.

Going back to Guelph Bug Day, I was astonished by the sheer amount of positivity expressed by the visitors attending. Even those who confessed their fears gave the arachnids a chance after listening to some facts about them and realizing that they do not pose a threat. I find this level of open-mindness incredible, and it is in great part thanks to the amazing organizers and volunteers who put so much of their energy into making this event a reality. Such a talented group of people.

I returned home from the bug day with such a “high”, almost intoxicated, feeling. At first I didn’t know what it was. Sure, the event was fun, but was it that fun? What is this smile smeared all over my face? Why am I so restless, why can’t I just sit down? And it finally dawned on me what it is that I was feeling. It was love. I was in love.
So yeah, I can get pretty emotional at times, but the important take home message for me here is that I can see myself doing this every single day, for the rest of my life. Thank you, Guelph Bug Day. You have a special place in my heart.

One lesson learned from doing these events – I need to bring a camera…

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.

Insect art: Transformers and other insect mecha

In my previous post I discussed the use of insects in Japanese anime. There are many other fascinating examples of insects being featured in cartoons, but I cannot leave the subject without mentioning one specific example that is somewhat related: The Transformers.

"Look! There is some interesting text written down there"

“Look! There is some interesting text written down there”

"Yes! Let's check it out!"

“Yes! Let’s check it out!”

I grew up in the 1980’s, a time when giant robots were popular among kids. The Transformers was one such franchise, telling the story of two races of transforming robots fighting each other, who one day end up stranded on earth. Despite its apparent novelty, it was not the first show to come up with the idea of robots that can change form into vehicles and other objects; the same concept was already in use by other animated mecha shows like Gobots, Voltron, Macross etc’. Nevertheless, The Transformers had the largest variety of shape-shifting robots compared to its competitors. It is important to remember that at its core, The Transformers cartoon series was meant to promote the sale of toys created by the Japanese manufacturer Takara and licensed to Hasbro in the US. New characters were introduced continuously on the show, corresponding to new toy models being released. Soon enough, The Transformers became a huge success, attracting a large crowd of followers. Together with its toy lines, unique animation style, and recognizable sound effects, it coined catchphrases like “More than Meets the Eye” and “Robots in Disguise”. Now, over 30 years after its first launch, it is still growing as a franchise.

I look at this image and I see toys. So many toys.

I look at this image and I see toys. So many toys.

To make things clear, I am not a hardcore Transformers fan. I do not collect the toys, and I am not too obsessed with the cartoon. I also do not care much for the recent reboot of the franchise in live-actions films, but I am not their target audience anyway. To put it more simply, I love the idea of transforming robots for exactly what it is – creatures trying to disguise themselves as something else. You can imagine my excitement as a kid when I found out about the Transformers’ line of robot insects: the insecticons.

As a young naturalist I learned that insects try to hide or disguise themselves all the time. It seemed natural to me (and I must admit, also very cool) that insects inspired the design of some of the Transformers characters. Although the thought of giant robots from another planet taking the form of insects may come as a surprise, does it really? Insects already look bulky, and their movements are often described as mechanical, thanks to their restricting exoskeleton. I think the idea of robot insects is as straightforward and predictable as it can be.

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons were introduced early in the Transformers series, in the episode A Plague of Insecticons. The group included three members: Shrapnel, the gang’s leader who can also control lightning, was modeled after a stag beetle; Bombshell, who can mind-control other robots by using capsules, transforms into a weevil; and Kickback, a robotic locust. Some of the show’s fans will probably try to correct me that Bombshell is supposed to be a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, however the design of his snout complete with two antennae-like projections, along with the way he uses it in his insect mode, suggest he is a weevil. In addition, the insecticons were supposed to portray insect pests; they had the ability to multiply and form swarms, consuming crops and energy resources in their path. Pest locusts and weevils are well known. As to why a stag beetle was chosen to represent a pest species, that is indeed a good question.

The insecticons swarm on its way to defoliate a crop field. Oh, Kickback. Why are you so cute?

The insecticons swarm on its way to defoliate a crop field. Oh, Kickback. Why are you so cute?

"Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!"

“Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!”

I love this comic artwork showing Kickback's locust swarm. It is an excellent depiction of our helplessness not only against giant menacing robots, but also the unpredictability of catastrophic natural phenomena.

I love this comic artwork showing Kickback’s locust swarm. It is an excellent depiction of our helplessness not only against giant menacing robots, but also the unpredictability of catastrophic natural phenomena.

By the time The Transformers were popular as a TV series and a toy line, they released several other insect robots toys known as “Deluxe insecticons”. These colorful figures were never featured on the animated show due to a licensing issue, but they appeared in the comics.

One of the first appearances of the Deluxe insecticons in the Transformers comics

One of the first appearances of the Deluxe insecticons in the Transformers comics

The Deluxe insecticons included a Japanese rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma) called Barrage, another stag beetle named Chop Shop, a grasshopper named Ransack, and Venom – a cicada. You can definitely see the influence of Japanese culture reflecting in these insect mode choices.

Barrage and Chop Chop. The Deluxe insecticons were not exactly loyal to each other.

Barrage and Chop Shop. The Deluxe insecticons were not exactly loyal to each other.

Deluxe insecticons Venom and Barrage. I love how they designed Venom to have sucking mouthparts, a proboscis, in his insect mode, just like a real cicada.

Deluxe insecticons Venom and Barrage. I love how they designed Venom to have sucking mouthparts, a proboscis, in his insect mode, just like a real cicada.

Despite their bright color palette, the Deluxe insecticons were more similar in their appearance to real-life insects than the original insecticons. The only figure I have issues with is Ransack: With his black and yellow coloration he is supposed to represent a gregarious morph of the desert locust Schistocerca gregaria, but his colors make him look more like Aganacris velutina, a wasp-mimicking katydid.

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

There is a small a history lesson here too: Despite their late addition to the franchise, the Deluxe insecticons were not really new characters. They were designs borrowed from another Japanese franchise by the name of Beetras: Armored Insect Battalion, manufactured by the Japanese company Takatoku Toys. The Beetras story revolved around five young warriors who pilot insectoid mecha to protect earth from threats. I like this idea of humans using insectoid vehicles to perform different tasks. Anyone who has stumbled upon the photo of John Deer’s Walking Harvester will know what I am talking about. However, shortly after the Beetras toy line was released in 1984, Takatoku Toys went bankrupt. The toy molds were sold to Bandai, another toy manufacturer who then licensed them to Hasbro, and those would later become the Deluxe insecticons. I much prefer the original Beetras color scheme of the robots as opposed to the brightly colored deluxe insecticons. The Beetras colors appear more natural and closer to what insects look like in real life.

The insecticons toys presented in the 1985 catalog. The original insecticons can be seen at the bottom, while the Deluxe insecticons, still sporting their Beetras coloration, at the top.

The insecticons toys presented in the 1985 catalog. The original insecticons can be seen at the bottom, while the Deluxe insecticons, still sporting their Beetras coloration, at the top.

The Deluxe insecticons toy line in the 1986 catalog, now with their reissued colors.

The Deluxe insecticons toy line in the 1986 catalog, now with their reissued colors.

Going over the Beetras robot designs reveals that there were several additional characters in planning – a Hercules beetle, yet another stag beetle, and a ladybird beetle (a female robot toy, which at the time was quite unusual). Unfortunately, these characters never made it through to the production stage.

The Beetras planned toy line from 1984. This could have been such a great series.

The Beetras planned toy line from 1984. This could have been such a great series.

If there is anything that the insecticons have taught us, it is that good things are only temporary. Like many good Transformers characters, the insecticons’ fate was to fade from existence. They were hit, run over, and eventually killed off during the events of Transformers: The Movie in 1986.

Kickback being run over by a vehicle. The poor guy can be seen trying to cover his head and antennae just before the impact. I can feel for him.

Kickback being run over by a vehicle. The poor guy can be seen trying to cover his head and antennae just before the impact. I can feel for him.

Although they never returned to the animated series, their legacy still lives on in the form of toys, with interesting reissues from time to time. In my opinion the insecticons were a great idea that never really reached its full potential. They left much to be desired. Maybe we will see them again one day, after all insects are all around us.

Soundwave releases tiny insecticons for a mission. Maybe there are still some little transformers out there?

Soundwave releases tiny insecticons for a mission. Maybe there are still some little transformers out there?

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* This post makes use of copyrighted material for the purpose of commentary under fair use.

Insect art: The use of insects in Japanese anime

I have a confession to make: I love anime.
It should come as no surprise, especially after my post featuring an animated cockroach video. I cannot seem to trace back when my interest in anime has started, but it has been there for a while since childhood. It would be difficult for me to explain why I love this form of media so much, as well as it predecessor, the Japanese manga. I love everything about it: The character design, their well-crafted stories, the overly detailed backgrounds, and the wink to some of Japan’s culture. And what is better than having your interests collide and merge into one? There is some extensive use of insects and other arthropods in manga and anime, but it is so subtle that you may have not even noticed it.

A field of plain tiger butterflies (Danaus chrysippus). From "Natsume's Book of Friends"

A field of plain tiger butterflies (Danaus chrysippus). From “Natsume’s Book of Friends”

To start off, Japan’s culture has an interesting relationship with insects (collectively called mushi). It is a nation that embraces the eccentric and weird, where insects are a part of the mainstream. They are mostly not feared from, but admired and respected. Japanese people enjoy listening to singing insects, observing the behavior of fighting insects, and in some areas even eat insects. I will not go into much detail about the Japanese beetle culture (as this is a topic for a full post by itself), just mention that it is widely accepted for kids (and adults) to keep beetles as pets, and you can buy a variety of beetles and their breeding supplies in stores. The popularity of live beetles in Japan is no less than that of cats and dogs. It is a pity that the rest of the world is a bit lagging in this regard. There are numerous Japanese books dealing with insects as well as insectariums targeting children. In addition, every summer kids in Japan catch and play with insects, from dragonflies and butterflies to cicadas and water bugs. The result is that almost no children in Japan are afraid to handle insects. With such a culture, the children are also always connected to nature.

And this brings me to art. With mushi playing such an extensive role in Japanese culture, it is very easy to find representations of that in art. I am going to focus mainly on examples in anime but it is important to note that insects can be found painted, sculpted, or carved in everyday objects. The mushi culture is truly overwhelming; this post is merely scratching the surface.

Without exception, the insect that is most commonly used in Japanese art, and specifically in anime and manga, is the singing cicada.

Cicada molting into its adult stage. Beautiful use of insect biology from Makoto Shinkai's "The Garden of Words"

Cicada molting into its adult stage. Beautiful use of insect biology from Makoto Shinkai’s “The Garden of Words”

The emergence of larval and adult cicadas represent the onset of warm summer, and these insects are used to give a sense of time for the ongoing plot. This is usually done by showing cicadas singing while clinging to trees, poles etc’, even in an urban envronment. In anime the sound of singing cicadas is used to represent summertime even without actually showing cicadas in the frame.

Singing cicada on a street lamp post. From "Steins;Gate"

Singing cicada on a street lamp post. From “Steins;Gate”

Unique styling on this singing cicada. From "Welcome to the NHK!"

Unique styling on this singing cicada. From “Welcome to the NHK!”

Cicadas are also used to show the end of summer, by depicting a dead cicada falling from its perch, or a carcass on the ground.

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From "Aoi Bungaku"

Dead cicada surrounded by ants. From “Aoi Bungaku”

Dragonflies are another commonly used insect in anime, usually to give the sense of a bigger picture; despite what just happened in the plot, it is but an insignificant event and life around is still going on. This adds a dramatic impact to the more serious anime genres, in moments where a catastrophe just took place.

Life goes on. From "Steins;Gate"

Life goes on. From “Steins;Gate”

Other insects are used to depict different emotions. Fireflies usually represent a special event in the life of the characters, whereas singing insects evoke curiosity and a sense of exploration.

One day I will take a firefly photo just like in this scene. From "Encouragement of Climb"

One day I will take a firefly photo just like in this scene. From “Encouragement of Climb”

Observing a Japanese bell cricket, suzumushi (Meloimorpha japonicus). From "Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day"

Observing a Japanese bell cricket, suzumushi (Meloimorpha japonicus). From “Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day”

Spiders and other predatory arthropods are usually used as a sign for danger. I wish it wasn’t the case. I can only hope that one day arachnids are going to represent beauty and complexity in popular culture, but it seems we still have a long way to go.

The spider had nothing to do with what happened in this scene. From "Aoi Bungaku"

The spider had nothing to do with what happened in this scene. From “Aoi Bungaku”

Which spider family? From "Aoi Bungaku"

Which spider family? From “Aoi Bungaku”

In Japanese mythology, the golden orb-web spider (Nephila clavata) is considered a shape-shifter that seduces young men. From "Beyond the Boundary"

In Japanese mythology, the golden orb-web spider (Nephila clavata) is considered a shape-shifter that seduces young men. From “Beyond the Boundary”

Somebody is in ambush, and I don't mean the mantis. From "Sword of the Stranger"

Somebody is in ambush, and I don’t mean the mantis. From “Sword of the Stranger”

Another important part of the Japanese insect culture is the appreciation and celebration of insect diversity. The collecting of insects is explained and demonstrated in both manga and anime as a fun activity for the summer days. The “Endless eight” plotline from anime The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya relies heavily on an insect collection trip as its main setting. Although the characters are out to collect cicadas (they release them eventually, in case you wondered), many insect species are shown, including beetles, butterflies, bugs and grasshoppers.

Collecting insects isn't always easy. From "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya"

Collecting insects isn’t always easy. From “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”

More specifically, rhinoceros and stag beetle species are represented in great detail and are often referred to by species name. In the series Natsume’s Book of Friends there is a split-second scene in which the main character flips through an insect book from his childhood. It is hard not to appreciate the accuracy shown in that short scene, all the insects can be easily identified to the species level (and probably even mentioned by name, too bad I cannot read Japanese). In the screenshot below you can recognize the various subspecies of the atlas beetle (Chalcosoma atlas), neptune beetle (Dynastes neptunus), eastern Hercules beetle (Dynastes tityus), western Hercules beetle (Dynastes granti), and the rare satanas beetle (Dysantes satanas).

Detailed insect book from "Natsume's Book of Friends"

Detailed insect book from “Natsume’s Book of Friends”

As with any type of collecting activity, some specimens are highly prized and receive special attention.

"A golden stag beetle!" From "Teekyu"

“A golden stag beetle!” From “Teekyu”

Saw-toothed stag beetle (Lamprima adolphinae)! From "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya"

Saw-toothed stag beetle (Lamprima adolphinae)! From “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”

Beetle fights are also a common theme. One good example is a whole franchise centered around the world of rhinoceros and stag beetles. Musiking included a manga, an anime series, and an arcade game complete with activation cards containing information about different beetle species. It even had collectible merchandise (beetle models) that sold very well. More than anything, Mushiking exposed kids to the huge diversity of fighting beetles, and there are even reports claiming that this franchise is responsible for the rise in popularity and illegal trafficking of certain beetle species in Japan. The concept of beetle fights as a game of gambling is also explored in some anime. For example, in the series Samurai Champloo, the character Mugen is shown training a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, known as kabutomushi (Allomyrina dichotoma) by letting it pull weights. Later he is seen putting his trainee to the test, while a crowd of drunk people cheer in the background. Allomyrina dichotoma has a long-standing status in Japanese culture because of its unique male horn and strength. It is extremely popular as a pet species, and even has toys modeled after it.

Training a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, kabutomushi (Allomyrina dichotoma). From "Samurai Champloo"

Training a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, kabutomushi (Allomyrina dichotoma). From “Samurai Champloo”

"Fight! Fight!" From "Samurai Champloo"

“Fight! Fight!” From “Samurai Champloo”

There are many more excellent examples out there, but I hope I convinced you that insects have an important place in anime. In fact, while researching anime series for this post I came a cross several dozens of additional examples that I missed during my first watch of the shows. So why am I writing about this? This is the first of two posts dealing with the use of insects in animated media that I really like. I thought it would be interesting and refreshing to depart a little from my usual posts about natural history and present you with a different aspect of who I am. Shocking, I know. Wait till you read the next post. I promise it will be fun, so please stick around.

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* This post makes use of copyrighted material for the purpose of commentary under fair use.
** This post is also a response to some people who tried their best to mock me about my anime-watching habits. I don’t see how pointing out someone for having a hobby that they love can ever be considered as an insult. If you are one of those bullies, take a good honest look at your own hobbies and answer me this – do you feel ashamed for your personal interests? No? Didn’t think so.
So why should I be.