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Ending 2018 with a bang

Let’s go straight to the punchline: 2018 was a successful year for me. This is important because I am posting this late into 2019, so I had the time to reflect on the passing year’s events.
I was debating if I should write a summary post for 2018 at all. These things get old quickly, especially around the last two weeks of December, when such posts pop up everywhere. Even though I know I am expected to post my favorite photographs from last year, the truth is that I have not been particularly busy taking photos. Instead I have been focusing on other projects, giving invited talks and doing public outreach, as well as adding content to this website. In addition, there were a few notable events this year that helped shaping me as a professional and as a person. So if you want to know what I have been up to in 2018, read on.

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

Opinion piece about giving away free photos,
and the rise to fame (not really)

One of the first posts I wrote in 2018 was aimed at people asking for free work. It joined other similar posts (examples are here and here), and to be honest I did not expect to receive any response to it. I merely posted the article so I can go back and refer people to it whenever I am faced with such requests. As many creative freelancers know, being asked to work or provide service for free is far too common. Apparently that post hit close to home because it received echo from fellow photographers and artists, and was later picked up by PetaPixel, one of the biggest photography-related news websites.
The piece featured on PetaPixel spread like wildfire and triggered some interesting discussions. On one hand, not everyone liked what I wrote, and some users even attacked me for it. On the other hand, I found myself discussing important topics like rates and copyrights with other, more experienced professionals. Even though this rant has been years in planning, I admit the post was written in the heat of the moment, and as such it is not a well-worded text. Now that I think about it, it is clear that I could have done a better job. That being said, I have no regrets whatsoever; the post is justified. If anything, having it available on my website serves as a deterrent for anyone who behaves inappropriately and disrespectfully towards creators by asking for free work.

Trip to Colombia

In February I went on a short assignment in Colombia, to photograph a tree. I know, right? It sounds simple and too good to be true, but in reality finding trees that fit what the client had in mind was challenging, not to mention it was not always possible to shoot the tree in the requested high resolution for the project. This trip also gave me a chance to test the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens, and I am happy I did, because it proved to be an outstanding competitor to the renowned Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x macro lens. Laowa is quickly establishing themselves as one of the most interesting lens companies out there, and I am looking forward to see what other innovations they have up their sleeve!

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

Tree covered in climbing epiphytes. Is this the perfect tree for the job? Close to perfect, but unfortunately, it was not good enough.

Tree covered in climbing epiphytes. Is this the perfect tree for the job? Close to perfect, but unfortunately, it was not good enough.

Central American tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii). One of the benefits of walking around checking out trees, is finding tree-inhabiting animals.

Central American tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii). One of the benefits of walking around checking out trees, is finding tree-inhabiting animals.

Katydid nymph showing intense pink coloration or erythrism - a rare phenomenon that is occasionally seen in katydids, in which a genetic mutation causes an absence of the normal green pigment and the excessive production of pink pigment.

Katydid nymph showing intense pink coloration or erythrism – a rare phenomenon that is occasionally seen in katydids, in which a genetic mutation causes an absence of the normal green pigment and the excessive production of pink pigment.

Fairy wasp (family Mymaridae) ovipositing in membracid treehopper egg mass. One of the best finds during this trip (watch this space for an upcoming post about it). This tiny wasp is only 0.6mm in length! Photographed using the Laowa 25mm lens.

Fairy wasp (family Mymaridae) ovipositing in membracid treehopper egg mass. One of the best finds during this trip (watch this space for an upcoming post about it). This tiny wasp is only 0.6mm in length! Photographed using the Laowa 25mm lens.

Trip to Ecuador

In May I returned to my beloved site in Ecuador, this time it wasn’t really to get work done but was more of an escape to spend my birthday (ok, who am I kidding, I still worked during that visit…). I often feel miserable around my birthday and during holidays because many times I have no one to spend them with, and it seemed like a good idea to pass this time in a place that I love. More than anything I needed to clear my head before taking the role of a spider wrangler (up next). This trip ended up being very peaceful and relaxing, somewhat lonely, but still satisfying. I was able to finally find one of my target species for the area, the seasonal jewel scarab, Chrysophora chrysochlora.

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

Bird eater tarantula (Theraphosa sp.). I was extremely happy to encounter this giant for the first time in the wild, and add it to the species checklist for my site.

Bird eater tarantula (Theraphosa sp.). I was extremely happy to encounter this giant for the first time in the wild, and add it to the species checklist for my site.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) in mid-flight. This photo is not perfect in many ways: it is dark, the composition is not ideal, and it is also slightly cropped. But I achieved something very difficult here - taking a wide angle macro and freezing an orchid bee in flight. Those bees are fast!

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) in mid-flight. This photo is not perfect in many ways: it is dark, the composition is not ideal, and it is also slightly cropped. But I achieved something very difficult here – taking a wide angle macro and freezing an orchid bee in flight. Those bees are fast!

Male orchid bees (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from a moss patch

Male orchid bees (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from a moss patch

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Spiders exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum

And then, immediately after returning from Ecuador, I was recruited to the Royal Ontario Museum to work on their “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibit. This is something I knew I wanted to do ever since I heard about this exhibit in December 2016. It was a long wait but I was finally in! I worked full-time as the spider wrangler for seven months at the museum, along with the awesome Mateus Peppineli. The role involved mainly taking care of spiders displayed in the gallery and in the live room, but also delivering presentations to the museum visitors. These presentations were open for whatever came in mind, so I could include information about different arachnids, not just spiders (as can be seen in the photo opening this post). A key component of the presentations was performing live venom milking from spiders and scorpions in front of an audience (you can watch a venom milking presentation in this video). This is something that requires some explanation – the idea was to extract venom from live animals that were sedated, and do it in a way that would not harm the animals and allow for future extraction of venom later on.

Milking venom from a fishing spider at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from TFO video

Milking venom from a fishing spider at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from TFO video

This is something I got trained for about a decade ago in Israel, I felt so lucky to be able to not only do this again, but also to present it to other people. In this regard I believe this ROM exhibit was one of a kind. Sure, the original exhibit coming from Australia also had a venom milking component, but I think the exhibit is really as good as the person running the show. I don’t know if there is any other place that has the unusual combination of someone passionate about arachnids, has over 20 years worth of expertise keeping and designing public displays for them, AND is also trained in venom extraction. And this is exactly why this exhibit made it well; people hoarded to see it, many coming back several times for more. Not only it gave me enormous satisfaction to see that people are interested in spiders, but also it showed me that without doubt there is a desire to see a similar permanent exhibit in Toronto, maybe on a larger scale. And I needed that affirmation.

Presenting spiders to an audience at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from Curiosity in Focus video

Presenting spiders to an audience at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from Curiosity in Focus video

I met and talked with thousands of people. Many of them came to me wishing to learn more about spiders they saw in their own house or backyard. Children found in me someone who is on their side, because I could understand and relate to their passion for insects and spiders. Some people confessed that I changed their point of view and helped them conquering their fear of spiders. Young visitors told me that watching me working has inspired them to pursue higher education and a career in science. And sure, it was nice being in the spotlight for a little while.

Some screenshots from TV appearances, representing the ROM's "Spiders: Fear & Fascination" exhibit

Some screenshots from TV appearances, representing the ROM’s “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibit

I enjoyed being the ambassador for arachnids on TV and social media. People started recognizing me on the street. Suddenly, I had fans. I got hugs. So many hugs. Some visitors stayed in touch and became close friends. I want to thank everyone who helped making this exhibit into a reality, and all the visitors who gave it a chance and came to see it. Now that the dust has settled I can honestly say that working at the spiders exhibit was one of the best experiences of my life. How do I fill the void that is left, that is the question that bothers me the most right now.

I will never forget this "finger fencing" moment. Screenshot from CP24 Live at Breakfast

I will never forget this “finger fencing” moment. Screenshot from CP24 Live at Breakfast

Social media (Instagram)

As a part of my role at the museum, I decided to join the social media platform Instagram. I did it as an experiment, to see how well I can perform there. If you know me, then you know that I find Instagram useless and crippled compared to the other social media streams, because of the inability to post clickable links or share posts from other users. My initial thought was to share behind-the-scenes moments from my work at the museum, and indeed the very first posts were exactly that. However, I quickly learned that this does not always work well, I did not always have the time to post while working, and if I have to be completely honest, my phone camera is total garbage. Nevertheless, I persisted, posting the same stuff that I post on my other accounts, and people started following. So maybe it is not so bad… I am still a shy noob on Instagram and don’t interact much, but if you remember my post from 2016, I said the exact same thing about Twitter, and today it has become my preferred social media platform. So who knows. I’m ready for an adventure!

Collaborating with Daniel Kwan (Curiosity in Focus)

During my time as the Royal Ontario Museum’s spider wrangler I was fortunate to meet Daniel Kwan, a talented individual who was responsible for running educational programs at the museum as well as producing video content about the different museum exhibits and collections. Since the opening of the spiders exhibit we collaborated many times, producing videos showing live arthropods and their behaviour, as well as activities performed in the venom lab.

Daniel also has several side projects that he runs. Many of them are related to his big passion – games, but he also hosts a couple of podcasts. One of them, Curiosity in Focus, shines a spotlight on people with interesting professional lifestyles and backgrounds, and covers many different fields like science, history, archeology, design, and fiction. Ever since the day we met he has been trying to get me on the podcast, until we finally found the time to sit down one evening and record an episode. So if you like to know about more about me, feel free to check it out here. We chatted about my role as the spider wrangler at the ROM, my military service in Israel, and shared some stories from entomology-related fieldwork. This was so much fun. I am definitely looking forward to future collaborations with Daniel.
Regardless of this episode, I have nothing but good things to say about this podcast. This is Daniel’s own brainchild, he is very passionate about it, and it shows. He always finds amazing people and interesting topics to talk about. One of my personal favorite episodes is a chat with Kevin Rawlings, Canada’s northernmost resident. Check it out if you have a moment. You won’t regret it.

Gilwizen.com in 2018

Due to my trips and later employment at the museum, my posting routine on the blog was inconsistent. I posted only 14 stories on the blog this year, a huge drop compared to 30 posts in the previous year. I am happy with the posts I got to share, but I would like to write more. Even more surprising was to see old posts resurfacing on social media and attracting new readers, notably this one, this one, this one, and… this one? Hmm. Some of these are very old and there is no doubt my writing style has changed over the years. I am tempted to go back and rewrite some of them to make it easier and more interesting to read, but I know that something would be lost if I do so.

One of the framed tarantula molts I made this year. It was already sold before I got to finish it.

One of the framed tarantula molts I made this year. It was already sold before I got to finish it.

One thing that has definitely picked up pace is my shop page. I initially started that page in 2017 to see if there is any interest in my framed “Ethical Molts” (term coined by my dear friend Peggy Muddles, who also made the video below), and since then it has exploded. I have sold and shipped over 30 framed specimens, some went to distant locations overseas. Many times when I upload a new batch of frames it is sold within a few days. I cannot complain.

Final words

As you can see, I have been busy this year. Looking back, 2017 and most of 2016 were painful and unproductive years for me. 2018 marked a much-needed shift in the right direction. It is especially interesting to compare the summary posts from the two previous years to this one. Going back to my closing statement for 2017, a friend and I were discussing life goals and what counts as success. For many people, including my friend, financial prosperity counts as success. For me, success is not about getting rich. It is first about reaching stability (not necessarily financial), and then leaving something behind, making a positive impact on others. And in 2018, I felt I did exactly that. Thank you everyone for being a part of it. I am forever grateful for your support, and my life is so much richer because you are in it.

Me with a giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia) in Ecuador

Me with a giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia) in Ecuador

Little Transformers: Deinopis, the ogre-faced spider

Today’s Little Transformer is a little unusual. First off, it is a spider. This spider is so unique in its appearance and behavior that I am surprised it has not inspired any exaggerated depictions in popular culture. It spends most of its time hidden, posing as a harmless twig among the forest vegetation. It is so good at what it does, that unless it moves it would be very easily overlooked. However, when night falls this seemingly harmless twig transforms into a sophisticated killing machine. Meet Deinopis, the ogre-faced spider (also known as net-casting spider).

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa) frontal view. Their eye arrangement is one of the weirdest of all spiders. Notice the lateral eyes are pointing down!

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa) frontal view. Their eye arrangement is one of the weirdest of all spiders. Notice the lateral eyes are pointing down!

Ogre-faced spiders are found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica, but they occur mostly in warm regions of the southern hemisphere. Found primarily in Latin America, Africa, Madagascar, and Australia, these spiders all share the same appearance: brown color, elongated body with long forelegs, and an unmistakeable face. The small family Deinopidae contains only two genera: Deinopis, holding most of the species, and Menneus.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa) camouflaged as a twig or a dried leaf

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa) camouflaged as a twig or a dried leaf

Interesting texture and patterns on the dorsal side of a net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). The legs are held tightly to form a typical 'X' shape at rest, making it look like the spider has only four legs.

Interesting texture and patterns on the dorsal side of a net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). The legs are held tightly to form a typical ‘X’ shape at rest, making it look like the spider has only four legs.

Deinopis are very unique among spiders for having superb vision, thanks to their huge median eyes.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). Those eyes... You can now understand why they are called ogre-faced spiders.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). Those eyes… You can now understand why they are called ogre-faced spiders.

A closer look at the median eyes of a net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). Staring straight into your wretched soul.

A closer look at the median eyes of a net-casting spider (Deinopis spinosa). Staring straight into your wretched soul.

The big eyes are what gave these spiders their common name, and they are so big that it is easy to miss the other six eyes on the spider’s head. I did my best trying to capture the stone-cold expression on a Deinopis spinosa face, but also check out Michael Doe’s amazing work with the Australian species D. subrufa. These median eyes are extremely sensitive to light, despite lacking any reflective tissue behind the lenses. Instead, a light sensitive membrane is formed inside the eyes every night, and then gets broken down at dawn. This allow the spiders to track subtle movements in complete darkness during their activity hours, something that is essential for their unique hunting strategy. While somewhat close to other weavers, ogre-faced spiders do not construct a fixed web to trap their prey. Instead they make a rather small hand-net, a handkerchief if you wish, that they use to catch insects passing nearby. The silk constructing the net is not sticky but extremely fuzzy and flexible, thanks to a special comb-like structure on the spider’s legs that stretches and frizzle the silk as it is coming out of the spider’s spinnerets.

Net made by a net-casting spider for catching prey

Net made by a net-casting spider for catching prey

A closer look at the net reveals the wooly silk used to make it. If you look carefully you will notice that it is coiled like a spring, allowing the silk to be stretched and expanded to completely cover the prey.

A closer look at the net reveals the wooly silk used to make it. If you look carefully you will notice that it is coiled like a spring, allowing the silk to be stretched and expanded to completely cover the prey.

The spider usually shapes the net as a square, and holds it loose over a branch or a leaf where an insect is likely to walk.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Colombia

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Colombia

Once it spots a suitable prey, the spider quickly stretches the net and snatches the passing insect by hand. The net can be stretched and expanded up to five times its original size without being torn, thanks to the special attributes of the silk. It entangles anything it touches. The spider is extremely fast in its response that sometimes it succeeds in capturing passing insects in mid-flight, again – completely by hand. You have to appreciate the speed and accuracy that goes into this hunting technique.

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) ready for an insect to pass on a nearby branch. These spiders usually place themselves right above a possible walkway for arthropods. Photographed in Ecuador

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) ready for an insect to pass on a nearby branch. These spiders usually place themselves right above a possible walkway for arthropods. Photographed in Ecuador

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Honduras

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Honduras

It is relatively difficult to witness this behaviour in the field, mainly because by observing at night we add another component to the equation – light. In fact, in all my trips to Latin America I have encountered these spiders many times, but only once I was able to see the spider hunting… and totally missing the prey insect. So you can imagine my excitement when I realized I was going to work with one of the species, Deinopis spinosa, while it is on display at the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibition. For several weeks I tried to get a glimpse of it feeding but without success. One day I decided to toss a cricket close to it before leaving the exhibit area and within a spilt second the spider responded and caught it! I was in awe. I had to find a way to record it on video for people to see. I enlisted Daniel Kwan, one of my colleagues at the museum who has more videography experience, and we set out to produce a short movie. It took us many attempts to get decent footage of the hunting behaviour. Many times the prey crickets tried to hide, and occasionally the spider would respond to them but miss. Even though feeding the spider in an artificial environment means we had more control, it was really difficult. It makes me wonder how long the spider must wait in the wild until it is able to catch a meal.

Also worth mentioning is genus Menneus from the same family. These spiders are much smaller than Deinopis and they lack the large median eyes, therefore they are not true ogre-faced spiders. However, they spin a catch net and use the same strategy for hunting prey. The genus contains only a handful of species, distributed mainly in Australia, but with some representation in Africa. Some of the species are quite beautifully patterned compared to the plain-looking Deinopis, and there are even green-colored species! You can find some photos of Menneus spiders at the bottom of this page.

Something I was thinking about while writing this post – why do I never encounter small deinopids in the field? It would be really cute if they had miniature nets for catching even smaller insects. Even when I look for information online and in the literature, it only concerns medium-sized juveniles and adults. Could it be that the small ogre-faced spiders actually have a different hunting strategy than that of larger individuals?

Spiderception: jumping spider-mimicking jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

After a long hiatus of nearly 5 months, I thought it is about time I shake the dust off this blog and return to posting. This month we are celebrating Arachtober, highlighting spiders and other arachnids to promote appreciation and understanding that these animals are crucial to the normal function of ecosystems, and that they have their rightful place on this planet. Today is also International Jumping Spider Day, so it is a great opportunity to discuss something interesting that some of these cuties share.

Last February I was fortunate to spend a week in Colombia for a photography assignment. In one of our day hikes I checked a cluster of hanging vine flowers to see if there are interesting insects hiding inside. I did not find any insects except for ants, but as I was peeking inside the inflorescence I saw a row of shiny eyes staring back at me. I thought to myself – Oh, cool. A jumping spider. And indeed it was a salticid spider, however what I thought were eyes was nothing but a deception. In fact the spider’s head was facing away from me, and it was busy munching on a small moth.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider playing peek-a-boo. These spiders become even more interesting when viewed from behind.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider playing peek-a-boo. These spiders become even more interesting when viewed from behind.

Lateral view of a female Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia. The color pattern on the abdomen resembles jumping spider eyes.

Lateral view of a female Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia. The color pattern on the abdomen resembles jumping spider eyes.

Female jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). They are much cuter when looking straight at you!

Female jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). They are much cuter when looking straight at you!

Even though there are almost no identification keys for jumping spiders from the neotropics, I am confident that the spider I found was a female Parnaenus. For the most part these are plain looking jumping spiders, but their abdomen is usually covered with blue and green iridescent scales. On both side of the abdomen they have a row of spots that look exactly like jumping spider eyes. In fact, due to the contrast with the colorful abdomen, those spots are even more noticeable than the spider’s actual eyes. And it’s not just the female Parnaenus that possess these spots; the smaller and more colorful males have them too.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. Huge head with stunning iridescent colors.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. Huge head with stunning iridescent colors.

Dorsal view of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). From this angle you can see how easy it is to mistake the spots on the abdomen for eyes.

Dorsal view of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.). From this angle you can see how easy it is to mistake the spots on the abdomen for eyes.

Jumping spiders are visual creatures. They rely on visual cues and their good eyesight to detect prey, competitive conspecifics, and potential mates. This is why many species of jumping spiders developed complex color patterns to assist in communication with other individuals. Other arthropods also take advantage of this and deploy mimicry to fool these spiders and avoid predation. One of the most common jumping spider mimicry is the presence of eyespots arranged in a row, to resemble the spiders’ large frontal eyes. I have already written about such cases on this blog, usually demonstrated by moths, but other insects as well (see here and here for examples). We have also seen jumping spiders using mimicry to resemble insects. What we have not seen yet though, is jumping spiders mimicking jumping spiders. Is this even possible? Well, yes and no.
Yes, because there are definitely jumping spider species that display a clear salticid eyespot pattern away from their head where their actual eyes are – like the Parnaenus species presented in this post. And no, because we have no evidence that they are truly mimicking other jumping spiders.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. So pretty.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. So pretty.

A closer look at the abdomen of a male Parnaenus jumping spider. False eyes between green and blue scales.

A closer look at the abdomen of a male Parnaenus jumping spider. False eyes between green and blue scales.

This spiderception is quite confusing. At first it looks like the salticids deploy a “false head” anti-predator tactic in order to fool their predators and direct their attacks away from the animal’s real head. But in the case of these spiders the eyespots pattern is located on the abdomen, the most vulnerable part of the spider’s body. On the other hand, if they really use this pattern to communicate with other jumping spiders, we would expect to see a specific behavior associated with it, like waving the abdomen or displaying it in front of another individual. And to the best of my knowledge there are no such observations in existence.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia

Male Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia

Parnaenus is not the only jumping spider genus that has eyespots on its abdomen, by the way. Other dendryphantine jumping spiders possess this character, to varying degrees. Those include the beautiful Paraphiddipus and Metaphiddipus jumpers and the scorpion spiders of genus Lurio. The latter is a very unusual jumper – the forelegs are disproportionally robust and long compared to the others, both in males and females.

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Taironaka, Colombia

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Taironaka, Colombia

Scorpion spiders (Lurio sp.) have a color pattern on their abdomen that is very similar to that of Parnaenus spiders.

Scorpion spiders (Lurio sp.) have a color pattern on their abdomen that is very similar to that of Parnaenus spiders.

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Even without the pretty colors these spiders are very unique, with their long thick forelegs.

Female scorpion spider (Lurio sp.) guarding eggs. Even without the pretty colors these spiders are very unique, with their long thick forelegs.

The salticid eyespot pattern is quite common in nature, and it seems that possessing it positively affects the bearer’s chances of survival. Even jumping spiders themselves have it on their body. But do they really use it for active communication? Or is it more a passive way for them to say ‘I am a jumping spider inside and out’? Those are questions that are still left unanswered, at least until someone follows and documents their behavior.

Lyssomanes – the spider from the upside down

Out of all the different microhabitats plants provide for organisms, the living leaf is arguably the most underrated one. On the surface it seems that it pales in comparison to the rich leaf litter of the forest understory, or to the complex bark of trees that provide hiding and hunting spots for many animals. However, although the green leaf may look innocent, it in fact holds many stories of deception and survival. The upper surface of the leaf offers exposure to sunlight and water, as well as additional nutrients coming from above. It can serve as a solid base for the growth of ferns, mosses, lichens, and fungi. It can also be folded and glued to create a nest or shelter for an animal or its eggs. Not to mention that in many plants the entire leaf comprises of edible material available for herbivores. But there is another plane of existence, a much darker reality. It is located in a parallel dimension – an inverted copy of the leaf upper surface. This is the upside down world of the leaf underside. Many organisms live here; some only take shelter during the day and resume activity on the upside world at night, others prefer to feed under the leaf to avoid predators. But one of the most fascinating examples is a group of predators that learned to utilize the leafy upside down for ambushing prey. I have already written about two of those, and today I would like to present another member of this guild: Lyssomanes, the green jumping spider.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.). The spider's pale color helps it to blend in with the leaf it is sitting on.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.). The spider’s pale color helps it to blend in with the leaf it is sitting on.

At first glance Lyssomanes doesn’t look like a typical jumping spider. It has very long and slender legs, and prefers to move by running and using short leaps as opposed to the jumps that characterize most members of the salticid spider family. In addition, the spider is almost completely hairless, sporting a pale body color, usually (but not always) green, and occasionally semi-translucent. Unlike other jumping spiders, the only scales covering the body are clustered as a crown on its head. Those can be white, yellow, orange, red, or any combination of these colors, depending on the species and developmental stage. Sometimes dark banding is present on the legs, usually in adult males.

Green jumping spiders (Lyssomanes sp.) often have a glossy, semi-translucent body, with a crown of colorful scales on their head.

Green jumping spiders (Lyssomanes sp.) often have a glossy, semi-translucent body, with a crown of colorful scales on their head.

The genus Lyssomanes contains around 90 species, all distributed in the Americas. Many species have similar external appearance. The type species from which the genus was described is named Lyssomanes viridis (from Latin – green jumping spider), but if I want to be completely honest, almost every species I encounter looks ‘viridis’ to me. They are just so green!

Not all Lyssomanes jumping spiders are green. Some are lemon yellow like this species from Belize.

Not all Lyssomanes jumping spiders are green. Some are lemon yellow like this species from Belize.

One of the most noticeable features of Lyssomanes jumping spiders is their enormous anterior median eyes. Because of the spider’s pale color, it is also very easy to observe the internal retinal movements as the spider angles and focuses its field of view. The eyes may appear black at times, or pale green, crossed, or alternating (here’s a fantastic video showing this, and watch what happens when an ant passes by!).

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) staring straight back with its huge eyes. If you don't think it is cute you might want to check your pulse.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) staring straight back with its huge eyes. If you don’t think it is cute you might want to check your pulse.

Female Lyssomanes are very modest in their appearance. Males on the other hand, are impressive beasts with long pedipalps and elaborate chelicerae, often armed with thick setae and teeth. The latter are used in male fights for mates. Males also have extremely long legs, which they use for pushing an opponent and waving to females as a part of the courtship process.

Male Lyssomanes spiders have long legs and pedipalps for signalling conspecifics, and often sport impressive chelicerae for fighting other males.

Male Lyssomanes spiders have long legs and pedipalps for signalling conspecifics, and often sport impressive chelicerae for fighting other males.

Closeup on a male Lyssomanes spider. Notice the teeth on the long chelicera.

Closeup on a male Lyssomanes spider. Notice the teeth on the long chelicera.

Portrait of a male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) with his long chelicerae

Portrait of a male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) with his long chelicerae

Similarly to other predatory dwellers of the leafy upside down, Lyssomanes spiders deploy an ingenious hunting technique. The spider’s huge eyes are a good indication of its hunting method – it uses its excellent vision to locate prey. Lyssomanes jumping spiders are diurnal sit-and-wait predators of dipterans and other soft-bodied arthropods. They prefer to sit on leaves that are exposed to the sun, waiting in ambush for a visitor on the upper surface to cast a dark shadow. If the shadow is of the right size and shape the spider will shoot itself from the underside to the upper leaf surface and snatch the unsuspecting prey.

Male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) ambushing prey on the underside of a leaf backlit by the sun

Male green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) ambushing prey on the underside of a leaf backlit by the sun

Occasionally, if sunlight is obstructed, the spider will explore the leaf and actively search for passing insects. It does not, however, stay loyal to one leaf. Once spotted, the spider usually does not take any chances and relocates to a nearby leaf.

Snap! When startled, the green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) swiftly moves to the other side of the leaf.

Snap! When startled, the green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) swiftly moves to the other side of the leaf.

Although jumping spiders rarely use silk for hunting, most of them build a small silky sleeping bag inside a crevice or a folded leaf for resting at night and molting. Lyssomanes is unique in that it does not construct such a shelter. Instead, it lines the underside of the leaf with a thin carpet of silk, and rests on it completely exposed.

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) spinning silk on the underside of a leaf

Green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) spinning silk on the underside of a leaf

Gravid females construct a similar web for their eggs. Passing insects often trample the sheet, which triggers a predation response from the spider.

Female green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) protecting her eggs

Female green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) protecting her eggs

Cannibalism is common in salticids. Here, a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) is preying on a smaller spider that happened to walk on its leaf.

Cannibalism is common in salticids. Here, a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) is preying on a smaller spider that happened to walk on its leaf.

Unfortunately, this habit of Lyssomanes to sit exposed also means that they are sitting ducks for other predators, usually other species of jumping spiders. Remember – it is a harsh world out there and it’s not easy being green!

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence - a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) has fallen prey to another jumping spider!

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence – a green jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.) has fallen prey to another jumping spider!

 

The Plot Thickens: Staring into the eyes of a dying Cephalotes

If you are an entomologist or an insect enthusiast, it is highly probable that you like ants. It is hard not to be impressed with their diversity, abundance, complex social structure and behaviors, as well as their interactions with other organisms. Ants are everywhere and do almost anything you can think of. To most people however, ants could not be any less exciting. They are often seen as a generic insect, with a relatively uniform appearance. They always show up when unwanted, find their way into our homes, take refuge in dark and hard to reach corners, and steal our food.
I like ants. I think they are fascinating creatures. But every now and then I find myself talking people into looking beyond “that boring-looking ant”, to try and catch a glimpse of their busy life. It is not always easy to communicate ants to the public (which is why I praise myrmecologists – people who study ants for a living), however I find that it is quite easy in the case of one ant genus in particular: Cephalotes.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Cephalotes is a large genus of arboreal ants found in the neotropics. There are over 130 species, all inhabit tree hollows or utilize cavities in other plant tissues. Looking like they were designed by someone with overflowing imagination, they easily come off as cute. Their flattened head and armored body, often decorated with long sharp spines for protection, their thick legs and perfectly round abdomen, along with their matte color finish, give them the appearance of a plastic toy. In addition, Cephalotes ants move relatively slowly and cannot bite or sting, making them user-friendly. Can you ask for a more perfect ant?

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

The queen turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus) is bigger and bulkier than her workers. She also lacks the defensive spines.

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

Turtle ant worker (Cephalotes atratus) foraging on a mossy tree trunk

They are commonly known as turtle ants, but also got the name gliding ants, thanks to their incredible ability to parachute from high in the canopy and land back on the trunk of their home tree. Their unique body structure and flattened legs allow them to slow down and change their course while falling (some spiders can do the same, by the way). In some species the soldier cast evolved a large head to function as a living door, plugging the entrance to the nest.

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

Turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia, showing a heavily armored body and a massive head

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

The same turtle ant soldier (Cephalotes sp.) from the previous photo. These ants are built like tanks.

In regards to interspecific interactions, Cephalotes ants are often seen tending sap-sucking hemipterans such as membracids and small fulgorids to gain access to sugary secretions from those insects. They also act as the model in a mimicry complex, where crab spiders masquerade as the ants in order to sneak up and prey on them.

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Cute Cephalotes workers visiting a camouflaged fulgorid planthopper nymph

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Portrait of a turtle ant (Cephalotes atratus). How can you not fall in love with them?

Did I mention they are cute? I have written before that you should never become too attached to insects you encounter in the field. And as much as I love the adorable Cephalotes ants, it is important to remember that there are many dangers lurking for them in the forest. During my recent trip in Colombia, I stumbled upon a Cephalotes nest in a tree outside my room. The ants were very active and did not present good photographic opportunities.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) from Colombia. How adorable!

One of them however, stood out among the rest. There was something different about its behavior. This worker moved franticly in what appeared to be an aimless run. It did not follow the other workers, and seemed more interested in reaching a higher spot on the tree. I collected the ant for a closer look, and once I inspected her carefully I believe I found the culprit for her unusual behavior. This ant had a reddish abdomen, as opposed to the black abdomen of her sisters. The red color, coupled with erratic behavior suggests this worker has been infected with a parasite, a nematode worm.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

Turtle ant (Cephalotes sp.) infected with a parasitic nematode worm, showing a swollen red abdomen. Compare to the healthy worker in the previous photo.

The parasitic worm lives and breeds inside the body of birds, which spread the worm’s eggs in their droppings. The ants collect nutrients from the bird droppings (along with the eggs) and feed them to their larvae, where the worm matures. In order to complete its life cycle the parasite needs to return into a bird’s body, so it changes the host ant’s appearance to look like a ripe red fruit, and causes it to climb higher on the tree to become more accessible to hungry birds. As much unique character this worker ant might have had, the sad truth is that it was destined to die prematurely. And there was nothing I could do about it. There is a great lesson here – sometimes, the raw essence of nature is difficult to take in. We would like to see it as a peaceful place where all the animals and plants live together in harmony. But the reality is that nature is harsh. It is full of conflict, violence, disease, and death. And we must accept it as an integral part of the world we live in.

Cephalotes ants offer a great opportunity to peek into the life of a small insect and learn about its survival (as well as failure) in various habitats. Before I end this post, there is one thing I would like clarified – going back to their name, why did Cephalotes get the name turtle ant, whereas some leaf beetles were named tortoise beetles? Is there any justification for the turtle designation when it comes to the ants? After all, both insects are terrestrial. If there is an etymologist in the audience, maybe you can help the entomologist?