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Halloween special: My worst bug bite

Last week I gave a seminar in front of med students and doctors at Toronto’s University Health Network about medically significant arthropods. Because I am not a doctor I chose to focus more on the animals themselves, presenting their side of the story and what type of situations bring them to sting or bite humans. The talk went well, I was even able to share my first hand experience with botflies, which triggered some interesting questions from the students. After the talk, one of them approached and asked me – “So, what was your worst bug bite or sting?”
I replied that my body has a severe response to black flies and their bites, swelling like crazy that I can barely recognize myself in the mirror the day after. He seemed satisfied with my reply, however on my way back home it occurred to me that this was not the answer to his question. He did not ask me which bite or sting I disliked the most. He asked me of all the bites and stings that I’ve gotten so far, which one was the worst.
And that is a valid question. I have a history of getting injured while doing all sorts of stuff, and this includes an impressive list of arthropod bites and stings accumulated over the years. But there is one bite that holds the title “the worst”. One bite I will never forget.

Some background: Back in 2007 I took a trip to Ecuador with my colleague and mentor, Alex Shlagman. We worked together at Tel Aviv University’s Natural History Collections (now known as The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History), breeding local and exotic species of arthropods for research, teaching, and display purposes. As the manager of the live arthropods collection, Alex was, and still is, the best arthropods keeper in Israel. On the other hand, I had an extensive travel history under my belt, after crossing South and Central America a few years before. This experience gave me useful insights when tackling the husbandry needs of tropical insects we kept. Nevertheless, it bothered me that Alex, with his vast knowledge of those insects, has never experienced the rainforest and its staggering diversity in person. So I did something crazy and I decided to take him to Ecuador.

One of the places we visited was a biological station close to the Amazon region. Despite the heavy rainfall this area usually gets, it was extremely dry during our visit, which made it difficult to locate animals active during the day – it was just too hot. One afternoon we hung out close to the station’s access road, following leaf-cutter ants and other insects, and taking photos. While tracking leafhoppers I stumbled upon a bush covered with what seemed to be communal assassin bugs. They were quite unique in their appearance, with a shiny lime-green abdomen and black head and limbs. From a distance they looked like spiders.

Assassin bugs in ambush waiting for prey

Assassin bugs in ambush waiting for prey

I took a single photo and then I moved in to do something I knew I shouldn’t – I poked the bug with my finger to force it into a better “pose”.
And it got into a better pose alright, immediately grabbing my finger and punching a hole in it using its thick proboscis. The pain was so sharp that I remember falling backwards and landing hard on my buttocks, while the bug let go and escaped. I sat there, silent, holding my hand with a bitter expression on my face.

Maybe I should elaborate at this point. Assassin bugs are venomous animals. Their venom is rather complex and contains many compounds, some of which has neurotoxic properties that can lead to a systemic response (and so potentially may cause death). Some assassin bugs have venom so powerful that it is often compared to a cobra snake’s venom in its potency, easily causing paralysis in mammals much larger than the small bug. Holotrichius inessi, an assassin bug roaming the deserts of Africa and the Middle East is even known to hunt scorpions, which are feisty venomous animals themselves. That is an extreme example. The truth is, in most cases we do not know enough about assassin bugs and their venom potency. So when bitten, you just don’t know what to expect.

Black sand assassin bug (Holotrichius innesi) preying on a scorpion

Black sand assassin bug (Holotrichius innesi) preying on a scorpion

As I sat there trying to gather my thoughts about what has just happened, I felt numbed by the pain. You know how sometimes when something aches so badly you can feel it pulsating? I did not even feel that. I could not feel anything but pain. I thought to myself, this is it. This is how I go. Alex later told me it was the first time he ever saw me looking confused, like I was watching my life flashing before my eyes. To some extent it really felt this way. I could not speak and I did not want to move (from fear I would worsen my condition). I just wanted this to end. We were essentially in the middle of nowhere, with no one around, so we just waited it out. I cannot remember how long it took, as I really lost the sense of time, but I remember the pain eventually reducing to a dull itch. This is when we got up and left. The itch and stiffness stayed for a few additional days and then dissipated.

Just imagine this probe drilling into your finger. Not exactly fun, I can tell you.

Just imagine this probe drilling into your finger. Not exactly fun, I can tell you.

I always find it a bit funny that my worst bug bite actually is a bug bite. Ever since that trip I have been trying to find that species of assassin bug in my subsequent visits to Ecuador, but I always failed. It is slowly turning into my Moby Dick. The important lesson here is: kids, do not go around poking animals you do not know with bare hands. It has taken me a few more bites and stings until this lesson sank in. Nowadays I am much more careful in the field.
… and I still get bitten and stung.

Little Transformers: Dysodius

When I first came up with the idea of Little Transformers, what I had in mind were insects that can masquerade as other objects by changing their appearance or behavior. I consider myself a “mild” Transformers fan: I like the concept of entities taking the form of other things, very much like how mimicry or camouflage work in nature. I have said before that I am not a fan of the current iteration of Transformers, those movies are so bad. However, I am going to take advantage of the upcoming release of the new Transformers movie (and I cannot believe I am using this as my reasoning) to post about yet another Little Transformer. This one does not really transform though, but it sure looks like one of the robots in those films. While I am not sure who is behind the designs for the robots, it was clear right from the start that there is some insectoid perspective to their appearance. I have always preferred the simple “blocky” design of the original cartoon show, but I can see how that would not look very realistic.

As mentioned above, our Little Transformer may not pass as the best example for a mode-changer, but it has an alien-like appearance. Meet Dysodius, a bark bug that belongs to the family of flatbugs, Aradidae.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) crawling on a fallen log. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) crawling on a fallen log. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Aradidae are cryptic insects, spending most of their time hidden on or under bark, and inside fallen logs. They feed on fungi: at nighttime both adults and nymphs can be seen aggregating near fruit bodies of mushrooms, sticking their proboscis into the soft flesh. It is a fungi cocktail party, and everyone is invited! Some species of Aradidae even display parental care and protect their offspring. Aradids are incredibly flat, a character that helps them to squeeze into tight crevices and take advantage of the complex habitat that is the bark’s surface, in order to remain hidden from the ever-searching eyes of predators.

Lateral view of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus). So flat it could sit comfortably inside a paper envelope.

Lateral view of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus). So flat it could sit comfortably inside a paper envelope.

Members of genus Dysodius are particularly interesting because of the their unique body structure, featuring curved lobes protruding from the pronotum and a crown of “fins” surrounding their abdominal segments. They also have tiny wings, so tiny that it makes me wonder if these wings are truly functional and can create enough force to lift the insect off the ground.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), dorsal view

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), dorsal view

Dysodius are also very slow animals. They usually rely on their excellent camouflage rather than speed to avoid threats.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) camouflaged on a fallen log

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus) camouflaged on a fallen log

Their body surface is rough and often mottled with moss-like splotches. It is also wettable just like tree bark, in other words the colors get darker when getting wet by rain (unlike the water-repellent integument of other bugs), ensuring that the insect is still camouflaged even in rainy conditions.

Bark bugs (Dysodius spp.) from Belize (left) and Ecuador (right) demonstrating different coloration and textures of the body surface.

Bark bugs (Dysodius spp.) from Belize (left) and Ecuador (right) demonstrating different coloration and textures of the body surface.

This begs the question why am I including Dysodius in the Little Transformers series? After all, these insects are already “transformed” and do not change their appearance any further. They already look like a piece of bark. To understand why they are mentioned within these posts, you need to view them from the underside.

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), facial view. Am I the only one seeing a robot here?

Bark bug (Dysodius lunatus), facial view. Am I the only one seeing a robot here?

Aradidae, and Dysodius in particular, have one of the most robotic faces in the entire insect world, a face that could easily fit in the current Transformers movie franchise.
If you are not convinced yet, here is a closer look.

Portrait of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus)

Portrait of a bark bug (Dysodius lunatus)

So if you think the Transformers movies are cool, insects do it better and have been doing it for far longer time. How does that quote from the trailer go?

“A thousand years we’ve kept it hidden. The secret history of Transformers…”

It was hidden all right. But not anymore. I am slowly unearthing this secret, exposing the existence of Transformers right here under our nose. You’re welcome.

BugShot Belize: Treat yourself to something good

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

Portrait of an assassin bug (Reduviidae) in the rain

 

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

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

 

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

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

Piotr Naskrecki explaining about wide-angle macrophotography

 

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

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

Female canopy katydid (Tettigoniidae) resting on a Heliconia leaf

 

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

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Mimetica sp.)

 

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

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

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

Pill scarab beetle (Ceratocanthus sp.)

 

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

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

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

 

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

Jewelled geckos

A couple of days ago I left the Otago Peninsula, a place that was a home for me for the last two weeks. While I am still trying to get used to being on the road again, I thought I’d share with you my second “must-see” NZ animal: the jewelled gecko.

The jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus, is endemic to the South Island of New Zealand. They are beautiful vivid green in color with yellow and white markings. Some individuals have “diamond” markings, while others have two yellow stripes running along the sides of their back. Combinations of the two color patterns also occur. There are two main subgroups of jewelled geckos: those living in Otago Peninsula and those living in the Banks Peninsula. One main difference between the groups is the color of the males: in Banks Peninsula they are grey with yellow markings while in Otago Peninsula both sexes are green.

I can honestly say these are among the most beautiful geckos I have ever seen, and only members of genus Phelsuma from Madagascar and Lygodactylus williamsi from Tanzania come close to this.

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus ("diamonds" color morph)

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus (“diamonds” color morph)

 

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus ("striped" color morph)

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus (“striped” color morph)

 

Jewelled geckos are active during the day and are usually found in dense spiny bushes such as Coprosma species, but also in gorse and manuka bushes. They are insectivores and feed mainly on flies, moths and beetles. The geckos are pretty well camouflaged despite their bright green color – it took me a few hours to find my first gecko basking in the sun. Because they are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and diurnal, jewelled geckos regulate their body temperature by moving in and out of the shadows provided by the plants they live in. They are excellent climbers, and use their strong tail like another leg. For this reason they are less likely to drop their tail (a defense mechanism against predators) than other geckos.

Typical habitat of the jewelled geckos, Coprosma bushed in the Otago Peninsula

Typical habitat of the jewelled geckos, Coprosma bushed in the Otago Peninsula

 

Can you spot the gecko on the Coprosma bush?

Can you spot the gecko on the Coprosma bush?

 

Sometimes you see something bright green sitting on a bush, and you think "yay! a jewelled gecko!" Not this time. Only a Kikihia sp. cicada.

Sometimes you see something bright green sitting on a bush, and you think “yay! a jewelled gecko!” Not this time. Only a Kikihia sp. cicada.

 

Along with the New Caledonian rough-snouted gecko (Rhacodactylus trachyrhynchus), New Zealand Geckos are the only geckos in the world to give birth to live young. Surprisingly, the gestation period is similar to that of humans, and usually lasts eight to nine months. Gecko live-births are not exactly like mammalian live births: the baby geckos develop in the eggs which remain in the oviduct within the female’s body until they hatch prior to birth. This process is known as ovoviviparity (now try to picture me saying that). Usually two “twin-geckos” are born and it takes three years for them to reach sexual maturity.

Portrait of a juvenile jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus. If you haven't seen my talking gecko, click here.

Portrait of a juvenile jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus). If you haven’t seen my talking gecko, click here
(ולגירסא לדוברי עברית הקליקו כאן)

 

Loss of habitat is the largest threat to the jewelled gecko, followed by rats, cats, stoats and other introduced predators. Contrary to expectation, a study found that grazing of the vegetation by sheep can actually help the geckos survive, by clearing grass (which is often associated with high rodent densities) and making the Coprosma bushes more compact and thus harder to access for these predators. However unfortunately, the main enemy of these jewels is us humans. This attractive gecko is highly prized on the illegal pet market, with a single gecko worth as much as $8000. Naultinus gemmeus is classified as a threatened species by the Department of Conservation, they are highly protected and it is illegal to capture or disturb them. Even low levels of poaching can place small populations of jewelled gecko at risk of extinction. Lately, the fines and periods of imprisonment for anyone attempting to poach them were increased. As a personal experience I can say that even I was thoroughly inquired for my business when I was taking photographs of the geckos. I can only wish that every threatened species in the world in need for conservation had gotten the same treatment.

Scared by a photographing entomologist, this jewelled gecko is trying to assess the danger from a safe hiding spot inside the coprosma bush.

Scared by a photographing entomologist, this jewelled gecko is trying to assess the danger from a safe hiding spot inside the coprosma bush.

 

I already miss the Otago Peninsula. I hope these stunning geckos will still be around when I come back in the future.

 

NZ Forest critters – first impressions

The insects I am currently after in NZ are nocturnal (meaning they are active at night) – this ensures me some interesting encounters with animals that are usually shy and cryptic. I thought I would start by describing to you my few readers (most likely my friends, family, and if I am lucky maybe one or two of my former students) what my night activities are like at the moment.
So what kind of animals you can find while taking a night walk in the forest?
Surprisingly for me, the most common animal to encounter in the NZ forest during the night is not a cricket or spider, but representatives of a genus of cockroach. These relatively small cockroaches (15mm) belong to the genus Celatoblatta of which 16 species are known. Very similar in appearance to the northern hemisphere German cockroach, they occupy the leaf litter and low forest plants. I mainly found them on ferns, and although I cannot tell them apart, I am certain that I saw more than one species.

Forest cockroach (Celatoblatta sp.)

Forest cockroach (Celatoblatta sp.)

 

Another common insect active in the dark forest is the crane fly. Here too, several species are seen, but I am talking about a particular species. One that is so massive, especially during flight with its thick leathery wings, that often I was not really sure what I was looking at. Unfortunately I have no idea about the species name.

Crane fly (unidentified)

Crane fly (unidentified)

 

Slugs are also seen frequently, usually climbing on tree trunks, on logs and sometimes on leaves (lower left). The slugs I have seen so far are very different from the ones I know, and I will dedicate a separate post for them. Ground weta (genus Hemiadnrus, lower right) are common on tree trunks and low plants. A very interesting insect group and the core of my current study – they will receive more attention in future posts.

Leaf-veined slug (Athoracophorus antipodarum)

Leaf-veined slug (Athoracophorus antipodarum)

Ground weta (Hemiandrus "onokis") nymph

Ground weta (Hemiandrus “onokis”) nymph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will end this post with two creatures that are not as common as the ones above, but can be easily found with a little patience.

Antlions (order Neuroptera) are sometimes seen on the vegetation. This pair was sitting on a branch and were probably communicating using their antennae. It is a relatively large species, so at first I thought they belong to the family Myrmeleontidae. However, looking at their antennae, I see that they are simple and not curved as in Myrmeleontid antlions. Therefore I am guessing that these are big lacewings, but I am still not sure regarding the family or genus.

A pair of antlions (unidentified)

A pair of antlions (unidentified)

 

If you are lucky, you might stumble upon cicada larvae as they emerge from the soil and climb nearby objects to molt for the last time into adult cicadas. I was fortunate enough to see this beautiful individual drying its wings after molting. It belongs to the highly diverse genus Kikihia, with about 30 species. Unfortunately, further identification is very difficult because there is no identification key available to the species level. This is one of the most beautiful insects I have seen. Vivid green in color with red “socks”, and rows of golden hairs on the abdomen.

A newly emerged cicada, Kikihia sp., with the moon shining in the background

A newly emerged cicada, Kikihia sp., with the moon shining in the background