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A Moment of Creativity: Unwanted Neighbours

It has been a while since I started photographing for Meet Your Neighbours global biodiversity photography project, and throughout the years I have assembled a collection of some fantastic beasts (along with the information where to find them). But early on I had the idea of creating another collection of photos, a spinoff to the original MYN concept, bringing together neighbours that we often do not want to meet, or the way I refer to them: Unwanted Neighbours.

Human flea (pulex irritans). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Human flea (pulex irritans). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Unwanted Neighbours include household pests, biting and blood-sucking arthropods, disease vectors, venomous animals, parasites, and the like. Most of the photos can be found in my original MYN gallery, and it is only natural that this new collection will be smaller in size. Nevertheless it can be used as a reference for animals with any negative significance to humans, whether it is medical or economical. For example, brown recluse spiders are known for their potency, but are often misidentified. There are very helpful initiatives out there to help and fight the misinformation, like Recluse or Not. I decided that detailed high-quality photos of the spiders can help clarify doubts about their physical appearance.

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Black widow spiders also suffer the same public treatment as brown recluses, for no good reason. Sure, they are venomous, but they do not tend to bite unless they have to, even if you poke them.

Mediterranean black widow spider (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) from Israel. Widow spiders are shy and usually keep to themselves.

Mediterranean black widow spider (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) from Israel. Widow spiders are shy and usually keep to themselves.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

This is not a gallery of “bad” animals. Despite their bad reputation, it is important to mention that there is no such thing as “bad” in nature. Many of these species are not even out to get us (excluding blood-feeders and parasites). Every creature has its rightful place on this planet. I was carful not to include just about any species that possesses venom, or incidental biters. Many times a bad interaction with an animal is our own fault. I am trying to avoid pointing fingers and propagating hatred towards nature, because in most cases these animals are doing exactly what they are supposed to, and we are just in their way. For this reason the representation of household pests, like ants, termites, wasps, and cockroaches will be kept to the minimum.

Everyone's favorite nightmare parasite - the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Although unpleasant, in reality they are not so bad.

Everyone’s favorite nightmare parasite – the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Although unpleasant, in reality they are not so bad.

Telson and stinger of black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor). Scorpions will always try to avoid an encounter with a human.

Telson and stinger of black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor). Scorpions will always try to avoid an encounter with a human.

At this point in time the Unwanted Neighbours page is still being constructed, but I expect it to stay relatively small in size. This is because most critters out there are harmless to us, and even those that have the potential to harm us, usually don’t. It is all about impact significance.

Trachycephalus – that treefrog you shouldn’t touch

When people talk about nasty frog secretions the conversation usually shifts very quickly to poison arrow frogs and their toxins. And it is not surprising – these tiny frogs host some of the deadliest compounds in the natural world, some so toxic that they are even lethal to the touch. But the truth is many amphibians have skin secretions, and not all of them are meant to be deadly. One group of treefrogs in particular made a name for itself due to their skin secretions – the milk frogs (genus Trachycephalus).

I encountered one of these treefrogs earlier this year when I returned from a night hike in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. Walking and climbing for hours made me exhausted, and the only thing I could think of was crashing into the bed and getting a few hours of sleep. Suddenly I heard Andy, one of the staff members from the reserve, calling from the shower. I remember thinking to myself ‘It is 2am, what on earth is he doing in the shower?’
I got up and clumsily walked towards the shower where I found Andy pointing at a big blob completely covering the showerhead. He did say “rana” which means frog in Spanish, so I reached out my hand to grab it. Big mistake.

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

At that time I knew about milk frogs only from the pet trade. The species Trachycephalus resinifictrix is a very popular pet because of its colors and docile temper. I had no idea why members of this genus are called milk frogs, or how they behave in the wild. And so I learned the hard way, that milk frogs are named after their thick, sticky skin secretion. Within seconds of grabbing this giant amphibian my hands were tangled in a gooey mess of what looked and felt like carpenter’s glue. This defensive secretion has very interesting properties – it sticks to anything touching the frog, but in contact with the amphibian’s skin it becomes extremely slimy and slippery, allowing the frog to escape from its captor. Trying to wash it off with water only makes things worse (i.e. thicker and stickier), as it is not water-soluble. I looked for information about the chemical attributes of this substance, but came up with nothing. The only description I found for it was “caustic” (alkaline), and that it seems to be poisonous too.

I know what some of you are thinking – where are the photos of the frog in your messy hands? Trust me when I say this, it is impossible to do anything while dealing with this gluey secretion, let alone operating a camera. I spent an hour and half in the bathroom sink obsessively trying to get rid of the stuff. Unless you have something to scrape your hands with, this is not a simple task. Eventually, I managed to somewhat clean my hands, and decided to keep the frog for a short photography session.

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

“Now be a good girl and behave.”

The species I found was the common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), and it is massive. When we think of treefrogs we tend to fixate on those small or medium sized species, usually green or yellowish in color, often delicate in their appearance to allow swift movement in the forest canopy. However, some species are impressively robust, so much that when they leap and land on a branch they sometimes break it under their body weight. This is the case for the milk frog, I could not believe my eyes how big it was. Females can reach a length of over 10cm and have a body mass of over 90gr. They are indeed heavy jumpers, and they deploy an interesting strategy during landing to better support their body weight: the frog either lands on its abdomen or performs a cartwheel around the branch, while only attached by their adhesive toe pads. Trachycephalus venulosus is an explosive breeder, coming down the canopy to breed after heavy rains. Males congregate around water ponds and wrestle for females. It is often a violent event, after which males and females move together in amplexus (males “piggyback riding” the females) to lay eggs on the water surface.

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus; right) with a more typically-sized treefrog (Agalychnis hulli; left)

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus; right) with a more typically-sized treefrog (Agalychnis hulli; left)

After I got the frog’s sticky glue off my hands along with some of my own skin, I went back to bed. The frog was chilling out in a bucket beside me. In the following morning, I decided to photograph it in “Meet Your Neighbours” style before letting it go. I soon found out that if one is careful, the milk frog can be handled without triggering the defense response. When calm this frog is rather sweet actually, I think I can even see a smile in some of those photos ha ha. I released it back into the forest, putting it on a low tree branch. To my surprise it did not escape immediately. Only when I turned around and started walking away I heard a cracking sound followed by something crashing into leaves. Yup, that’s one heavy treefrog.

Common milk frog (Trachycephalus venulosus), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Best buddies.

A Moment of Creativity: MYN misfires

I recently updated my gallery for the Meet Your Neighbours project with my work from 2014 (if you haven’t checked it already you can see it here). It is great to have such a diverse collection of animals in a single page, and I can proudly say this is my favorite gallery on the website. It is far from being complete, as I still have photos to add, and I plan to continue my contribution to this project. I was also honored to have my gallery featured on Alex Wild’s blog “Compound Eye” in Scientific American.

Contrary to what some people may think, shooting animals on a white background is not as simple as it seems. Like nature photography in general, there is so much that can go wrong. I call these “misfires”, and usually such photos do not exist for too long because I delete them immediately. However, sometimes misfires have interesting results. Not really useful as MYN photos, but maybe still acceptable for artistic values. Here is a collection of common cases when things do not go exactly as planned. I omitted misfires which are purely technical, such as cases where I got the exposure incorrectly or, more embarrassing, when the subject was completely out of focus.

Subject suddenly exiting the frame: Usually happens when I miscalculate the animal’s movements. This sometimes produces interesting results, like in the case of this Blunt-headed Tree Snake (Imantodes cenchoa) from Belize.

Blunt-headed Tree Snake (Imantodes cenchoa), Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

“Anyone needs a rope?”

 

Subject attacking the camera: Many animals are feisty and just want to be left alone. This is often the case with arachnids, crabs and snakes. While a freashwater crab trying to grab the lens is something I would not normally worry about, I do admit I had times when my heart skipped a beat upon seeing my subject charging towards me (not during a MYN shoot though). A nature photographer should always be alert and cautious!

Freshwater crab (Potamon potamios), Golan Heights, Israel

A feisty freshwater crab (Potamon potamios) charging towards the camera

 

Subject taking off: This is far more common than one might think, especially with beetles and flies. It is nice to actually try getting a decent photo of the insect in flight. However, when working in the field, this will very often be the last photo you snap of the subject, as it is impossible to locate afterwards.

Click beetle (Semiotus sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Click beetle (Semiotus sp.) in mid-flight

 

The butt-shot: This issue is well known, especially to wildlife photographers who use trap cameras in the field. You set up your camera, you enter all the correct settings, aim for that perfect angle that gives you the most detail of your subject, and at the exact moment you take the shot, the subject turns away from the camera. And stays like this. Forever.
Some animals have a peculiar tendency of constantly turning away from the camera even if you follow their movement. I cannot help but wonder if this has anything to do with IR light-metering beam coming out of the camera/flash.

Jewel wasp (family Chrysididae), Ontario, Canada

Jewel wasp showing her good side

 

The mirror reflection: This usually happens with very small animals moving about until they reach the edge of my diffusion material. Specifically in my setup this creates a strange reflection that I really do not like, but sometimes the results are interesting.

Deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), Massachusetts, United States

Deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) meets its reflection

 

The photobomb: When you get something included in the photo that you initially did not want. I admit I wanted to photograph the two tadpoles of green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis) together, but I was aiming for a clearer separation between them. Many tadpoles tend to cluster together at rest, so this was a uneducated attempt on my part. The bloated tadpole always pushed itself on top the smaller one like a magnet and it was impossible to separate them. By the way, both tadpoles are unhealthy: the thin tadpole is harboring an internal parasite, whereas bloated one has accumulation of liquid in its body.

Tadpoles of the green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis), Center District, Israel.

This tadpole gives the term ‘photobomb’ a new meaning

 

Here is a different example of photobombing a shoot – I was getting ready to photograph this harvestman (opiliones) from Ecuador, when a Gordian worm (Nematomorpha), an internal parasite, started coming out. A rare case in which you “get two for the price of one.” Interestingly, the host was still alive after the parasitic worm came out, and quickly slipped from the acrylic and vanished into the vegetation!

Gordian worm (Nematomorpha), an internal parasite, exits from a harvestman host. Mindo, Ecuador

Getting two animals for the price of one. Sort of.

 

Subject is too big for current setup: Nothing is more annoying then finding out your gear is just not good enough. When I travel overseas I only have a small acrylic sheet with me, obviously this limits its use for animals below a certain size. I thought it was enough to capture this stick insect flashing its wings, but I got frustrated fairly quickly – the insect was just too big.
By the way, the stick insect has an external parasite (tick fly, Forcipomyia sp.) attached, so this is also a case of “two for the price of one”.

Stick insect displaying its wings for defense. Mindo, Ecuador

This stick insect is too big!

 

Subject is light-sensitive: What happens when you try to photograph an animal that is hypersensitive to light against a blown out white background? Craziness ensues. Too often this means that the animal “goes nuts” and poses unnaturally, constantly looking for a place to hide. I try to avoid this as much as possible, and to minimize the stress to the animal. In the case shown below I actually liked the effect of the soil centipede lifting its body in search for something to grab onto. It almost looks like it is praying.

Soil centipede (Geophilidae), Carmel Mountain Range, Israel

Soil centipede (Geophilidae), Carmel Mountain Range, Israel

 

Subject is too fast: Photographing fast animals is extremely challenging, and cockroaches are no exception. Most of them can move easily on smooth surfaces, not to mention some can fly well. Add to this the fact that they are sensitive to light, and you’ve got a subject that will almost never sit still during a MYN shoot. These Egyptian desert cockroaches (Polyphaga aegyptiaca) from Israel took almost an hour to photograph. The image below is a composite of my failures to get one in the middle of the frame. In the end, I had to be creative and decided to chase the insect with the camera looking through the viewfinder until I got it in the frame.

Egyptian Desert Cockroaches (Polyphaga aegyptiaca), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

“You just had to move, didn’t you?!”

 

Oh, almost forgot! Subjects with an attitude: Not the anthropomorphic interpretation of forced unnatural animal poses (becoming unjustifiably popular recently), but more of a “slip of the tongue”, if you know what I mean.

Schneider's skink (Eumeces schneideri) Carmel Mountain Range, Israel

Schneider’s skink (Eumeces schneideri) making faces

Dirty dancing

I don’t dance.
It has cost me much time and good friendships trying to explain why, so I will not go into details here about it. Let’s just say that I tried many times, and it always felt too unnatural to me. However, not so long ago it occurred to me that there are a few creatures in this world that can make me dance. Surprisingly, these creatures are not human. I had the pleasure of meeting one of them in my last visit to Ecuador. It was a hot, humid afternoon, and I was busy photographing a cooperative jumping spider for Meet Your Neighbours project. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw something that looked like a biplane passing above my head. At first I ignored it, thinking maybe the intense heat took its toll and I was hallucinating, nevertheless that thing passed again, this time drawing the curious attention of my eight-legged subject. I looked up and saw nothing at first. Then I saw the strangest mosquito hovering right in front of my nose.

I recognized it immediately as a member of the genus Sabethes. There is no other mosquito in the world that has such an elegant appearance: its body is quite large, covered with blue and green iridescent scales. The legs are exceptionally long, each bearing a wide flattened brush of hairs, like a paddle. During flight the legs are extended forward and backwards, partially curved, giving the hovering mosquito a unique “aircraft” appearance. Members of the genus are found only in northern Latin America, and the females are important vectors of several tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and dangue fever. The function of the paddles found on the legs of males and females is poorly understood. A scientific study showed that males court and mate normally even when the paddles are removed, whereas paddle-less females are rarely approached by males. It is widely accepted among evolutionary scientists that elaborate ornaments on females take part in reversal of the sex roles, where females compete among themselves for the attention of and mating with the males. This may be a possible explanation for the extensive ornamentation on Sabethes females. Like many tropical mosquito species, Sabethes reproduce in small tree holes or bromelliads, where accumulating rainwater serves as medium for their aquatic larvae.

Sabethes sp., female with intense ornamentation on the legs

Sabethes sp., female with intense ornamentation on the legs

 

I had to be quick. These mosquitoes are not very common and I knew years could pass before I encounter them again. Upon careful inspection, I realized there were two Sabethes mosquitoes flying in my wooden cabin. The big one, with impressive ornamentation on the legs, earned the name ‘mothership’, while I named the smaller female ‘maid’, for lacking brushes on the forelimbs. I started following the mosquitoes in the room, counting steps as I was walking towards them, like a slow dance. Or maybe it was vice versa, and the hovering blood-sucking females were actually following my every move? It was so hot that I did not give it much thought. It is funny to think of Sabethes as a mosquito you want to get bitten by, just to get a closer look at this wonder of nature. At some point I was so frustrated with my attempts to approach the mosquitoes, that I shouted: “Come here and take my blood!”

I hate to admit, but the bite of Sabethes sp. is rather painful.

I hate to admit, but the bite of Sabethes sp. is rather painful.

 

In general, mosquitoes are attracted to dark objects, but they also respond to chemical compounds found in human sweat. I was sweating like crazy because of the heat and the constant movement. This was my own version of the film “Dirty Dancing”. Sad to admit it, but many times, the females were more interested in the big black object in front of them and landed on my camera. Then we had to start our dance all over.
After some time the ‘maid’ lost interest and escaped through the chicken mesh stretched over the window. I was left with the ‘mothership’. And so we were, dancing slowly around the shaded cabin. Me, moving about in small steps, arms extended forward, hoping for some contact, and her, elegantly following my every move, but avoiding me altogether. It was quite enchanting. From time to time, she embraced my hand and gave me a tiny kiss. And like an obsessed stalker, I relentlessly tried to document it. Some take me for a non-romantic person. I can definitely see why.

But then an idea came to my mind – what if I can make the mosquito come to me for a photograph, against my preferred background? And would it be possible to take a MYN photo of this skittish insect? This took some careful planning, and after hours of failed attempts I finally came up with a working method for it.

Sabethes sp. I never grew tired of looking at this beauty.

Sabethes sp. I never grew tired of looking at this beauty.

 

The ‘mothership’ remained patient enough to allow me to photograph quite a few interesting shots before leaving me all alone in the jungle’s darkness. However, this experience will surely remain a good memory for years to come, perhaps my most captivating dancing partner – the world’s most beautiful mosquito.

Meet Your Neighbours

I recently joined as a contributor to Meet Your Neighbours – a global photography project that sets out to connect communities with their local flora and fauna, and promotes nature conservation. The idea is to record all possible biodiversity against a clean white background using a simple field studio. By stripping the subjects off their natural surroundings they become the center of attention, provoking more interest. Another benefit from photographing against a white background using a standard protocol is that all subjects from different parts of the globe get the same level of appreciation, regardless of their location or taxonomic group. This can reveal interesting patterns: when comparing subjects from different origins it is difficult to say which is more exotic. In other cases, subjects that are physically very distant from each other share many similarities in appearance.

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) modeling for me on the white backdrop

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) modeling for me on the white backdrop

 

Checkered beetle (Trichodes affinis) is very common on Asteraceae inflorescence during the Israeli spring

Checkered beetle (Trichodes affinis) is very common on Asteraceae inflorescence during the Israeli spring

 

I discovered Meet Your Neighbours in 2010 and was immediately hooked. I liked this style of photography, which reminded me of old natural history books featuring illustrations of plants and arthropods. At that time I was already trying to achieve similar results in my photography, only I was using white paper as background so the effect was a bit different. For this reason I was delighted and honored when Clay Bolt, one of MYN founders, contacted me in 2013 with the offer to join the project. For me this meant one main goal – presenting species from Israel, even though I am based in Canada and travel quite extensively to other countries.

Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

Mediterranean House Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

 

Darkling beetle (Erodius gibbus). This is perhaps the most easily recognized beetle in Israel (after the overrated ladybug). Its small size, oval shape, and matte back color are unmistakable. This species also has a wide distribution range in sand dunes along the Israeli coast, and it can be found in the desert as well.

Darkling beetle (Erodius gibbus). This is perhaps the most easily recognized beetle in Israel (after the overrated ladybug). Its small size, oval shape, and matte back color are unmistakable. This species also has a wide distribution range in sand dunes along the Israeli coast, and it can be found in the desert as well.

 

Israel is located at the bridge of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. Due to its geological history and a variety of ecological conditions, Israel is characterized by a climate gradient from north to south, and to some extent from west to east. This creates many habitat types throughout the country, which are home to an impressive diversity of animals and plants. Most species in Israel are typical to the Mediterranean region, but desert species can be found in south of the country, whereas species from colder origins like Europe and Asia are found in northern Israel. For the latter Israel is the southernmost point in their distribution. Some species of tropical origin can also be found in the oases along the Great Rift Valley.

I decided to start my contribution to MYN from the very base, the creatures I know well from the places I explored as a kid.

The semi-stabilized sand dunes of Israel are home to the beautiful ground beetle Graphipterus. A recent study revealed that instead of the single species G. serrator, there are actually three similarly-looking Graphipterus species in Israel, each with its own distribution. This beetle, from the Central Coastal Plain, seems to be a new species to science and is currently being described.

The semi-stabilized sand dunes of Israel are home to the beautiful ground beetle Graphipterus. A recent study revealed that instead of the single species G. serrator, there are actually three similarly-looking Graphipterus species in Israel, each with its own distribution. This beetle, from the Central Coastal Plain, seems to be a new species to science and is currently being described.

 

I grew up in a city in the Central Coastal Plain of Israel. I had the fortune of spending my childhood with a lot of nature around me. Wildflower fields, Citrus orchards, temporary ponds and sand dunes were at walking distance from my house. Every weekend I would go out in the morning and get lost somewhere in the wilderness, looking for interesting animals. And there was much to be discovered: tame snakes, skinks, beautiful insects like beetles and mantises, frogs and spiders. I used to rear butterflies in my room because I was fascinated with the transformation from a caterpillar to the adult butterfly. I am still fascinated by this metamorphosis even today, although I focus on other insect groups.

This spring, I took a short research trip to Israel, and used this opportunity to document some of my favorite animals. I hope that through these photographs people can learn more about the diversity of the country and maybe in time will even consider visiting!

Isophya savignyi, a common flightless katydid from Israel. Top - male; bottom - female

Isophya savignyi, a common flightless katydid from Israel. Top – male; bottom – female

 

Mediterranean banded centipede (Scolopendra cingulata), one of the most commonly encountered arthropods under stones in the Central Coastal Plain during the spring season

Mediterranean banded centipede (Scolopendra cingulata), one of the most commonly encountered arthropods under stones in the Central Coastal Plain during the spring season

 

Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti, one of the smallest scorpion species in Israel. This adult female is only 3cm long, including the tail!

Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti, one of the smallest scorpion species in Israel. This adult female is only 3cm long, including the tail!

 

I was very fortunate to meet one of the most charming reptiles in Israel: the Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Every encounter with a chameleon is always a splash of spectacular coloration and behavior. This individual was very cooperative and returned to its perch after the photo shoot.

I was very fortunate to meet one of the most charming reptiles in Israel: the Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Every encounter with a chameleon is always a splash of spectacular coloration and behavior. This individual was very cooperative and returned to its perch after the photo shoot.