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Little Transformers: Pycnopalpa bicordata

It comes as no surprise that the first two “Little Transformers” presented on this blog were beetles. Many beetles are capable of folding, taking the shape of different structures, whether it is for camouflage or as a means of defense against predators. I will surely present more examples of transforming beetles in future posts. However, there are other insects out there that have the same transformation ability. I had the fortune of meeting one of those insects while staying at a jungle lodge in Honduras. My visit was in the middle of a dry spell and insects were surprisingly scarce. Many of the hikes I took in the rainforest were unfruitful. In my frustration I decided to check the screen windows outside a nearby facility because sometimes insects decide to rest on the mesh. I did spot a few nice finds, and then, I saw this.

"It's a bird! It's a plane!"

“It’s a bird! It’s a plane!”

My first thought was ‘that is one weird-looking moth’.
Let me explain.
My entomologist mind is on a constant search to find familiar patterns in objects that I see, because in the tropics deception is lurking everywhere. What I saw first was the animal’s shape and took it immediately for a winged insect. Then the coloration and the pose reminded me of some Erebidae moths (for example, genus Eutelia).
It took me a couple of short attempts to refocus my eyes on what is important before I could see that this is not a moth at all.

Now that the insect is off the net, we can take a better look. Dorsal view.

Now that the insect is off the net, we can take a better look. Dorsal view.

Another view of this amazing insect

Another view of this amazing insect

This is in fact a katydid nymph, Pycnopalpa bicordata, and it is so good at what it does that I was not able to locate it much later as it was sitting among fallen leaves in the vial I put it into. Whenever it is inactive it will assume this position, blending in with tree bark or leaf litter in the forest understory. Whether it resembles a moth or not is a matter of personal opinion at this point, because unless there is concrete evidence for an unpalatable moth model that this katydid is mimicking, the body posture this katydid takes can be within a different context altogether, such as a shredded fallen leaf or something similar.

Viewing from the side reveals that this is a leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) at rest

Viewing from the side reveals that this is a leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) at rest

The nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) in full katydid-mode

The nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata) in full katydid-mode

Leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata). Clever girl!

Leaf-mimicking katydid nymph (Pycnopalpa bicordata). Clever girl!

As mentioned above, this is a nymph. A juvenile female to be more accurate, as can be seen by her sickle-shaped ovipositor. So what does the adult katydid look like? I was expecting some mind-blowing leaf appearance; maybe with flattened fins and spines on the legs, to mimic a dried leaf chewed up to its veins. You can safely say that I was exaggerating, and in the end when the nymph molted to its adult stage I was rather disappointed.

The adult Pycnopalpa bicordata is a delicate leaf-mimicking katydid. This one is a male.

The adult Pycnopalpa bicordata is a delicate leaf-mimicking katydid. This one is a male.

The adult Pycnopalpa bicordata is a very delicate insect with no major body modifications for mimicry or camouflage. Yes, it still looks very much like a leaf – having vivid green wings with transparent cells surrounded with brown margins, representing consumed parts or sunburn damage to leaf tissue. But the adult stage pales in comparison to the ingenious structural design of the nymph. Still, it is very nice to find Little Transformers outside the realm of Coleoptera. Moreover, among the orthopterans, I can think of at least one additional species of katydid and several grasshoppers that fall under my definition for Little Transformers. Hopefully we will get to learn about them in future posts.

A plague of locusts

A couple of years ago, I was driving on a desert road in Israel on my way to several night hiking locations. There was nothing too exciting on the sides of the road vegetation-wise, most plants have finished their short flowering period and dried out. It was a late afternoon, and I got carried away in my thoughts about my approaching night hike. Suddenly I saw a vivid yellow splotch on the ground in the distance. Then another one, and another one. Flowers? Maybe, if it wasn’t for the fact that those spots were moving.
No, not flowers. Insects. Grasshoppers, to be more exact.

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

The desert in bloom? Not exactly.

It is a common mistake to think that locust grasshoppers are a single species. More accurately, “locust swarm” is the name of a natural phenomenon, in which conditions are favorable for the grasshopper population to increase substantially in size. The phenomenon is known from several species of grasshoppers, all members of family Acrididae. The most famous species is the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), found mainly in Africa, but there are other species, mostly found in the Old World and Oceania. Only one species was known from North America, the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus), but it mysteriously disappeared in the late 19th century.

Migratory locust (Locusta migratoria), the most widespeard locust species. Photographed in New Zealand

Migratory locust (Locusta migratoria), the most widespeard locust species. Photographed in New Zealand

Grasshoppers usually spend their relatively short lives alone, as solitary animals. In the case of locusts however, when food is abundant and space is tight, they start overcrowding and then an interesting chain of events ensues. The physical contact between individuals triggers a set of physiological and behavioral changes, mediated by the neurotransmitter Serotonin. The grasshoppers start moving and feeding together, they change their appearance from harmless-looking, camouflaged nymphs to bold, frantic ones, sporting aposematic coloration of yellow and black. The group stays together even as they mature into adults, then they turn pinkish in color.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymph in solitary phase, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymph in solitary phase, Negev Desert, Israel

The adult pink grasshoppers soon double, triple, quadruple in their numbers, and food sources become scarce. Then they start taking off, one by one, and glide with the wind until they find a location with food. Very soon they change their color again, this time without the aid of molting, into yellow. At this stage they are sexually active, and the females start laying eggs in the soil.
About three months later, tiny baby grasshoppers hatch. They move together, as a group, crawling and feeding on any green plant they come across. They grow fast, and soon they form small “streams” of yellow, trying to satisfy their enormous appetite.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs in gregarious phase, Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs in gregarious phase, Negev Desert, Israel

When I visited the Israeli desert in 2013 I knew about the locusts that arrived from Egypt several months earlier. They had already been “taken care of”, and the only traces of them were dead bodies scattered across the desert. Nevertheless, those grasshoppers had already planted the seeds for a new generation, and sightings of dark “spots” made of grasshoppers started to surface and accumulate. I admit not paying much attention to these reports. To be honest, from what I knew about the Ministry of Agriculture and the Plant Protection Services in Israel, I was certain that the locusts would be exterminated immediately. But apparently they decided to wait. Spraying insecticides from the air is a tough decision, because the harming effects can carry on to non-target insects, some of which are beneficial to us (for example bees), and in turn this could also influence the health and survival of insect-feeding animals such as birds and reptiles.
I only noticed the locusts while I was driving near desert sand dunes, when I suddenly saw what appeared to be the road lifting above the ground. The hoppers were trying to avoid being crushed by the wheels of my vehicle, and man, there were thousands of them.

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

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

This was the first time I have seen this phenomenon in its full glory. I was too hesitant to go when the first recent wave of desert locusts arrived in southern Israel in late 2004, and I kicked myself for missing it. I lucked out again as I was out of the country during the next incoming swarm, but was extremely lucky to be around to witness their offsprings.

The interesting thing about the “marching stage” of locusts is that they are very aware of themselves and of their surroundings. I found it extremely difficult to get close to them without triggering an escape response. As a matter of fact, even when I was lying flat on the ground to seem less intimidating to the grasshoppers, they would still approach and stop at 30cm distance. They would then wait for a few minutes, as if to judge what it is in front of them. If one grasshopper either turned back or jumped, the whole band followed. As much as photography goes I believe the only way to photograph them from up close is to use a timer or lie under some kind of camouflaged blanket.

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

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

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

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

Seeing locusts in the flesh (as opposed to black and white photos of them taken in the 50’s) is impressive. The nymphs move in broad paths that seem endless. Occasionally, a spider or a mantis grabs a nymph as prey, however birds and lizards seem to avoid attacking the hoppers. At night, the locusts can be seen resting in high numbers as they cover bushes and branches, already defoliated from leaves. Some will molt during this time. In the morning they quickly heat up in the sun rays, and go on their way.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs crowding at night. Surprisingly, there is one nymph in solitary phase among them (bottom center). Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs crowding at night. Surprisingly, there is one nymph in solitary phase among them (bottom center). Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs basking in the sun during the morning hours. Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs basking in the sun during the morning hours. Negev Desert, Israel

The sad part about this story is that we usually do not wait long enough to see what happens next. Locust swarms are a destructive force of nature. They can defoliate a crop field within hours. Historically, international alerts were sent whenever a locust swarm was observed airborne. So it came as no surprise to me when I visited the exact same spot the following day, only to find all the locusts dead. Their yellow bodies piled by the thousands under trees and bushes. They were most likely sprayed with insecticides early in the morning, before becoming active. Of all things, this looked like a horrible waste to me. Neither predator nor scavenger came to feed from these now dead grasshoppers, and for a very good reason – they were poisoned. It is none other than a holocaust (of children nonetheless!), but we do not like to think about it this way. We as humans tend to justify our actions when it comes to our own survival as a species. Survival, or world domination? You decide. If only we could accept that grasshoppers are a good food source for ourselves, I believe the response to locust swarms and end result would be slightly different.

Thousands of dead desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs after extermination. Negev Desert, Israel

Thousands of dead desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs after extermination. Negev Desert, Israel

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) adult in solitary phase. This individual was found in the same location two months after I witnessed the extermination of the gregarious nymphs. It is most likely a survivor of that swarm.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) adult in solitary phase. This individual was found in the same location two months after I witnessed the extermination of the gregarious nymphs. It is most likely a survivor of that swarm.

Here is a short video of the majestic marching of grasshoppers:

 

2014 in review: traveling, wide-angle macro and great finds!

As the clock counting towards the end of 2014, it is time for another year-in-review post. This was a good year. What a refreshing change from 2013. The main element this year seems to be traveling – I did lots of it. I think I broke my own record for traveling by air, sometimes squeezing multiple destinations into the same month, all thanks to the leave of absence I took from the university. It does not necessarily mean I visited new places; there is still a ton I want to see. The surprising thing is that I do not feel like I photographed enough this year. Many of these trips relied heavily on research, and very occasionally I found myself in a conflict between collecting data and photographing.

Here are my best of 2014. I tried to keep the same categories as last year.

 

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

 

Well, botfly again in this category, just like last year. I actually had a human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) in my own body last year as well as this year (there is a scientific publication about it on the way – a topic for a future blog post!). Although I have to say this year’s cute parasite was not at all unpleasant, on the contrary! For this reason I decided to go all the way through and have it complete its larval development inside my body, and now I am eagerly waiting for it to emerge as an adult fly.

 

The best landscape shots

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

 

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

 

I’m afraid I did not take too many landscape photographs this year. I was more concentrated in other methods (see below) that I completely neglected this photography sytle. In fact, I have just sold my trustworthy Tokina AT-X Pro 17mm lens, because I found that I am not using it anymore. I did have a chance to visit some breathtaking places this year, and chose two shots from Belize as my favorite landscapes for 2014.

 

The most perfectly timed photo

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

 

This photo is not exactly “perfectly timed” in the sense that I had to wait in order to capture the right moment. As I was walking to my cabin in the Ecuadorian Amazon I saw this pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) resting on a wall that was painted to show a scene from the rainforest. To my amazement the spider picked the “correct” spot in the painting to rest on, a palm leaf, just as it would be in the real vegetation. The cutesy ants painted marching nearby add a nice twist to this photo.

 

Best behavior shot

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

 

This molting amblypygid (Euphrynichus bacillifer) takes this category. I like how it looks like a version of Alien’s Facehugger from this angle.

 

The best non-animal photo

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

 

I regard this as one of my best super-macro shots. I have already written a short post about how this unique inflorescence sent me 20 years back in time for a trip down memory lane. What I love about this photo is that I managed to produce exactly what I envisioned.

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in "threat posture". Amazon Basin, Ecuador

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in “threat posture”. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

You can read more about my scary encounter with the huge Phoneutria spider here. I admit that my hands were shaking as I was getting closer and closer to take a photo. These spiders are fast. And usually quite aggressive too. In the end this female turned out to be very docile, and she also kindly warned me when I was getting too close.

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

 

Never in my wildest dreams I imagined I would be photographing a coral snake from a close distance, not to mention doing it alone with no assistance. These snakes have extremely potent venom and should be left alone when encountered. However, in my case an opportunity presented itself and I could not pass on the chance to photograph this beautiful creature. It was carefully released back to the rainforest immediately after the shoot.

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

 

There is almost nothing I can say about Sabethes that I haven’t already said in this post. This mosquito is nothing short of amazing, and for some insect photographers it is a distant dream to photograph one in action. Too bad they are tiny, super-fast, and oh yes – transmit tropical diseases that can kill you. So I guess it fits the previous category as well.

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

 

I have seen army ants in the past but this year I was happy to walk upon a bivouac (a temporary camp in which they spend the night). It is such an impressive sight. It is also quite painful if you are standing a bit too close. Taking close ups of the bivouac’s “ant wall” was an unpleasant process, to say the least.
I also love this scene where a small roach watches by while the ants form their crawling “rivers”.

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

 

I rarely take deep focus stacks. The reason is that I like to photograph live animals and this method requires an almost perfectly still subject. This stack of nine images shows one of the most impressive jumping spiders I had the fortune of finding. You can tell I went all “Thomas Shahan-y” here.

 

The best wide-angle macro

If there is one style I was obsessive about this year, it is wide-angle macro. I decided to dive in, and experimented with different setups and compositions. I have now gathered enough experience and information to write a long post (most likely split in two) about this method. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here are my favorites from this year.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

The next photo comes with its own story: On the way to the 700-Feet Waterfalls in Belize for an Epiphytes survey, Ella Baron (manager of Caves Branch Botanical Gardens), Alex Wild and I joked that it would be cool to take a wide-angle macro shot of a frog against the background of the waterfalls, and to use this “postcard shot” to promote future BugShot Belize workshops. 15 minutes after that, I had the shot on my memory card… This is probably my favorite photo from 2014.

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at the beautiful 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

 

The best Meet Your Neighbours photos

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

 

Along with wide-angle macro photography, I also photographed intensively against a white background, as a contributor for Meet Your Neighbours project. This technique is easy and produces stunning results that it is difficult to choose favorites. I think I like best the photos that still incorporate some part of the habitat, such as the ones below.

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Memes

Shooting for Meet Your Neighbours not only gives a chance to appreciate organisms out of the context of their surroundings, but also makes it super easy to use the images in creative ways. I do not consider myself a competent meme creator, but there are times that I have no better way for expressing myself.

I slept too much

One of those mornings.

 

Kung Fu weevil

Sometimes I feel like…

And the most exciting subject…

Ah, where to start? There were so many great finds this year: timber flies, fringed tree frogs, velvet worms, freshly molted whip spiders, eyelid geckos, tadpole shrimps and more. I cannot simply pick one favorite subject. They were all my favorites, so I decided not to end this post with a trail of random photos. I cannot wait to see what I will encounter next year. Have a good 2015!

2013 in review: Good riddance!

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

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

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

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

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

 

The photo that got me into the most trouble

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

Ground weta (Hemiandrus pallitarsis) mating

 

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

 

The most unpleasant subject

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

Botfly larva (Cuterebra emasculator)

 

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

 

The best landscape shots

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

McLean Falls, Catlins Forest Park, New Zealand

 

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

 

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

Wind struck trees, Slope Point, New Zealand

 

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

 

The most perfectly timed photo

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

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

 

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

 

Best behavior shot

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

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

 

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

 

The best non-animal photo

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

Kidney fern (Trichomanes reniforme). Kiriwhakapapa, New Zealand

 

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

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

Bark scorpion (Centruroides gracilis), Belize

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

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

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

 

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

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

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

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

 

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

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Trapdoor spider, Belize

Trapdoor spider, Belize

 

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

 

The best wide-angle macro

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

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

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

 

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

 

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Israel

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

The most exciting subject

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

Possibly new Charinus species, Israel

 

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

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

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

 

 

Six-legged mammoths

I usually don’t keep lists of “must-see” things when going on trips overseas, because past experiences have taught me that the best discoveries come when you least expect them. However, I must confess that I broke my rule before I taking the flight to New Zealand, and I decided that there are three NZ native animals I would like to see in the wild. The first one was undoubtedly the tusked weta.

Tusked weta belong to family Anostostomatidae. These creatures look like they were designed by Hollywood film industry (and yes, I can’t believe I am saying this about an insect): Males posses curved elephant-like tusks that extend forward from their mandibles. The tusks are used to push a male opponent during fighting over females or territories. The females have standard mandibles and do no have protruding tusks.

"Minor" male of Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

“Minor” male of Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

Female Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Female Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

There are three species of tusked weta in New Zealand:

The Mercury Island tusked weta, Motuweta isolata, is the biggest species of the tusked weta group, with a body length of 80-100mm and a weight of up to 28g. They are extremely rare and have a limited distribution in Middle Island in the Mercury Islands group. Like other native NZ invertebrates, human-introduced rodents are the greatest threat to these insects. The Mercury Island tusked weta is a protected species and a captive breeding and re-introduction programme was developed by Department of Conservation in order to introduce this species into other islands in the Mercury group. The Northland tusked weta, Anisoura nicobarica, was once considered a species of ground weta because of its small size (up to 20mm long). It is relatively common throught its distribution range in the far north of New Zealand North Island, occupying cavities in trees similarly to tree weta.

The third species and the one I was after is the Raukumara tusked weta, Motuweta riparia, a moderate-sized weta in comparison to the other two species, with a body length of 30-40mm. It was the most recent one to be discovered, only in 1996. It is found along the banks of forested, slow-flowing streams in Raukumara Range, East Cape of the North Island.

Typical habitat of Raukumara tusked weta - forested, second order streams in the Raukumara range.

Typical habitat of Raukumara tusked weta – forested, second order streams in the Raukumara range.

 

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

Tusked weta are nocturnal. During the day they hide under stones in a wide chamber made from silt. The juvenile weta are very common in the habitat and can be easily found even during the day while resting in their burrows. However, the tusks are fully developed only in adult weta, and they are much harder to find by day (although not impossible). They appear to prefer to come out on dark moonless nights when conditions are moist and humid, and climb on the vegetation. Because of their small body size and lack of tusks, the juvenile tusked weta can easily be mistaken for ground weta. However, small morphological differences give them away – mainly the number of spines on the legs but a more useful character is the presence of tympani (the insect equivalent of ears) on the forelegs. These “ears” are missing on the forelegs of ground weta.

Juvenile Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Juvenile Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

The adults seem to spend more time on branches and on the ground than on leaves in comparison to the juveniles. Interestingly, there is variation in the length of tusks in males, and “minor” adult males can also be found. These weta are mainly carnivorous, feeding on worms and insects. They are long lived, completing their development from juvenile to adult in two-three years. When disturbed, they immediately jump into the water and after swimming a short distance they press their body against the rocky bottom of the stream. Under running water, they are practically invisible for predators. The weta can stay in this state, completely submerged, for several minutes, after which they poke their heads and first thoracic segment out of the water, trying to assess if the danger has passed. I loved watching them swimming in the water, however it is not the safest place for escaping predators: one of the females I photographed decided to walk towards a small waterfall and vanished between the rocks. After a split second I heard a slurping sound and saw her crawling back up. An eel was lurking in the water below and tried to grab the weta!

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

Male Raukumara tusked weta (Motuweta riparia)

 

Photographically speaking, the tusked weta are insects that you love to hate. At night, they usually stand in the most awkward angles and will not move (unless you want to try to make them move and risk the diving of your beautiful weta). By day, they just never stop running, and their dark shaded habitat makes it unusually challenging to capture a crisp photo. I was lucky to have a piece of white paper lying around to use as a background. All in all, I am very glad I saw these marvelous insects, shaped by years of natural and sexual selection. They truly are a wonder of nature.

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