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Debunking Misconceptions: Scorpions

For the past five months I have been working at the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibition as a full-time spider wrangler, taking care of the live spiders and scorpions, as well as performing live venom extractions. One of the most common interactions I have at the museum are with people looking to confirm certain misconceptions about venomous arachnids. There is a lot of information available out there, and I understand it can be overwhelming and confusing. The sad truth is that a lot of it is also incorrect.  So I thought I should add my voice to the mix, maybe it will help someone who comes across my blog.

Tail and stinger of an Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus petersii)

Tail and stinger of an Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus petersii)

First off, nature does not fall neatly into boxes. This is something I emphasize a lot on this blog. It is in our own habit to look for consistency in the world around us, in order to establish some rules that nature follows. Maybe we do it in hopes of controlling and predicting certain happenings in order to live a stress-free life. However, in reality nature has its own laws and does not bend to our desires. The same goes for lumping venomous animals as a group. The search for consistency has led people to come up with guidelines for recognizing venomous animals. The problem is that in nature there is a great deal of deception. On one hand harmless animals try to pass as dangerous ones, and on the other hand medically significant animals may look harmless. It is hard to put all the animals possessing potent venom under the same umbrella, grouped by a single or a couple of characters. They are very different, each species is unique. Are you familiar with the rhyme for distinguishing true coral snakes from their mimics in the US? Take that rhyme across the border to Latin America and it becomes useless. That is because nature does not follow our rules. Let’s demonstrate this with some of the misconceptions surrounding scorpions.

Misconception #1: Is it poisonous?

Let’s start from the beginning. Poison consists of one or more toxins that can do harm when ingested or absorbed through tissue. As far as we know, there are no poisonous scorpions in existence. You can eat scorpions without worries, if that is your thing… However, people who present this question often mean to ask whether scorpions are venomous. Venom, as opposed to poison, is a chemical cocktail that is injected through the tissue into the bloodstream by a needle-like apparatus (stinger, fang, or spine). All scorpions are venomous. It is one of the defining features of the entire arachnid order Scorpiones (along with possessing a pair of grasping pedipalps called chelae or pincers, as well as a tail bearing a stinger). The venom potency is ranked using a unit called LD50 (abbreviation of “Lethal Dose 50%”), which indicates the amount of venom required for killing 50% of the population. The lower the LD50 value, the stronger the venom. In this post I will not discuss LD50 values, I will briefly mention potency as a qualitative character only.

Black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) from Israel. This genus is very diverse and contains many highly venomous species, as well as some with mild venom.

Black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) from Israel. This genus is very diverse and contains many highly venomous species, as well as some with mild venom.

Misconception #2: Small scorpions are more dangerous than big ones

This misconception is largely false, and can be broken into two parts. First, size has no bearings on how potent a certain species of scorpion can be. There are small species of scorpions that can be dangerous (mostly members of family Buthidae) as well as large sized species with the same level of potency if not higher (Buthidae again in this case). But we can even take this further and discuss size difference within the same species. In a species with potent venom, smaller sized juveniles carry the exact same venom as adults and have the same level of potency, and can still be dangerous. The smaller size usually means that they can only inject a smaller amount of venom when provoked, and they may not even be able to pierce our skin while stinging. It does not mean that we should carelessly start handling baby scorpions, but their potential for causing harm is lower.

This small scorpion (Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti) from Israel is considered harmless and yet it packs quite a punch when it comes to stings. I have had the misfortune of spending four hours with a numb hand after being tagged by this species.

This small scorpion (Compsobuthus schmiedeknechti) from Israel is considered harmless and yet it packs quite a punch when it comes to stings. I have had the misfortune of spending four hours with a numb hand after being tagged by this species.

Israel pillar tail scorpion (Orthochirus scrobiculosus negebensis) is another small-sized, non-dangerous species. Its sting is often compared to being struck with red hot steel, but otherwise it does not cause any clinical complications.

Israel pillar tail scorpion (Orthochirus scrobiculosus negebensis) is another small-sized, non-dangerous species. Its sting is often compared to being struck with red hot steel, but otherwise it does not cause any clinical complications.

Misconception #3: Yellow scorpions are more venomous than black ones

As much as it would be cool to have scorpions color coded to their venom potency, this is rarely the case. There are yellow scorpions possessing deadly venom as well as ones with extremely weak venom, and the same goes for black scorpion species. It can be extremely difficult to identify scorpions to the species level based on their color alone. This is one of those cases where you need to be familiar with the species, or enlist the assistance of an expert to properly identify the scorpion. One variation of the misconception also makes a mention of red scorpions having the intermediate level of venom potency between the aforementioned ones. Red scorpions? Very few of them out there.

Canada's only native scorpion is the northern scorpion (Paruroctonus boreus). This species lives under rock boulders and in underground burrows, and is considered harmless.

Canada’s only native scorpion is the northern scorpion (Paruroctonus boreus). This species lives under rock boulders and in underground burrows, and is considered harmless.

The deathstalker scorpion (Leiurus hebraeus) from North Africa and the Middle East is one of the deadliest scorpion species in the world, carrying a strong neurotoxic venom that can cause acute allergic reactions, paralysis, and even death. It does not help that it is also extremely common throughout its distribution range.

The deathstalker scorpion (Leiurus hebraeus) from North Africa and the Middle East is one of the deadliest scorpion species in the world, carrying a strong neurotoxic venom that can cause acute allergic reactions, paralysis, and even death. It does not help that it is also extremely common throughout its distribution range.

The Israeli scorpion (Buthus israelis) shares its habitat with the deathstalker scorpion, and may benefit from bearing a strong resemblance to it, however it is a harmless species.

The Israeli scorpion (Buthus israelis) shares its habitat with the deathstalker scorpion, and may benefit from bearing a strong resemblance to it, however it is a harmless species.

The yellow fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus amoreuxi) is a sand dunes-inhabiting species from Israel. Even though it belongs to the "hot" genus Androctonus, its venom is mild and it is not considered dangerous.

The yellow fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus amoreuxi) is a sand dunes-inhabiting species from Israel. Even though it belongs to the “hot” genus Androctonus, its venom is mild and it is not considered dangerous.

Misconception #4: A small venom gland indicates more potency compared to a large venom gland

The twisted logic behind this misconception is that a small gland contains less venom, therefore it must be very strong the achieve the desired effect of subduing prey. However, the size of the venom gland has nothing to do with what is stored inside. Venom is highly complex and packed with many chemical compounds, that a single droplet is usually enough to cause some damage. Potent species show a great variety of venom gland sizes and shapes and unfortunately they do not fall under a single group. Genus Androctonus contains many highly venomous species that are characterized by a thick tail and a small venom gland, however there are far deadlier species that posses venom glands that follow the same thickness as the preceding tail segments.

Tail and stinger of the black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) showing the small venom gland. This species has strong venom.

Tail and stinger of the black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) showing the small venom gland. This species has strong venom.

Tail and stinger of the deathstalker scorpion (Leiurus hebraeus) showing the large venom gland. This species have even stronger venom than the fat-tail scorpion in the previous photo.

Tail and stinger of the deathstalker scorpion (Leiurus hebraeus) showing the large venom gland. This species have even stronger venom than the fat-tail scorpion in the previous photo.

Misconception #5: A thick tail indicates more potency compared to a thinner tail

Like above, this one is also very inconsistent. Usually a thin tail indicates that the scorpion’s main weapon is its pincers (this is definitely the case for burrowing species), however there are exceptions. Family Buthidae contains extremely venomous species with thick tails but also many dangerous species with thin appendages.

Arabian fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda), with thick tail and pincers. This is a medically significant species with potent venom.

Arabian fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda), with thick tail and pincers. This is a medically significant species with potent venom.

Ecuadorian black scorpion (Tityus asthenes), with thin tail and pincers. And yes, you guessed it - this is a medically significant species with potent venom.

Ecuadorian black scorpion (Tityus asthenes), with thin tail and pincers. And yes, you guessed it – this is a medically significant species with potent venom.

Misconception #6: Thick pincers indicate weaker venom compared to thin pincers

This one is usually correct. As mentioned in the previous misconception, a scorpion with thick and stubby chelae relies more on force to kill its prey rather than venom. This is true for many underground species hunting from their burrow. However, there are few exceptions. Some members of family Buthidae have thick pincers and carry a strong neurotoxic venom that can be harmful and sometimes even lethal to humans. Another example are some members of family Diplocentridae, underground scorpions with impressive thick pincers. Their venom contains compounds that can cause necrosis, the death and rotting of tissue. This is usually not lethal, but should not be overlooked either because the risk of losing the tissue or organ is there.

Jericho scorpion (Nebo hierichonticus), an underground diplocentrid species with a thin tail and thick pincers. And yet its venom can cause necrosis of the tissue, which can lead to clinical complications.

Jericho scorpion (Nebo hierichonticus), an underground diplocentrid species with a thin tail and thick pincers. And yet its venom can cause necrosis of the tissue, which can lead to clinical complications.

Misconception #7: Scorpions will always use their stinger first in defence

Scorpions possess a stinger and venom primarily for the purpose of subduing prey. Their venom is not really intended for us and because it is precious for the scorpion, it prefers not to waste it. However, if cornered with no chance to flee, the scorpion will not hesitate to use its stinger to push back the aggressor and to clear a path of escape. Because venom is scarce, many scorpions will first try to flee or use their chelae in defence. While a sting can be painful, never underestimate a scorpion’s pinch. Even species with thin pincers can surprise with the sheer force they use to grab. After all, this organ evolved just for that purpose – grabbing, holding, and pulling. Scorpions hold on tight to whatever they caught, usually a prey or mate, but also aggressors like humans, in a “tear your flesh right off your body” kind of grip. You can easily get bruised or even cause a wound to open if you try to fight the scorpion’s grip and pull back.

Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus petersii). Just by looking at this tank you can tell that it is not about the venom. It is all about physical strength. This species is harmless, but oh boy they can pinch HARD!

Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus petersii). Just by looking at this tank you can tell that it is not about the venom. It is all about physical strength. This species is harmless, but oh boy they can pinch HARD!

Misconception #8: Scorpions sting themselves when in danger

Many people still believe this misconception for some reason, so it gets an honorable mention on this list. Scorpions do not commit suicide. Interestingly, scorpions are not immune to their own venom, and they definitely take advantage of that – an encounter with a conspecific will often result in a struggle and cannibalism. However as mentioned above, when in danger most scorpions try to flee first. If that does not work they turn to defend themselves, and use their stinger as a last resort. An agitated scorpion will try to sting just about anything; scorpions do not see well and use their tail as a probe to find a suitable spot for stinging. Sensory hairs located close to the stinger provide the scorpion with information about the texture, softness, and identity of what it is about to sting. This defence response is often frantic, with rapid tail movements and failed stinging attempts. The scorpion arches its tail a lot in the process, and sometimes the stinger gets stuck in the substrate close to the scorpion’s body. From a certain point of view it may look like the scorpion is actively stinging itself but this could not be further from the truth. It is trying to sting everything but itself.

Portrait of Ecuadorian black scorpion (Tityus asthenes)

Portrait of Ecuadorian black scorpion (Tityus asthenes)

Bonus misconception: Scorpions use their UV fluorescence to warn predators

This one I heard from some of the museum visitors. First, we need to make a distinction between bioluminescence, UV color pattern, and UV fluorescence. Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by an organism through a chemical reaction. It is an active process that is usually used for communication or attracting prey. Examples for bioluminescence can be seen in bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates. UV color patterns are visual signals that can be seen only in the ultraviolet spectral range. We cannot normally see them, and in order to do so we need to block all the visible light first and look through a special filter that allows only short wavelength light to pass through. Such color patterns can be found on flowers to attract and guide pollinators, but also on flying insects (like butterflies) in order to signal potential mates and competitors. Contrary to the previous terms, UV fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed ultraviolet light. In animals this means that different coloration or patterns become visible after exposure to UV light. It is a passive process that completely depends on a UV light source. In scorpions, almost all species are known to fluoresce due to a special characteristic of their exoskeleton, but the intensity of the emission varies widely and is faint in some species. The role that fluorescence plays in scorpions is largely unknown. Scorpions have poor vision and are not able to detect colors. Moreover, they are primarily nocturnal and avoid sunlight, which the main contributor of UV. Because of this, the scorpion fluorescence is not something that is visible under natural conditions. To the best of our knowledge, there are no predators that can emit UV light from their body while searching for prey (even though I must admit that it would be cool), so I think it is safe to say that scorpions do not use the fluorescence as a warning signal.

Israeli Gold scorpion (Scorpio palmatus) glowing under UV light. Of all scorpions, members of family Scorpionidae have the brightest fluorescence.

Israeli Gold scorpion (Scorpio palmatus) glowing under UV light. Of all scorpions, members of family Scorpionidae have the brightest fluorescence.

Sand scorpion (Buthacus leptochelys leptochelys) glowing under UV light

Sand scorpion (Buthacus leptochelys leptochelys) glowing under UV light

Bark scorpions (Tityus sp.) are a good example for species with a relatively faint fluorescence. Notice that the newborn babies on the female's back glow even less. Their fluorescence will build up and brighten with age.

Bark scorpions (Tityus sp.) are a good example for species with a relatively faint fluorescence. Notice that the newborn babies on the female’s back glow even less. Their fluorescence will build up and brighten with age.

Scorpions are fascinating arachnids. I have always argued they are some of nature’s best designs when it come to survival. Equipped with the means to grab, hold onto, and subdue their prey, but still capable of becoming flat enough to squeeze into tight spaces to avoid predators. They also posses a body armour that makes them resilient and impenetrable to the elements (scorpions recover well after hours of being submerged in water). Not to mention that most scorpions can dig very well, proving to be excellent architects in their habitats by constructing underground shelters for their own use as well as other animals. And as for their venom, it contains many potentially useful compounds, some of which are being tested for use in medicine as well as pest control. Let’s try to appreciate and enjoy scorpions for the magnificent creatures they are, without falsely lumping them into groups based on superficial characters. They mean us no harm.

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.

 

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!

 

 

An unexpected encounter

Earlier this summer I spent a couple of weeks in Israel. I like these home visits – regardless of the joy of seeing my family and friends and catching up, there is something rewarding about coming to Israel as a tourist. Sure, it will always be my home country, but since things around are constantly changing, I feel that in many aspects Israel is a home far from being a home. And I love it. It is all mine to re-explore every single time!

In one of my free evenings I planned a herping trip to the dunes in the Western Negev region. I was hoping to find one of the country’s most elusive venomous snakes: the horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). But what I found was way better.

I arrived to the site two hours before sunset. It was disturbingly quiet, as if the desert was teasing you to reveal all the treasures hidden within it. I did what I always do before a night survey – I went for a walk. There were many footprints decorating the sand, a sign for busy activity of lizards, ants and darkling beetles. The few green plants around were crawling with insects, juvenile locusts to be more exact (this is a topic of a future post). At the top of one of the sand dunes I found a baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). This reptile is considered critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, so you can imagine how happy I was to find evidence for successful breeding of this species!

Baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). Super cute!

Baby desert tortoise (Testudo werneri). Super cute!

 

When I reached down to check an Artemisia monosperma, I noticed movements in the sand at the base of the bush. With a small spade I managed to “fish” out the reptile, it was a cute Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). This elongated skink almost never shows up on the sand surface. It has very short legs, and prefers to “swim” inside the sand in snake-like movements, like a terrestrial eel.

Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides)

Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides)

 

Sunset over the Western Negev desert. Soon the fun begins!

Sunset over the Western Negev desert. Soon the fun begins!

 

The sun started disappearing behind one of the dunes. I armed myself with LED flashlights and tweezers and set out looking for trouble.
And trouble found me alright. At the loess grounds leading to the dunes I stumbled upon a painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). This is a venomous snake I do not like to meet up close, because of its typical aggressive behavior. It was hiding in a deserted rodent burrow, and did not pose a serious threat though. A few hundred meters away I found a second snake of the same species, juvenile. I always feel like I am safer with smaller snakes even if they are venomous, but this is just an illusion. The juvenile snakes are as unpredictable and dangerous as the adults ones, and I would not want to find myself in a situation where I am getting bitten. Fortunately for me, this snake was just not in activity yet, so it was slow and sluggish. I could carefully examine it from a close distance.

Painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus)

Painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus)

 

Juvenile painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). The pink and white patches serve as camouflage between the rocks.

Juvenile painted saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus). The pink and white patches serve as camouflage between the rocks.

 

Short-fingered geckos (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus and Stenodactylus petrii) were out and about in search for small prey insects. Their color blends so well with the sand that I had to be carful not to step on them while walking. These are some of my favorite geckos, with their wide heads and big colorful eyes they look like animated plush toys.

Lichtenstein's Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus)

Lichtenstein’s Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus sthenodactylus)

 

Anderson's Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus petrii). Their "hands" looks like human hands!

Anderson’s Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus petrii). Their “hands” looks like human hands!

 

It was getting late and even though I saw many interesting reptiles and arthropods, I failed to find the snake I was looking for. I decided to walk even further, to another area with tall dunes. It was not there, too. I reached down to photograph a fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) when I suddenly heard the alarming sound of heavy breathing behind me.

Fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) - one of my favorite scorpion species in Israel. Now while watching this, imagine someone breathing heavily behind you.

Fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor) – one of my favorite scorpion species in Israel. Now while watching this, imagine someone breathing heavily behind you.

 

I quickly snapped a single photo and stood up. The breathing sound became louder. This is not the best scenario one would like to find himself in – alone, in the dark, in the middle of the desert and far from any human settlement. That breathing sounded so heavy, that I blindly assumed I was being watched by a large mammal. My guess was that there is a striped hyena standing behind me. Another one of those animals I do not want to meet up close and personal.

I turned around, but there was nothing there. Suddenly I heard the breathing again, from a few meters away. I aimed my flashlight, and saw this guy:

Desert monitor (Varanus griseus)!

Desert monitor (Varanus griseus)!

 

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus) is a lizard one really does not see very often in Israel. I consider myself extremely lucky, because I have seen it on several occasions (thanks to my military service which I spent in one of the country’s best locations for observing Varanus) but it is unbelievably impressive every single time. This individual was about a meter in length including its tail, and I presume it is not even an adult. The monitors feed on invertebrates and small vertebrates such as rodents and ground-dwelling birds. They spend most of their life in a large underground burrow, only coming out to feed and reproduce. In fact, the reason this individual was so upset (hence the defensive breathing/hissing) was that I was standing right above its burrow entrance. Once I moved away following the lizard, it took advantage of the situation and quickly rushed inside.

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus)

The desert monitor (Varanus griseus)

 

The desert monitor was my prize for the night. I had already forgotten what else I was looking for. On my way back to the car, while feeling exhausted and ready to call it a night, I suddenly saw it. Hiding between two small Artemisia bushes, trying to blend in.
The horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes).

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes)

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes)

It was a small male, but it was beautiful nevertheless. Tiny azure scales decorated his back, and two devilish horns extended above his cat-like eyes. It flattened its body and started rubbing its scales together, producing a loud Velcro sound. G-o-r-g-e-o-u-s snake. This is Israel’s most beautiful snake in my opinion, and can easily make a fine candidate for one of the most beautiful snakes in the world. I will definitely come back to find it again sometime in the future.

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). Here, kitty kitty.

Horned desert viper (Cerastes cerastes). Here, kitty kitty.

 

** I bet you are asking yourself – why does someone who present himself as an Entomologist spend so much time posting stories just about anything but insects?? Well, the truth is I have plenty of stories to tell about insects too, but I do not limit myself to six-legged creatures only. I like to appreciate all nature wonders, especially the small and cryptic organisms we tend to ignore/miss. I hope you would do the same.

In two days I will be joining BugShot, a macrophotography workshop in Belize led by some of the world’s finest macrophotographers. I hope to return not only with more photographs and stories but also with better skills, both as an Entomologist and a photographer.