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Insect art: Monsters and creepy crawlies by Jonathan Wojcik

Warning: This post contains monster art. If you are a squeamish person or suffer from trypophobia, you might want to skip this one. 

From day one this website had a links page, and one of the first links to appear was for a website called “The Insidious bogleech”, an artistic platform for all-things-scary created by Jonathan Wojcik. The reason I initially included the link was his Pokemonology page that I wished more people would know about (and I secretly wish will be updated with more creatures). There is also a page with species that should have made it into Pokemon. But bogleech is so much more than just a dive into Pokemon science. Wojcik is a monster fanatic who dedicated his life to studying and celebrating the creepy. He is also an amazing artist with a hell of an imagination. All artwork shown here is courtesy of Jonathan Wojcik and posted with his permission.

Imaginary creature inspired by a scorpionfly (Mecoptera)

Imaginary creature inspired by a scorpionfly (Mecoptera)

On bogleech every day is Halloween. The website, which I stumbled upon in late 2004 and has been in my bookmarks ever since, is probably the largest repository of anything gruesome or monster-related in existence. Jonathan tells me an early version of the site already existed in 2001, so it is a piece of history! Bogleech has entire pages dedicated to reviewing monsters in any form imaginable (fiction, media, toys etc’), popular science articles about misunderstood animals and parasites, reviews of store finds around Halloween, a printable horror game, and heaps of original artwork by Wojcik. There is an extensive webcomic that allows you to get to know some of his original monster creations better and see how they would act in different scenarios. The website has a large community of followers, many of them actively add content to it. There are even hidden corners on the site, like these toy octopus and mummy character pages. Jonathan is also active outside of his own kingdom on Tumblr and Devianart, and he also has an Etsy store where he sells some bogleech merchandise. He used to write articles for cracked.com as well.

Leeches by Jonathan Wojcik

Leeches by Jonathan Wojcik

The image above is taken from the article about leeches, check it out if you want to learn more about these magnificent animals. This is what I like about bogleech – it takes subjects that most of us will never dwell upon, and delivers them in a friendly and informative manner. Where else can you read about the different types of leeches and at the same time get a personal perspective on these animals? Bogleech is the place. When my Epomis research was published, Jonathan and I talked about it and he dedicated a page on his website to the beetles, including some first-hand impressions from me about the study. You can say that this was my first featured interview. Since then, I have not checked his website for some time, and… he has been busy.

Thanks to its long existence, the website is like a labyrinth full of surprises. You can spend an entire day going through its content and still have plenty more left to explore. Spiderween is a series of posts attempting to present information about spiders in a non-threatening way using cartoonish drawings, a one-of-a-kind spider guide for the arachnophobe. I think it is absolutely brilliant. It contains a lot of interesting facts about spider biology but also debunks common misconceptions (for example about widow spiders, brown recluses, and others). Remember the ogre-faced spiders from a few posts ago? Here is a family-friendly, anthropomorphized version of the spider by Wojcik:

Ogre-faced spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Ogre-faced spider by Jonathan Wojcik

There is also series of articles about flies that is still in progress and worth checking out. One page I like in particular is Mortasheen, where Jonathan allows himself to go wild with creating his own world of monsters, occasionally inspired by real-life animals or by science fiction. When I find myself bored I like to get lost in this section of his website. This is where it’s fun to go and search for animals and plants you know, and see them from a slightly different perspective. When it comes to arthropods and other invertebrates, making the jump into imaginary creatures and monsters is almost expected and too easy. This is something I have already discussed in the previous insect art post on this blog – many of them seem alien to us because they are so different from other animals in their body structure, and some of them are so small that they are simply overlooked. Just to give a few examples, here is a creature based on a globular springtail:

Globular springtail by Jonathan Wojcik

Globular springtail by Jonathan Wojcik

Formicrawl is based on an Eciton army ant soldier:

Formicrawl - army ant by Jonathan Wojcik

Formicrawl – army ant by Jonathan Wojcik

Horrida is loosely based on a jumping stick:

Horrida - jumping stick by Jonathan Wojcik

Horrida – jumping stick by Jonathan Wojcik

Katydread is modelled after what seems to be a spiny devil katydid (Panachanthus cuspidatus):

Katydread - spiny devil katydid by Jonathan Wojcik

Katydread – spiny devil katydid by Jonathan Wojcik

Exothresher is based on a camel spider. It makes you wonder how fortunate we are! As humans we are much larger in size than these voracious predators, so we do not have to worry about being chased and eaten alive by them.

Exothresher - camel spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Exothresher – camel spider by Jonathan Wojcik

Rotsucker is inspired by a botfly larva:

Rotsucker - botfly larva by Jonathan Wojcik

Rotsucker – botfly larva by Jonathan Wojcik

Eldoon is a cute worm-like creature that is inspired by hammerhead flatworms:

Eldoon - hammerhead flatworm by Jonathan Wojcik

Eldoon – hammerhead flatworm by Jonathan Wojcik

And it’s not just invertebrates. Other animals get representation in Wojcik’s work as well, here’s one for example:

Abysmal by Jonathan Wojcik. If you are unfamiliar with anglerfish, they have a fleshy protrusion on their head to use as a lure for prey. This monster is an interesting interpretation when the prey is human

Abysmal by Jonathan Wojcik. If you are unfamiliar with anglerfish, they have a fleshy protrusion on their head to use as a lure for prey. This monster is an interesting interpretation when the prey is human

Fungi and plants are also represented. This guy is based on latticed stinkhorn (Clathrus ruber):

Funguslyme by Jonathan Wojcik

Funguslyme by Jonathan Wojcik

In addition to the bogleech website, Jonathan has a Patreon page, where he shares even more creature designs and bits from his creative process with his supporters. The characters in the sketch below were designed after carnivorous plants. You have to be very familiar with the plants to fully appreciate the small details in each of these drawings. For example, I have been keeping butterworts (Pinguicula) for years, and I can attest that they look exactly like the one in the top left corner!

carnivorous plants by Jonathan Wojcik

carnivorous plants by Jonathan Wojcik

But Wojcik’s work is still so much more. It’s not just about animals and plants. He takes notes from whatever is around us, even everyday objects, letting his imagination dictate what is possible. Here are some examples (again, from his Patreon posts), check out that sawdust monster!

Angelworm, Mushroom berserker, and Sawdust juggernaut. Creatures by Jonathan Wojcik

Angelworm, Mushroom berserker, and Sawdust juggernaut. Creatures by Jonathan Wojcik

Bogleech also contains a lot of information about parasites. After all, they are a wonder of nature that most of us don’t want to think about, but they do deserve respect for their importance and their evolutionary success. The influence of real-world parasites can be found throughout many of Wojcik’s creations. For example, the following monsters were inspired by Leucochloridium, a parasitic flatworm that infects snails:

Leucochloridium-inspired creatures by Jonathan Wojcik (Paraseethe, Eyezome, Parasidious, Pestare, Paraslob)

Leucochloridium-inspired creatures by Jonathan Wojcik (Paraseethe, Eyezome, Parasidious, Pestare, Paraslob)

Speaking of parasites, Jonathan is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to launch the next series of enamel pins bearing his artwork – parasites.

Parasite pins by Jonathan Wojcik

Parasite pins by Jonathan Wojcik

I think they are simply stunning (they glow in the dark too, so cool!). One day I hope to see an artistic interpretation of Epomis larvae through his eyes. Until then, I recommend checking out bogleech if you have the time. There is a lot to see and learn from, and what I presented here is only a tiny fraction of the gigantic web-monster that bogleech really is. If you want to support Jonathan’s work and get access to even more cool stuff, including a chance to have a monster designed at your request, feel free to check out his Patreon page.

Ending 2018 with a bang

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

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

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

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

Trip to Colombia

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

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trip to Ecuador

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

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Spiders exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social media (Instagram)

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

Collaborating with Daniel Kwan (Curiosity in Focus)

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

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

Gilwizen.com in 2018

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

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

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

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

Final words

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

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

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

Little Transformers: Deinopis, the ogre-faced spider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Net made by a net-casting spider for catching prey

Net made by a net-casting spider for catching prey

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

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

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

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Colombia

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Colombia

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

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

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

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Honduras

Net-casting spider (Deinopis sp.) from Honduras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. So pretty.

Male Parnaenus jumping spider. So pretty.

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

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

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

Male Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia

Male Parnaenus jumping spider from Colombia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyssomanes – the spider from the upside down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A short note about ethics

Last week I took this photo of a jumping spider, Phiddipus insignarius, and although I consider it a good photo, it is not a photo I am proud of.
Why?

Female jumping spider (Phiddipus insignarius) displaying

Female jumping spider (Phiddipus insignarius) displaying

I believe I pushed it a little too far here.

By the time you are reading this, you may have seen photos of jumping spiders floating online. They are charismatic, inquisitive, and intelligent little arachnids. Their big eyes and cutesy appearance make it possible to open a door for communication between spider enthusiasts and people suffering from arachnophobia. This photo is a little different. This is the face of stressed spider. Jumping spiders have a habit of exploring the world around them, but they usually avoid confrontation. They have a typical threat display that they use when they are annoyed or feel threatened, by raising their forelegs and exposing their chelicerae. At this point they are no different from a wandering spider warning to back off. And if not left alone, they will strike. The female Phiddipus in this photo was clearly fed up with my attempts at stalking her, and wanted to show me that she had enough.

Photographs of small animals can be a great tool for communication and education by revealing the hidden beauty of overlooked creatures. However, we tend to forget how things are from their perspective. They do not like to be cornered or pushed around. The last thing they expect is a giant being trying to manipulate them to pose in a certain way. Ethics in nature photography is an important topic that should be brought into the conversation. And yet almost no one talks about it (see Nicky Bay’s fantastic resource on the topic). Paul Bertner posted a lot about it on social media during his assignment last year (as well as on his own website), sparking some of the best discussions I have seen on photography ethics and what information should be disclosed with a photo (he later coined the term EE – Ethical Exif, information that is incorporated into his photos). I would like to see transparency and compassion for the living subject becoming the standard in nature photography. Every nature photographer I know is longing for a “perfect” subject – one that displays an interesting natural behavior but also does not move too much. Yet we forget that many times photography is just another type of disturbance to animals. At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves – was this really necessary?

In the case of the spider here, I got the message loud and clear and left her alone. She was clearly not interested in playing. I will get back to photographing her some other time, maybe when she is in a better mood.

The female Phiddipus insignarius is much more charming when she is relaxed.

The female Phiddipus insignarius is much more charming when she is relaxed.

Little Transformers: Myrmarachne formicaria

Little Transformers is back! And this time our star is a small jumping spider that goes out of its way to masquerade as an ant.

I am often accused for not writing about topics related to Canada on this blog. While this is not entirely true, I could have without doubt posted more about local critters. It is a great time to do so now, as I will be taking the opportunity to address several events.
Firstly, it is now October, and we are getting closer and closer to Halloween (Oct 31st). Nine years ago, the Arachtober initiative was born: why wait till the end of the month to celebrate spiders? Let’s celebrate them and other arachnids throughout the entire month of October! And so, during the month of October we give arachnids more exposure in hopes to educate the general public about these magnificent and important creatures.
Secondly, a new initiative is slowly forming, International Jumping Spider Day, on October 10th. The idea is to use the easily adored jumping spiders as the gateway arachnid for changing the often-negative public perception of spiders. I wholeheartedly support this idea and hope to see it catching on.
Lastly, a shameless plug: You may have noticed that this blog is nominated for the 2017 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online. It is a huge honor to be included with other excellent science blogs and sites on the same list. If you like the content and stories that I post, you can show your appreciation by voting following this link. I wish to thank those who already voted in support of this blog. While this nomination has nothing to do with spiders, I thought it is a great opportunity to write a blog post about an arthropod found in Canada.

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) wants your attention

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) wants your attention

After this short introduction, it is time to present our first local Little Transformer, the ant-mimicking jumping spider Myrmarachne formicaria. It is one of the nicest looking spiders here in Ontario, and it is surprisingly abundant in its habitat. Alas, there is a small catch here. While this jumping spider is local, it is not native to Canada. This species was first detected in North America in 2001, and later established in Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto in 2015. It originates in the Palearctic region, more specifically Europe and Asia. Despite this, these spiders feel right at home in Toronto, as it seems that they are spreading away from the park containing the main population. This year, Sean McCann recorded Myrmarachne in Scarborough (east Toronto), and I found them in Mississauga (west of Toronto).

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) masquerading as an ant

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) masquerading as an ant

Myrmarachne formicaria is an elongated jumping spider that takes the appearance of a small ant, and here in Ontario it is associated with the European fire ant, Myrmica rubra, also an introduced species. Isn’t it interesting how these two non-native species managed to find each other on unfamiliar land? The spider has long and slender legs just like those of an ant, and the banded forelegs are slightly thicker to resemble antennae. The cephalothorax has a depression to echo the segmentation in ants separating head from thorax. The abdomen is long with a narrow connection to the cephalothorax, reminiscent of an ant’s petiole. Surprisingly, in this species the pedipalps (normally a distinguishing character between males and females) are swollen in females, a trait usually seen only in males. Males on the other hand have enormous toothed chelicerae that stick right out of their faces. I suspected this is a sexually selected trait used in fights for females, and this was later confirmed by Sean McCann (check out his amazing shots here).

Female ant-mimicking jumping spiders (Myrmarachne formicaria) have swollen pedipalps

Female ant-mimicking jumping spiders (Myrmarachne formicaria) have swollen pedipalps

Male duck-mimicking jumping spide... um, excuse me ANT-mimicking jumping spider. Quack quack.

Male duck-mimicking jumping spide… um, excuse me ANT-mimicking jumping spider. Quack quack.

This begs the question, why do Myrmarachne spiders look like ants? Do the spiders use their appearance to fool the ants into thinking they are members of their own colony in order to sneak up on them and prey on ant workers or larvae? Not really. For starters, the ant species approached by Myrmarachne formicaria are usually not visual creatures. They rely more on their chemical communication, using volatile pheromones, for navigation and recognition. Moreover, the spiders seem to deliberately avoid any contact with the ant workers. They may walk among the ants, but they always keep their distance from them. In fact, when I experimented and isolated a few spiders within a group of ants, the spiders chose to stay still, and only when the path was clear they made a run for it. I also noticed that the ants display an aggressive response when encountering a spider. So the ants are not the target of this mimicry. Who is? Us. Or more precisely, predators. You see, the spider not only looks like an ant and spend its time close to the ants, it also moves like an ant.

Myrmarachne formicaria always keep a safe distance from Myrmica rubra workers

Myrmarachne formicaria always keep a safe distance from Myrmica rubra workers

A recent study looked into the locomotion of Myrmarachne formicaria jumping spiders and found that they do not move like their peers. First of all, instead of jumping like most salticid spiders, they move forward in a series of short sprints. But they also move in a pattern that resembles the movement of ants following a pheromone trail, back and forth in a winding wave motion, instead of random strolling and stopping often we see in other spiders. If it looks like an ant and moves like an ant… it might be good enough to fool predators that it is an ant. And I can attest to this – it is extremely difficult to keep track of a Myrmarachne spider moving about in an area with ant activity. Look away, and you will need all the luck in the world to find it again. The spiders also benefit from being close to a colony of highly defensive ants. Myrmica rubra is easily alarmed and has its reputation when it comes to stinging intruders.

Some Myrmarachne formicaria feature a two-colored cephalothorax, to emphasize the part that mimics the ant's head

Some Myrmarachne formicaria feature a two-colored cephalothorax, to emphasize the part that mimics the ant’s head

If they do not hunt the ants, what do these spiders feed on? They seem to go after soft-bodied insects, and they are especially fond of dipterans: small flies, mosquitoes, midges etc’.

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) feeding on a chironomid midge

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria) feeding on a chironomid midge

A closer look at the feeding Myrmarachne male reveals the weaponized chelicerae, used in fighting other males

A closer look at the feeding Myrmarachne male reveals the weaponized chelicerae, used in fighting other males

At this point you might ask yourself why I included this jumping spider in my Little Transformers series. Sure, it mimics an ant, but that’s it. Or is it? In order to qualify as a Little Transformer the arthropod needs to change something in its appearance to transform into something different. So far we have seen that these spiders move in an atypical fashion to jumping spiders. But there is one more thing they do to conceal their salticid identity. What is the one, fail-safe characteristic of jumping spiders? Those huge front eyes! If only the spider could hide them, it would look like the perfect ant. And they do exactly that.

I look at this spider and I see an ant staring back at me.

I look at this spider and I see an ant staring back at me.

Myrmarachne often wave their forelegs in the air to mimic the ants’ antennae, but the legs also hide their most recognizable feature, the bulging front eyes. Females seem to do a better job at this than males, transforming into ants right before our eyes.

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria). Even on a side-view I still see a weird duck...

Male ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne formicaria). Even on a side-view I still see a weird duck…

What is most intriguing here is that the rear pair of eyes evolved to be very large, bearing a striking resemblance in their size and position to ant eyes.

Ant-mimicry is quite common among arthropds, and many species of jumping spiders deploy this strategy as an anti-predator defense or to assist in foraging. While some do not consider Myrmarachne formicaria as a case of perfect mimicry, it is a gorgeous spider with intriguing behavior. Besides, mimicry does not have to be perfect to satisfy our aesthetic desires. It only has to be good enough to benefit the spider’s survival.

Public outreach: Promoting the appreciation of arthropods

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in an outreach event, Guelph Bug Day, at the University of Guelph Arboretum. Bug days are public events, usually free of any admission fees, which promote the appreciation and admiration of insects and arachnids, and set out to educate anyone who is fascinated by arthropods.
This is not the first time I participate in such an event. Last year I presented arachnids at Bug Day Ottawa. In fact, ever since I became interested in insects and their natural history, I have been involved in presenting them to whoever was interested: I brought live insects to lab sessions in high school, I led my mates in outdoor excursions to find spiders and scorpions during my military service, I collaborated with operating museums and insectariums as a consultant on exhibitions, and I incorporated the use of live insects in biology studies at universities to help students gain a better understanding of the courses material. More recently though, I have been more active in events aimed at the general public, in order to bring arthropods into the mainstream and help people overcome their fears. And so far, it has been a blast. Take this recent bug day in Guelph for example: I found myself smiling from ear to ear the whole time, and my table was always busy with no moment to rest, not that I am complaining. This was the first time Guelph holds a bug day event and to be honest, it was the best one I have ever been to. It was that good. But before I talk about the bug day, let me elaborate a little about public outreach and why I think it is important.

When working in science, especially when you acquire some expertise, it becomes difficult to expose the public to your subject of research and communicate about it. The more knowledge you gain about your study system, the harder it gets to explain it to people with little or no science background and get them to care about it. I am happy to say that this is changing thanks to the engagement of researchers and science communicators with the public on social media. Yet there is still a long way to go.

More specifically, nowadays most people go about their daily lives with little or no exposure to the wonders of nature. I once brought velvet worms to a public outreach event at the Toronto Zoo and the response was phenomenal. It was not surprising – the majority of people, biologists included, will live through their lives without even knowing these majestic animals exist, let alone see a live one. So in my opinion this exposure is critical, it can influence the public’s opinion and later have implications for nature conservation. I do think people should familiarize themselves with whatever is found in their area, both plants and animals. After all, insects and spiders are everywhere, and most of them are not out to get anyone. They are harmless and usually mind their own business.

When I present live arthropods, I love interacting with children and let them handle the animals, but I am even more interested in getting the parents into the game. You see, the reality is that the majority of kids already like bugs. They are curious about the diverse world of invertebrates, those common animals that are so different from mammals and birds, and have the appearance of small toys. Unfortunately, at some point children lose their interest in invertebrates, and sometimes even worse, replace it with fear and hate. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and why that stage occurs. But it is most likely due to an environmental influence – succumbing to peer-pressure from friends or parents, and witnessing a shift in cultural appreciation as technology takes nature’s place. Parents have a huge role in preserving the view of the natural world in young people’s minds by encouraging them and nurturing their curiosity. Many times I have seen an excited kid holding an insect turn to their parents in hopes for affirmation. However, sometimes the kids are uninterested in insects, in which case I try to work directly with the parents and get them to handle the animals. Some children just need to see their parents doing something a bit unconventional to get confirmation that they are cool!

It just so happens that I stumbled upon this beautiful artwork by Tiana Cabana, a lovely composite image (inspired by another artwork) depicting my burning passion and mission –

Give small critters some room in your heart. Embrace them.
It will make you a better person, and they will appreciate it too.

Going back to Guelph Bug Day, I was astonished by the sheer amount of positivity expressed by the visitors attending. Even those who confessed their fears gave the arachnids a chance after listening to some facts about them and realizing that they do not pose a threat. I find this level of open-mindness incredible, and it is in great part thanks to the amazing organizers and volunteers who put so much of their energy into making this event a reality. Such a talented group of people.

I returned home from the bug day with such a “high”, almost intoxicated, feeling. At first I didn’t know what it was. Sure, the event was fun, but was it that fun? What is this smile smeared all over my face? Why am I so restless, why can’t I just sit down? And it finally dawned on me what it is that I was feeling. It was love. I was in love.
So yeah, I can get pretty emotional at times, but the important take home message for me here is that I can see myself doing this every single day, for the rest of my life. Thank you, Guelph Bug Day. You have a special place in my heart.

One lesson learned from doing these events – I need to bring a camera…

Jumping spider mimicry in Brenthia moths

Many insects deploy mimicry to fool their predators into thinking they are highly defensive, venomous, or simply not to be messed with. A great fraction of mimicry cases involve adopting the appearance of ants, wasps, and spiders for these exact reasons. One of the most interesting cases, however, is predator mimicry: insects that take the appearance of their potential predators in order to expose them. I have already written about one such case in crambid moths, but in this post I want to present one of the classic examples for this mimicry in metalmark moths of the genus Brenthia.

At first glance, metalmark moths do not really resemble spiders. In my post about Petrophila moths I mentioned that observed spider mimicry might also be a case of pareidolia. In other words, we as humans seek familiar patterns surrounding us, so we recognize the image of a spider on the wings, but is it really mimicry? And indeed, after posting I was accused of having a strong imagination for thinking this is mimicry. There is a good point being made here – in the case of Petrophila there is a temporal barrier preventing the two from encountering each other under normal conditions. Petrophila moths are nocturnal while jumping spiders are diurnal. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such wing patterns in the insect world suggests that they have a role in the survival of those organisms.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) displaying its typical body posture, with wings raised like a peacock's tail.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) displaying its typical body posture, with wings raised like a peacock’s tail.

Brenthia moths are no different. It takes some imagination to strip them off their mothy characteristics to see the resemblance to jumping spiders. Members of family Choreutidae, the genus contains over 80 described species, all sharing the same appearance: a unique body posture, and wings patterns that are reminiscent of jumping spiders’ eyes. In fact their common name, metalmark moths, is due to the convincing “catchlight” area of the eyespots, often consisting of silvery scales. Brenthia species also move like jumping spiders, advancing by short bursts of movements while still retaining their wing display. Lastly, these moths are diurnal and can be seen active on top of leaves, just like salticid spiders. If you think it ends there for these moths in regards to anti-predator defenses, let me also add that their caterpillars deploy defense strategies as well. When alarmed, they launch themselves through holes chewed into the floor of their webbed feeding shelter, giving the term “teleporting through a wormhole” a new meaning.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) in frontal view, displaying wing patterns that resemble a jumping spider's face and legs.

Metalmark moth (Brenthia hexaselena) in frontal view, displaying wing patterns that resemble a jumping spider’s face and legs.

Brenthia moth (upper image) mimics jumping spiders (lower image) with wing markings, wing positioning, and posture. Figure from Rota and Wagner 2006 (drawing by Virginia Wagner).

Brenthia moth (upper image) mimics jumping spiders (lower image) with wing markings, wing positioning, and posture. Figure from Rota and Wagner 2006 (drawing by Virginia Wagner).

Portrait of a jumping spider (Phiale formosa). It is a little difficult to see the resemblance to the moth's wing patterns, but the important thing is that it works to the moth's benefit.

Portrait of a jumping spider (Phiale formosa). It is a little difficult to see the resemblance to the moth’s wing patterns, but the important thing is that it works to the moth’s benefit.

When discussing animals mimicking their predator, it is important to remember that we humans are not the target audience. This means that the imitator may not look too convincing in its mimicry to us, but still manages to trigger a desired response from said predator. However, when in doubt, the best way to know for sure is to put the suggested mimicry to the test through a series of experiments. Brenthia moths have become one of the best examples of spider-mimicking moths, thanks to rigorous testing. In their classic paper, Rota and Wagner placed the moths with their potential predators, jumping spiders of the species Phiale formosa, in arenas and recorded the outcome. They also used non-mimicking moths of the same size as control for the experiments. The results showed that the jumping spiders respond to Brenthia by displaying territorial behavior and waving their forelegs. In other words, upon noticing the Brenthia moths the spider predators immediately expose themselves. It comes as no surprise that Brenthia moths had a high survival rate in the experiments, as they could take off once the danger was revealed, avoiding predation. The control moths did not trigger a territorial response from the spiders and were preyed upon extensively.

Jumping spider (Phiale formosa) displaying territorial behavior in response to its own image. This is when the moth knows it is in danger.

Jumping spider (Phiale formosa) displaying territorial behavior in response to its own image. This is when the moth knows it is in danger.

One thing to keep in mind though is that this mimicry works well only because salticids are special among spiders. They do not make a web to capture prey, but instead rely on their excellent vision to detect prey. They are active predators, and therefore display a wide array of behaviors to communicate with other salticids. Jumping spiders will avoid other jumping spiders due to the risk of cannibalism. Brenthia moths take advantage of this behavior to get the higher ground by delaying the spider’s attack in order to escape. This makes them one of nature’s greatest con artists, but when survival is on the line, anything is kosher.

Papers mentioned in this post:

  • Rota, J, Wagner DL (2008) Wormholes, sensory nets and hypertrophied tactile setae: the extraordinary defence strategies of Brenthia caterpillars. Animal Behaviour 76(5): 1709-1713
  • Rota J, Wagner DL (2006) Predator Mimicry: Metalmark Moths Mimic Their Jumping Spider Predators. PLoS ONE 1(1): e45. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000045

Vestria – the katydid that wanted to be a spider

Last week my home country celebrated the holiday of Purim; a holiday of joy, in which people go out to the streets, pretend to be something else by wearing masks and costumes, and exchange gifts. It is kind of like a happy mishmash of Halloween and Saint Patrick’s Day. And what excellent time it is to highlight interesting cases in nature in which one organism pretends to be another. One such story involves a genus of beautiful katydids – Vestria.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.). It is hard to describe how colorful these katydids are. This photo does not do justice to the insect's beauty.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.). It is hard to describe how colorful these katydids are. This photo does not do justice to the insect’s beauty.

When searching for arthropods in the rainforest I made a habit of backlighting leaves with a flashlight to see if there are animals hiding on the side opposite to me. There is always something interesting to find: salamanders, caterpillars, insects infected with parasitic fungi, and even velvet worms. Very often spiders occupy the underside of a leaf by day, waiting for nighttime to resume hunting on the top of the leaf’s surface. Among the most frequently encountered ones are huntsman spiders (family Sparassidae) of the genus Anaptomecus. These are flat, thin-limbed spiders, usually pale green in color to blend in with the leaf they are sitting on, but with a brightly colored abdomen with red and yellow patches. They are extremely fast, and when disturbed they shoot and vanish on the underside of a neighboring leaf.

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) hiding under a leaf

Huntsman spider (Anaptomecus sp.) hiding under a leaf

To my surprise, in some of these searches upon shining my light I thought I found a spider at first, but when I turned the leaf I saw a katydid nymph.

Katydid nymph hiding under a leaf. Like Anaptomecus spiders, they too seem to prefer sitting on palm leaves.

Katydid nymph hiding under a leaf. Like Anaptomecus spiders, they too seem to prefer sitting on palm leaves.

With the kind assistance of Piotr Naskrecki I learned that these are nymphs of Vestria katydids, known mostly due to their characteristics as adults (more on that later). Genus Vestria contains four species known from lowland forests of Central and South America, but do not let this low number fool you. There are many more species in need of a formal description, and others awaiting their discovery. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, all the species featured in this blog post are undescribed.

Rainbow katydid nymph (Vestria sp.) camouflaged on a leaf. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Rainbow katydid nymph (Vestria sp.) camouflaged on a leaf. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

The young Vestria nymphs bear an uncanny resemblance to Anaptomecus spiders. They too are flat, green with similar leg patterns, and have a bright yellow-red abdomen. Their mimicry to the huntsman spiders does not end there: they also share the same behavior of pressing flat against the underside of a leaf when resting, and running to the next leaf when disturbed. And, as I learned the hard way, they can bite. Like most members of tribe Copiphorini, Vestria katydids are packed with powerful jaws, and they will not hesitate to use them when in danger. By the way, these katydids are omnivores, feeding on both animal and plant matter, but they show a strong preference towards live prey, kind of like… well, spiders.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) feeding on a beetle pupa. When given a chance they will always prefer a protetin-based diet.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) feeding on a beetle pupa. When given a chance they will always prefer a protetin-based diet.

As adults, the Vestria katydids take a different look completely. They are no longer flat and look like the huntsman spiders. In this stage they are known as rainbow katydids or crayola katydids because of their striking coloration, which is an advertisement of their chemical defense against predators.

A selection of rainbow katydids (Vestria spp.) from the Amazon Basin of Ecuador

A selection of rainbow katydids (Vestria spp.) from the Amazon Basin of Ecuador

When provoked, Vestria katydids curl their body and hunker down, revealing a brightly colored abdomen. They also expose a scent gland from their last abdominal tergum and release a foul odor that is easily detectable from a close distance. Different species of Vestria have different odors, and from my personal experience I can attest that some species smell as bitter as bad almonds while others smell like a ripe peaches. The compounds released are pyrazines, and there is evidence that this chemical defense is effective against mammalian predators such as monkeys. While many katydids have bright aposematic coloration, Vestria species are one of the only examples of katydids successfully deploying chemical defense against predators, making them distasteful. But don’t listen to me, I actually like peaches.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

Rainbow katydid (Vestria sp.) displaying defense behavior.

But let’s go back to the spider-mimicking katydid nymphs. As it is often the case in nature, mimicry is not always straightforward. Why would a katydid nymph adopt the look and behavior of a spider? Avoiding predators may be the answer that comes in mind, however it is not that simple to explain. Although the model spiders are venomous, they are easily preyed upon by the predators they share with the katydids – birds, frogs and lizards. So what other benefits come into play here? And is it really a case of mimicry? It is a difficult question to answer, as there are several possible explanations for mimicry in this is a case. To put it into context, on one hand it can be an example of Batesian mimicry, in which one harmless organism adopts the appearance of another that is widely-recognized by predators as toxic, vemonous, or unpalatable, to gain an advantage when confronted with a predator. In other words, the katydids use their mimicry to signal visual predators (such as spiders, mantids) to avoid confrontation with a spider (I discussed a similar case here). On the other hand, it might be a case of Müllerian mimicry, two unpalatable organisms evolve to look similar in appearance, to send the same message to predators and enemies. It is possible that both the Vestria nymph and the spider are signaling that they are fast-moving and can deliver an unpleasant bite when provoked. In addition, both have some sort of chemical defense: the spider is venomous, while the katydid is distasteful. There is also a third option – that this is all coincidental, and it is a case of convergent evolution: the two organisms simply try their best to hide from predators and came up with a similar adaptation to solve a similar problem, without mimicry. Piotr suggested that this is simply a crypsis (camouflage) adaptation for the two organisms. The yellow-red spots can represent leaf damage that is commonly seen on leaves in the rainforest. It just goes to show that in nature things are not always easy to explain, because sometimes they do not fall neatly into our boxes of labeled natural phenomena. What do you think?

Vestria nymphs have beautiful markings on their body, which can assist in breaking the outline of the insect to avoid detection by predators.

Vestria nymphs have beautiful markings on their body, which can assist in breaking the outline of the insect to avoid detection by predators.

In some species the dark markings remain also in the adult stage.

In some species the dark markings remain also in the adult stage.

Smile! You're on katydid camera!

Smile! You’re on katydid camera!

UPDATE (14 May, 2017): Paul Bertner photographed this amazing butterfly pupa in the Chocó rainforest of Ecuador. It bears an unbeatable resemblance to the Vestria katydid nymph!

Riodinid pupa (Brachyglenis sp.) mimicking the Vestria katydid nymph. Photo by Paul Bertner

Riodinid pupa (Brachyglenis sp.) mimicking the Vestria katydid nymph. Photo by Paul Bertner