Archive For: A Moment of Creativity

A Moment of Creativity: Unwanted Neighbours

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

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

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

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

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

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

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

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

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Moment of Creativity: Reconsidering blattodeans

A while back someone asked me if I had any plans to put up a gallery page for blattodeans on this website. That was indeed something I had in mind; This is one of my favorite insect groups, so it would not do them justice if they are unrepresented here. I hate to admit, but my issue with uploading photos of blattodeans is mainly due to difficulties in identifying some of the species I photographed. Nevertheless, I am happy to report that the Blattodea gallery is now up and running.

Blattodeans suffer an extremely undeserved bad reputation. The majority of Blattodea species live in natural habitats such as forests, deserts, sand dunes, and meadows, leading a cryptic lifestyle away from humans. Only a tiny fraction of them, less than 1%, lives in proximity to humans and considered as pests. For this reason I decided to ditch the word “cockroaches” and follow Piotr Naskrecki by adopting the word “blattodeans”. In the sad reality that we live in today, the word “cockroach” often carries a negative connotation in people’s minds. It is associated with something unwanted, menacing, dirty, and harmful. This could not be further from the truth: many blattodean species help to break down decaying organic matter, making crucial nutrients available for other organisms. They are, along with ants and flies, nature’s cleaning service (you’re welcome). Some species are also important pollinators. And that is without even mentioning their numerous adaptations to avoid predators, their maternal care, and social behavior.

A forest blattodean nymph (Nyctibora sp.) with white "socks." If you don't think he's cute you might want to check your pulse.

A forest blattodean nymph (Nyctibora sp.) with white “socks.” If you don’t think he’s cute you might want to check your pulse.

A long time ago I had the idea of photographing blattodeans right after molting, while they are still fresh and pigment-free. My goal was to see whether people would recognize the animal presented to them, now that it lacks some of its identifiable characters. By the way, I have been doing the same thing with whip spiders.

Blattodean molting. Who knows what it is going to look like once pigmentation appears?

Blattodean molting. Who knows what it is going to look like once pigmentation appears?

The semi-transparent exoskeleton of a freshly molted Lanxoblatta rudis nymph allows a rare glimpse into the insect's internal network.

The semi-transparent exoskeleton of a freshly molted Lanxoblatta rudis nymph allows a rare glimpse into the insect’s internal network.

The first attempts were done with Periplaneta americana, a common species that most people associate with pests. When presented with an all-white Periplaneta, almost everyone said it looked “cute”.

Freshly molted male Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

Freshly molted male Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

Above is a freshly molted male Madagascar hisser (Gromphadorhina portentosa) from a colony we kept at the museum I worked at (for more details see my previous post). We used to isolate individuals that showed signs of an approaching molt, to use them in class displays for students. Large males like this one were always a special treat, with their impressive horns. I took this photo in 2006. Even though I have seen and photographed many freshly molted blattodeans, I still see this old photo as one of my best captures. There is something about it that speaks to people. They no longer recognize an insect they are repulsed by; instead many people see something that reminds them of a cat. Recently I was delighted to learn that this photo has provided inspiration for an artist: I stumble upon an article in Chinese encouraging people to learn more about blattodeans. It featured my photo (=copyright infringement), followed by a drawing of an innocent-looking girl wearing the male horned hisser as a hat. Cute girls with cat ears (referred to as nekomimi, or in the case of other animals’ ears – kemonomimi) is a popular theme especially in manga and anime in Japan, and the blattodean serves a similar purpose here. As a matter of fact, early on I gave my photo the title 猫ちゃん (neko-chan), which translates to “kitty” in Japanese.

Blattodean kemonomimi embeded from the article mentioned. Artwork by user 长得像人的割草机 on Weibo (see originals in the comment below)

Generally speaking, I find that a lot of people respond differently to white blattodeans compared to dark-colored ones. It is almost as if it is a completely different animal. What is it that makes us so susceptible to visual cues in the form of flat dark insects? There must be a reason for this sensitivity.

A molting forest blattodean (Nyctibora sp.) shows off its elegant golden wings

A molting forest blattodean (Nyctibora sp.) shows off its elegant golden wings

Some blattodeans are white by nature, like this beautiful species of Panchlora from Belize

Some blattodeans are white by nature, like this beautiful species of Panchlora from Belize

We used to joke at the museum that when it comes to human reaction, insects can be divided into two subgroups. The first subgroup contains “green” insects: these are insects that are perceived as friendly just by their appearance. They do not necessarily have to be green, but it helps if they are. This group contains ladybugs, grasshoppers, stick and leaf insects, smooth caterpillars, stout and furry moths, mantids, and katydids to some extent. The other subgroup contains all the other insects. Again, this division is merely a joke, but it is amazing to see just how many people follow this arbitrary division. To those who welcome ladybugs but put blattodeans in the “other” subgroup, I always remind that there are blattodeans out there that look exactly like ladybugs.

Male horned roach (Hormetica strumosa). Not as cuddly as the white "neko-chan", but pretty close.

Male horned roach (Hormetica strumosa). Not as cuddly as the white “neko-chan”, but pretty close.

Since photographing “neko-chan”, I have been working with other species of blattodeans, hoping to achieve the same result, however, I was not able to replicate that look. Maybe it was more than just timing the photo with the molting process. Maybe I also captured some of the hisser’s essence and unique personality. After all, he almost looks like he is trying to tell us something. Well, he does, all blattodeans do – but we never stop to listen.

A Moment of Creativity: A bite from a wandering spider (Phoneutria)

I think the best way to start this post is right at the end. This is me getting tagged by a wandering spider (Phoneutria fera), one of the most venomous and defensive spiders in the world.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) in mid-bite. Oh, the pain!

Wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) in mid-bite. Oh, the pain!

These spiders possess a potent neurotoxic venom that, if delivered at a sufficient quantity, has the potential to kill an adult human. So, I got bitten and yet I am still alive to brag about this? What is going on?

Things are not always what they seem. This is not a real spider bite. In fact, this is not a spider. This animal is maybe 10% spider. I know one day my twisted sense of humor is going to get me into trouble. I should be careful not to ‘cry wolf’ too many times or I will be left with no friends who care for me.

You might remember that two years ago I encountered a wandering spider (also commonly known as banana spider) under my bed when I visited the Ecuadorian Amazon. That female was guarding her offspring, and what I did not know at the time is that they had already started to disperse from the nest. Some of them found their way into folds in my backpack and hitched a ride with me back home. This happens much more often than you would think. Every day small organisms such as insects, arachnids, snails, and also plant seeds, moss, and fungi find their way into new territories with our help whether we are aware of it or not. Now, there is no need to be alarmed – wandering spiders are not going to spread and take over North America. The vast majority of exotic “traveling” spiders are NOT even wandering spiders, and even if they do pop up every once in a while, the cold winter temperatures and low air humidity will finish them off. In my case, I had a dilemma: to kill the spiders immediately, or to keep them for a while in order to learn more and then donate them for scientific work. I chose the second option. It made more sense to use this opportunity to document this species’ natural history. For example, after two years, even with proper feeding, the spider did not reach its adult stage. They must be long-lived. I should also note that I have a background as a professional arthropod keeper so I knew what I was getting into. This is not something I would recommend to inexperienced hobbyists.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) aka banana spider in my kitchen

Wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) aka banana spider in my kitchen

Since then, I have been meticulously following the baby spider, sometimes taking ridiculous photos that depict unrealistic situations. Surprisingly, this species seems tamer than its reputation suggests, but caution is always the key. After a while I started pondering the idea of creating an image of the spider in mid-bite. The original idea was to photograph it during feeding, but then a better idea came up. I waited months. Finally, I had what I needed – a fresh molt.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) molt

Wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) molt

Yes, what you see in the photo opening this post is nothing but an empty shell. The spider itself was resting in its enclosure during the time I took the photo. Like I said, things are not always what they seem.

Even though this was not a real bite from a living spider, it was still painful. Those fangs (chelicerae) are extremely sharp, and they have no problem piercing through human skin. If you search online you will find photos of people handling Phoneutria spiders with bare hands. That, in my opinion, is pure irresponsibility and a lack of judgment. I will never, ever let these spiders anywhere near my hands. And neither should you. Learn to respect and admire these majestic animals from a distance.

A Moment of Creativity: MYN misfires

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

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

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

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

“Anyone needs a rope?”


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

Freshwater crab (Potamon potamios), Golan Heights, Israel

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


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

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

Click beetle (Semiotus sp.) in mid-flight


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

Jewel wasp (family Chrysididae), Ontario, Canada

Jewel wasp showing her good side


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

Deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), Massachusetts, United States

Deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) meets its reflection


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

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

This tadpole gives the term ‘photobomb’ a new meaning


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

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

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


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

Stick insect displaying its wings for defense. Mindo, Ecuador

This stick insect is too big!


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

Soil centipede (Geophilidae), Carmel Mountain Range, Israel

Soil centipede (Geophilidae), Carmel Mountain Range, Israel


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

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

“You just had to move, didn’t you?!”


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

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

Schneider’s skink (Eumeces schneideri) making faces

A Moment of Creativity: Cartoon cells in real-life

Very frequently I find myself staring at an object and seeing something else, something that may only be understood by me because of my background and past experiences. In such events it is frustrating to try and explain to others why I find that object so exciting. But sometimes I manage to get the message through.

While enjoying a morning in my apartment I came across something I thought was pretty cool. It reminded me of the French-Japanese animated television series Once Upon a Time… Life produced by Procidis (those unfamiliar with the program, click here). I eagerly followed every episode of this show as a kid, and did it again when the rerun was on. Looking back, I think it is incredible how much information can be squeezed into an educational TV show for kids (the same can be said another popular TV series from the same studio – Once Upon a Time… Man).
Anyway, back to my story – what I saw was a real-life representation of the way cells were depicted in the program. Without thinking too much, I grabbed my camera and tried to photograph what I have just seen.


Cartoon cells. Or are they?


The similarity to the cells illustrated in the cartoon series is astonishing to me. The “cells” were actually flowers from one of my Caladium bicolor plants:


Unopened male flowers of Caladium bicolor


To make the flowers red, I fired a flash through one of the semi-transparent leaves, which added some color.


Caladium bicolor flower and leaf

A Moment of Creativity: Naked mole rats

I decided to start a new section in this blog called “A Moment of Creativity”, where I will post about fun creative ideas I come up with, usually when I am busy doing something important. Some of these ideas might not necessarily be related to science or photography. Besides, it was not the sole purpose of this blog anyway. I do not regard myself as a master of Photoshop, but every once in a while I like to test what I can produce and sharpen my skills. It does not make me an expert in image editing. A great deal of these attempts are deleted immediately. Others come out as interesting creations. I will post those here.

Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are small underground rodents native to East Africa. They are considered the only known eusocial mammal, having different reproductive casts (and no, humans are not eusocial. Unless you want to leave all the baby-making in your neighborhood for a single person). They are also the longest-lived rodent of their size, and can sometimes reach the age of 30 years or older. Naked mole rats have an impressive resistance to tumors, thanks to a specific compound they synthesize more efficiently than other cancer-prone animals. In addition, their ribosomes produce fewer aberrant proteins, which can explain the absence of errors causing most tumors. For these reasons, and because they do well in small colonies in captivity, they are kept as lab animals for research against cancer.

Fortunately, I had an opportunity to visit the colonies kept at University of Toronto Mississauga in 2012, because the technician who took care of them was also a member of the lab I was at, and kindly agreed to give me a tour.


Naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber). It is quite cute actually.


I brought along some of my photography gear, but soon found out that photographing naked mole rats is not an easy task, as they are somewhat sensitive to light and almost never sit still. I did not plan to do anything with the photos I took, but was happy to find out at least one of them was used in an article about the research (very cool, guys!).

One of the mole rats had its jaws wide open in a photo and I remember I said this reminded me of a scene from the film “Pink Floyd: The Wall”, especially due to the animal’s external appearance: it has many skin wrinkles and almost no hair. It looked just like a small naked human to me.



Meh. I am not sure that the result delivers the gloomy atmosphere of “The Wall”. To me it looks like the mole rat is praying at the Wailing Wall. But as I was working on this image, I could not help noticing how similar naked mole rats are to the film interpretation of the Dark Lord, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. So I set out to find some Harry Potter posters I can play with.



Well, this didn’t exactly turn out the way I wanted. I think I made the head too small, and the fact that there is a snake crawling calmly near a potential food source does not seem… hmmm… reliable. So I had to try something else.



Aha! Now we’re talking! Lord Voldemolerat himself. This could have easily been the real movie poster. Maybe for the next film Voldemort will return as an incarnation of a naked mole rat? And cure cancer at the same time??