Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: Spinning the cradle, Behavior: Invertebrates category winner

Up next in the series of Q&A posts about my Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning images is Behaviour: Invertebrates category winner: Spinning the cradle.

Spinning the cradle. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Invertebrate Behaviour category winner. A female fishing spider (Dolomedes scriptus) stretches out fine strands of silk from her spinnerets for weaving into her egg sac. Ontario, Canada

Spinning the cradle. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Invertebrate Behaviour category winner. A female fishing spider (Dolomedes scriptus) stretches out fine strands of silk from her spinnerets for weaving into her egg sac. Ontario, Canada

You can watch the part when it appears in the awards ceremony here (timestamped)

“Spinning the cradle” really surprised me when it won in the invertebrates category. I knew the photo was good, but I never expected it to win. It is also a photo I took close to home, while on a routine walk in a forest. It goes to show the subject does not necessarily have to be something exotic or brightly colored in order to make an impact on the viewer. There are interesting things happening around us all the time. There are plenty of fascinating species very close to home, we only need to learn to find and observe them. You do not need to travel far to remote locations. Sometimes all it takes is just to look around you, you never know what you might find!

“An exquisite portrait of a remarkable piece of animal behavior”

“An exquisite portrait of a remarkable piece of animal behavior”

What is so special about this photo?
While hiking out locally and searching for arthropods for testing the Laowa 100mm 2x macro lens, I found a fishing spider (Dolomedes scriptus) under a slab of tree bark. Fishing spiders are common in wetlands where they feed on small aquatic animals (insects, amphibians, and small fish), but they are also very common in temperate forests. The spider was in the process of laying the base for an egg sac, so I thought this could be a good opportunity to observe and photograph the process, since this behavior is rarely documented. In general, spiders prefer to be hidden while constructing egg sacs. They are usually busy and distracted during the process, so they try to reduce the risk of predation to themselves and their offsprings. What I like about “Spinning the cradle” is that the photo shows the spider stretching the silk threads right before incorporating them into the rest of the forming sac. If you look closely, you can easily make out each of the separate silk strands being stretched by the spider. I have photographed weaving spiders in the past, but never in such clarity and detail. After taking the photo, I reviewed it on the camera’s back screen and I immediately knew I captured something special.

The fishing spider laying down the silk base for her egg sac, slowly working it into the shape of a bowl. This photo is rotated for easy viewing - the spider is actually facing down.

The fishing spider laying down the silk base for her egg sac, slowly working it into the shape of a bowl. This photo is rotated for easy viewing – the spider is actually facing down.

Can you explain the orientation of the photo? Something about it seems off.
“Spinning the cradle” is a rear-shot (or… a butt-shot! Did you catch that during my award acceptance speech?) of the spider stretching silk threads, but you are not really looking horizontally at the spider on eye level. Instead, the spider is standing vertically on the bark while facing down. So, in fact, the spider’s butt is facing up, and you are viewing the spider from above. I hope this makes sense.

What is the size of the spider?
This is a medium-large spider with a leg span of 6cm.

How were you able to take this photo without disturbing the spider?
Any disturbance could have caused the female spider to stop spinning and abandon her project. The main challenge here was to keep the tree bark the spider was on very steady and avoid breathing on the spider while I was photographing the behavior. We often take our breathing for granted. Most spiders have rather poor vision, but they can sense when a large animal is breathing right next to them, and will try to flee the area. So I carefully leant on the tree in a bit of an awkward position, placing the trunk between my legs to keep my body stabilized. Then I steadied the bark with my left hand and gripped the camera in my right while holding my breath, and started photographing.

An animation showing the spider in the process of incorporating silk into the forming egg sac

An animation showing the spider in the process of incorporating silk into the forming egg sac

Can you describe the spinning process? How does the spider make a spherical sac out of silk threads?
The movements of the spider’s spinnerets in action reminded me a lot of human fingers when weaving. The spider has complete control over the direction and density of the silk threads coming out of each spinneret. It is quite fascinating to watch. The spider starts with a flat circular base, and spins around in circles while adding more silk to its outer side, slowly forming walls. As the spider continues to build upwards, the silken disc gradually grows into a bowl shape. The spider continues to stretch and incorporate more silk until the bowl is deep enough to accept the egg mass. Then the spider stops, spends a few good moments laying the eggs, and quickly (and I do mean quickly) starts spinning again, this time carefully rolling the sac from side to side while tightening the silk threads, forcing its shape into a sphere. Once the sac is sealed, the process is complete.

The fishing spider in the process of laying her eggs inside her freshly spun egg sac

The fishing spider in the process of laying her eggs inside her freshly spun egg sac

The spider moments after laying her eggs. Note the smaller size of the abdomen compared to the previous photo.

The spider moments after laying her eggs. Note the smaller size of the abdomen compared to the previous photo.

How long did the spinning process take?
Spinning the egg sac, laying the eggs, and sealing the sac is a long process and requires a great investment of energy from the female spider. The process takes about 1-2 hours, during which the spider is focused on the project and is in fact vulnerable to attacks. This is the reason why spiders usually spin their egg sacs in a hide (like in this case, under bark), unexposed to potential predators and parasitoids.

The fishing spider in the process of sealing her egg sac after laying the eggs inside

The fishing spider in the process of sealing her egg sac after laying the eggs inside

What did you do after the spider finished spinning its egg sac?
After about an hour, the spider completed most of the sac and was getting ready to lay its eggs inside it, at which point I snapped a couple of final photos, slowly moved the bark back in place and left the animal to its business. There was no need to cause damage to the next generation of fishing spiders for the sake of obtaining more photos. The attentive mother will carry the sac with her until the eggs inside hatch and the hundreds of spiderlings disperse.

Once the egg sac is complete, the female fishing spider is on guard duty until it hatches

Once the egg sac is complete, the female fishing spider is on guard duty until it hatches

We like the photo! Can we buy a print from you?
Of course. Contact me and I will do my best to assist you.

If you have any questions about my photo that do not appear in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.

To read part 1 about “The spider room”, click here.
To read part 2 about “Bug filling station”, click here.
To read part 3 about “Beautiful bloodsucker”, click here.

Stay tuned for the next posts in this series!

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: Beautiful bloodsucker, Behaviour: Invertebrates highly commended

Part 3 in the series of Q&A posts about my Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning images is Behaviour: Invertebrates highly commended: Beautiful bloodsucker.

Beautiful bloodsucker. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Invertebrate Behaviour category highly commended. A female mosquito (Sabethes sp.) in mid-bite. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Beautiful bloodsucker. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Invertebrate Behaviour category highly commended. A female mosquito (Sabethes sp.) in mid-bite. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

You can watch the part when it appears in the awards ceremony here (timestamped)

“Beautiful bloodsucker” is my personal favorite among my winning images, maybe because it took the greatest effort and longest time to produce (more on that later). This photo was released in September 2021 as a teaser for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards ceremony along with several other finalist images. Interestingly, upon release most media outlets chose to ignore the photo and omit it from their reports, however it eventually received exposure thanks to a BBC article that covered it extensively. The photo went viral online shortly after, as “the world’s most beautiful mosquito.”

“Now, come on. Come on! That’s the finest mosquito you’ve ever seen. It looks like a fantastic piece or art deco jewellery”

“Now, come on. Come on! That’s the finest mosquito you’ve ever seen. It looks like a fantastic piece or art deco jewellery”

You can also read the CBC article about “Beautiful bloodsucker” here or listen to my radio interview.

Why is this mosquito so flamboyant?
It is not clear why Sabethes mosquitoes have such beautiful metallic colors, but they are not the only ones. Other mosquitoes (for example Psorophora cyanescens, Toxorhynchites, etc’) have blue metallic scales covering their body. I discussed the fuzzy leg ornaments in a previous blog post; it is believed that they play a role in courtship, but because they are present in both sexes it is not well understood how they are being used.

A closeup of a Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite, showing the beautiful scales covering its body

A closeup of a Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite, showing the beautiful scales covering its body

What are those curvy things above the mosquito’s head?
Those are the mosquito’s hind legs! All mosquitoes curve their hind legs upwards at rest, occasionally swinging them from side to side. These legs are covered with fine hairs and function as sensory organs to detect approaching threats. When an intruder (or a swatting hand) gets close, the legs detect the movement by changes in the air currents above the mosquito, prompting it to escape immediately by taking off.

What is the size of the mosquito?
Despite their exotic appearance, Sebethes mosquitoes are not too different in size from your typical mosquito. They are 4mm long, very tiny. The one photographed in my winning photo “Beautiful bloodsucker” is standing on my finger knuckle. Here is one photographed on my pinky finger for a better sense of scale.

Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite with pinky finger for scale

Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite with pinky finger for scale

Do you normally let mosquitoes bite you?
Not by choice, but when you are visiting a tropical rainforest it is bound to happen. Especially after rain, small water reservoirs in trees, epiphyte plants, or fallen leaves fill up and trigger female mosquitoes to go out looking for a blood meal before laying their eggs. I normally try to avoid getting bitten by wearing long sleeve clothes and putting some bug spray, but it is pretty impossible to avoid them entirely in the tropics. You can protect yourself as much as possible, but the moment you are distracted they will seize the opportunity to sneak up on you. Sabethes is the only mosquito towards which I am more forgiving. I love these mosquitoes, and every time I encounter them on my trips to South America I cheer with joy and hope that they come closer for a bite so I can take more photos of them. Am I a masochist? …maybe.

Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite. Note the swelling abdomen, filling with blood

Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite. Note the swelling abdomen, filling with blood

Isn’t this risky? Can this mosquito transmit any diseases?
It is important to remember that this is a wild animal, not a mosquito that was reared in a lab free of pathogens. There is definitely a component of risk here, as with all wildlife. These mosquitoes are important vectors of several tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and dengue fever, and perhaps other diseases as well. While taking the photo, I was bitten by this mosquito and several others, increasing the risk of contracting a vector-borne tropical disease. But I am still alive!

Is a bite from this mosquito painful?
Very. Every bite from a given species of mosquito feels a little different, mostly due to size and other morphological differences, but also thanks to differences in composition of the mosquito’s saliva. Sabethes mosquitoes are really something special. Not only do you feel them drilling into your skin, but it also leaves a painful sensation lasting hours and even days after the bite.

This Sabethes mosquito was photographed at the same location as the others, but it appears to be a different species with different leg ornaments.

This Sabethes mosquito was photographed at the same location as the others, but it appears to be a different species with different leg ornaments.

How long did it take you to get this photo?
About 4-5 years. I planned this particular photo composition for a long time. I have been encountering Sabethes mosquitoes for almost a decade and I knew I wanted something very specific. Little did I know that it would take an unbelievable amount of preparation and patience. These mosquitoes are extremely skittish and difficult to photograph well, especially in the constant heat and humidity of the rainforest. The mosquito responds to the tiniest of movements and to changes in light intensity. This means you must stay very still while attempting to photograph it, and also be prepared for the mosquito’s escape if using a flash. Fortunately, you are never alone with a single mosquito, because usually there are dozens of them hovering over your head. After carefully studying and observing the insect’s behavior for several years I was able to get a head-on, intimate photo of a female mosquito preparing to bite one of my finger knuckles. Even on the successful shoot itself it did not go smoothly the first time, and I had to keep trying for a couple of hours, all while getting bitten, until I finally got the photo I had in mind.

Why does this photo look like it was taken in a studio?
That is a great question that I received more than once. Indeed the background in “Beautiful bloodsucker” looks very plain and uniform to be considered in situ (in other words, a photo that was taken on site, in the subject’s natural habitat). However, I assure you that it was taken in the rainforest while I was visiting Ecuador. The background is simply the sleeve of my long hiking pants. After experimenting with different backgrounds on previous photography attempts, I chose this neutral background to emphasize the full spectrum of colors on the mosquito’s body.

I have seen many Sabethes mosquitoes over the years, but this female might be the prettiest so far

I have seen many Sabethes mosquitoes over the years, but this female might be the prettiest so far

Do you have any behind-the-scenes photos?
I do not, but maybe this it for the best. Almost every time I attempted to photograph these mosquitoes I was surrounded by a swarm of them. It was very annoying and I was frustrated from getting bitten. I bet it would look horrible on camera.

Sabethes mosquito biting my thumb

Sabethes mosquito biting my thumb

Do you think this photo will change people’s general view on mosquitoes?
I am a pretty realistic guy, so I do not expect my photo to make people fall in love with mosquitoes. My hope is that it will make people pause and look before they automatically swat a mosquito, and maybe appreciate and beauty and structural complexity of these animals.

We like the photo! Can we buy a print from you?
Of course. You can get a wall print of “Beautiful bloodsucker” directly from the Natural History Museum’s shop at affordable rates. If you need something different, contact me and I will do my best to assist you.

If you have any questions about my photo that do not appear in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.

To read part 1 about “The spider room”, click here.
To read part 2 about “Bug filling station”, click here.
To read part 4 about “Spinning the cradle”, click here.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: Bug filling station, Behaviour: Invertebrates highly commended

We are continuing our series of Q&A posts about my Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning images, and this time I will be reviewing Behaviour: Invertebrates highly commended: Bug filling station.

Bug filling station. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Invertebrate Behaviour category highly commended. Predatory stink bug nymph (Euthyrhynchus floridanus) feeding on a moth caterpillar. Mindo, Ecuador

Bug filling station. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Invertebrate Behaviour category highly commended. Predatory stink bug nymph (Euthyrhynchus floridanus) feeding on a moth caterpillar. Mindo, Ecuador

You can watch the part when it appears in the awards ceremony here (timestamped)

Out of my winning images, “Bug filling station” received the least attention and was skipped by many of the reporting media outlets. I think it is a shame, because it tells an interesting story of opportunistic survival.

“It’s a gruesome scene but it’s a remarkable piece of behavior”

“It’s a gruesome scene but it’s a remarkable piece of behavior”

What is so special about this photo?
The photo shows a small bug nymph feeding on a much larger moth caterpillar that was in preparations for pupating on a tree trunk. However, there is more depth to this story. The caterpillar is most likely a species of a tiger moth, which are characterized by having thick barbed hairs or spikes for protection against predators and parasitoids. As you can see, it didn’t really help the caterpillar in this case, for two reasons. First, the caterpillar is resting inside a very thin and poorly constructed cocoon, these are the black silk threads that can be seen in the photo. This cocoon is spacious and open because the cloud forest is a very wet environment. A typical cocoon with high-density spun silk will absorb rainwater and drown the pupa inside, whereas an open cocoon drains water better. Even though it is a thin cocoon, the caterpillar is still trapped inside and cannot leave. Second, pupating caterpillars are helpless and cannot defend themselves, as they lose the ability to walk prior to pupation, along with most of their senses. Therefore, the caterpillar is essentially defenseless at this stage, and indeed many predators and parasitoid insects seize this opportunity to attack.
Now the small bug nymph enters the picture, and decides to take advantage of the immobilized caterpillar by piercing its body with its proboscis and sucking its juices while the caterpillar is still alive. It is a great opportunity for the bug, because it can stay next to the caterpillar and feed as long as it wants or needs, without worrying about the prey escaping or the food supply running out.

Can you elaborate more about the bug’s mouthparts? I can’t understand what I am looking at.
The hemipteran proboscis is actually a complex system of mouthparts for sucking. The liquid food travels inside the narrow tube seen at the top of the mouthparts complex. This tube consists of the “jaws”; the elongated mandibles and maxillae are layered and arranged as a feeding tube. The folded part seen at the bottom is called labium (lower lip), and functions as a sheath to keep the mouthparts packed tightly together. During feeding this sheath is pushed backwards to expose the tip of the feeding tube and allows the bug to “bite” and start drinking.

What is the size of the bug?
Body length was 8mm. Judging by the size of the wing buds I would say it is two stages (=instars) away from becoming an adult.

A slightly different view of the bug filling station. The Euthyrhynchus floridanus nymph is very small compared to the huge moth caterpillar!

A slightly different view of the bug filling station. The Euthyrhynchus floridanus nymph is very small compared to the huge moth caterpillar!

Do you have any behind-the-scenes photos?
I usually travel alone, but surprisingly in this case I do! I spent a few days in the cloud forests of Mindo, Ecuador together with my friend Javier Aznar, taking photos of the beautiful arthropod fauna there. He was kind enough to take my photo.

Me photographing in Mindo, Ecuador (photo courtesy of Javier Aznar)

Me photographing in Mindo, Ecuador (photo courtesy of Javier Aznar)

What else can you tell us about this bug?
The species is the Florida predatory stink bug (Euthyrhynchus floridanus). It is a monotypic species, in other words it is the only species in its genus. It has a wide distribution in southeastern United States and northern Latin America. In contrast to most members of its family Pentatomidae, this species is carnivorous and considered beneficial. It seems to enjoy feeding on many plant pests, as well as other small insects. Interestingly, this species is also gregarious, sometimes attacking prey in groups, although in my case no other nymphs were present in the area. The adult bugs display high color polymorphism, with variable red or orange patches on a metallic dark blue body.

We like the photo! Can we buy a print from you?
Of course. Contact me and I will do my best to assist you.

If you have any questions about my photo that do not appear in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.

To read part 1 about “The spider room”, click here.
To read part 3 about “Beautiful bloodsucker”, click here.
To read part 4 about “Spinning the cradle”, click here.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: The spider room, Urban Wildlife category winner

Recently I was honored to have four of my photos commended in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year photo competition organized by the Natural History Museum in London. This is a major achievement for me, and not something that I take lightly. A lot of hard work, dedication, and patience got me to this point. Most photographers spend years trying to get a single photo recognized in the competition, usually without success. To have four entries selected as finalists, with two category winners, is not something I expected even in my wildest dreams. The attention from the press and the general public after the awards ceremony and the winners announcement (watch it here) was overwhelming and sometimes exhausting (especially in the case of the photo “The spider room”). Now that things have calmed down a little, I decided to dedicate a few posts to the competition; to answer some of the repeating questions from people, and provide a bit of the background story for each of my winning photos.

We start off this series of posts with Urban Wildlife category winner: “The spider room”. First of all if you have not read the full story behind this photo, feel free to head over to this post.

The spider room. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Urban Wildlife category winner. Phoneutria fera and its babies under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

The spider room. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Urban Wildlife category winner. Phoneutria fera and its babies under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

You can watch the part when it appears in the awards ceremony here (timestamped).

Out of my winning images, this is probably the photo that made the most impact. The public response to it was phenomenal. It went viral immediately after the awards ceremony, attracting comments from thousands of people. I got literally hundreds of messages and questions about it over social media. It seems that people either like this photo, or you really, REALLY hate it. The interesting thing is that either way, people have an opinion about it. They talk about it. It’s a conversation starter. I couldn’t ask for a better result. There is also a story behind the submission of this photo to the competition that I will mention later.

“Seriously... This was under Gil Wizen’s bed, I’m sure it might send a shiver down your spine, but when I tell you that it was a Brazilian wandering spider, a very large animal and one of the most venomous spiders in the world, you’d be more worried”

“Seriously… This was under Gil Wizen’s bed, I’m sure it might send a shiver down your spine, but when I tell you that it was a Brazilian wandering spider, a very large animal and one of the most venomous spiders in the world, you’d be more worried”

Ok, spill out the truth. Is it real?
Yes.

What is the size of the spider? It looks huge!
This is an adult female Phoneutria fera, or Brazilian wandering spider. It is one of the largest araneomorph (non-tarantula) spiders in the world. The spider can easily cover an adult human’s hand with its leg span, which is almost 6 inches or 15 centimeters. The lens used to capture the photo makes it look bigger (forced perspective).

What is this “forced perspective”?
Forced perspective is an optical illusion that makes an object appear physically different (larger, smaller, closer, or farther) than it actually is. In this case I used a short focal length wide-angle lens, photographing the spider under my bed from a very short distance to make it appear larger in the frame while still retaining most of the details of the background.

Don’t spiders have 8 legs? I only see 6!
Spiders indeed have eight legs. This spider is not missing any legs, but it holds the two front pairs closely together, making it look like it is a single pair of legs.

A wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) female guarding her babies. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

A wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) female guarding her babies. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

What is that thing on the floor next to the spider?
The spider is feeding on a cockroach, so right under it there is a cockroach leg that it discarded. However, since the online version of the photo is usually of low resolution, most people mean the black area on the floor in front of the spider – that is simply a hole in the floorboard.

How venomous is this spider?
To quote from wandering-spiders.net: “Phoneutria venom contains a wide variety of peptides and proteins including neurotoxins, which act on the ion channels and chemical receptors of the neuromuscular systems of insects and mammals.” This means the venom has the potential to cause excitatory symptoms such as salivation, muscle spasms, loss of consciousness, loss of control over muscles, priapism (yup, you read that right), and in some cases even death.

Oh no! Banana spider aka Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) in my kitchen!

Oh no! Banana spider aka Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) in my kitchen!

Where was this photo taken? I am worried!
The spider room photo was taken in a biological research station in Ecuador. Phoneutria spiders are only found in the tropical regions of Latin America.

How did you not set the whole room on fire?? What’s wrong with you, look at this thing!
And why would I do that? The spider doesn’t know it is in someone’s room. It doesn’t even know what a human is. Allow me to quote myself: We DO NOT burn houses just because a spider happened to walk in. It’s absurd. Just because a spider found its way into your house, doesn’t mean it’s going to go after you. Spiders are constantly busy surviving, they have no time for us. If you find a spider at home, please kindly escort it out. The spider will thank you, and both of you will be happy. No need to cause property damage and possibly hurt yourself and others in the process.

It doesn’t look like any bed that I’ve ever seen. Can we see the bed?
Yes you can! Just don’t expect too much.

The bed where Phoneutria fera was found (photo courtesy of Alex Shlagman)

The bed where Phoneutria fera was found (photo courtesy of Alex Shlagman)

This photo isn’t mine. It was taken by my colleague during our previous stay at the site in 2007 and the room has changed considerably since then, but it’s the same bed.

Do you have any behind-the-scenes photos?
Unfortunately I was alone during the encounter with the spider, so I have no behind-the-scenes photos. However, I can try to communicate the experience. After figuring out that the source for the baby spiders in my room was under the bed, I decided to crawl under it to take a closer look. Someone on twitter posted this image, either directly or indirectly connected to my spider photo, and it encapsulates the scene very well:


When I looked under the bed, this is what I saw:

Phoneutria fera under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

Phoneutria fera under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

And one look was all I needed. I immediately knew which kind of photo I wanted to take.

Weren’t you scared to get so close to the spider?
I was not scared to photograph the spider from up close, because it was busy feeding and did not pay attention to me. However, after photographing I decided to relocate it outside, and this involved moving the spider. I was a little concerned because this spider is extremely fast and defensive, so I moved slowly and used extreme caution.

Closeup of a wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) resting on a leaf in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I got very close when taking this photo and the spider could not care any less.

Closeup of a wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) resting on a leaf in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I got very close when taking this photo and the spider could not care any less.

How did you move the spider outside?
There is a simple trick for catching spiders by placing a cup over the arachnid and sliding a piece of paper underneath. It works with any spider, large or small, tarantula or araneomorph spider. This is what I did with the Brazilian wandering spider before carrying it outside to release.

You said you relocated the spider outside, but what about all the babies?
The babies were left untouched. After hatching from the egg sac, baby spiders need very little attention. In some spiders the mothers stay close to the babies to protect them, but the truth is they are independent and can take care of themselves. That is why they were already dispersing around in the room. In addition, the baby wandering spiders have tiny fangs and physically cannot bite humans, so they are harmless.

Don’t spiders go back to their nest if moved away from it? Did the spider return?
After it was released the spider did not return to the room. However, this question is justified because I have heard more than one account where a wandering spider was relocated and showed up in the same place the day after. It is possible that the spider can find its way back following chemical cues. Silk may contain important information about the individual spider that placed it, and this information can be used by the same animal or other spiders for tracking.

Did you have any similar encounters with these spiders?
I encounter members of genus Phoneutria almost every time I visit Latin America. I always get startled at first because it is a very large spider, but then I continue to observe them without worries. They are interesting animals with an important role in their habitat and we should treat them with respect.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed on the thatched roof of a cabin in Colombia.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed on the thatched roof of a cabin in Colombia.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Limón Province, Costa Rica

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Limón Province, Costa Rica

We like the photo! Can we buy a print from you?
Of course. Contact me and I will do my best to assist you.

Can I use your photo for my super funny meme? Please!
This has already happened even before the photo won in the competition.
I had a feeling that the photo would go viral after the winners announcement, and expected the internet to have a field day using it for memes. As long as the memes are civil, do not call for violence, damage of property, or the unnecessary killing of spiders – I am fine with it.

What is the story behind the submission that you mentioned in the beginning of the post?
As mentioned in my award reception speech for “The spider room”, I actually had no intention to submit this photo to the competition. My plan was to submit another photo of a wandering spider preying on a katydid, however my good friend Ellen Woods, who encouraged me to enter my work to the competition in the first place (something I will discuss in a later post in this series), insisted that I submit this particular photo in the Urban Wildlife category. And she was spot on! So the way I see it, this is more her win than mine.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed in Colombia. This was the photo I initially planned to submit to the competition. Looking back, it would probably not have been picked up as a finalist.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed in Colombia. This was the photo I initially planned to submit to the competition. Looking back, it would probably not have been picked up as a finalist.

Why did you submit this photo in the “Urban Wildlife” category, when it shows a research station close to the rainforest and has nothing to do with being urban?
I admit I hesitated to submit the photo because of this. However upon careful inspection of the category’s definition in the competition, the text reads: “Across the world, humans have created new habitats. Many animals have adapted to these built environments, some more successfully than others. These images focus on the magic of the commonplace, the surprise of the unexpected or the wonder of the normally unseen.” This means that the category is intended for photos of animals adapting to any human-made environment. Not necessarily just cities, even if it is the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the word “urban”.

If you have any questions about my photo that do not appear in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.

To read part 2 about “Bug filling station”, click here.
To read part 3 about “Beautiful bloodsucker”, click here.
To read part 4 about “Spinning the cradle”, click here.

Goodbye 2020-2021: Why I will no longer post “year in review” recaps on this blog

If you have been following this blog long enough, you might have noticed that 2019 was the last year I wrote a “year in review” recap for. I think forcing myself to write a list of my annual accomplishments is overall a positive thing, but what about those years I feel like I had no accomplishments or personal growth? The pressure to prove something of self worth can have a negative effect.

I think it is safe to say that for many of us 2020 was a real challenge, dealing with the emerging global COVID-19 pandemic and the confusion that followed. 2021 was slightly better (or maybe we just got used to the situation), but here we are in 2022 and although things are slightly better we are still not out of it. I can’t help thinking if one day we will look back on this and chuckle “hehe, remember COVID??” As for me, I had a few trips planned in 2020, of course none of them materialized as commercial flights got grounded very quickly and borders closed. Later when travel restrictions were somewhat lifted I made the conscious decision not to travel. It was the responsible thing to do, and I still feel that way, despite seeing many (many!) of my photographer friends taking advantage of the low cost flights for photo trips. I promised myself that I would never get political on this blog (and online in general), I prefer doing it in person. So this is as much as I will mention the topic.

No photography trips? No problem. I can pair many of my whip spiders instead.

No photography trips? No problem. I can pair many of my whip spiders instead.

While people around the world were searching for ways to entertain themselves at home during lockdowns, spending quality time with their families, perfecting their sourdough bread baking skills and learning to speak German, I took a step back to reflect. I looove self-reflection. I believe I’ve said it before on this blog: every time you have a chance to reevaluate what is important in your life, you should take it. I needed a breather. I took a break from taking photos and tried to focus on other things. I reorganized my living space (again). I thought a lot about what kind of jobs I would be willing to take now that public gatherings were cancelled and most of my income was gone. Of course I could have transitioned some of it to virtual meetings over the Zoom platform, but oh man I hate it so much. Anyway, all that thinking was quality time spent. Guess what didn’t make the cut into what I felt was important in life? Social media… I’m still going to keep my public accounts active, with Twitter getting most of the attention, but it was clear as day to me that I wanted to go back to writing on this website and investing more into it. Unfortunately, with the chaos surrounding everything, it was difficult to find the motivation to do it.

My arthropods breeding room, reorganized. One day I am going to write a post about that part of my work.

My arthropods breeding room, reorganized. One day I am going to write a post about that part of my work.

This begs the question, is it even worth it? Isn’t blogging dead? Some will argue that blogging has died a long time ago. Others will stress that it hasn’t really died, but instead switched medium into podcasts, and later video essays. I also view activity on Twitter as mini-blogging, although the limitations of the platform do not allow for very elaborate posts, so it’s something more like tease-blogging. One thing is clear – regardless of the medium, blogging takes a lot of time and effort, with no guaranteed rewards at the end. In my opinion, there is still room for traditional blogging because it is indexed so well by search engines, can easily be updated and kept on track with the times, and there is no need to satisfy some obscure algorithm on a platform that you do not own and have no control over. I still see some of my old posts getting a lot of traffic, despite similar posts in other, more accessible formats. This tells me having a website with good and valid content is still king. You know what really is dead though? MySpace. Google+. And one day it can be your current favorite social media platform. Please pause for a moment to think about that.

Spending most of my time at home allowed me to make more Ethical Ento-Mounts, and get more creative about them.

Spending most of my time at home allowed me to make more Ethical Ento-Mounts, and get more creative about them.

One thing you might have noticed is that I activated Google Adsense on this blog. Not on every post, just on very old or less informative posts (like this one!) that I do not consider cornerstone content. This was not done for generating income (I assure you that it is extremely difficult to earn anything from this revenue stream nowadays), but more for personal reasons of keeping the account active.

Last year I had a chance to play around with some new designs for business cards. I really like them.

Last year I had a chance to play around with some new designs for business cards. I really like them.

Photography-wise, at the end of 2019 one of my goals was to finish clearing up the backlog in my photo archive, and indeed I made a huge progress. But even with this type of work I had to stop and take a long break from it at some point, because you can’t sit in front of the computer all day and do just that, every day, it’s not a way to live. I used this break as an excuse to test out different printing formats and media and the results were eye-opening, so I’m glad I did it. One more thing I did was to crack down on commercial copyright infringements, especially unauthorized monetized use on YouTube. Enough is enough. And, if I have to be completely honest, many of the image licenses that followed as a result kept me fed during 2020-2021.

My photos featured in a promotional macrophotography book! See, it wasn't all bad.

My photos featured in a promotional macrophotography book! See, it wasn’t all bad.

Alright, this post feels like I’m rambling as if the past two years had no accomplishments at all to be proud of. That’s not true. The TV series I took part in was released, I had a paper published. Even without me listing personal goals achieved, there is one big accomplishment that I just cannot ignore. I have been painfully silent about my four winning images in the 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. I swear it is not because I try to downplay the importance of this achievement (more on that in a separate blog post), but the main reason is that I didn’t have the time to sit and write about it. The press and media coverage of the competition results is overwhelming to say the least, and only now, four months after the winners were announced, I can say that I am starting to feel the response slowing down a little. Nevertheless, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition has just started its worldwide tour, so it is far from over. Because of this, I am going to dedicate the next five blog posts to talking about the competition: one post for each winning photo (kind of a Q&A), and one opinion post about photo competitions in general and Wildlife Photographer of the Year specifically. Did you see how I turned this “year in review” post into a promotional one?? Well done, Gil, give yourself a pat on the back… Will I write more annual recap posts like this one in the future? As you can see, over the years these posts became more and more personal and less informative. They were more for me, but I looking back at them now I don’t think they hold much value to other people. So I don’t know, something tells me that I probably won’t post recaps in the future. Separate topic posts are much more interesting and reader-friendly.

 




Little Transformers: This dung beetle has had enough of this bullshit

One of the things I have been focused on in the past two years, which is partially responsible for the long silence on this blog, is sorting through the backlog of photos in my archive. This is possibly the biggest curse of digital photography; you end up with hundreds of photos from each trip that eventually accumulate and often remain untouched for years. I made it a mission of mine to start going over this material in 2019, and unfortunately I misjudged how long the whole process was going to take. The good news is that most of the work is behind me. What I loved about this task was discovering many forgotten photos, as well as some hidden gems. One such treasure is photographs of a small dung beetle I encountered one night in Belize in 2014. On the surface it doesn’t look very special but its appearance was strange enough for me to decide I should photograph it. I thought its curved hind limbs were a malformation, but back then I did not know what I know today.
Oh, past Gil. You were so naïve and cute. But I’m happy you took those photos.

Dung beetle (Deltochilum acropyge), frontal view. Toledo District, Belize

Dung beetle (Deltochilum acropyge), frontal view. Toledo District, Belize

This seemingly innocent dung beetle is a member of Deltochilum, a large neotropical genus that contains over a hundred species. What is special about this beetle in particular, and the reason it is included in the Little Transformers post series, is that it’s technically not a dung beetle. Or to be more accurate, it does not feed on dung or animal feces.
Not anymore.
Because enough is enough.
And if you are reading this post in 2021, while the world is still dealing with a global pandemic, social issues, and the effects of climate change, this small beetle may very well represent our collective mood.

Life is hard when you have to do this all day. Dung beetle (Canthon quadriguttatus) rolling a ball of fresh dung in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Life is hard when you have to do this all day. Dung beetle (Canthon quadriguttatus) rolling a ball of fresh dung in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Generally speaking, dung beetles are famous for feeding on animal feces, from which they obtain the nutrients they need. Some beetles feed directly on top or dig under the dung, while others compress the dung into a tight sphere to feed on later and roll it to their nesting spot away from other beetles. Despite the unappealing dietary habits, the competition for dung is fierce, and often several dung beetle species fight each other for a piece of the hot pie. You can probably imagine how such a competition can cause a selective pressure towards a dietary change in some dung beetles, together with suitable morphological adaptations. One example is dung beetles that shifted into feeding on rotting fruits, mushrooms, or even animal carcasses. Other beetles took it even further and moved to predation. The latter is not a simple shift and it is considered quite rare in the animal kingdom, as it requires some conditions to be met: the beetle must be able to consume and digest the prey, not to mention it must also be able to capture it.

In 2009, a study of the predatory habits of Deltochilum valgum was published. This species preys on millipedes in the rainforests of Peru. It was discovered in a survey by laying pitfall traps with different types of baits, some of which contained millipedes and attracted the Deltochilum valgum dung beetles. The millipedes were chosen as bait for the traps because beetles have been recorded feeding on dead millipedes or carrying live millipedes in the past.
But how does this species fulfill the conditions mentioned above? The choice of millipedes as prey may seem surprising. After all, many of them are poisonous or deploy chemical defenses, and usually predators avoid them. However, this is exactly what makes millipedes an unexploited resource for which there is much less competition compared to dung. In addition, millipedes are detritivores feeding on decomposing plants and mushrooms, and therefore have a large amount of organic material stored in their body that makes a great source of nutrients for the beetles. Accessible food source – check.
Next on the list is the actual hunting and killing of millipedes. This is made possible thanks to small structural changes that have occurred in the beetle’s head and hind tibiae. Instead of rolling dung balls, the hind legs have curved tibiae as an adaptation for catching and holding millipedes tightly against the beetle’s pygidium. This allows the beetle to drag the millipede to a spot where it can kill it. After taking over and dragging the prey, the beetle inserts its serrated head between the millipede’s front segments, decapitating its head. This action paralyzes the millipede completely so the beetle can start consuming its juicy insides, leaving behind only disintegrated parts of the prey’s exoskeleton at the end of the process. So far there is only one video record of Deltochilum valgum hunting a live millipede. I wish there were more but nevertheless, hunting strategy – check.

Dung beetle (Deltochilum acropyge), dorsal view. The curved hind tibiae are an adaptation for grasping millipedes.

Dung beetle (Deltochilum acropyge), dorsal view. The curved hind tibiae are an adaptation for grasping millipedes.

Much has changed since that publication. It is now clear that not one, but several Deltochilum species prey on millipedes, and they are grouped together taxonomically. Most of the species in the group share the curved hind leg adaptation for manipulating the live millipede prey. Similarly to Deltochilum valgum, they were sampled by pitfall traps with millipede bait as well. If I worked my way through the key correctly, the beetle I photographed in Belize should be Deltochilum acropyge in the valgum group within subgenus Aganhyboma, which is recorded from several countries in Central America. It is important to note that we do not know much about the life cycle of these beetles. As of writing this post it remains unclear what the beetle larvae feed on, but I would not be surprised if they require millipede prey for the completion of their development, whether on its own or mixed with dung.

Deltochilum is not the only genus of dung beetle that has evolved to use millipedes as a food source. Sceliages dung beetles from Africa are attracted to freshly dead millipedes and their larvae feed on balls of crushed millipedes, collected and prepared by the mother. And in South America Canthon dung beetles have been observed to feed on injured live and dead millipedes, leafcutter ant queens (watch a video of this behavior here, narrated in Portuguese), as well as other live dung beetles (as can be seen in this amazing Facebook video by João Burini, or on his Instagram post).

I should also mention that only a handful of Deltochilum dung beetles are predators, and looks can be deceiving. As an interesting anecdote, here is one species that according to our current knowledge is not a predator.

Dung beetle (Deltochilum carinatum). Shaped like a dark knight.

Dung beetle (Deltochilum carinatum). Shaped like a dark knight.

Deltochilum carinatum, in my opinion, is one of the most striking species in the genus. There is something about this beetle that reminds me of TMNT’s Shredder. The sharp angles, clear cuts, and overall structure. As if this body shape was made to either cut through or lock onto something.

Dung beetle (Deltochilum carinatum), dorsal view

Dung beetle (Deltochilum carinatum), dorsal view

Dung beetle (Deltochilum carinatum). One of the most peculiar-looking dung beetles in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Dung beetle (Deltochilum carinatum). One of the most peculiar-looking dung beetles in the Ecuadorian Amazon

But, as evidence suggests, this is just an ordinary dung beetle that feeds normally on dung. Maybe this will change one day, when we discover more about its life cycle and interactions with other species. For now we should enjoy it for what it is – a cool looking dung beetle. Not as badass as its murderous cousins though.

UPDATE (23 Jul, 2021): Some new photos of Deltochilum dung beetles hunting millipedes have been shared on twitter, I recommend checking them out:

Insect art: Eye makeup by Duran Jay (entomakeup)

You know, every once in a while I come across something original and unique that makes me fall in love with the art of adapting a reference to another medium. A great example for this is the world of fashion where designers draw their inspiration from just about anything you can (and cannot) imagine. Without doubt the natural world is used frequently as inspiration for flamboyant styles as well. However, occasionally I come across the reverse – attempts to pair current fashion trends or designs with unrelated existing subjects. Take the legendary Bowiebranchia for example, a webpage dedicated to matching outfits worn by the late David Bowie with their respective nudibranch and sea slug counterparts. Ever since this page went viral, I have seen many similar posts featuring other celebrities compared in their fashion style to different animals and plants, even everyday objects. And there are new webpages doing the same with random fashion designs matched with nearly identical examples from the natural world (like @fashion.biologique on Instagram). It goes well beyond clothes, by the way – my friends on twitter did something similar with spider-themed nail polish.

A couple of weeks ago I got a notification on my Instagram account that I was tagged in a photo. I thought that was a little strange, because I am barely active on social media these days, and I hardly ever go into Instagram. When I checked it out, I saw that the tag was from a person who used my photo of Euglossa hansoni orchid bee as a reference for their work. The bee photo is quite popular; it seems many people love the color combination on this species. However, this particular artwork was a bit different from the ones I am used to. It showcased makeup.

Orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) inspired look by Duran Jay, aka entomakeup

Orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) inspired look by Duran Jay, aka entomakeup

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I liked the result, so to get a better idea I navigated to the account’s homepage and oh boy I am sure glad I did. Before me were dozens of striking makeup interpretations of arthropods and other invertebrates. All of them looked highly professional. Each and every one unique in its own way. Eye candy (pun intended).

entomakeup Instagram page. This is just a tiny snapshot, go to the original page to see many more makeup looks.

entomakeup Instagram page. This is just a tiny snapshot, go to the original page to see many more makeup looks.

The artist is Duran Jay, aka entomakeup, a UK-based arthropod enthusiast with an amazing talent for translating different color palettes and textures into eye makeup looks. I know close to nothing about makeup, so I was delighted when she agreed to tell me a little about her project and work process. All artwork shown here is courtesy of Duran Jay and posted with her permission.

How did this idea of creating arthropod-inspired eye makeup start?
Duran: “…It actually started with nudibranchs! I’m that one pal everyone has who always takes the joke a little bit too far, so when me and my friend daydreamed about setting up our own makeup line inspired by the bright colours and patterns of nudibranchs during a revision session a couple years ago I suppose it was only a matter of time. The COVID-19 lockdown afforded me the time and lack of anything else to do in order for that conversation to pop back into my head while I was sat in front of the mirror one day, and the unrelenting desire I have to push my love for entomology onto the people in my life meant that it naturally progressed to encompass my favourite bugs as well.”

Titan grasshopper (Titanacris picticrus) inspired look by Duran Jay. A faithful representation of the species, and the soft colors really compliment her eye.

Titan grasshopper (Titanacris picticrus) inspired look by Duran Jay. A faithful representation of the species, and the soft colors really compliment her eye.

I posted my first entomakeup look in mid-May 2020 and committed to posting daily looks for the first few weeks so although it’s still a fairly new project, it has been quite intense. I’ve experimented with makeup for around 10 or so years now with varying levels of success, but certainly not on any kind of professional level. I don’t have a huge collection of makeup, I don’t use high end products and I won’t buy anything that isn’t cruelty-free. In fact, I only really use the same two eyeshadow palettes for all of the looks I post so it forces me to really get creative sometimes. Like most hobbies, practice and a good lineup of YouTube tutorials can go a long way!”

Goliath beetle (Goliathus goliathus) inspired look by Duran Jay. I feel like there should be a "Kapow!" on the next page in the entomakeup manga

Goliath beetle (Goliathus goliathus) inspired look by Duran Jay. I feel like there should be a “Kapow!” on the next page in the entomakeup manga

As a side note, some of Duran’s creations may look like they were taken straight out of a comic book or a manga (and I mean this in the most flattering way possible). Her Goliath beetle look, seen above, is simply stunning in my opinion. It is punchy, full of character, and I admit that I’d love to see how it looks on both eyes. I’ll also add that I’m a bit of sucker for Fuchs’ crypts in eyes… and Duran’s are so beautiful.

How do you choose which arthropod species to use as the model?
Duran: “I have a pretty big list of species names and photographs on my phone that I‘ll add to when I’m fortunate to stumble across a particularly striking species. I also get quite a few messages from friends and followers requesting me to recreate their favourite species, which is always quite interesting for me because they might suggest something I’d never really considered before (like the silverfish look I posted in June). I try to make sure that I mix the colour palettes up and don’t post looks from the same order or class across consecutive days, which can be a bit of a challenge sometimes (especially when there’s a species I’m really eager to try) but I’m lucky in the sense there are millions of arthropod species out there to choose from so I suppose I’m never short on options!”

Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina) inspired look by Duran Jay. Note the added tail element.

Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina) inspired look by Duran Jay. Note the added tail element.

The aforementioned silverfish look is one of my favorites. It is so simple and yet contains enough detail to hint about the animal with the added “tail”. In my opinion, this look is also very close to traditional makeup, so much that it can become mainstream. Make it happen, people.

How long does it take to complete each work, from conception to a finished makeup artwork?
Duran: “It can take anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour. I’ve had a few instances where it didn’t quite work out the way it looked in my mind beforehand, so I’ve had to revisit my options and figure out what I can do differently to achieve what I want to do. I suppose that’s part of the fun for me.”

Blushing phantom (Cithaerias pireta) inspired look by Duran Jay

Blushing phantom (Cithaerias pireta) inspired look by Duran Jay

10 minutes to an hour??? That is impressive. To me some of these creations look like they can take several hours to pull off right. The more minimalist entomakeup looks are not too shabby either; the one seen above could easily be considered as everyday makeup, if not for the fact that Duran’s eye represents the actual eyespot on a butterfly’s hindwings! I have never seen anyone use a lepidopteran reference for makeup in this manner. A few other examples for this concept can be seen here and here.

Have you ever taken any of the entomakeup creations outside, and what was people’s reaction when they saw it?
Duran: “Occasionally! I distinctly remember getting some strange looks when I wore my somewhat dramatic Bolivian dwarf beauty tarantula (Cyriocosmus perezmilesi) look to pop out for a pint of milk, but generally people are really nice. I have brightly-coloured hair and dress in obnoxiously colourful clothes a lot of the time anyway, so people probably assume the outlandish makeup is just part of my everyday look. I do sometimes wonder if I’d have as many ‘likes’ on my Facebook profile picture if my friends knew I was wearing makeup inspired by a parasitic cuckoo wasp in it, however.”

Shield bug (Poecilocoris rufigenis) inspired look by Duran Jay

Shield bug (Poecilocoris rufigenis) inspired look by Duran Jay

Harlequin flower beetle (Gymnetis sp.) inspired look by Duran Jay. Amazing use of the color pattern here that creates the illusion of different textures.

Harlequin flower beetle (Gymnetis sp.) inspired look by Duran Jay. Amazing use of the color pattern here that creates the illusion of different textures.

Duran is also very good at adapting natural color patterns and textures into her makeup looks. In the case of the shield bug Poecilocoris rufigenis, the spot pattern is unappetizing for birds, but she managed to make it look natural on the eyelid and quite attractive. And in the case of the Gymnetis flower beetle, this has got to be one of the best interpretations I’ve seen for the velvety black color transitioning into yellow on the beetle’s elytra. It is another one of those comic book looks that I’d love to see on both eyes together. Another great example of good interpretation of pattern and texture is this South American caterpillar look.

How many makeup looks do you plan to make?
Duran: “This is difficult to answer, because I never really had a ‘plan’ to begin with. I started the Instagram page really just as a way of documenting a fun little quarantine project whilst relieving my friends who didn’t constantly want to see bugs and makeup popping up on my personal profile. I certainly never dreamt I’d receive so many messages from strangers across the world saying they love what I do! I think if it ever started feeling like a chore or an obligatory task, I’d stop. I don’t ever really want to lose the fun of it.”

Orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) inspired look by Duran Jay. Who says eyelashes have to be dark? entomakeup will change the way you think about eye makeup.

Orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) inspired look by Duran Jay. Who says eyelashes have to be dark? entomakeup will change the way you think about eye makeup.

I mentioned that the artist is also an arthropod enthusiast, and she keeps pet mantids. When creating an eye makeup look based on the orchid mantis Hymenopus coronatus, she was not afraid to go beyond what is necessary to complete an accurate representation of the mantis, along with the actual insect itself. That is bold.

Duran’s entomakeup work screams professionalism to me, yet she is very humble about her success and sees it more like a hobby. I asked her if she has any future plans for this project, either publishing or using it for landing commercial work.
“The idea of a book or even an exhibition seems utterly insane to me… My original dream was to create a makeup line, so if I could create an arthropod-inspired eyeshadow palette one day I would be absolutely ecstatic!”

Being an arthropod lover myself, I hope this wish comes true one day. In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy her daily posts. You can catch up with Duran’s brilliant work on her Instagram page.




Maoristolus parvulus – extremely small and incredibly rare

These days I am going over my photo archives, doing some digital asset management. The work is mostly sorting images into folders and keywording, but make no mistake – it is a lot of work. Archive work is a great way to pass a cold winter, not that I’m complaining. We have been extremely spoiled this year with temperatures higher than the average for a Southern Ontario winter. And yet, winter is almost gone and I am past the midpoint of my archive workload, so my pace is good. What I like about this kind of work is that you discover many forgotten treasures; good photos that you left unedited for some time later, photos showing things you completely missed on first viewing, or even better, photos of extremely rare subjects. Today’s post is the latter case, a small detective story involving a strange bug named Maoristolus parvulus.

First, some background: in 2013 I went on a research trip to New Zealand. Even though my main work was studying ground weta, I took the opportunity to learn more about the native terrestrial invertebrates. One of the best finds were giant springtails of the genus Holacanthella, and I remember collecting a few of them together with their substrate for photographing later. The substrate itself, decomposing southern beech wood, was not sterile of course, and I found some small arthropods living in it (mostly ants and small centipedes). When I finished sorting through the wood particles I discovered what I thought was a small assassin bug nymph. I had no real interest in it, but it looked different from anything I know so I decided to take a few photographs before releasing it. After I returned home, I tried to identify it but I was unsuccessful. I decided to let it go and archived the photos. Little did I know, this was not an assassin bug

Aenictopecheid bug nymph (Maoristolus parvulus) from Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

Aenictopecheid bug nymph (Maoristolus parvulus) from Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

Stumbling upon these photos again, I decided to give identification another try. Like I said earlier, proper taxonomic identification can feel a lot like detective work, especially if you start from scratch and have no idea where to begin. There was no doubt that this was a bug. The piercing mouthparts, the antennae, the body structure – I have seen those before. But which family does it belong to? My initial gut feeling was assassin bugs (Reduviidae) because of the modified forelegs. This is where I deployed a key to the different assassin bug tribes and found absolutely nothing that looked even remotely similar. Frustrated, I tried looking for publications about NZ Heteroptera, checking sites like iNaturalist for similar observations, and even punching in different combinations of words on Google image search (yes, that’s something that even experienced entomologists do), hoping to get a lead. Eventually I landed on an old paper discussing NZ Enicocephalomorpha – a mysterious heteropteran infraorder containing two enigmatic families: Enicocephalidae and Aenictopecheidae.
The paper contained descriptions of several species, but what really caught my eye were the figures, clearly showing the same modified forelegs with short tarsi and strong claws! From here, all I had to do was to carefully follow this excellent lucid key, and get to the correct ID: Maoristolus parvulus.

Looking back, it seems that I wasn’t too far off. Infraorder Enicocephalomorpha, with its two families, was once treated as a sister group to the reduviid assassin bugs. Family Enicocephalidae, the larger of the two, contains about 400 species distributed worldwide. They are commonly called unique-headed bugs or gnat bugs, and there are fully winged as well as brachypterous (reduced wings) species.
Family Aenictopecheidae, however, is much more unique. It contains only 20 species in 10 genera worldwide, and these are some of the rarest bugs with several endemic species. They are so rare that they don’t even have a common name. It doesn’t help that they are also very small, Enicocephalomorpha bugs are generally between 3-5mm long. The bug I photographed was almost 3mm in length.

Aenictopecheid bug nymph (Maoristolus parvulus), extremely small and incredibly rare

Aenictopecheid bug nymph (Maoristolus parvulus), extremely small and incredibly rare

By the way, adult Maoristolus parvulus bugs have fully developed wings, so this is indeed a nymph. What else can I tell you about it? Not much. Enicocephalomorpha bugs and especially members of Aenictopecheidae are poorly known. We presume they are predaceous, hunting for small invertebrates in their habitat, such as springtails, mites, and worms.

Aenictopecheid bug nymph (Maoristolus parvulus) probing a piece of decomposing wood with its proboscis. We have no clue what these bugs feed on.

Aenictopecheid bug nymph (Maoristolus parvulus) probing a piece of decomposing wood with its proboscis. We have no clue what these bugs feed on.

These are, to the best of my knowledge, the only photos in existence of a live Maoristolus parvulus, and one of the only photos of a live aenictopecheid. As of now, there is only one other photo of a live aenictopecheid bug from Chile, a female Gamostolus subantarcticus with eggs. Sure, they are not the best photos, but when you see something this uncommon aesthetics take second place. Also keep in mind I had no idea what I was looking at back then. Thankfully today I am a little bit smarter.




Bachia lizards – look, no hands!

Legend tells the story of Oedipus, who faced the sphinx guarding the gates to the city of Thebes. To enter, the monster presented him with a riddle:
“Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”
Oedipus was able to solve the sphinx riddle, granting him entrance to the city. He later became the king of Thebes and married his own mother – but that’s another story.
The answer to the sphinx riddle can be quite intuitive if you stop to think about it, but what if I told you there are animals that fit that description quite easily? It is with my own eyes that I have seen arachnids staring their life with eight legs, losing some of them during growth, and then growing them back like nothing happened in the amazing process of regeneration. Some hemimetabolous insects and even amphibians can do it just as well. And what if I told you there is an animal that is born with legs, and by the end of its life it loses all of them but one? Introducing Bachia, a genus of strange long-bodied lizards.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale), a limbless microteiid lizard from the Ecuadorian Amazon

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale), a limbless microteiid lizard from the Ecuadorian Amazon

The adult Bachia lizards resemble snakes, having an elongated body and reduced limbs. They have small eyes and no external ear openings. These are adaptations for a subterranean lifestyle, as these lizards spend most of their time moving through the leaf litter and in the soil looking for their favorite food – soft-bodied insects. They usually hunt termites and ant brood in underground nests. Occasionally they make their way into decomposing wood, where they will not hesitate to snag a juicy beetle larva if the opportunity presents itself. I encountered my first Bachia while it was hunting termites moving on a trail.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale) hunting termites

Termite soldiers surrounding the intruding Bachia lizard to defend their colony workers on the trail

Termite soldiers surrounding the intruding Bachia lizard to defend their colony workers on the trail

Closeup on a Bachia's head, showing small eyes and no external ear opening - adaptations for a subterranean lifstyle.

Closeup on a Bachia’s head, showing small eyes and no external ear opening – adaptations for a subterranean lifstyle.

Bachia are not to be confused with other snake-like lizards such as limbless skinks, slowworms, glass lizards, or amphisbaenids, all members of other groups. Bachia lizards belong to family Gymnophthalmidae, also known as microteiids or spectacled lizards. Their closest relatives are the skittish whiptail lizards. The name “spectacled” refers to their transparent eyelids, allowing these lizards to see even when their eyes are closed. Most members of the family are normal looking lizards, like this common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis).

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis) from the Ecuadorian Amazon

As the name suggests, microteiid lizards are generally small. How small? Very small.

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis) on finger for scale

Juvenile common root lizard (Loxopholis parietalis) on finger for scale

Ok, I’m cheating here a little, after all this is a juvenile specimen. But generally speaking, a microteiid lizard can sit comfortably in the palm of your hand, and you will still have room for two or three more lizards.

Portrait of Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale)

Portrait of Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale)

The genus Bachia contains about 30 species, many of which are endemic. The species I have encountered the most is Bachia trisanale, it is one of the more common species with a wide distribution in South America, occurring in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Brazil.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale), full body view

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale), full body view

One of the most interesting aspects of Bachia lizards is their limbs. All species have a long body with very small limbs. Members of the genus can be easily divided into groups by their limb structure and the level of reduction in the hindlimbs. In many species the hindlimbs are extremely reduced to tiny hooks or absent altogether. Few species, like the Bachia trisanale appearing in this post, lack hindlimbs and show digit reduction in the forelimbs as well. Interestingly, limbs can also be lost throughout the lizard’s lifetime. Although a leg can be lost following an injury, it can also happen due to tissue erosion caused by the lifestyle of digging and burrowing through coarse soil containing clay particles. The hind legs (if present) usually go first, shrinking to tiny knobs or disappearing completely. The stronger forelimbs are eventually eroded as well, first the tiny digits, and then the remainder of the leg. Judging by several specimens that I have encountered, the forelimb loss is even a directional change – usually it is the right forelimb that disappears first, followed by the one on the left side. It is common to find old Bachia lizards with only one limb! Usually by that time the remaining leg has lost its digits entirely, and looks like a small stub.

Stacy's bachia (Bachia trisanale), closeup on its head and stubby foreleg

Stacy’s bachia (Bachia trisanale), closeup on its head and stubby foreleg

Surprisingly this has no negative effect on the lizard’s locomotion. One might even argue that losing the limbs makes it more terradynamic, allowing it to “swim” freely in the substrate with no drag.

Bachia trisanale with only one foreleg

Bachia trisanale with only one foreleg

So when you are feeling down, remember that there are small lizards that look like a noodle, diving face first into the dirt after pesky termites and ants. And they do it with no hands!




Farewell 2019, hola 2020’s!

I’ll open this post with my usual mantra – have you backed up your files this week? In case you have, pat yourself on the back. If not, stop reading and back up your stuff first. Thank you.
Ah, 2019. What a strange year this was. Just as I thought, the previous year ended on such a high note, that it was difficult to shake off the sense of euphoria that came right after and get back to being productive as a freelancer. It’s funny to think that I wrote 2018’s wrap up way into 2019, so things were already stalling a little for me. Nevertheless, last year was full of surprises and new experiences, as well as meeting new people. Not to imply that all of these happenings went the way I thought they would, there is always good and bad and it’s unavoidable. I am happy to say that most of these were indeed positive experiences, there were no major failures this year (yay) and I definitely learned from the less favorable moments. So all in all this was a good year professionally speaking. On the personal level it could have been better, my attempts at dating were mostly embarrassingly hilarious and sad. But my love life isn’t the topic of this blog haha. If you follow my year-in-review posts, then you already know I no longer do the “best photos of the year” roundup. I gave that format up for “highlights of the year”, but I will spice it up with photos so it isn’t too boring.

Dung beetle (Scarabaeus sp.). Western Negev desert, Israel

Dung beetle (Scarabaeus sp.). Western Negev desert, Israel

Trip to Israel

Perhaps my most anticipated event last year was a trip back home. I actually planned two trips in 2019, but had to cancel my annual trip to Ecuador due to a nation-wide unrest. I haven’t been to Israel since 2015, and it showed. Not only did I miss my family, but I was also craving some of the amazing food my home country has to offer. Alas, this trip was short. Way too short! I am used to being busy when I visit Israel, but this time I barely got to meet any friends. Things have definitely changed in some of the nature sites I used to frequent, some areas are now closed nature reserves (good) and some were wiped clean to make space for development or construction (bad bad bad). Still it is a magnificent country with great finds.

Desert black widow (Latrodectus revivensis) preying on Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). Western Negev Desert, Israel

Desert black widow (Latrodectus revivensis) preying on Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). Western Negev Desert, Israel

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) swarming on a tree branch. Upper Galilee, Israel

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) swarming on a tree branch. Upper Galilee, Israel

Male jumping spider (Cyrba algerina). This was one of the species I was hoping to find during my visit.

Male jumping spider (Cyrba algerina). This was one of the species I was hoping to find during my visit.

Catching up with the past

Much of what I did in 2019 was backstage work, in other words not things that I usually post about here or on social media. Only briefly mentioned on this blog, one of the things I do aside from nature photography and consulting is breeding arthropods professionally for different purposes. Usually it is for public outreach events, but occasionally I supply animals for live displays in museums or to research labs. It is a full-time job on top of all my other projects, but this is something that I also do for my own mental health. I have been doing this since… forever. Being occupied with keeping insects and arachnids calms me down and leaves no time for negative thoughts. Unfortunately, my busy schedule with trips and the ROM’s spider exhibit in 2018 also meant that I neglected some of my breeding projects. Sometimes that’s a good thing because it forces you to reevaluate which species are more important and worth keeping around. In any case, I decided to get back on track with some species, for example beetles. One of the main goals I had for my visit to Israel was to relocate lab supplies to my place in Canada. No sense in keeping it unused in Israel, and I can totally benefit from using it. One of the objects I wanted to bring to my Canadian home was a large industrial bin that I used for making leaf compost as substrate for breeding beetles. I had my doubts about carrying such a weird object on a commercial flight, but it worked out fine.

The rare sapphire flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa cyanochlora) in captive breeding

The rare sapphire flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa cyanochlora) in captive breeding

Another hidden project I started working on last year was clearing up my backlog. I hate to admit it, but since moving to Canada I have not put much effort into managing my digital photography assets, and many file folders on my computer are still unorganized. After a long hiatus, I made the decision to go back to working on my photo collections and clear the backlog. This is a difficult task to accomplish, because while you are working on old photos, you keep adding new ones. I cannot put opportunities on hold just because I have stuff from the past to sort out, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Sadly, I do not know how long it will take to finish the work, but what a great way to pass the dreaded wintertime in Ontario, am I right? Too bad I actually like the winter.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. The winter is a great time to edit some wide angle macro shots from the summer. By the way, if I had to pick the best photo I took in 2019, it would probably be this one. It took 4 hours to get it!

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. The winter is a great time to edit some wide angle macro shots from the summer. By the way, if I had to pick the best photo I took in 2019, it would probably be this one. It took 4 hours to get it!

Public outreach in 2019

In 2019 I continued to take part in public outreach to promote the appreciation of insects and arachnids. I really enjoy acting as an ambassador for these animals and striking up conversations with people I meet at the events. I gave two talks at Nerd Nite Toronto, one about non-spider arachnids and another about Epomis beetles. Quite unbelievable – this was the first time I ever presented my MSc research to the general public, up until now it was only to academic listeners. How come I have waited for so long? The audience loved it!
I also returned for my third time as a medical entomology expert for the Global Health Education Initiative at University of Toronto. And of course, I returned with my whip spiders for the third Guelph Bug Day. This event is becoming an annual thing for me, I really love it, and you can tell that the people organizing it are very passionate about insects and science communication. I plan to continue participating for as long as I can.

Our "Arachnids & Art" table at Guelph Bug Day 2019. Photo by Brian Wolven

Our “Arachnids & Art” table at Guelph Bug Day 2019. Photo by Brian Wolven

Filming “Bug Hunter”

Speaking of education and public outreach, over the summer of 2019 I assisted in the production of an educational series called “Bug Hunter”. The project is a New Zealand-Canada collaboration in which a NZ entomologist (the wonderful Morgane Merien) travels between the two countries and explores different aspects in the life of insects, while comparing species from the Southern Hemisphere to ones found in the Northern Hemisphere.

Morgane Merien in "Bug Hunter"

Morgane Merien in “Bug Hunter”

I must admit that when the producer approached me at first I did not fully grasp the scale of the project. The series is a part of an augmented reality app that will eventually be distributed into the school system. I was initially hired as a consultant and a field expert to the team, but later on I was written into the script. This means that occasionally I appear in the episodes to give some information about insects native to Canada. Kind of like an Non-Player Character that always shows up (if you know Baelin the fisherman, something like that, hopefully not as repetitive). If I had to pick one thing in 2019 as the best highlight, it would be working on this series. The team chosen for this project was stellar, extremely professional but also good people. We all worked hard, had good laughs, and I got to hear some interesting stories about the industry. An amazing learning experience. On top of that, I dragged them to Guelph Bug Day (it coincided with one of the filming dates) and they were able to use it to get some useful footage for the series. The Canada portion is more or less wrapped up, and now a second team is filming the NZ portion with Morgane. I can’t wait to see the final result when it’s completed.

Filming "Bug Hunter" in Southern Ontario

Filming “Bug Hunter” in Southern Ontario

Commercial work in 2019

In July I was contracted by Doritos Canada to help promoting the “SpiderManFar From Home” movie. The idea was to design and set up a box with live spiders as a fun challenge for people to get a chance to win an authentic Spider-Man suit. After some discussions with the PR company, we settled on having local wolf spiders and a tarantula inside the box. I had no idea how it was going to turn out, but it was a lot of fun! Being the science communicator that I am, I tried to turn this into an educational opportunity to show people that there is no reason to be afraid of spiders. The activity was covered by several news outlets too. I was debating whether to upload the video, but then I thought why should I be the only one to enjoy it. Hopefully it won’t be taken down.

In October I was involved in another cool project: filming a music video for the Finnish symphonic metal group Apocalyptica. The director wanted to incorporate live arthropods in the final video and asked for my assistance with providing and wrangling the animals. This was not my first music video work, but it was the first one on an international scale. Obviously, this was very different from filming news interviews or the educational show mentioned above. I brought in a handful of different animals, not all of which were used and made it to the final cut. Yet still, when I watch the video it sparks nice memories of some of the critters I keep. Two of my favorite animals, whip spiders and velvet worms, are shown in great detail in the video, and it make me very happy. This is probably the first time a velvet worm is shown in a music video, now that I think about it. And I was also surprised to discover my name mentioned in the end credits!

Social media

Despite toning down my social media activity in the past few years, I still remain somewhat active. In fact, my follower counts increased substantially over the past year (more on that later). Twitter is still my favorite platform for several reasons. Facebook used to be OK, but has deteriorated over the years. And then there is Instagram. I really tried to like Instagram, however after 1.5 years of using it I still find it mediocre for interacting with people. It’s not surprising; Instagram is a phone app, and as such it is designed to be used for killing time while staring at your smartphone screen. I hardly use my cellphone for that purpose, and to be honest I barely use my cellphone at all. I still post there, mainly because I already post in the other platforms, and it’s just a click away. You might recognize my checkered pattern of posting, which I do solely for my Instagram. Not sure how long I can keep this going, but hey at least it looks cool.

Checkered pattern of posting on my Instagram

Checkered pattern of posting on my Instagram

I mentioned follower counts earlier. I never really cared that much about them. Okay, that’s not entirely true: I recently stumbled upon a list I made in my early days on Facebook (2010), listing all 90 friends I’ve made. That’s a little sad… Anyway going back to 2019, I sometimes find myself ticked if I see that my follower count is stuck showing an unbalanced, nearly round value. And I am sure I am not the only person with this problem, right? So every now and then I try to round that number upwards by posting something nice. Usually I follow the excellent advice given to me a while back, but it really depends on what I have available. Now, I have said many times that it is impossible to predict what is going to go viral on social media. But at least one time this year I posted something with the sole intention for it to go viral, and it actually worked. It was this photo of Euglossa hansoni from this blog post:

Male orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

Male orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

That post exploded on Facebook and even more so on Twitter. There was no surprise, it is one of my most stolen photos and that’s why I posted it. And sure enough, I was able to round the follower count up, before it went completely nuts and returned to an unbalanced state, only with a few additional hundreds of new followers. So what I did next was pretty cool. I tweeted this in hopes that as many people as possible will get to see it:

“This tweet has taken off a little, so I am told this is when I am supposed to take advantage of the situation and divert everyone’s attention to me promoting something. But I am not going to do that. Instead I will request something that I believe can be beneficial for everyone: Be kind to each other. Talk to each other. I mean actual talking – not just in texts messages! You’d be surprised how exhilarating it is. Spend time really listening. Respect and support others, especially those who are smaller and weaker than yourself (including smol friends!). I could go on, but I think this is the core of my message to the world. Practice being a good person. Do your best to be the hero in someone else’s story, I cannot stress this enough. Thanks for the love and support.”

This is my message for 2019. Actually scratch that. This is my message for the new decade.

Gilwizen.com in 2019 and what’s next

OK, this one is a bit embarrassing. In 2019, I published a “whopping” record of only three posts. That is a new low. It’s not because I had nothing to write about (I have dozens of stories “sitting”, awaiting their turn) or because I was busy. Writing blog posts is still a huge time and energy investment for me. Unlike some people who write a single four-line paragraph and call it a blog post, I try to make some decent content. I mean, look how long this post has become by now. In addition, every post goes through about 40 revisions before I hit publish, because I get pretty antsy about typos and grammatical errors (they still happen). This year I had very little motivation to sit and write. It’s almost like I need to be in a specific mood for it. I guess the good news is that there were no rant posts this year. But this posting drought needs to end.
I hope to return to regular posting in 2020. I also want to showcase more art that I have been exposed to, and bring back the Little Transformers post series. Following some helpful discussions with friends, I decided to add a media page to the website with some of the interviews and filmed activities that I have done over the years. Maybe I should also add portfolio page? I’ve never liked portfolios, do they really make a difference on a website’s appearance? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Framed tarantula molt (Brachypelma hamorii) for sale

Framed tarantula molt (Brachypelma hamorii) for sale

Selling Ethical Ento-Mounts was a bit slow this year, but I have not made many new pieces. One thing I finally put together is a “deluxe” series: these are frames containing one species or more arranged in a pattern. It involves an insane amount of work, mainly gluing broken beetles and selecting them for size to fit the arrangement. Because the specimens originate from my breeding projects, the “deluxe” items will be extremely limited editions, probably two or three per year, and will be priced higher than my usual work. I think they look nice.

Ethical Ento-Mount "deluxe": a group of flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa jousselini) in flight around a Scarabaeus dung beetle. Sold even before I listed it online.

Ethical Ento-Mount “deluxe”: a group of flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa jousselini) in flight around a Scarabaeus dung beetle. Sold even before I listed it online.

I just updated my shop page with new work, and to celebrate the new year I am offering a 20% discount on all items until the end of January 2020. Please check it out! If you ever thought about getting one of my framed molts, now is the time to do so. There are prints available too!

Final words (getting personal and emotional here)

2019 is also the end of a decade. As someone who was born in 1980, it is impossible for me not to look at the change of decades as an age-transition into a new point in life. This year also marks the end of my 30’s, and that’s kind of a big deal.

I started my insect journey 30 years ago with rearing butterflies when I was 9 years old. In 2019 I closed the circle by going back to my roots. How can you not fall in love with this black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)? So adorable.

I started my insect journey 30 years ago with rearing butterflies when I was 9 years old. In 2019 I closed the circle by going back to my roots. How can you not fall in love with this black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)? So adorable.

For me, the 2010’s were a decade where everything just went to sh*t. Especially during the second half. If my 20’s were all about getting my education in order and relocating out of Israel, during my 30’s came the hard realization that I’m probably better off outside of academia, that my past few relationships were all abusive, and that knowing what you want to do in life can actually get you stuck instead of moving forward. It is amazing that even though it is already buried in my past, I still refer to mid-2016 as the point in time when my life went downhill. Yet I came back from it stronger, more confident, and a better person overall. So I must show some gratitude to the bad experiences I had, after all they made me who I am today. Also looking back, alongside the bad occurrences there were heaps of positive ones, culminating in 2019. Not only growing professionally and developing a unique style, but also finding an audience; Learning to manage myself as a business; Changing locations and making new friends; Learning not only what is right, but also what feels good, and making more of it. These are all things that I am grateful for as I am stepping into the new era. It is important to remember however that there is still much work ahead. I often find myself arguing with friends that I am not famous. It is very flattering, but there is a problem with that statement that I will try to communicate using one of my favorite quotes, actually from a YouTuber: “I am very pleased that you call me a celebrity, I think of myself as barely having a career.”
But you know what I do have? My face on a greeting card.