Listen Up

Katydid Listening

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Q:  Why don’t katydids wear long-sleeve shirts?  A:  Because their ears are on their arms.

Inverted Invertebrate

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Found another mantis today — I guess a few are still hanging on.  She was missing one of her prey-catching forelegs — maybe in an encounter with a bird, maybe in a romantic bout with a male? — but was otherwise undamaged.  I had just built a light box out of foam-core to take some pictures in a controlled setting, so she was my first subject.  I tried to place in her the center of the floor of the box, but she wouldn’t stay put — then I hit on the idea of giving her something to cling to.  I let her climb onto a ruler that happened to be out on the table, stuck it in a glass, and she settled down immediately and started grooming herself while hanging upside-down.  Even a big insect like a mantis is barely bothered by gravity.  I could have flipped the photos in post, but since her angle of repose didn’t bother her, it didn’t bother me.

I learned to use a light box at “Bugshot,” the macro photography workshop I attended in September in Belize.  If you can get critters to hold still, it’s a great way to control lighting and get some really nice shots using bounced light from multiple off-camera flashes.  By the way, another tidbit I learned at the workshop is that the dark spots in some insects’ compound eyes, that seem to follow you no matter where you move, are “pseudopupils.”  They’re the manifestation of an optical effect, not actual eye pupils.  The best explanation I heard was that if you imagine the compound eye as a whole bunch of hollow tubes packed together, the pseudopupil appears whenever you’re looking directly into a cluster of tubes — in essence, you’re looking down straight into the depths of the tubes, where light is absorbed, whereas other parts of the eye are off-axis and light reflects back out.  You can see a pretty clear example of it in the last photo, which I cropped to emphasize the compound eye.

Last Mantid Standing

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I was surprised to see this female mantis on our front porch today.  (The large size and blue “lip” indicate it’s a Bordered mantis, Stagmomantis limbata.)  They’re one-season insects, so she’s pretty elderly at this point.  I put her in the garden so she wouldn’t be so conspicuous to hunting birds.  Usually these insects are either green or brown, but they can change color when they molt, and sometimes add yellow or pink or even orange-y hues.  I think this old gal has great fashion sense — the cream and pink colors give off a real 1950s vibe, especially when set off by her turquoise-blue lipstick.  Very mid-century.


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In celebration of Halloween, two photos from my recent trip to Belize.  Both are of insects which were parasitized by a Cordyceps fungus. (In the case of the ant, I am reliably informed that the fungus is an almost-certainly-undescribed species of Ophiocordyceps.)  The fungus attacks the insect, keeping it alive long enough to actually cause a change in its behavior — zombie-fying the hapless victim not to seek human brains (thankfully), but to crawl to a particular exposed spot with appropriate conditions of humidity and temperature (for the fungus, not the insect), where the insect then latches on, dies, and becomes the distribution point for the fungus’s spores.  The sphinx moth was, to me, particularly dramatic.  Now, if I had seen, say, a goat that had met a similar fate… but no.   I’m sure this fungus doesn’t attack vertebrates.  But why do I suddenly have an urge to climb onto my roof?  And why is my skin so itchy…?

Black Widow Spiders Are On The Menu

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At least that’s what I’ve read.  An alligator lizard in our garden — an adult with a full tail, unusual because more often than not they’ve re-grown their tail after voluntarily losing the original tip to a bird or cat.  This one wasn’t moving too quickly on a cool morning, and seemed to be looking at me rather skeptically before finally moving off.

Tarantula Fishing Is Not The Same As Fly Fishing, But Still Fun

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While walking at night on a nature trail in the jungle near the lodge, a tarantula scurried through the beam from my headlamp, off the path and into the leaves.  I knelt down to lift the leaves to look for it, and discovered it had actually retreated into its burrow.  Now, two days before, a man knowledgeable about such things, one of the other people at the photo workshop (Roy Dunn, a great guy and a wonderful photographer, you should check out his amazing hummingbird photos —,  “fished” for a tarantula living under the cement slab front stoop of a house.  He used a very slender twig, and gently wiggled it into the tarantula’s burrow until the spider grabbed it.  Then he slowly pulled the twig out with the tarantula clamped on, and voila, photo-op.  So I thought I’d try the same trick.  My son Thomas was coming up the trail behind me, so while he aimed his camera, I found a twig.  It worked like a charm.  The spider didn’t come all the way out, but enough for a couple of photos.  I took this one when Thomas had a turn luring the spider out.  Fathers and sons, fishing together… it was  a Hallmark moment.

Army ants ripped my flesh

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One of two species of army ants we saw in Belize.  According to Alex Wild, one of the entomologists who ran the photo workshop, this is Eciton hamatum.  This is a soldier caste — evolved for chomping vertebrates like me, who might attack the colony, although god knows why I would do that.  The soldiers are much larger than the regular workers who do the raiding — in the case of this colony, we found them in mid-attack on a group of fire ants, so in terms of rooting interest from an admittedly selfish, two-legged-primate perspective, I say, go army ants.  Anyway, Alex Wild “gave” me this soldier, and she stayed clamped to my finger for two hours.  I took pictures of her, went to lunch, then took more pictures, before she finally bailed off.  It doesn’t hurt as much as it looks.  Honest.  If you’ve always wanted pierced ears but don’t trust that teenager-manned booth at the mall, just get a couple of army ant soldiers.  I’m pretty sure it’d be just as effective and at least as sanitary.

Convergent evolution, anyone?

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I recently returned from “Bugshot,” a week-long macro photography workshop in Belize (stayed at Caves Branch Lodge — highly recommended).  This was one of my favorite creatures from the trip.  I spotted it on the forest floor in some rotting wood.  It looks like a big, pink-orange pill bug (or roly-poly, to most kids), but it’s not related to pill bugs — it’s a (very short) millipede.  Pill bugs are actually crustaceans (like crabs and lobsters), whereas this critter is in the group with millipedes and centipedes.  According to information from an earlier workshop in the same place in Belize, it’s a Sphaeriodesmid millipede, a type of “pill millipede.”  This one was not quite as big as a marble, but much larger than a pillbug. The fact that it can roll into a ball like a pill bug is just evolution arriving at a similar game-plan in two independent lineages.

Nighthawk at the Diner

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Female mantis on our porch light, waiting for a moth.  Or a male.  Either way, she eats.  Nikon D800, 105mm, 1/40th @ f/11, ISO 400.

Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me


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Venus flytrap in our kitchen window, enjoying a meal.  Flies check in, but they don’t check out…  Nikon D800, 105mm, 1/00th @ f/20, ISO 400