Readers’ wildlife photos

May 27, 2022 • 8:00 am

Don’t forget to send your photos in! There’s a prize! (You get to show them off to a lot of people).

Today’s batch comes from Daniel Shoskes, whose captions and IDs are indented. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

It’s been a few years since my last submission so I thought I would share a few photos from a recent trip to Belize. Brown Iguana, Toucan (the national bird of Belize), Howler monkeys, nurse sharks and a Roseate Spoonbill. [JAC: not in order, but I trust you won’t be confused.]

 

Readers’ wildlife photos

May 26, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today’s batch comes from regular Tony Eales from Queensland.  His notes and IDs are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

One of my favourite habitats is leaf litter, I think because it is often overlooked by the general public unless you’re a little kid. Something about lying down in the dirt, watching what is going on brings back my childhood wonder at the variety of life all around us.

So here’s a random selection of leaf litter denizens from around Brisbane Queensland.

First a common little jumping spider called Bianor maculatus. These spiders live in open grass and leaf litter. I was out one day hunting for Peacock Jumping Spiders (Maratus sp.) but all I found was dozens of these little guys.

What they lack in colour they make up for in their charming way of constantly being on the move and waving their forelegs around like antenna. To me this seems to be the first steps towards ant-mimicry, which is highly advanced in some tribes of jumping spider.

It did this individual no good however because shortly after I took this shot it was nabbed and consumed by a wolf spider.

This strange beast is a Short-tailed Whip Scorpion, which is a small order of arachnids called Schizomida. There are only fewer than 250 described species and externally they are all very similar. Generally, the largest are 5-6mm long and are found in humid tropical and subtropical leaflitter and soil in Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas. The most common genus in Australia is Brignolizomus and that’s likely what this one is.

They have no eyes, but are active predators using their antenna-form forelimbs to find and investigate prey and their relatively large pedipalps to seize, subdue and grind up their victims.

Another strange beast that is common in the litter is millipedes in the Bristle Millipede order Polyxenida. Probably Polyxenus sp.

And I always love finding these blue-legged beauties hunting through the sticks and leaves. Rhysida nuda, the Northern Blue-Legged centipede.

The leaf litter in Australia is the kingdom of ants. It’s nearly impossible to find anywhere without several species. This is a large Camponotus sp. that I’ve yet to identify.

This ant is perhaps my favourite but they are extremely difficult to photograph as they are always on the move. It is one of the so-called spider ants, Leptomyrmex rothneyi, found in subtropical rainforest leaf litter.

And another favourite is the Painted Strobe Ant, Opisthopsis pictus. These are less common in my area and tend to be in the drier open forests to the north and west. They have an odd stuttering gait that appears to be to confuse predators. It has been observed that they never walk with their strobe gait when inside their nests, only when out in the open.

The subtropical rainforest near where I live has plenty of species of snail but this one is the most spectacular. This is the Giant Panda Snail (Hedleyella falconeri). They are leaf litter specialists and are never found more than half a metre above the ground—unlike many of the other snails that regularly feed on the trunks and leaves of trees.

This is unsurprising given that an adult snail is the size of a tennis ball and a fall from any great height would be potentially fatal. They are under threat from collectors and the pet trade. They are almost impossible to keep in captivity as they require a high humidity and a thriving population of particular fungi on which to feed. Hence many are captured only to die in peoples’ vivariums.

Leaf litter in the open eucalyptus forest has many species of small orthoptera and this is one of my favourites. Macrotona mjobergi the Handsome Macrotona. Macrotona is a genus of spur-throated locusts mostly from Australia often associated with spinifex grasses.

Other common Hymenopterans in the leaf litter are various parasitoid wasps, the most common being velvet ants (Mutilidae), which is what I thought this was at first. However, as it turns out, this is Myrmecomimesis sp., a member of the cuckoo wasp family Chrysididae. Unlike many other cuckoo wasps (but like Mutilids), the females are wingless and spend their time hunting for Phasmid eggs in which to lay their eggs.

Phasmids in Australia produce seed-like eggs that are dropped into the leaf litter. Some have a part to the egg that is meant to be eaten by ants, who take the eggs into the nest where they develop in safety. These wasps run around manically tapping everything with their antenna looking for these eggs before the ants take them.

Another predator, this tiny Carabid beetle, Scopodes sp. hunting through for tiny prey, I’m guessing probably larvae.

One of those potential prey, defending itself with camouflage and silk with leaf-plate armour. One of the case moths in the family Psychidae. Maybe an early instar Lomera sp.

x

 

Readers’ wildlife tales

May 25, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today’s bit of enlightenment comes from Athayde Tonhasca Júnior, and is on a subject that makes some people squeamish. But read on!

‘Thick-headed undertakers in the night of the living dead’

If you watched Alien, you may have jumped out of your seat when the baby monster burst from the astronaut’s chest. But an entomologist may have nodded knowingly: ‘Ah, a human parasitoid!’ Indeed, the screenwriters acknowledged entomological inspirations for coming up with the alien’s life cycle.

Here on Earth, a parasitoid is an insect whose larva develops inside the body of a host (usually another insect), eventually killing it. This type of life history lies between a predator’s and a parasite’s: a predator such as a dragonfly takes several prey and kills them outright, while parasites such as lice, fleas and ticks live off hosts without killing them.

Wasps account for most parasitoid species, but quite a few of them are flies. These include the 800 or so species of thick-headed flies (family Conopidae). A look at one of them explains their common name, although some species look more like wasps or bees than flies. They are also known as bee-grabbers or conopids.

Fig. 1. A conopid fly © Fir0002, Wikipedia.

Thick-headed flies hang around flowers looking for a sip of nectar. But a female may have other ideas: she may be waiting for an opportunity to lay her eggs, which is bad news for a bee or wasp.

It goes like this: an unsuspecting bumble bee worker approaches a flower. A female conopid closes in and grabs the bee in mid-air. Still afloat, she pries open the bumble bee’s abdominal segments with her theca, which is a pad-like, hardened structure at the end of her abdomen. Sometimes attacker and victim fall to the ground, but the outcome is the same; the female fly lays a single egg inside the bumble bee and lets it go.

Fig 2. A female conopid with her menacing theca clearly visible © Hectonichus, Wikipedia.

The drama is over within seconds, and both insects fly away. The fly will stalk another quarry. But the bumble bee is done for.

The egg hatches and the conopid larva develops inside the bumble bee, consuming her innards. But the larva does not penetrate the host’s thorax, thus leaving her flight muscles intact. The bee carries on with her life, feeding and taking nectar back to her nest, although less and less efficiently as the parasitoid grows. Within 10 to 12 days her abdomen is completely taken up by the larva, which has nothing more to eat. The bee dies and falls to the ground (if you find a dead bumble bee with a swollen abdomen, conopid parasitism could be the causa mortis). The larva pupates and overwinters inside the bee’s body, and the adult emerges in the following year.

Fig. 3. A conopid puparium inside the abdomen of a Centris analis bee © Moure-Oliveira et al., 2019. The Science of Nature 106. 10.1007/s00114-019-1634-9.

Some conopids increase the chances of their pupae making it through the winter with a trick that may seem macabre to human eyes: they induce their bumblebee hosts to dig their own graves. In North America, bumblebees parasitized by the conopid Physocephala tibialis bury themselves in the ground just before popping the clogs. This grave-digging behaviour does not make a difference for the bee, but the parasitoid pupa is sheltered from cold and dehydration during winter months, and less exposed to pathogens and its own parasites. Hibernation in the soil also promotes larger and healthier adult flies.

Fig. 4. The grave-digging inducer Physocephala tibialis © Beatriz Moisset, Wikipedia.

But bees don’t take it lying down. When parasitism pressure becomes too high, some species reproduce later in the year to avoid peaks of conopid populations. And some bumblebees – like many other insects – secrete melanin, which encapsulates and suffocates internal parasites. It is estimated that melanisation kills up to 30% of conopid larvae.

Fig. 5. A larva with encapsulated wasp eggs © Nathan T. Mortimer, Illinois State University.

After a parasitized bumblebee has dug its burial pit somewhere in America, a cold, drizzly night falls over the land. All is quiet. Until in an apiary nearby, one of the resident honey bees (Apis mellifera) does something odd: she emerges from the hive and flies towards a streetlight glowing faintly in the distance. A few of her sisters follow suit, although some of them fall to the ground and begin walking around in circles, apparently confused. None of these night wanderers will ever return to the hive; soon they will all be dead. They have been victims of a parasitoid ominously named the zombie fly (Apocephalus borealis).

Fig. 6. A female zombie fly © Core et al., 2012. PLoS One 7(1): e29639.

This fly belongs to one of the largest insect groups, the family Phoridae. They comprise about 4,000 described species, but specialists believe this number represents a fraction of the total. Phorids look like fruit flies with arched backs, and when spooked they run away before taking flight. Such behaviours explain their common names: hump-backed flies or scuttle flies. They are everywhere, and have a variety of feeding habits such as saprophagy (they eat decaying organic matter), predation, and herbivory. One species is a serious pest of cultivated mushrooms.

Two groups of Phorid flies, the genera Pseudacteon and Apocephalus, are found mostly in South America and are charmingly known as ant-decapitating flies. A typical species approaches an ant from behind and uses its powerful, hooked ovipositor to inject an egg in the victim’s head or thorax.

Fig. 7. The hooked ovipositor of Pseudacteon curvatus, a decapitating fly © Sanford Porter, Wikipedia.

The resulting larva moves to the ant’s head, where it feeds on hemolymph (‘blood’) and tissues. Eventually, the larva consumes all the head’s contents, causing the ant to wander around erratically. In two to four weeks, the larva is ready to pupate. It releases enzymes that dissolve the tissues attaching the ant’s head to its body. The head falls off, and the fly pupates inside it before emerging as an adult. These flies are efficient ant killers, and therefore are promising biological control agents against invasive species such as fire ants (Solenopsis spp.).

Fig. 8. A) An ant-decapitating fly (Pseudacteon sp.) preparing to inject an egg into the thorax of a fire ant. B) A decapitated ant with a fly maggot consuming the contents of its head © Porter & Gilbert, 2005. International Symposium on Biological Control of Arthropods.

The zombie fly does not decapitate honey bees, but much of its life history is similar to those of its tropical relatives. It lays its eggs in the abdomen of the bee. The larvae feed on hemolymph and flight muscles, and when they are done, they leave the host to pupate outside. Up to 13 larvae have been observed coming out of a dead honey bee.

Fig. 9. A zombie fly ovipositing into the abdomen of a honey bee worker © Core et al., 2012. PLoS One 7(1): e29639.

Fig. 10. Two fly larvae leaving the host at the junction of the head and thorax © Core et al., 2012. PLoS One 7(1): e29639.

We don’t know why a parasitized honey bee abandons her nest, especially at night, to wander on a suicidal excursion. Her neurological wiring may have been highjacked by the fly, inducing the bee to seek a safer place for the development of the parasitoid’s eggs and larvae. The bee may have been forced out by her healthy sisters; or she left the colony on her own, acting on an altruistic instinct to avoid an epidemic.

Fig. 11. Four zombie fly pupae surrounding the dead honey bee from which they emerged © John Hafernik, University of Florida Entomology and Nematology Department.

The zombie fly is native to North America, where it has long been known to parasitize bumble bees and wasps. Then in 2009, there was an alarming discovery: the fly was also attacking honey bees in parts of the country. And there was more bad news to come. The zombie fly harbours the fungus Nosema ceranae and the Deformed Wing Virus, which are serious threats to honey bees. Researchers don’t know yet whether the zombie fly plays a role in the transmission of those pathogens to bees, but the possibility is worrying.

Conopids and zombie flies are some of the many parasites and parasitoids capable of changing hosts’ behaviour for their own benefit. Some wasps turn ladybirds into paralysed living shields over their eggs, and some fungi make ants climb up plants so they can release spores into the air. Perhaps the most notorious case is the effect of toxoplasmosis cells on rats and mice. Infected rodents become attracted to cat’s urine and are less likely to hide. This altered behaviour is a death wish: they became easy prey for cats, in which toxoplasmosis cells complete their development. Carl Zimmer discussed many other examples in his excellent Parasite Rex; you can read about some of them here.

Parasitism seems gruesome and cruel. Even Darwin was dismayed by it, as he expressed in one of his letters: ‘I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [ a group of parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.’* But such anthropomorphism is misguided and biased. Parasitoids, predators and parasites are regulators of the natural world: about 10% of all known insect species are parasitoids, although specialists believe this figure is a huge underestimation. They prevent excessive population growth, including of agricultural pests and disease vectors. Parasitism helps shape biodiversity and ecosystems, so it is not intrinsically bad or good. It is a characteristic of life on our planet.

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* This famous quotation inspired a team of ichneumonid specialists to propose in 2019 ‘Darwin wasps’ as a vernacular name for this group of insects, so that they may become better known and appreciated.

Fig. 12. A Darwin wasp © Charles J. Sharp, Wikipedia.

Readers’ wildlife video

May 24, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today I present one video from reader Douglas Swartzendruber in Colorado. If you think you’ve seen a lot of geese, well, here are a lot more. And these are residents!

Douglas’s caption:

These are some of the 5,000 Canada geese that are non-migrating residents, and there have been calls for more harvesting

Readers’ wildlife photos and videos

May 23, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today we have a subject not often seen here: underwater animals. The photographer is Peter Klaver, and the IDs, movies, and descriptions are indented. (Don’t forget to send in your photos; see the left sidebar for instructions.)

Earlier this year I had a scuba diving trip in the Maldives, which is a true scuba divers’ paradise. Pictures and video do not fully do it justice, especially if the water is a bit murky, as it sometimes was. But they give at least some impression of the kinds of things you see underwater there.
The main prize for us was schools of manta rays (I don’t know if we saw Manta birostris or Manta alfredi) that were circling above cleaning stations, where they come to let cleaner fish eat parasites off them. There are some video clips of them here, here, and here.

Bigger still than manta rays are whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, the biggest fish in the ocean. We briefly saw a smaller one in the distance, possibly a juvenile, of less than 10 meters.

Nurse sharks, Ginglymostoma cirratum, were not at all shy. There were plenty of opportunities to take photos and video of them from close up.

Sometimes they picked spots on the bottom right next to us to lie down.

There are some video clips of nurse sharks here and here.
Yellowtail snappers, Lutjanus lutjanus, often come in very big shoals.

I don’t know the name of this fish:

We saw different kinds or moray eels; there are video clips of them here and here.

Lion fish, of the genus Pterios, are common sight in tropical reef dives. Unless you see them near the surface under bright sun light, you see them as black and white. The red colors in the photo below are due to the use of flash.

Turtles are also a common sight in reef dives. There are some video clips of them here and here.

In some places the bottom is covered in hard corals.

The full collection of photos and video from the trip is at http://dutsm1217.tudelft.net/Maldives2022/ .

Readers’ wildlife photos

May 22, 2022 • 8:15 am

Sunday is John Avise Bird Photo Day, and today he has some rarities. John’s text and IDs are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them. There will be two more parts to this series:

Rare-Bird Alert, Part 1

Like many of my fellow birders in Southern California, I am signed up to receive email notifications of when and exactly where an exceptionally rare or vagrant species has been spotted in Orange County.  Whenever possible, I immediately drop what I am doing and head out to try to find the special bird.

This week’s post starts a three-part mini-series on rare (for Orange County) birds that I have photographed during such excursions.  The photos are in a random order (much the way that new reports arrive on the hotline).  Likewise, many other places in North America and around the world have local hotlines for rare birds in their respective areas, and such community hotlines are an indispensable way for birders to spread the news about exceptional avian finds.   [And of course it should be noted that some of the species that are rarities in southern California may be rather common elsewhere.]

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), nonbreeding plumage:

Sabine’s Gull (Xemi sabini), juvenile:

Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonia):

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) juvenile:

Black Scoter (Melanitta nigra), female:

Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys), female:

Ross’s Goose (Chen rossii), juvenile:

Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons):

Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus):

Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis):

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena), transitional plumage:

Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus):

Readers’ wildlife photos

May 19, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today’s batch comes from ecologist Susan Harrison, whose notes and IDs are indented. Click on the photos to enlarge them, and don’t forget to keep those pictures coming in!

The northern end of California’s Redwood Coast, from Smith River to the Klamath River, Feb. 11-13, 2022

Calm harbor waters, Crescent City:

Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator:

Horned Grebe, Podiceps auratus:

Pelagic Cormorant, Phalacrocorax pelagicus:

Common Loon, Gavia immer:

 

Rocky shores and beaches, near the mouth of the Smith River:

Gulls (Larus), of which expert birders saw six species in this flock: Western (L. occidentalis), California (L. californicus), Herring (L. smithsonianus), Glaucous-winged (L. glaucescens), Short-Billed (L. brachyrhynchus) and Icelandic (L. glaucoides):

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus:

Surf Scoter, Melanitta perspicillata:

Sanderling, Calidris alba, showing why it was given the Old English name sand-yrðling, “sand-ploughman” (per Wikipedia):

 

Redwood forest, near the mouth of the Klamath River:

Northern Pygmy Owl, Glaucidium californicum:

Northern Pygmy Owl eating an Alligator Lizard (Elgaria sp.) in swirling coastal fog:

Varied Thrush, Ixoreus naevius:

Salamander, Ensatina sp., one of the remarkable ‘ring species’ complex studied by the late David Wake and colleagues (wakelab.berkeley.edu):

Cultural artifacts around Crescent City:

Shell middens (white scatter in foreground) left by Tolowa people beside a now-vanished village at Point St. George; this is the third westernmost continental point in the lower 48 states:

Battery Point Lighthouse at Crescent City Harbor, built in 1856 and still flashing its Fresnel lens:

Lighthouse Jetty, a 3,400-foot rock and concrete breakwater at Crescent City Harbor, built in 1957:

Readers’ wildlife photos

May 18, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today we have an assortment of diverse photos by Tony Eales from Queensland. His captions and IDs are indented, and please click on the photos to enlarge them.

By the way, if you have good photos you’d like to send me, see the link on the left sidebar of this site, “How to send me wildlife photos.”

I came across this Aseroe rubra Anemone Stinkhorn Fungus the other night. This fungus is relatively common here in eastern Australia but by daytime they have grown into a 100mm high tree-like shape with deep red tentacles and the light brown part collapsed into a dark brown-black goo. They start out as a white egg shape emerging from rotting mulch that then bursts revealing the tentacles. You can see the remains of the egg in the photo.

I don’t often photograph vertebrates but I’ve seen a few cool ones of late. This one is  or Red-bellied Black Snake. They are specialists of frogs and smaller reptiles. They are one of the more common snakes in my area but had their numbers reduced by the spread of the introduced Cane Toad (Rhinella marina), which is highly poisonous. Red-bellied Blacks are dangerously venomous but reluctant biters, even so, being very common they are responsible for a few bites every year.

For their size their venom is among the least dangerous of the Australian elapids with the only recorded deaths being early on and of questionable identification.  My most frequent encounters with them is to see the tail rapidly disappearing into the bush. It was good to have a calm subject to photograph.

Another lovely snake I found recently is Cacophis squamulosus, the Golden Crowned Snake—a rainforest specialist living in the leaf litter hunting insects and small reptiles. Again I normally see only a flash disappearing into the leaf litter, but this one was out on a fence at night time and I managed a few snaps before it retreated.

Another exciting find for me was this Lycid beetle larva. The larvae of these beetles are some of the strangest animals I’ve seen. I have no idea of the species and adult lycids are very similar looking to one another so I have a devil of a time getting them to species level as well.

But by far my favourite find recently was the wonderful Ordgarius magnificus AKA the Magnificent Bolas Spider. These are large spiders, the abdomen being about the size of the end of your thumb.  Their eyes are very strange, being perched on top of a thin red tubercule in the middle of their large cephalothorax.

By day they hide in a retreat composed of leaves and twigs lashed together [below] with a few strong web lines. Most people only see their (up to a dozen) 5 cm-long, dangling egg sacs, each containing up to 600 eggs.

Not only are they large and colourful, but their predatory behaviour is extraordinary. They hang at night from a simple web and create a dangling thread with large globs of sticky glue dotted along it. They exude a pheromone that attracts the male moths of one particular species. When they detect the vibrations of an approaching moth they swing the sticky bolus around and around which catches the moth. I am reliably informed that the vibrations from a nearby diesel engine running will also elicit this predatory behaviour.

The  hideout:

I found this one hunting, but my light disturbed it and it reeled in and reconsumed its bolus unfortunately so I did not get shots of the hunting behaviour.

Andrzej’s ode to Karolina

May 17, 2022 • 9:00 am

Karolina and her mother Natasza have returned to Kyiv from their sojourn in Dobrzyn, where they stayed two months after fleeing from Ukraine. Andrzej put together a paean to the child (Andrzej loves kids). He wrote it in Polish (I’ll put his original text below the fold), and Malgorzata translated it into English (below). And there are a bunch of pictures.

The update is that two days ago Karolina and her mom returned to Ukraine to be with the father and the other son, who is twenty. Reports are that everyone is safe.

Karolina

An almost eight-year-old girl, in the atmosphere of panic and terror of war, landed for less than two months in a place completely alien to her world. I remember the uncertain look on her face when she got out of the car, and the first day in the garden when the sight of an airplane in the sky caused her a sudden fear. These fears quickly dissipated, though they could be seen in her drawings and in her anger at the sight of Putin’s photo when she saw it while looking over my shoulder as I read the news on the computer. It seemed as if she had forgotten her nightmares overnight.

I knew it wasn’t true, but it wasn’t a constant fear anymore, and Karolina’s love of cats overrode everything else. She was fully bilingual in Russian and Ukrainian, so the third language of Polish entered her mind at an impressive pace. We played with the language and later I spoke only Polish to Karolina. Sometimes she glared at me and said, without a hint of a foreign accent, “I don’t understand.” She came to a house where cats, flowers and people are photographed (although the latter are the least numerous—unless they are children). I wonder what will remain in her memory of this short stay, and what will affect her, even though she will likely forget most of it? I’ll never know.

Like all children, she loves absurdities and paradoxes, so I can hear her amused voice as she screams “Andrzej” (with mock indignation) when I tell her that the frog has eaten a hippo.

Below are a handful of photos from this stay, some taken by me, others by our Paulina. (It’s easy to recognize, because Paulina’s photos are always better.)

Click “read more” to see Andzej’s original text in Polish:

Continue reading “Andrzej’s ode to Karolina”

Chicago sunsets

May 17, 2022 • 8:00 am

Two evenings ago I took a panoramic view of Chicago from my crib (the pano feature makes the downtown, just left of center, look very small), and decided to post it. (I recently discovered the “panoramic” feature on both my iPhone and my point-and-shoot. This is with the iPhone camera, which is surprisingly good (it’s the one on my newish iPhone 13). Note the rainbow on the right!

I must have had precognition, bcause the next morning I got another sunset photo of Chicago, this time taken by reader John Egloff from Indiana. His notes are indented and the photo is below. Click both photos to enlarge them.

I was at the Annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in Chesterton, Indiana this weekend.  Chesterton is about 35 miles southeast of Chicago across Lake Michigan as the crow flies.  From my vantage point in Chesterton on the shore of Lake Michigan there was a spectacular sunset over Chicago on Saturday, so I took a few photos with my pocket camera.  Since I know you occasionally post photos of Chicago, I thought you might be interested in the snapshot of the Chicago skyline that I’ve attached.

No filter of any kind was used for this photo, and the coloration has not been digitally enhanced in any way.   Keep in mind, however, this photo was taken through 35 miles of atmospheric distortion.