Readers’ wildlife photos

February 15, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today’s lovely photos come from Tony Eales in Queensland, and are a potpourri of plants and animals. His captions are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

I was recently in tropical north Queensland for work and decided to take a couple of days ‘time off in lieu’ that was owed me and visit the world heritage rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands.

Oh my ceiling cat! I managed to tick off three of my life-time bucket-list organisms in two days, along with many other amazing species which I’ll send in another email.

First the setting. I spent my days searching around the Lake Eacham National Park. The centrepiece of the park is a crater lake in an extinct volcanic caldera but I was told about an unsigned track down a closed road that went into the forest to some cascades on Wrights Creek that runs between Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine.

At night I went to Curtain Fig National Park, which is a small patch of primary forest just outside the little town of Yungaburra.

It was in this little forest that I saw my bucket-list creatures.

A Boyd’s Forest Dragon (Lophosaurus boydii). I was searching through hanging leaves at night looking for insects and spiders to photograph when I found myself almost eyeball to eyeball with this beautiful lizard.

Lucky too, for during the day they have a habit of moving around the tree trunk such that it is always between you and the lizard, thus you often pass them without ever knowing they are there.

The last night I was there I stayed in the forest on dusk, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos (Dendrolagus lumholtzi) that I knew lived there. I gave up and went back to town to sit by the Platypus viewing platform hoping I’d have better luck with the monotremes. There, right beside the main road in a tree next to the bridge, was a tree kangaroo.

And the most exciting for me though perhaps not for everyone, I saw my first Velvet Worm. I have a real thing for small phylum. These creatures have fascinated me ever since I learned of them in high school biology then later when they were featured in David Attenborough’s 2005 documentary Life in the Undergrowth. Now I have finally seen one I am not disappointed. They are amazing to watch move but I hope one day to see one take down prey.

This one is in the family Peripatopsidae or Southern Velvet Worms—the only Velvet Worm family in Australia.

I missed out on seeing the famous Stalk-eyed Flies in Borneo that are in the family Diopsidae. However, at Curtain Fig NP I was able to ‘next-best-thing’ it with Stalk-eyed Signal Flies (Achias sp.) in the family Platystomatidae. I was very pleased.

World’s smallest reptile (and amniote) described: a VERY tiny chameleon

January 29, 2021 • 9:15 am

A new paper in Scientific Reports, which you can access below, describes the world’s smallest known reptile, a miniscule chameleon found in a small area of Madagascar, and named Brookesia nana. Indeed, it’s the smallest of all known amniotes, a group that includes reptiles, birds, and mammals. Two individuals of this species these were caught in 2012—a male and a female—and were just described as members of the new species.

First, a photo, just to show you how small it is. Below is an adult male, the “holotype” specimen (the one preserved individual used to characterize and represent the entire species). It sits comfortably atop a fingertip.

Photo by Frank Glaw, the paper’s first author

The size of this bad boy: its snout-to-vent length is 13.5 mm (0.53 inches!), and total length including the tail is 21.6 mm (0.85 inches). It’s about half an inch long: get out a ruler to see how small that really is! The female specimen, captured around the same time, is a bit bigger: 19.2 mm snout-vent length and 28.9 mm total (0.76 inches and 1.13 inches, respectively).  Here are a few more pictures of both specimens (sadly, they killed both individuals to preserve them):

Caption from paper: Brookesia nana sp. nov. in life. (A–C) male holotype (ZSM 1660/2012). (D, E) female paratype (UADBA-R/FGZC 3752).

Click on the screenshot below to see the paper, or get the pdf here. The full reference is at the bottom, and there’s a short popular precis at IFL Science.

The species resides in a group (“clade”) of other miniature chameleons in the genus, with none longer than 30 mm total. The species name nana comes from the same Greek-Latin root that gives us “nano”, meaning “small.” The authors also did DNA analysis to place the species within its group, but we needn’t go into that, as the results are useful only to herpetologists.

The interesting thing about this species, as well as its relatives, is that they’re tiny and also extremely geographically restricted. They’re all found in montane (“mountainous”) rainforest. Here’s a distribution map of the related species in Madagascar, and you can see that no species was found outside of a range of about 100 km (60 miles). B. nana (yellow star) was found in only one place, and there may be very few individuals in the species. Most of the species are likely to be endangered: the authors note that the habitat of B. nana (now in a supposedly “protected area”) is being nibbled away by human depredation through slash-and-burn agriculture. If these things can breed in captivity, they might get a few in, for Madagascar is known for the loss of endemic species due to human disturbance.

(From paper): Map of northern Madagascar, showing the distribution of species of the subgenus Evoluticauda (known as Brookesia minima group) in this region (only showing records verified by molecular data5,10,14). Note that B. dentata, B. exarmata, and B. ramanantsoai occur further south and are not included in the map. Orange (dry forest) and green (rainforest) show remaining primary vegetation in 2003–2006.

All of the relatives of B. nana have females that are larger than the males, which is unusual for reptiles.  B. nana, like its relatives, is an insect eater, and is probably arboreal (lives in trees), though the latter isn’t clear from the paper, for collecting information isn’t detailed.

A few other features of this group deserve mention. Unlike many chameleons, they lack head ornaments and spines or tubercules on their backs.  Why? We don’t know.  We also have no idea why individuals are so small, as their habitats don’t seem to particularly favor the evolution of miniaturization. It’s possible, but unlikely, that the two individuals they found happen to be extraordinarily small specimens, and not close to the species average. However, that would be a remarkable coincidence since they were found several days apart and were both sexually mature.

[Addendum by GCM: Brookesia nana may not be the world’s smallest lizard species, although it’s at least close. Reptiles have fairly indeterminate growth, so with a sample size of one of each sex, it’s hard to know what the maximum size is. I know a gecko species from the British Virgin Islands that has a maximum snout-vent length of 16 mm in males and 18 mm in females; I don’t know the species’ minimum size at sexual maturity. Body size in lizards is often reported as the maximum size known, which of course has problems as a statistic because it’s dependent on the outliers. To overcome this, Tom Schoener, in his studies of body size evolution and ecology of West Indian anoles, used to report the mean of the largest third of the sample as his body size statistic. With a sample of 1 per sex, this can’t yet be usefully done for the new species.]

One trait that may be comprehensible is the relatively large genitals of male B. nana. Like all lizards and snakes, males have a “hemipenis”, or bifurcated penis. Individuals mate by using only one of the two sides in each mating, alternating between matings. Because the female of this species is larger than the male by a substantial amount, nearly 50% (again, we don’t know why this disparity exists), the male has to have a relatively longer equipment to transfer sperm to the female.   Here’s the male with the right hemipenis sticking out:

And closeups of the extruded left hemipenis, which is itself bifurcated. So we have the tiniest reptile known, one smaller than any other amniote, but also a well-endowed one. It’s ineffably cute (blunt snout, big eyes—all the traits that appeal to humans in baby animals), but also endangered. Right now we know very little about its ecology and behavior, though we know where it sits phylogenetically within its group of relatives. And we may not know a lot more before the species goes extinct.

h/t: Ursula, Greg


Glaw, F., Köhler, J., Hawlitschek, O. et al. 2021. Extreme miniaturization of a new amniote vertebrate and insights into the evolution of genital size in chameleons. Sci Rep 11, 2522.

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 18, 2021 • 8:00 am

We have diverse photos from reader Tom MacPherson today. Tom’s captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

Here are some pictures I took during a pre-pandemic trip to south-west Florida in February, 2020.

Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga). It made me think of a common loon in formal evening attire.

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia).  These owls are protected in Florida, which is why the burrows were roped off. I don’t know who installs the ropes and short perch, but they all have them. If they move onto your vacant lot, you can’t build until they willingly move out. However, apparently it is legal to dig a fancy burrow down the block on someone else’s vacant lot to entice them to move out. They seem habituated to humans wandering by. They don’t hide or leave, they just watch you carefully. They also gave me a fright a couple of times while I was out stargazing after dark, soundlessly gliding by three or four feet off the ground.

Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger).  Notice the elongated lower half of the bill, used to feed while skimming low over the water.

Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus). The Elegant Terns would gather in a group on the beach right beside a group of Black Skimmers, but the two groups never seemed to mingle.

Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea)

Cardinal airplant (Tillandsia fasciculate). This is an epiphyte, described in Wikipedia as “an organism that grows on the surface of a plant and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain …. or from debris accumulating around it.”

Florida Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea). The Strangler Fig starts as an epiphyte, but once it gets a root down to the ground, it takes over, wrapping around the host tree and killing it before developing into a large tree itself.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea Herodias). This particular specimen of this famously patient species ran out of patience and started edging towards the center of the pond where a few small fish were splashing around. He better be careful. Bonus activity – spot the alligator!

Brown anole (Anolis sagrei). These little guys were all over the place, and tended to pose perfectly until I got a millimeter too close, and then they would dart off at warp speed and disappear. This is the final of about 20 pictures I took as I slowly crept closer. Digital photography is very freeing!

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 11, 2021 • 8:00 am

Please send in your photos, lest this feature disappear.

Today we have the second part of reader Peter’s photos of the Galápagos and its fauna. (Part 1 is here.) There are no notes save this introductory caption, but surely you can identify many of the species!

Years ago I visited the Galapagos Island and enjoyed it immensely. Here are a few of the photos that my wife and I took. I’m sure your readers will be familiar with them all.

Readers’ wildlife photos

December 28, 2020 • 8:00 am

We’ll need new batches of wildlife photos for the New Year, so I ask that you send in your good ones. Thanks.

Today we have some photos of animals from the Galapagos, sent in by reader Peter. His notes:

Years ago I visited the Galapagos Island and enjoyed it immensely. Here are a few of the photos that my wife and I took. I’m sure your readers will be familiar with them all.
How many can you identify? (Click photos to enlarge them.)



Readers’ wildlife photos

November 17, 2020 • 8:00 am

We have a comfortable backlog of photos now, but you should still send in your good ones lest ye forget.

Today’s batch, lovely photos of invertebrates (with a bonus mammal and reptile), comes from reader Bruce Budris. As he says about locations, “These are mostly taken in upstate NY (Columbia County).  The two exceptions are the one I note that is taken at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA, really only 20 mins. away from us, and the snake pic, which is from Innisfree Garden about 30 or so miles south of us in Dutchess County.”

I’ve put Bruce’s IDs and notes in indents.

We’ve already had our first snow and a number of below freezing nights, but this common drone fly (Erastalis tenax) is still at it on the last flowers we have left (marigolds). This is a species of hoverfly whose body structure and coloring mimics a common honeybee.
Also in the hoverfly family, this is most likely a female migrant hoverfly (Syrphus ribesii) whose coloring mimics a yellowjacket wasp.
And a third type of hoverfly: The oblique stripetail (Allograpta obliqua), which also shares a mimicry of yellow jackets.
The great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus), a cousin of the cicada-killer wasp, is probably the largest wasp in this part of the world.   They can usually be found dragging their prey (crickets and such) back to their in-ground burrows.  Golden diggers also seem to like the nectar of swamp milkweed plants.  This one happened to be photographed at the nearby Berkshire Botanical Garden, but I’ve found them to similarly visit the swamp milkweed plants in our garden.  Despite their appearance, golden diggers are very unaggressive, although I noticed the patrons of the garden that summer afternoon were giving their nesting area a wide berth.
The Tomentose burying beetle (Nicrophorus tomentosus) is a type of carrion beetle.  The club at the tip of their antennae is an olfactory organ used to find decaying carcasses, and once found, the mated beetles will bury the dead animal and use it to feed their brood.
The recycler of the previous photo (Nicrophorus tomentosus) is itself being recycled by a horde of red whirligig mites (Genus Anystis).
A beautiful yellow swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) drinking from a Mexican sunflower and another resting on a basil leaf.
A large ferruginous tiger crane fly (Nephrotoma ferruginea) hangs in wait.
Bonus raptor:  A Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) that frequently stalks my bird feeder in search of unsuspecting sparrows.
Bonus snake:  While we were attempting to photograph a massive orb weaver spider at the beautiful Innisfree Garden in Dutchess County, NY, this garter snake (Thamnophis sp.) slithered over to check on the proceedings.


Readers’ wildlife photos

October 10, 2020 • 8:00 am

Get those wildlife photos, in, folks! (And remember, landscapes and general high-quality photos count as “wildlife”.) Today’s photos come from Kevin Elsken, who lives in Arkansas. I’ve indented his captions and IDs.

So many of your reader submitted wildlife photos are so remarkable and so well done, I use them as aspirational motivation for the photos I take. Hopefully these photos will be of interest to you and your readers.

The first three photos are of everyone’s favorite black and yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia. Truly a gorgeous animal, though I wouldn’t want to be a small critter on the receiving ends of those fangs.

The second spider I think is a Mabel Orchard Orb WeaverLeucauge argyrobapta. Much smaller than the yellow garden spider, but almost iridescent and gleams in the sunlight. Loves to build webs in and about the compost piles—great place to catch a fly or two.

The last spider I would like to share is the Hentz’s (sometimes called Spotted) Orb WeaverNeoscona crucifera. These spiders become very active in late summer and are nocturnal, so I thought I would share photos that depict both their magnificent orb webs and their propensity to scare the beejeebers out of you at night.

On to the snake portion of the program. The first one is a RIng-necked snakeDiadophis punctatus. My brother spotted this guy on a recent bike ride, and let me tell you he may look tough but this guy was all of about 2 inches long.  According to Wikipedia these snakes are secretive and nocturnal (my 82 year old father in law has lived here his entire life and had never seen one).  While they are believed to be abundant, the author of the Wikipedia article suggests detailed research on this snake is lacking.

The second snake will get your attention: the Eastern Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix. This two-foot-long specimen was lazing in the middle of a country road on a different bike ride. Again according to Wikipedia, these snakes are not aggressive and their bites rarely fatal (I will take their word on the matter).

If I may indulge you with a cat story (I know, twisting your arm!):

It was the second day of July, 2019. I was sitting in our backyard reading when I became aware that the robins were raising a fuss – something was bothering them. It was then I became aware of another sound. . . mew, mew, mew, mew.  I peeked through the fence and you can guess what I saw. I called my wife and after a little work and few bleeding cuts, we brought this guy home:

He appeared to be only 5 or 6 weeks old, but we have no idea where he came from (we did check around the neighborhood). He was a little rough around the edges, hungry, but he did not have fleas but only a few ear mites. He seemed well socialized, did not mind being picked up or petted, and he has used the litter box from day one. We named him Rocket, in honor of either a) the best friend of Bullwinkle J. Moose or b) the best friend of Groot. He can exhibit characteristics of either of his namesakes.

Well he both grew and grew on us, as cats can do. Our last cat, Simba, who had graced the pages of your esteemed blog, passed away before we moved back to Arkansas. We were not sure we wanted another cat, but when a cat like Rocket shows up, what can one do?

But unbeknownst to us, about one month before Rocket appeared to us, a stray tabby with a severely broken back leg was brought to the attention of Keely’s Fund, a charity which assists pets in need in Northwest Arkansas.

With a grant from a local trucking company, JB Hunt, the one year old cat had the surgery he needed to repair his leg. And he earned a name: JB. But he had no home except for the local vet’s office where he spent nights and weekends alone in his cage.

Fast forward to December of 2019. We had gone on a trip and boarded Rocket with his vet. We went to pick him up and the technician, with a bit of a tear in her eye, told us that they had this tabby who had never really been friendly with any cats who came in, but Rocket was different, and would we want to take home a friend? Well who could resist this lovable tabby?

There were a few tears shed at the vet’s office when we took JB home, but when we sent them this photo they cried for joy:

Spot the rattlesnake!

September 28, 2020 • 8:20 am

Ken Howard sent a photo of a hidden rattlesnake, and you should try to spot it in the photo below (click to enlarge). I rate this one as “fairly easy,” but it’s good for novices to develop an eye for cryptic wildlife, especially when it’s venomous!  Ken’s notes are indented:

An easy one for your consideration. From this morning’s desert hike [Sunday] – a Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). My father-in-law constantly warns me when I cross desert hike to ‘watch the shadows’. For good reason.

Ken sent two lagniappe pictures as well, taken on July 12:

I attempted to observe comet Neowise this morning, rising at 3:30am and hiking two miles to a place I hoped would provide a clear horizon in order to view and photograph the comet.  Unfortunately, clouds from the previous evening’s storms obscured the area I anticipated seeing the comet, yet Venus was clearly visible.  Although disappointed, I listened to the beautiful twilight desert chorus crescendo as the sun rose.  Owls and nighthawks flew past as quail and doves scurried and cooed.  I was perched on granite boulders watching as the sky revealed a palette of pinks and blues, whereupon I heard the faint but distinct rattle somewhere below me.  I can’t think of any other sound that quickly grabs ones attention from the tranquility of the desert. Nature’s alarm clock that it was time to hike back home. Will try again tomorrow morning for a glimpse of Neowise but probably from a different location.

Now, to see the “reveal” of the rattlesnake in the top photo, click “read more”: Continue reading “Spot the rattlesnake!”

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 1, 2020 • 7:45 am

Send in your pictures, I implore you! We’re already out of “photos of readers”, and I’d hate to ditch two features.

Today we have wildlife photos from two readers. First up is Roger Sorensen. (All readers’ captions are indented):

Two photos taken at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, east-central MN, of the Common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), first foraging on Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) and second, foraging on Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens)

And the next batch comes from Rachel Sperling.

Here are a few photos from some of my recent hikes around New England. First up is a Milbert’s tortoiseshell butterfly (Anglais milberti), which I spotted – along with the rest of the butterflies in this post – in a field near the summit of Mount Ellen in Warren, Vermont.

Next up is a Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) on what I think is Orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum).
Next we have a Great-spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele. There were a LOT of them on the peak.

Heading south to Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, we’ve got a red eft, the juvenile form of the Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). I used to catch these by the bucket-full in the woods after it rained when I was a child. I always let them go.

Lastly, here’s a young Common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. I encountered this fellow on the trail around the Whiting Street Reservoir, at the Mount Tom State Reservation in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He was pretty tiny and he had quite a steep hike up to the nearest body of water, so I gave him a lift (in a Ziploc bag I happened to have handy – he was a little bitey).