Archive | October 2012

Scary, scary stuff

As the tradition dictates, every year on this day we like to scare the living crap out of each other. One common way of doing it is to pick a random, small animal, and pretend that it is somehow dangerous or deadly. The top of this list of innocent victims is usually occupied by bats, spiders, cockroaches, or pretty much anything that is way too small to do us any harm. Unfortunately, the stereotypes hammered into everybody’s head on Halloween stay with us much longer than just one day, and the poor creatures suffer the undeserved bad reputation for the entire year.

But the really scary, dangerous animals are those that nobody suspects of being evil, and none more so than the creepy Giant panda. Sure, they look cute. But under the cuddly exterior hides a vicious, mean monster. My friend Corey, who used to work in the Panda Base in Chengdu, China, told me about about one particularly nasty, psychotic individual who used to attack people all the time, completely unprovoked. In fact, panda attacks are quite common, and there is even a blog devoted to this topic (“When Pandas Attack”). While in China I heard stories of people being killed by these vicious animals. In any case, I would rather be assaulted by a cockroach or run across a bat or a spider while walking alone in the forest, then meet one of these giant, black and white monsters. I know that they try to appear sweet by hiding their beady eyes in black patches of fur, but they are not fooling me!

A disappearing Goliath

Quickly vanishing forests of West Africa are still home to one of the most magnificent members of the beetle order—the Goliath beetle (Goliathus regius).

Despite their bulky appearance, Goliath beetles are excellent fliers, frequenting flowers blooming in the forest canopy. Adult beetles feed also on ripe fruits and sap, while their giant grubs, which can exceed 150 millimeters in length, develop in the decomposing wood of naturally fallen large trees. It is the increasing shortage of large rainforest trees that may ultimately spell the demise of this and other giant beetles. Their development depends on the availability of old-growth trees, the very same ones that are the principal target of the logging industry. I was lucky to run into this coleopteran wonder on Mt. Bero in Guinea. [Canon 10D, Nikon 17-35mm (yes, a Nikon lens on a Canon body)]

[Read more about the wonderful world of beetles in my book "The Smaller Majority."]

Upside-down world

Notice anything wrong? For some reason we are able to accept that bats like to live upside-down, but we find it difficult for other animals. (Fruit bat, Myonycteris torquata, from Ghana)[Canon 5D, Canon 180mm, speedlight Canon 580EX]

“Men it appears would rather believe than know” wrote E.O. Wilson in his seminal book “On human nature”, and this sad truth is evident in many aspects of our life, including, strangely, the world of nature photography. One of my pet peeves has always been the tendency of some editors to rotate pictures of animals that prefer to look at the world with their heads pointing down, so that in the modified photo their posture appears more similar to ours. Somehow, this fakery to make animals more anthropomorphic has always been considered pretty innocuous and, to my dismay and outrage, on many occasions my photos were modified in this way without consultation.

Most praying mantids, like this Epitenodera sp. from Mozambique, spend most of their lives hanging with their heads towards the ground. [Canon 7D, Canon 14mm, Canon MT-24EX twin light]

Why is it that such a blatant distortion of the natural world is considered acceptable? If I Photoshopped a giant panda so that its fur is pink, everybody would be up in arms, but if a photo shows a praying mantis molting with its head pointing up then all is fine and good. The first is conceivably possible with a simple mutation, the second would require turning off the gravitational forces of the planet in order to happen.

Hanging, rather than standing, is less costly energetically, and allows praying mantids to invest more resources into their large raptorial legs (Empusa capensis from South Africa) [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm]

And yet, we prefer to go along the easier path of believing that all animals have the same preference to hold their heads high, and that this is somehow the “right” way. But for many organisms, especially those that make a living by being sit-and-wait predators, keeping the head pointing down makes far more sense.

Sloths can achieve their large body size on nutritionally poor diet of leaves because they spend little energy on walking. [Canon 1D MKII, Canon 16-35mm, speedlight Canon 580EX]

First, hanging from a branch, as opposed to standing on it, is much more efficient energetically. All you need is sharp claws to grasp the branch, and gravitation will make sure that these are firmly embedded in the bark, and no muscle power is required to keep the animal from falling. If you look at animals that spend their lives in this way – praying mantids, sloths, bats – you will notice that their leg muscles are severely reduced, and some can barely walk if forced to stand with the head pointing up. The energy that would otherwise go into legs can be diverted into other parts of the body: the powerful raptorial arms of the mantis or wings of the bat. (Sloths are a special case – the fact that they don’t need to walk allows them to grow really large, considering how nutritionally poor their food is. Any walking mammal their size would quickly starve if its diet were as meager as that of the sloth. )

Second, by hanging upside down, sit-and-wait predators are better able to blend in among the vegetation, which also tends to droop towards the ground. Relatively few arboreal sit-and-wait predators walk on branches, rather than hanging from them (chameleons are one of the examples.)

Molting is the most dangerous time in the life of an insect. Using Earth’s gravitation to slip out of the old exoskeleton is the fastest and safest way to do it. (Katydid, Teleutias sp., from Suriname) [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm macro, speedlight Canon 580EX]

And finally, molting. A molt is a very special time in the life of an arthropod, a moment that we, mammals, cannot possibly identify with. It is a moment of ultimate weakness and vulnerability, and the faster you can go through it the better. So why don’t most insects use their legs to quickly crawl out of their old exoskeleton? The reason is that while the muscles of a molting insect or spider are fully functional, their points of attachment are not. Our muscles rest on the always rigid internal skeleton, and when we flex a muscle we don’t run the risk of bending a bone. But a molting insect does, because its exoskeleton, which contains points of attachment of all muscles, is at that point very soft. It can be easily distorted if any muscle is engaged while chitin, the polysaccharide that makes up the bulk of the skeleton, is still hardening. If an insect bends a leg during the molt, its exoskeleton may solidify in the bent position, making it unusable in the future. For this reason most terrestrial arthropods prefer to molt by slowly slipping out of their old, smaller exoskeleton, using the gravitational forces of Earth to their advantage.

And so, next time you see a photo of a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis towards the sun, or a praying mantis standing on its stick-like legs and holding a giant grasshopper towards the sky, don’t believe it. The truth may be a little more difficult to grasp, but it will give you a more beautiful picture of the world.

Nearly all spiders that are sit-and-wait predators prefer to wait for the prey with their heads pointing down. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm macro, speedlight Canon 580EX]

Arboreal lizards, like this forest dragon (Hypsilurus modestus) from New Guinea, often wait for their prey while sitting upside-down on tree trunks. [Canon 1D MkII, Sigma 15mm]