Double

Today is the next to last day of my Photography 101 course, and the theme is “double.” Because I’ve been excited about photographing aquatic insects recently, I’ve got another photo from my aquatic setup for you:

lestid gills

Those are gills of a juvenile southern spreadwing damselfly.  A lot of people don’t know that dragonflies and damselflies actually spend most of their lives underwater as nymphs.  In fact, some dragonflies spend up to three years as nymphs, and then 4-5 weeks as adults on land.

As nymphs, damselflies get everything they need from their aquatic habitat, a pond in this case.  They eat small animals as prey, use cattails and other vegetation as shelter, and they get the oxygen they need from dissolved oxygen in the water.  The gills of damselflies help them breathe by improving their ability to absorb oxygen through their exoskeletons.  The gills massively expand the surface area of their exoskeleton, essentially adding another quarter or third of an exoskeleton to their bodies through which they can breathe.  The gills also improve their swimming, the way wearing flippers while snorkeling can help people swim.

However, damselflies lose gills all the time too.  The one in the photo above only had two of the three it should have when I saw it in the water.  Damselfly nymphs will sometimes fight each other and lose a gills.  Sometimes a predator will try to eat a nymph and get a mouthful of loose gills while the damselfly swims away.  While the gills do improve the lives of the damselflies and one missing its gills has a harder time getting oxygen or avoiding predators, they can survive with no gills at all.

I love the way damselfly gills look!  Another fascinating textured surface, compliments of insects.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

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Edge

The theme for Photography 101 today is “edge,” which immediately made me think of the under surface of the water and the aquatic insects that must visit the surface to breathe.  So, I give you a backswimmer getting air:

Notonectid at surface

Backswimmers swim upside down and carry an air bubble with them underwater that they use to breathe (think scuba tank).  Most of their body is coated with a thin film of air as well, which you can see as the shiny, silvery spots in the photo.  All that air they carry with them only lasts so long, however, so they have to go to the surface now and again to get more.  They break through the surface with their butts and allow air to fill their storage space.  Sometimes they’ll sit at the surface for a little while, but most of the time they’ll dart back underwater where birds and other predators have a harder time getting to them.

I love the look of the water’s surface when photographing things underwater.  My kind of edge for sure!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Glass

I promised pond insects yesterday, so pond insects you shall receive!  The theme for my Photography 101 course for the day is “glass” and that’s perfect for the type of aquatic insect photography I do.  If you want to photograph things in water, there are a few ways to do it.  You can put the subject in a small, shallow bowl and shoot it from above, but then you miss out on a lot of fun angles and interesting behavior shots.  You can get a waterproof camera, but none of them are nearly as good at macro work as I need them to be for the sorts of shots I’m after.  My way is one I learned from an awesome photographer, Steve Maxson, at an insect photography workshop in 2011. It’s more or less the same technique used by a lot of the people you’ll see posting photos of aquatic insects online.  Basically, you fill a transparent vessel (I use a small aquarium) with water, place your subjects in the tank, and you shoot the photos through the side of the tank with whatever camera you favor.  It’s a great method and lets you get some great shots using the equipment you already have, no special waterproof housing required!

So, here are a few new shots of aquatic insects underwater using my 2.5 gallon aquarium setup and shooting with my Canon 7D and MP-E 65 lens through the glass. All of these are predators, so they’re among the meat eaters in the pond.  First up, a couple of predaceous diving beetles, a small one…

Predacious diving beetle

Predacious diving beetle (I am tentatively IDing this one as Laccophilus fasciatus)

… and a larger one:

Predacious diving beetle

Predacious diving beetle (Agabus disintegratus, I think)

And these are true bugs, a giant water bug…

Giant water bug

Giant water bug (Belostoma flumineum)

… and a creeping water bug:

creeping water bug

Creeping water bug (Pelocoris sp., likely femoratus)

The beetles have chewing mouthparts, so they eat smallish things that they can chew up quickly.  They eat a lot of insects, aquatic worms, and other invertebrates, though every now and again you’ll see a bunch of them pile onto something like a sickly or injured fish that’s not strong enough to get away.  The bugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts, so they cannot chew their food.  Instead, they grab their prey, jab it with a hypodermic needle-like mouthpart, and inject paralytic chemicals and digestive enzymes.  The chemicals both paralyze the prey and liquefy its tissues.  Once the tissues are nice and soupy, the bug will suck up the juices through its mouthpart like a straw. Essentially, true bugs are digesting their food outside of their body, which they need the paralytic to accomplish.  It takes a LONG time for a true bug to eat anything! However, the paralytic also allows them to eat much larger food, like larger insects, small tadpoles, and fish.  It also gives their bite a little extra punch, should you accidentally step on one or grab one without realizing it.

Photographing aquatic insects is totally my happy place – and I hope some of you will give it a try.  It’s amazing what you can learn by simply following an insect around a tank with a camera for a few days!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Treasure – Close Up!

Today’s Photography 101 theme: “treasure” and close-ups.  I was going to post some very close up photos of insects I found in the pond yesterday, my favorite “treasures” to go hunting for, but I got distracted.  I went to set up my tank this morning so I could start taking photos of them when I noticed that the damselfly from yesterday had just molted, moments before!  So, my “treasure” photos aren’t insects from the pond as planned.  Instead, they represent a treasured moment, the sort of serendipitous moments I come across now and then when I get to see and photograph something ephemeral and special.  This damselfly, an ebony jewelwing, had been free from its old exoskeleton for just a few minutes and was still in the process of stretching out and hardening the new exoskeleton:

Ebony jewelwing , freshly molted

Ebony jewelwing , freshly molted

And an inch away, lying limp, was its old exoskeleton:

Ebony jewelwing exuvia

Shed exoskeleton

For those of you who are new to my blog, those little white strings are part of the respiratory system of the previous stage.  When insects molt, they shed their entire exoskeleton, which includes part of their digestive, reproductive, and respiratory tracts.  Those white bits were pulled out of the little series of tubes that insects use to breathe and the freshly molted nymph walked away with a brand new respiratory lining.

As often as I take photos of aquatic insects, I rarely get to see them molt, so I was thrilled I got to see at least part of this shed!  Apparently something went wrong as this damselfly was building its new exoskeleton though.  It only had two of three gills when I scooped it out of the stream. After it molted, it was down to one, but I got to see the gill stretch out and reach its full length, then start to change from the pale cream you see in the photo above to its more typical brown.  So much fun!

It’s always great to get to see something a little out of the ordinary like this!  And tomorrow, I’ll have pond insects for sure.  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

A Stream Story

The weekends are technically off for the Photography 101 course I’m taking, but they make suggestions for ways to practice for those who are feeling gung-ho.  This weekend they suggested creating a series of photos that captured an entire scene.  It had been a while since I had been to the stream at work to look for insects, so I decided my series would include the stream…

Stream

Stream

… and the things I was able to find in it.  I’ve wanted to get photos of the insects in the stream for a while now anyway for a little field guide I’m working on for an educational program I do with high schoolers.  I did catch one fish and one crayfish that I put back, so this isn’t a complete series.  However, I was really worried either might try to eat this:

Stonefly

Stonefly

A stonefly!  In the oft-flooding, strange stream I wrote about for my “Mystery” post.  I was so excited to find this that I was jumping up and down and shouting.  Happily it was rainy and cool and there was no one anywhere near me to see me make a fool of myself, but I was excited.  I believe my level of enthusiasm for stoneflies is a holdover from the stream insect work I did in Arizona.  Stoneflies require really clean, flowing, cold water, and you only got two out of the three at best in a lot of the streams I worked on in the desert.  Stoneflies were always this amazing thing to find, something absolutely worth getting excited about, because you just didn’t see them often. They’re far more common in North Carolina, but I rarely find them in this stream, so I still feel my reaction was justified.  :)

Because it had just rained a fair bit and the water was muddy, suggesting at least some minor flooding had occurred, I wasn’t sure I was going to find anything in the stream. I was thrilled to find what I went to look for in the first place on my first dip:

Broad-winged damselfly nymph

Broad-winged damselfly nymph

That’s a broad-winged damselfly, an ebony jewelwing.  They like to lurk in the exposed root masses at the base of trees in the deeper areas of this stream.  I tend to overtop my boots a lot going after them, but they are totally worth it every time.  As you can see in the photo, broad-winged damselfly nymphs have a very long first antennal segment, about as long as all the other segments of the antennae combined, which makes them sort of alien looking.  They also have this sort of jerky movement.  I love them!

These little rock clumps I found on the underside of a larger rock contain insects:

Caddisfly pupal cases

Caddisfly pupal cases

There are pupae of caddisflies developing inside those.  Caddisflies are far and away the most common insects I find in this stretch of the stream, so I was not surprised to find these.  I did not, however, find any larvae, just the pupae.  Guess I’ll have to make another trip down there sometime later in the year for those.  Oh darn…

And last, just because I couldn’t resist, a vertebrate:

Salamander

Salamander

North Carolina is a hotspot for salamanders, so it’s always fun to find these.  (This is another holdover from Arizona – I saw one total salamander there in 20 years, despite working in many salamander-friendly habitats!)  I managed to get a good 20 of these little guys in my net today, and all of them were juveniles that still had their gills.  You can see the gills just above the leg.  These salamanders are awfully cute little buggers! I’ll take a few more photos of this little guy in the morning and then back into the stream he’ll go, along with his temporary stonefly and damselfly roommates.

If I had to work on a Sunday, today was a great day to do it!  It was cool and rainy, not to mention Easter, so I had the entire field station to myself all day.  And even though it had rained and the stream was a little higher and a little muddier than usual, I still managed to get a few things I need photos of for my guide.  Mucking about in a stream on a cloudy day – not a bad way to spend a day!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Miraculous Mantids

I work on Saturdays, so today was just an average work day for me.  I opened the field station, unlocked the bathrooms, and fed the birds before gathering the things I needed for my weekly public citizen science walk.  Many of my volunteers come on Saturdays, so I typically have a good stream of them coming in and out of my office all morning.  I chat with them for a bit, then hand them a clipboard and send them off to collect data of various types.

This morning, one of my volunteers came in and took a seat as he waited for his data collection teammate to arrive.  He looked down at the desk, pointed, and said, “Is that a mantis?”  And sure enough, it was!

Chinese mantid

Chinese mantid

I was surprised to see a mantid in the office at all, but this was a small mantid with the fresh look of a recently hatched baby mantid.  I told my volunteer to look for more and, between my desk and the one next to mine, we found about 15 or 20 of them.  That could only mean one thing: there was a mantid egg case somewhere in my office, and it had recently hatched.

My second volunteer arrived and they both went out to collect data as I started searching for the case.  One of my office mates is an entomologist and the primary K-12 educator at the field station, so she often brings things in like egg cases that she’s going to use for upcoming programs.  But there was no mantid egg case on her desk.  I knew I hadn’t brought one in, so it wasn’t going to be on my desk.  That left one desk and my heart fell a bit: no mantid egg case anywhere!  I was just about to go look in the other two rooms of the lovely construction trailer that we work in when I caught something out of the corner of my eye.  It was this:

Charred Chinese mantid egg case

Charred Chinese mantid egg case

The annual controlled burn of the prairie took place earlier this month.  One of my coworkers had noted how many mantid egg cases were in the field and she mobilized her volunteers to clip off as many as they could before the burn took place.  They didn’t get all of them, however. The charcoaled egg case above was discovered after the burn went through.  The woman who sits next to me had brought it in and displayed it in a vase on her desk.

When I noticed the blackened egg case, I thought, “No…  Surely that can’t be it!”  But there was this little nagging feeling in the back of my mind that said I should take a closer look.  When I did, I saw a mantid wiggling its way out of the case! There were also telltale stringy bits coming out of the front seam. The eggs in that egg case, which we had all assumed had been charred to a crisp, was HATCHING!  And there were a surprising number for an egg case that left ashy dust on your hands and crumbled apart when you handled it.

And that’s one of many things I learned at work today, that mantid eggs cases are WAY more protective of the eggs inside than I had ever thought!  That egg case looked hopeless, absolutely beyond hope, yet it still produced new life.  I caught as many mantids as I could get my hands on and released them outside.  The last I saw of the last one I released was this, a momentary pause before it dashed off into the depths of the tree and disappeared:

Chinese mantid

Chinese mantid

Nature is so cool.  You could go out every day and see as many things as you possibly could and never even scratch the surface of what’s possible.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Landscape

It’s the end of the third of four weeks of my Photography 101 class and today’s topic is landscape. I didn’t have a chance to get out and take a new landscape photo today, at least not the sweepingly magestic sort of image I think of when I think of landscape photography, so I’m posting one of my favorites from Arizona a few weeks ago:

 

Ah, southern Arizona. What an amazing place! The insects there are fabulous and I miss the joy I got from spotting my first palo verde beetle of the year (and bringing it in the house to terrorize my husband), hearing dozens of June bugs buzzing around the trees, and the desert cicadas that make an enormous racket in the hottest part of the middle of the day. I loved the aquatic insects and the dragonflies, all the strange desert insects I could only find there. Not that I don’t love North Carolina – I really do – but I lived in Arizona for 20 years altogether and some of my best memories are from that crazy, wild, spiky place. It’s hard not to miss it, at least now and again.

Have a great weekend, everyone! Me, I’ll be at work the next few days. But, if you have to work through the weekend, it’s nice to work at a natural history museum field station with a wealth of interesting biological phenomena to observe. I still feel lucky, everyday.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.