Cute but Deadly

Head-on view of caterpillar Credit: Melvyn Yeo/Science Photo Library

Most caterpillars have long hair called setae covering their bodies.  This hair act as a  defense mechanism.  The hairs often have detachable tips that will irritate would-be predators by lodging in the skin or mucous membranes.

Here are a trio to avoid: the puss caterpillar, the hickory tussock caterpillar and the io moth caterpillar.

The most venomous caterpillar in the United States, the puss caterpillar, got its name because it resembles a cuddly house cat. Small, extremely toxic spines stick in your skin releasing venom. At first the sting feels like a bee sting, only worse. The pain rapidly gets worse and can even make your bones hurt. People who have been stung on the hand say the pain can radiate up to their shoulder and last for up to 12 hours.

Furry puss caterpillar feeding. Photo by Caterpillar hunter/Flickr

One dapper critter called the hickory tussock caterpillar has a velvety back and sweeping bristles.  It looks more like a vintage feather boa than a caterpillar and is widely distributed in the eastern half of North America.

Hickory tussock caterpillar Photo by Greg Dwyer/Wikipeida Commons.

Some people have little to no reaction to the hickory tussock’s sting, but others have a reaction that ranges from a mild to severe rash comparable to poison ivy.   It’s microscopic barbs may cause serious medial complications if they are transferred from the hands to the eyes.   The adult moth flies away in May and June.

Caterpillars have to eat a lot. Within a few weeks of devouring as much greenery as physically possible, an io caterpillar can go from being a half-inch-long worm to a nearly three-inch-long monstrosity, brilliant green with red and white racing stripes  like the Io mother caterpillar:

Io moth caterpillar. Photo by Tim Lethbridge

Io caterpillars are indeed capable, and more than willing, to deliver a painful sting. If you brush up against these spines, the tips will break off and start to inject venom.

So what do you do if you get stung by any of these toxic caterpillars? Place Scotch tape over the affected area and strip off repeatedly to remove spines. Apply ice packs to reduce the stinging sensation, and follow with a paste of baking soda and water. If you have a history of hay fever, asthma or allergy, or if allergic reactions develop, contact a physician immediately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check out My Mating Dance

No larger than a ladybug but with an elaborate mating dance the Maratus “peacock” jumping spider of Australia has a spectacular display.

Pair of Australian Maratus "peacock" jumping spiders on human finger. Photo by Jürgen Otto
Pair of Australian Maratus “peacock” jumping spiders on human finger. Photo by Jürgen Otto

To woo the female spiders the males are talented dancer with fancy footwork and an elaborate, decorative abdomen flap that they can raise up and down.

The female watches enthralled and if she is swept away by his magnificence she will allow him to mate, sometimes after first turning and doing her own dance to him, wiggling her abdomen seductively.

The greatest attribute of these jumping spiders is their advanced eyes.  All spiders have eight, occasionally six, eyes, but they are generally quite simple organs, specks of black or silver that can detect light and dark, shadow and movement and some fairly rudimentary blurry images.  The two central front eyes of the jumping spider are much more advanced – large, fronted by spherical lenses, with an internal focussing mechanism and complex four layered retina.  All this means that a jumping spider can see fine detail, in color and at different distances.

Both sexes of the Australian “peacock” jumping spider have the ability to see color through ultraviolet, blue, green and red photoreceptor cells within their eyes.

Close-up of the male Australian Maratus "peacock" jumping spider's color display. Photo by Jürgen Otto
Close-up of the male Australian Maratus “peacock” jumping spider’s color display. Photo by Jürgen Otto

The pattern on the male abdomen is unique and so is the choreography of each species’ dance

A different display on a male Australian Maratus "peacock" jumping spider. Photo by Jürgen Otto
A different display on a male Australian Maratus “peacock” jumping spider. Photo by Jürgen Otto

In June of 2016 Seven new species of peacock spider from the southern coast of Western and South Australia were discovered and named last month, bringing the total number of species discovered up to 48.

A specimen of the newly-discovered Australian Peacock spider, Maratus Bubo, shows off his colourful abdomen in this undated picture from Australia. Jurgen Otto/Reuters
A specimen of the newly-discovered Australian Peacock spider, Maratus Bubo, shows off his colourful abdomen in this undated picture from Australia.    Credit:  Jurgen Otto/Reuters

Just for fun watch this video created by naturalist Jürgen Otto of a male waving his legs around and raising his bright colorful display to attract a nearby female:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Perching Robobee

Photo of a Robobee courtesy Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon
Photo of a Robobee courtesy Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon

Developed by Harvard University and MIT in 2013 this bee-sized micro-robot was designed to fly and behave independently. It can now land on walls.

Inspired by the biology of an insect with two wafer-thin wings that flaps almost invisibly, 120 times per second, the Robobee is capable of sustained flight. To improve depth perception the Robobee has micro-LiDAR sensors to serve as eyes. This allow them to perform precise tasks like landing on a flower.

Photo from Harvard University
Photo from Harvard University

However since many applications for small drones require them to stay in the air for extended periods, they run out of energy quickly. To keep them aloft longer the design team turned to electrostatic adhesion. They added an electrode patch and a foam mount that absorbs shock. Using a constant supply of energy the Robobee can now stick to almost any surface from glass to wood to a leaf. The power supply is simply switched off to detach.

peter-allen-harvard-john-a-paulson-school-of-engineering-applied-science-robobee002_605
Illustration by Peter Allan/Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science

Possible uses for robotic insects in addition to crop pollination, including search-and-rescue after a disaster and environmental exploration in dangerous locations such as volcanoes.

Robobees are a beautiful example of how bringing together scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines to carry out research inspired by nature and focused on translation can lead to major technical breakthroughs.

 

Wise Eyes

Photo Credit: RobsWildlife.com 500px
Photo Credit: RobsWildlife.com 500px

Of all an owl’s features, perhaps the most striking is its eyes. The forward facing aspect of the eyes that give an owl its “wise” appearance, also give it a wide range of “binocular” vision (seeing an object with both eyes at the same time). This means the owl can see objects in 3 dimensions (height, width, and depth), and can judge distances in a similar way to humans.

Great Grey Owl by Jacques Larue/500px
Great Grey Owl by Jacques Larue/500px

An owl’s eyes are large in order to improve their efficiency, especially under low light conditions. In fact, the eyes are so well developed, that they are not eye balls as such, but elongated tubes.  An owl cannot “roll” or move its eyes – that is, it can only look straight ahead.  The owl makes up for this by being able to turn its head up to 270 degrees left or right and almost upside down.

Florida burrowing owlet Credit: Hisham Atallah/Minden Pictures
Florida burrowing owlet Credit: Hisham Atallah/Minden Pictures

The retina of an owl’s eye has an abundance of light-sensitive, rod-shaped cells appropriately called “rod” cells. Although these cells are very sensitive to light and movement, they do not react well to color.   Owls have extraordinary night vision, but see in limited color.

Red owl from Netherland Credit: Gert Jan Ijzerman/Minden Pictures
Red owl from Netherland Credit: Gert Jan Ijzerman/Minden Pictures

 

Orange eyed eagle owl. Credit: Wild Wonders of Europe/widstrand/Nature Picture Library
Orange eyed eagle owl. Credit: Wild Wonders of Europe/widstrand/Nature Picture Library
Snow owl by Markus van Hauten/500px
Snow owl by Markus van Hauten/500px

To protect their eyes, owls are equipped with 3 eyelids. They have a normal upper and lower eyelid, the upper closing when the owl blinks, and the lower closing up when the owl is asleep. The third eyelid is called a nictitating membrane, and is a thin layer of tissue that closes diagonally across the eye, from the inside to the outside. This cleans and protects the surface of the eye.

Third membrane on eyes of a young great horned own. Photo by Mack Hitch
Third membrane on eyes of a young great horned own. Photo by Mack Hitch
Sleepy owl
Sleepy owl

For protection from predators some insects have well developed eye spots.  Owl Butterflies are large, tropical butterflies found in secondary forests and rain forests from Mexico down to the Amazon in South America.  It is easy to see why they are called Owl Butterflies.  Their wings look like the face of an owl, and if you spread the wings out, you can actually see a pair of eyes looking straight at you.  Of course they cannot blink.

Owl butterfly
Owl butterfly

 

 

Scaly Anteater or Small Dinosaur?

Indian Pangolin Photo by Ansar Kan
Indian Pangolin Photo by Ansar Kan

This lovely creature is the Indian pangolin also known as the thick-tailed pangolin. The size of pangolins varies by species, ranging from 12 to 39 inches. In all species, females are generally smaller than males. In fact, male Indian pangolins can be up to 90% heavier than their female counterparts.  Most are solitary and noctural.

There are 8 extant species of pangolin: the Indian Pangolin, Philippine Pangolin Giant Pangolin, Ground Pangolin, Tree Pangolin, Long-tailed Pangolin, Chinese Pangolin and Sunda Pangolin. They all look like small dinosaurs.

Ground Pangolin in Kalahari Desert of South Africa. Credit: Natural History Media/Alamy
Ground Pangolin in Kalahari Desert of South Africa. Credit: Natural History Media/Alamy
Long Tail Pangolin in the Democratic Republic of Congo Credit: Frans Lanting/Alamy
Long Tail Pangolin in the Democratic Republic of Congo Credit: Frans Lanting/Alamy
Malayan Pangolin mother and young in Southeast Asia. Credit: Minden Pictures
Malayan Pangolin mother and young in Southeast Asia. Credit: Minden Pictures
This is a ground pangolin curling into a ball for protection.
This is a ground pangolin curling into a ball for protection.

As you probably noticed, the pangolin has large keratin (the same substance as horns, fingernails, and hair) scales covering its skin, the only known mammal with this adaptation. These continue growing throughout their entire life, and the scales of these critters comprise about 20% of their total body weight. They are the only known mammals with this adaptation.

Here's a ground pangolin showing off his long sticky tongue!
Here’s a ground pangolin showing off his long sticky tongue!

When the pangolin’s tongue is fully extended, it can be up to 16 inches longer than its entire body length! Pangolins use these long tongues to eat their favorite foods, termites and ants. Pangolins’ insatiable appetite for insects gives them an important role in their ecosystem: pest control. Estimates indicate that one adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects annually. Pangolins have special muscles that seal their nostrils and ears shut, protecting them from attacking insects. They also have special muscles in their mouths, which prevent ants and termites from escaping after capture.

As a result of increasing threats to pangolins, mainly in the form of illegal, international trade in pangolin skin, scales, and meat, these species have received increasing conservation attention in recent years.  Sadly each species is now threatened with extinction.

Magic of Photomicrography

Polish photographer, Marek Miś, has developed a technique for photographing living and inanimate microorganisms, plant tissues and micro crystals directly through the eyepiece of a microscope. You may have seen his awarding winning photographs in either the Nikon Small World Competition or the Olympus BioScapes Competition.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Crustacean (Nauplius) Polarized light micrograph by Marek Mis
Crustacean (Nauplius) Polarized Light by Marek Mis
Abstract of the drug Rywanol by Marek Mis
Abstract of the drug Rywanol by Marek Mis
Longitudinal stem cross-section of nettle polarized light micrograph by Marek Mis
Longitudinal stem cross-section of nettle polarized light by Marek Mis
Rotifer created using Rheinberg illumination by Marek Mis
Rotifer created using Rheinberg illumination by Marek Mis
Polarized light micrograph showing a sectioned stem of a young apple tree plant Marek Mis
Polarized light micrograph showing a section stem apple tree plant Marek Mis
Desmid (Micrasterias) by Marek Mis
Desmid (Micrasterias) by Marek Mis

Marek’s microphotographs are made using various lighting techniques – bright field, dark field, phase contrast, Rheinberg illumination, polarized light, oblique illumination and mixed techniques.  To see more of Marek Mis’s work go to this URL: http://www.mismicrophoto.com/plants.php

Confocal microphoto of a barnacle appendage by Igor Siwanowicz
Confocal microphoto of a barnacle appendage by Igor Siwanowicz

German photographer, Dr. Igor Siwanowicz who works at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology specializing in invertebrate photography, has succeeded in showing the world there is beauty of form in the insect world.

Confocal microphoto showing detail of a foot of a giant diving beetle by Igor Siwanowicz
Confocal microphoto showing detail of a foot of a giant diving beetle by Igor Siwanowicz

You can see a more complete portfolio of Igor Siwanowicz’s work here:

http://photo.net/photodb/member-photos?user_id=1783374

There is a indeed a whole magical world of images to be seen and created through a microscope.

Beautiful Bugs

 

Small white butterfly by Robert Brocksmith
Small white butterfly by Robert Brocksmith
Award winning close-up of wasp
Award winning close-up of wasp Credit: Icy Ho/National Pictures
SmugMug
SmugMug
Spider by Gary Grossman
Spider by Gary Grossman
Flame skimmer dragonfly by Pieter van Dokkum
Flame skimmer dragonfly by Pieter van Dokkum
Madagascan moon butterfly (c) Magic of Life Trust
Madagascan moon butterfly (c) Magic of Life Trust
Cotton harlequin nymphs by Geoff Ronalds
Cotton harlequin nymphs by Geoff Ronalds
Singapore butterflies by Bob Rzynski/Flickr
Singapore butterflies by Bob Rzynski/Flickr
Photo by Melville Osborne/Flickr
Photo by Melville Osborne/Flickr