Welcome to the never ending stories part 3
Memory Blob # 21
Yes, we are back in the poo
The happy vegemite above is the subject of this blob – one of the more than 5000 species of dung beetles. The sub-family Scarabaeinae of the large Scarab Family, Scarabaeidae. It is the famous flightless dung beetle, Circellium bacchus – an epicurean specialist of elaphant dung. A localised but huge resource, in the beetle’s native South African home.
Dung beetles are very important players in the habitats they inhabit. Their all day job is to bury the poo of mostly herbivore animals, thus aerating and fertilising the soils, and giving bush flies less food – which is an added service, we humans can really appreciate. Africa is the epicentre for this group of workers, and so all the other herbivores, from gnus to gazelles to buffalos, are catered for too, as well as some carnivores, and even birds. The males do the heavy work of carving out chunks of the poo. THe head of dung beetles has a large shovel extension which digs away very efficiently – see below…
Many descend on fresh droppings, as it can only be worked while still fresh and moist.
They quickly create the ball which they then push along with their back legs against the dung, and front legs pushing against the ground. Hard work, as the ball weighs many times what the beetle does, and the girl beetle just comes along to watch and chat, and to know where it winds up, so that they can bury it, and she can lay an egg inside. The larva then eats its way out from the middle, pupates inside, and emerges from the hole as an adult. See the helpful girl telling the boy what to do in this short vid I took in the Addo Elephant Park in South Africa…
The ball rollers are one strategy of this group. Others, especially ones that feed on flat poo, like cow pats, crawl under the drying ‘plate’, dig holes under it, and bury the moist poo therein. In Australia, the native dung beetles were all specialists of tiny little poos made by our neat and tidy marsupial fauna. The arrival of cows and horses and other European messy animals, shocked their sensibilities, and they refused to deal with it. The CSIRO has been importing specially chosen dung beetle species from around the world, to deal with this mess – otherwise the soils stay infertile, and the bush flies have unlimited food. They are bad enough without unlimites cow shit. Below are some dung beetles in Oz:
The above species, in the genus Lepanus, is eeeny weeny. Only about 4mm. These species specialise in bird poo. Hang about on horizontal leaves that birds paint with splats. A huge resource for such tiny creatures.
The majority of dung beetles are either black or dark brown. But in Africa and South America, where the rules of boringness do not apply, there are some fabulous ones:
And the cuti pie above, is not colourful, but huge. One of the largest in the world, and unlike the flightless species at the start of the blog, this one flies between elephant dudu. It is about 50mm long, and, across, built like an armour-plated brick shithouse, and weighs more than a mouse. Driving along one day in Namibia, one hit the car at 100km plus. I had to stop and see if there was a dent – the sound was like the bell gong of throwing a good rock at metal. Gotta love em.
Memory Blob # 22
The wilds of Singapore
The last tiger in Singapore was shot in 1930, but the city state of Singapore has been bringing back rich habitats for decades. Have a look at a map and be surprised that nearly one quarter of the place, in the centre, is a giant lake system with real secondary and even primary rainforest. Being Singapore it is very nicely organised with lots of walking tracks that will not get mud on your neat clean Singapore shoes.
So after over two years of rattling the bars of my covid cage, I have escaped overseas to one of the lands of EXOTIC insects. We always find the grass greener away from where we live. Start with the coooolest pic so far. This metallic green damsel is pretty shmick in any pose, but this one decided to flick its wings just at the moment of the flash. I often tell people that when damsels fly in a forest, their often reflective wings, cause it to flicker on and off, confusing predators. I always thunk only a video would show the effect, but this nice dude showed us with a single pic.
Several friends here are spider fanatics, and exploring with them, oddly, results with more spider pictures that insects, but 8 legs OK, and really quite cute.
All the above are jumping spiders, Family Salticidae. The tropics have endless species running and jumping around the canopy, and some down in the gloomy forest floor, where humans search for fun six and eight legs. Some are very small, 2mm, (mid left pic), is a common size. But always in close up they are wondrously decorated with fun colours, and the males have elaborate, often long and fluffy palps, which they use to show off to females, and tell males to bugger off.
The rarest ‘colour’ among the six legs is white. I have seen a few beetles in the Namib desert, the odd leaf beetles in the tropics, and immature stages of insects which later have real colour as adults. Thus here is a fab pure white skinny praying mantis, hiding under a leaf.
A rather showy hopper of the Ricaniidae family
A moth of the family Choreutidae, some of which believe, quite rightly, that butterflies are boring. And below a cuti-pie fly in the famiy Dolichopodidae, which dance on leaves.
and then the sun set… The sights of Singapore forests after dark follow here, when I joined a bunch of macro photo fanatics on their saturday night insect shoot. Instead of getting pissed in bars, they wander dripping wet night forests, half the night, searching for critters you will not see in daytime. My friend Nikky Bay – who is blessed with very unfairly genius level photo skills, was my guide. See his website quality and weep, here :
Lets start with the narly yukky beasts that emerge after dark to seriously scare prey
The above is a whip scorpion. Note the cute extra muscular grabbing arms and generally unkind demeanor. Below is a scorpion mother with all her babies going for a ride, so sweet, oooooohhhhh…..
Cute critters come out at night too. My fav event of the night was meeting the elusive and verrrry eeeeny weeeny, well named, sesame seed ant. At just over 1mm, it was fun getting it in view and focus in the dark.
Below a night hunting mantis, and a surprising long-legged hopper
…and then the sun rose again and I found myself at the scene of the crime, the Botanic Gardens, where about 30 years ago, armed with my trusty Olympus OM2 film camera, I took one of my most signature images. A dragonfly with an outrageous colour sense. The image has been published several times, but it always bothered me, as it sat on a very bright, overexposed, stick, taking away the full, just-so, mood of it all. So now the same species posed properly…
and again in a different mood ….
Days relentlessly hot and HUMID HUMID and humid. But the worst enemy of the gentle hunt for critter images, is that maddening irresponsible microcephalic sub species of humans, Homo pseudosapiens joggerii. The effing joggers running past scaring all wildlife and taking away any feeling of being in nice nature. This anti-social and anti nature activity can be performed anywhere, and everywhere, except in mother nature’s last hideaways, please. Twonks believe they will live for ever, though if there is a heaven and hell, I suspect there is a special level of hell for their crimes. And of course as lifespans of vertebrates are measured in heartbeats (the tiny mouse has as many heartbeats in a short life as do elephant dudes, in their long lives), they are shortening their lives by adding heartbeats now. That may not be mathematically provable, but I take comfort in believing it is at least possible. Last laugh and all that….
Back to nice innocent six legs, (cowering under the hooves of the running bulls-in-china-shop). Nothing can be added to the pic below. Its just plain weird and gorgeous in the best sense. A baby plant hopper playing games with the wax sticks emanating from its little bum.
The dude on the left is a banana fly. A small family of flies that is always around plants related to bananas, like the ginger here. On the right is a plant hopper with nice taste.
This nicely patterned 8 legs is a spitting spider (there is a $500 fine for spitting in Singapore), so it has to be circumspect. It hides under broad fern leaves and hunts insects and other spiders by ‘spitting’ blobs of sticky web at them, until they get stuck, and can be gobbled. Below is a fun surprise. I spend a lot of time in wet forests all over the world, and so get to see all manner of weird and wonderful funguses. Colours and shapes often surprise, but symmetry is always as expected, until today – this tri-shape, from a single stalk, is very new to me.
…and just to close, a pic of Singapore humans with passionate hobbies – not so common now, and oh so nice to see lives lived fully
Memory Blob # 23
HOLD PRESS !! – Leaf insects might actually be real !
All my life I have seen pictures of leaf insects, broad, flat totally leaf like, large critters that purportedly live in the canopies of deepet darkest jungles. However, myself, and most of my entomologist friends have never seen one, and others say they have, but then show me pictures of babies, which do not ‘yet’ have the leaf shape. So I have been convinced that the images of the impossibly amazing adults, are of plastic toys. That is until I had the great pleasure and privilidge to go behind the scenes at the Insect Zoo in Singapore. The Insect wrangler/keeper, the very lucky and knowledgeable Delvinder Kaur, was my guide.
First port of call was the places where insects are not bred for show, but to feed other dudes. The fun critters like maggots and cockroaches, bred in mega numbers. Yum…
They are not blowfly babies, but the more up-market soldier fly babies, a species found in compost bins all over the world. The public part of the Insect Zoo has many giant hairy spider exhibits, and stick insects, crickets and even the humble pill-bugs, or slaters. Behind the scenes many more species are being bred for potential exhibition, a learning curve on feeding and habitat requirements. Many stick insects from several parts of the world live here and lay hundreds of their ornate eggs (below right) … .. love the ‘do not disturb’ sign in their little hotel
And then, well, it was time for my super surprise. Baby leaf insects look like stick insects, there is no real clue as to the impossible glory they are heading for in adulthood. Right now the Zoo has a colony of a new species of leaf insect, discovered by one of the group of dedicated macro photographers I spent time with in the jungle. They are at around stage 3 of growth, and already have the leaf shape. Me as happy as a piggi in poo…
Memory Blob 24
And now for something completely different – the little fluff balls we call bumble bees
Bumbles are fully in the cute category of six legs. Hard not to love em, slowly visiting flowers and getting their fur coats covered in pollen. We in Oz have been bereft, with no native species for our pleasure. In the northern hemisphere they are important pollinators of native and crop plant species, and live happily with thousands of species of native bees and the honey bee, in their native habitats. Most of the 250 odd species are in Europoe, North Asia and North America. A few in Africa, and SE Asia, but zero in Australia.
The cutipie above is an American species, Bombus (Pyrobombus) silvicola. Note the crazy gossamer patterns of its wingbeats, above – as close as a flash firing at several thousand’s of a second, could freeze. Bumbles have very small wings to body size, and had been the subject of a great after dinner story (literally among leaned men long ago), who purported that according to the laws of aerodynamics as known then, it was impossible for it to fly. Bumbles beat their wings at 200 times per second, and the movement is not a simple up and down, but a circulating motion, which sets up vortexes above its body which keep it airpborne with ease.
The hard working individual above is one of the species imported to New Zealand. Bumbles have special areas on their hind legs for carrying the pollen and nectar back to their nests. They are not as wildly social as honey bees, but make nests averaging 50-200 female workers and a queen. These are underground or hidden in undergrowth, where they store honey and pollen to feed their babies.
How fluffy can you get. This species from Costa Rica, Bombus (Pyrobombus) ephippiatus, has about as much hairs as a mink coat. Below is a another North American species from the deserts of New Mexico, Bombus (Separatobombus) morrisoni.
And here be the infamous ‘ground honeybee’, Bombus terrestris, very common in Europe, and now a migrant in New Zealand and Tasmania.
The problemo, as always, is when you introduce species to where they dont belong. New Zealand added bumbles to their pollinating species a hundred years ago. They have very few native species, and of course the introduced honey bee too. There they are helping various crop plants, while dispalcing some native species, and unfortunately, helping weed species to spread. Tomato plants are self pollinating, just a nice bit of wind will mix the pollen in their male and female combined flowers. However tomatoes grown in greenhouses, get no wind, and farmers have to do the job manually, including by using a vibrator-like device. Unaware that native species can pollinate their crops, Tasmanian growers have agitated to get bumbles into Tassi. Quite rightly, permission had been denied to add another invasive species to our woeful record of bunnies to cane toads. However, someone took the law into their little hands and illegally did so, bringing bumbles from New Zealand in 1992. In my own backyard in Canberra, tomato flowers are pollinated by wind, and a lovely native bee, thank you very much. Apparently the more mixing, the bigger the mato, so the native bee, Amegilla sp, which pollinates by vibrating the flower (buzz pollinating), is a great help.
And the last but most asked question – do bumble bees sting. Yep they sure can, but unlike naughty angry honey bees, they very rarely do, and only if their nest or their bodies are directly attacked. Their stinger has no barb, so can sting repeatedly, though with less pain than a honey bee. Poor honey bees, have a barb on the end of the stinger, that rips the stinger out of their bodies during a more painfull stinging, once, and causes them to die.
Memory Blob 24
Mud mud glorious mud – the mangrove world
The sort of humid fecund places I search for in the world’s tropics, often abutt the ocean with a zone of weird and wonderful trees that can live in salt water, and capture land. Mangroves are very special, they literally grow the land where they are, and among their submerged roots is a world dear and essential to many many species of ocean fish, crustaceans and more. They also look pretty cool, with their above ground buttress and tubular roots. And as below, they get beauteous tropical storms adding the the mood.
Above are outliers edging forward in the islands off the coast of Belize. Below is a lonely outlier mangrove tree, in the famous Cape Trubulation area, showing the huge tidal difference it lives with every day.
The exposed landscape shows millions of tiny perfect balls of sand. A LOT of tiny crabs toil every low tide, creating them from sand burrowed out of their holes. Below, first the very showy blue soldier crabs, Mictyris longicarpus, running around madly as the tide is a coming
The one above is kind of the opposite of the blue ones. It is perfctly camouflaged to the colours of the sand, and the shapes of the sand balls it creates.
The majority of crabs you see running around are in the normal normal crab family, the Ocypodidae. In the mangroves, this does however include the less normal, but common, fiddler crabs. The males have one huge claw and one tiny. The big colourful one gets waved about to attract females, and is used in combat with other boys.
Crabs actually have 10 proper legs, and lots of other weird appendages like claws and stuff, so they are legal in a six-legs-good site. Fish have more than two fins, not sure but I tink maybe more than 6, so I hope you will forgive their intrusion here on account of how cute the fellers below are. Mangroves are famous for ‘walking’ fish. They not only walk but hop, skip and jump, outside the water, while seeing all around them with their great booogly eyes. They be the mud skippers.
The skinny one is from Darwin harbour, and about 12cm long. But the boy fish just above, is from a proper swamp in Borneo, twice as large, and starting to have bright spots and extra colour, the better to court females with. Note the fabulous cheeks. They are filled with air which is exposed to its gills that are breathing it, and shut off from the outside. Mudskippers can breathe through their skin, as long as they are kept wet, just like most amphibians can. But the big cheeks full of air are an extra advantage. Over 30 species worldwide play on mud flats at low tide, and disappear into deep mud/sand burrows at high tide. Note the strong looking pectoral fins at the front that act like legs, and can even propel them into high jumps.
Memory Blob # 25
Those fun loving termites
OK, if your house just fell down due to the nefarious activities of a naughty termite species, then fun may be the wrong word. However as always in the insect world, only a few species out of thousands, spoil the show. About 3100 species in the world, and many interesting lives. Below is a trail in a Singapore forest, of a species which is active in daytime. The severe humidity of equatorial climes permits these squidgy, blind critters to do what would kill most species in our hot dry land. Like vampires, the sun is their enemy.
These guys are carrying moss, a much more nutricious food than dry wood. But like most termites, their guts have a riot of micro critters from protozoans, spirochetes and bacteria, that can break down all the super hard bits of plants, like cellulose and lignin. Note the dude, a soldier, in the upper right corner, whose head has a cute pointy bit. This is a species in the ‘nasute’ group, with this pointy siphon structure which shoots out a glue to immobilise and hassle attackers, especially the mortal enemies, the murderous ants. The soldiers guard the trails and the nest entrances, and do not carry food bits like the obedient regimented workers. Below a few other types of soldiers…
On the left a delicate artistic Hapsidotermes maideni from N QLD. In the middle, tough little species from the edges of giant sand dunes in Namibia, showing off, carrying a grass seed-head many times its weight. And on the right, the seriously weird jaws and huge head of Pericapritermes shultzei, a soldier from N QLD. Below a large species from Malaysia.
Like all social insects these guys have castes. The vast majority are squidgy, blind, sexless workers. Followed by a large number of tough soldiers, and in most cases, just one egg laying queen and her mate, the king. Once a year at the best weather time, a huge number of reproductive girl and boy termites are produced, and these winged forms, all take off on a nuptial flight at the same time. Thousands emerge from a nest, and millions from all nests of that species, forming clouds of very yummy food for many predators from bats to frogs, birds and ants. Below, two serious boffin entomologists from the British Museum, happy as Larry surrounded by a flight of the largest termite species, in Sumatra.
The very few that survive the gauntlet of their hungry enemies, pair off, land and drop their wings. They dig a small nest, mate and lay a small number of eggs that hatch into the first workers. From then on the queen does nothing but lay eggs, fed and groomed by the workers and protected by the soldiers. She can live a very long life, several decades, and grows into a huge egg laying machine, producing up to 40,000 eggs a day !
From these little starts, the blind architects build ever more complex nests. Either fully underground, or more often as castles above ground. Complete with very efficient air conditioning systems and a tough exterior, formed from clay and saliva, one micro grain at a time.
Above a typical nest of Nasutitermes species in Cape York Peninsula, often up to 5 metres high. In Africa similar nests can reach 9-10 metres ! On the left is the ‘elefant bum’ type of nest, oddly made by the same species that builds the spires. Below are the very clever houses of the magnetic termites. All these flat nests are oriented the same way, roughly north-south, to minimise the midday sun’s heat, yet warm the nest for morning activity.