Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

11 Dec 2013

Darwin on Art

“In one respect my mind had changed during the last twenty or thirty years…Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music gave me very intense delight. But now… I have almost lost my taste for pictures or music… My mind seems to have become a sort of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact… The loss of these tastes, this curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes, is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”
Autobiography, 1887

Dispatches from Amazonia: 5. To catch a fly (and other insects)


I can quickly see my life slipping into a clich├ęd stereotype of the field entomologist, cutting through impenetrable forest with a machete, weighed down by nets and traps, in order to attempt to sample the wealth of insect life found in these forests. Below are a few photos illustrating the lengths we go to to catch a fly (and other insects).

Window pane trap, hung in canopy, used to capture insects mid flight
The japanese parasol trap, used for catching insects beaten off bushes
Winkler sampling, sieving leaf litter for small arthropods
The Big Shot catapult, for launching ropes for canopy traps
Transporting bucket traps, which contain lights active at night to cature moths, suspended in the canopy
Light sheet, simple but incredibly effective
And my personal speciality, pitfall traps to collect terrestreal insects

Dispatches from Amazonia: 4. Parasitic wasps and Bird-eating spiders

Nature takes no prisoners, so it seems here in the rainforest. Walking to and from field sites can lead to chance encounters with a beautiful butterfly, plant or frog, but also with the more beastly elements of ecological communities. Take these two intricately linked specimens.

Pepsis rubra, the tarantula hawk
 The first was found at the end stages of its life, buzzing and bashing noisily amongst the leaf litter. An unbelievable site given its size at and its stunning scarlet wings and jade black body, this Pepsis wasp is the largest of the world’s hymenopterans (social insects). And as if that were not impressive enough, beyond simple predation of its victims, this sizable critter attaches itself to the back of its foe long enough to inject fertile eggs into the abdomen, hatching later to leave the hungry brood with eating their way out as the only option.  And who might its prime victim be?

Theraphosa blondi, the Goliath Birdeater
This handsome chap was centimetres away from my foot before I realised what was in front of me, a spider the size of a dinner plate. My colleague informed me of its name, Theraphosa blondi , more commonly known as the Goliath birdeater. Whilst birds are almost certainly not on its menu (the name derives from an overambitious portrait by an eager naturalist painter), it hunts rodents and others at night. Needless to say that I no longer walk in flipflops for those late night calls of nature.