Once Upon an Odour

Stink bugs round table talk.jpgOnce upon a time, the stink bug had no stink. It was simpler time, but the times were changing, and gradually they fell prey to the wolves of the rainforest; the owlflies, and wasps, spiders and centipedes. These bugs, they had to do something! And so the most gallant of all the bugs stepped forward and said “I have a sword! This sword was handed down to me by my ancestors and their ancestors before them. It has always been right here on my back, and though I have never had to use it, I am certain, it will protect us. This family heirloom and legacy, we call it Darwin’s Flame! With this, I shall fend off the wolves!”

Cyrtocoris sp.

And so the next day, this Sir Gallant left the safe confines of their leafy home. “Come, eat me if you dare!” – he shouted into the air. A bird, attracted to the sound, saw this foolish bug out in the open, with what looked like only a small thorn to protect himself. This thorn was no match for his beak, so he swooped in and ate him up. All that was left of Sir Gallant was the small spine which had done nothing to protect him. And so the long and proud lineage of Sir Gallant came to an end, and the bugs were left with no swords or thorns, no one to protect them, and they were all very afraid once again.

Stink bugs round table talk 1

The bugs once again huddled together, “What are we to do? Sir Gallant, he was the bravest of us bugs, if he can’t fend off the wolves, then how are we to do it?” Then stepped forward the most clever and brilliant of the bugs. I have an idea he said in a voice barely above a whisper, and all the other bugs leaned in to listen to what he had to say. “I will paint my body red and black. I have observed the birds, they do not eat the red and black bugs, they leave them alone!” There was not the twitch of an antenna, the buzz of a cicada or the stridulation of a cricket to be heard. Not only were the bugs amazed by the intelligence of this plan, but other insects from nearby, the beetles, and the katydids, the ants and the wasps, they watched and listened in wonder, and had their own ideas on what to make of this. “I call this Mimicry!” – declared Brainy bug, “and tomorrow we will be afraid no longer!”.

And so the next day, Brainy bug stepped out from their leafy home. He was painted in red and black, from the seeds and fruits of the nearby trees. Brainy bug was the smartest of all the bugs, but he was not very brave. And so he didn’t shout like Sir Gallant had, but he slowly walked over to the juiciest fruit, on the furthest branch and took a long sip from the tasty sugars. It was delicious! He couldn’t get enough, he drank and he drank, he forgot about everything else. Hours went by until he had finally filled up. But in that time, the clouds had come in, and the rain had begun to fall. Brainy bug looked at the rain and he was very afraid. He hurried back to his leafy home, but he had chosen the furthest branch with the juiciest fruit, and he was very far away indeed. As he ran, the red and black paints slowly drained away. “Oh no” he cried! And just then, the same bird heard his cry, saw this foolish bug out in the open, and with not even a thorn to protect himself! “Now that’s not a very smart bug” the bird said to himself, as he swooped in and ate up Brainy bug.

The other bugs looked on in horror. First Sir Gallant, and now Brainy bug! They huddled together once more, now, Very frightened! “What are we to do!?” The bugs couldn’t decide, some thought that they should hide under the leaves and wood like the wood bugs, others thought maybe they should only go out at night, when the bird was sleeping. “If we can’t change what we are, then maybe we can change how we behave?” This idea was voted on by all the bugs but one, the Stink bug. He was not allowed into the group meetings, and when he passed by, all the other bugs held their noses and made fun of him. Stink bug was very sad. He went back to his family. “What did they say? Did you vote?” His Stink Wife asked Stink bug. “”No, they wouldn’t let me into the meeting”. Stink Wife wrapped her arms around stink bug and told him not to worry, one day, everyone would know his name.


And so the next night, one by one, the bugs went out while the bird that had eaten Sir Gallant and Brainy bug was sleeping. They moved quickly and quietly. They stepped carefully over sticky cobwebs, and sharp spines, until they made it to the juiciest of fruits. There they drank. It had been a long time since they had had such a good drink, and so they drank and they drank. But something wasn’t right. “Hey did you hear that?”- Skinny bug said, looking around. “Hey, has anyone seen Angry bug?” Sleepy bug looked about in between yawns, “No, I haven’t seen”…and just then sleepy bug disappeared. The bird was not the only predator, there was something else there, something in the night. And one by one, slowly, all the bugs were eaten up.

Stink bug woke up the next morning, kissed Stinky Wife good morning, and went out to the juiciest of fruits and he drank and drank, just like he always had. Stink bug and Stinky Wife had lots and lots of Stinky children. They were So stinky, that no one touched them. When baby bird swooped in one day to eat one of Stinky bugs children, he stopped “Pee Yoo. Take a bath!!!” he said, and flew off. And so Stinky bugs children had children that grew up to be just as stinky, maybe even more so!

And that’s how the stink bug got its stink – through the evolution of aldehyde, and additional biochemicals reflected in incremental changes in its DNA, whilst other less desirable or else less effective traits were naturally selected out of the gene pool.

Brain over brawn, but stink – stink over all!

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Le Petit Biologiste – Part I

Le Petit Biologiste
The Little Biologist

When I was six years old, I once saw a wonderful drawing in a book. It was book on the Amazon called “Lives lived”. It showed, amongst the rainforest leaves, sultry and green, an anaconda swallowing a capybara whole and the description read, “The anaconda eats its prey whole, without chewing. After which it cannot move, and must sleep for the next six months in order to digest its meal”.

I thought long and often of this book of jungle adventures, and in time, I too succeeded in creating my own drawing. With a coloured pen, I drew the following, my dessin # 1. It looked like this:

I showed my masterpiece to the grown ups, and asked them if my drawing made them scared. And they answered, “What a beautiful moon! Why would the moon make me scared?”

Only my dessin #1 wasn’t a moon set in a starry sky. It was the vertical pupil of a pit viper, as it lay in wait. So I drew, the heat sensing pits, the scales and a forked tongue which tasted the chemical composition of the air, drawing in scent molecules into the organ of Jacobson. I drew the open mouth and the fangs, so that they could see and understand. I called this my dessin #2.

Amazon two striped palm viper (Bothriopsis bilineata) 1

Only the grown-ups, they still needed to be explained things. They told me to forget such silly things, to study geography, maths and grammar, practical things!

Thus, at the tender age of six, I left behind a promising career as a painter. I was discouraged by the failures of my dessin #1 and dessin #2. Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for us kids to always, ALWAYS have to explain them everything.

As I grew up, I looked back on painting with regret, but turned my attention to other, more grown-up pursuits. This is how I became a biologist, and learned to fly planes. I have flown all over the world and indeed, as I was told, geography and science have served me well. From a simple glance, I can distinguish the Amazon from Arizona, and Canada from Kazakstan. I can name the stars and the planets, and explain the twinkle of the stars and from the celestial heavens, define my place in the world. All very useful, if one is lost in the night.

Over the course of my life, I have had heaps of conversations with some very serious, very intelligent people. I have lived with great men and women. I have seen and observed them closely, and frankly, it hasn’t much improved my opinion of being grown-up.

But, every now and again, I would come across someone who appeared a little more in touch with the world, a little less grumpy and grown-up, and then I would take out my dessin #1, which I had never thrown away, and which I keep carefully concealed in my pocket, close-by, a reminder of a world of dreams which escaped me once, but which one day I might find my way back to. And so, I would show this very reasonable person my dessin, and I would ask them, “What do you see?”.

I wanted to know, to really know, “did they understand? Just how much did they really see?” I would wait patiently as they examined my artwork, but I was always disappointed. Every time, without exception, they would answer, “why it’s a moon, why?”. And with that answer, I would carefully fold up my dessin #1, and put it back in my pocket, and I wouldn’t talk to them of anacondas and the Amazon, of stars and a world populated by dreams. I would nod or shake my head, smile or frown, and we would talk about golf and the weather, of suits, work and politics. And when we parted company, they would shake my hand, quite happy to have met someone so reasonable and mature. All the while, my hand would pat the pocket wherein resided the world of dessin #1, safely tucked away.

I have lived this way, alone, my entire life, the world of dessin #1 relegated to my pocket, dreaming of a drawing, but speaking to a world all grown-up, that is, until my plane crashed in the rainforest 6 years ago. I heard the motor break, but could do nothing to stop the descent. I felt the familiar vanish as we passed through the cumulus. Aerodynamics, sheer, wind speeds, terminal velocities, reality-raced to second place, outpaced by the surreal. The known world ceded to mystery.  In the final moment, as the engines screamed, and the trees welcomed us, I sensed my hand go instinctively to my pocket, searching for dessin #1, even as I felt the brief flutter of paper through my fingertips as we hit the ground.

-Here Ends part I of the Little Biologist

-based on Antoine de St. Exupery’s novella “Le Petit Prince” –

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Maligned – A cockroach by any other name…

– “All I’m offering is the truth, nothing more.

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe, whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” –


You live in a construct. It is a world of comfort. It is a world organized, air conditioned, temperature regulated, and clean. It is a world painstakingly built. And in your isolation, you have fostered an idea, an expectation, an unassailable notion; You are apart from nature. Above it. Beyond the immutable laws governing the things which creep and crawl and slither on their bellies, and which you call lower organisms. You believe in evolution, you also believe that Homo Sapiens is its pinnacle, the most highly evolved organism, and that through our own collective ingenuity we have moulded, shaped and controlled nature, and consequently mastered our own fates. You look to the stars because the world under your feet is known. And…and you pause in your thoughts as you grab a can of RAID, head over to the corner and deal with a persistent, scuttling problem.


This sense of superiority has as its scaffold, very real, and extraordinary successes. We have flown to the moon, and live in the clouds, in towers built of engineering genius. We have circumnavigated the globe in under 48hrs and can instantaneously communicate with someone on the other side of the world. However, along with the brick and mortar of our achievements, is a cheap plaster of ego. A fault in our concrete foundation. It is a lie we have told ourselves. One which has worked its way into the fabric of our identity. We are superior. Better. More deserving. It is a dangerous line of thought. When applied to our fellow man, it is a cultivation of the worst aspects of humanity, masquerading as betterment and progress and responsible for some of the most heinous acts in human history. And when applied to the natural world? To the trees which supply the very scaffold to our towers, and the animals and rivers our sustenance – these have become our inalienable right, our resources. It is a lie. It is grasping at meaning in an infinitely complex universe, on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old, and which we are but recent arrivals (at a mere 2.8 million years old, according to the oldest fossil records, an Australopithecine named Lucy), and must strive to distinguish ourselves.

This preamble might seem largely academic. These are ideas and nothing more. They do not encompass my thoughts and feelings and actions. I am well-informed, university educated, a naturalist, etc. And this might be true…individually. But you are not just an individual, you are a member of a society. And this is group think. It is the influence of ones peers, cohorts, and fellow human beings. It reaches beyond the pale of reason, and tugs at dormant and suppressed evolutionary drives, things that we do not even know about ourselves, brought to light. Social experiments have shown that one’s actions as an individual are not always the same as those taken when part of a group. The best we can do is inform ourselves, remain open-minded, and challenge and re-evaluate our prejudices.


So how does this blog fit in? Objectivity is the luxury of a balanced playing field in which one can access, examine and process relatively unfiltered, raw information. However, the lens through which we view the cockroach does not capture an unbiased image. Rather, it is filtered through a complex emotional landscape of personal experience, public opinion, social and cultural prejudices, and a long-standing historical grudge, dating back thousands of years which has etched a ‘truth’ into our collective consciousness – Cockroaches are filthy, vectors for disease and must be eliminated. Therefore, this account is the reactionary swing of the pendulum. It isn’t an unfettered, sycophantic account of flattery, nor is it in the vein of the mainstream, which espouses revulsion and confirms and cements people’s biases and intolerance. It is an account of diversity, and a homage to the complex suite of physiological, and behavioural adaptations accrued over an incredible 320 million year evolutionary journey by one of the oldest and most successful organisms on the planet.


While I, as a biologist and explorer have the luxury of travelling to far flung destinations and viewing nature free from human interference, many people don’t. So, we might start our exploration as many do, a Google search. The internet, repository of all human knowledge, surely therein must lie a well-balanced, fair evaluation of the blattodea? Ermmmm…Well, the first 100 posts at a glance will give you a rough indication of the upstream public relations battle the cockroach faces. Despite a handful of questionably neutral sites (the scientist in me cringes at classifying the “peer-reviewed” Wikipedia in this category), the vast majority are either pest control sites, or blogs and articles disseminating unflattering factoids perpetuating disgust, and fear (When cockroaches inherit the earth”, “How a cockroach can live a week without it’s head”, etc…). Then, on the other end of the spectrum, the vocal minority, the cockroach fetishists which, through their over-the-top romanticization (and videos, which even I find difficult to watch), arguably do even more to damage the already beleaguered reputation of these insects.

[In a curious role reversal, I find it ironic that to the wildlife photographer, it is often these very pest control companies that are the nuisance, infringing on copyrights with wanton disregard to the original owner, dodging DMCA takedown notices, and popping up elsewhere to feed off other people’s hard work. And what’s worse is that these photos are often mislabeled, go contrary to the author’s original intent, and further spread disinformation related to their own agenda. You could say they put the cock, in cockroach.]

Anyways, buried somewhere in the 14,100,000 search results there are undoubtedly a handful of sites which seek to dispel myth and offer a fair, balanced, fact-based, informative view of this maligned order, without resorting to emotional manipulation, pejorative language, and confirmation bias. Great, so I’ll just read some of those to form my opinion, you can stop blogging now. However, things are rarely so simple. Search results are based on algorithms which use a variety of factors to determine the relevancy of the page being sought. One important factor is page rank. This is a rating given to a page based on the number of other pages which link to it. So Rihanna’s most recently written fluff piece on her shower encounter with a cockroach (You see, you have probably already opened a new tab and a searching ‘Rihanna – cockroach -shower’ My God, can you provide a link?! Calm down, it was just an example! The cockroach is fine, probably Rihanna too…) or more realistically, a pest management site’s 110% extermination guarantee, is going to get more hits and be higher on a search engine’s results page than any articulate, well-composed, and thought-provoking analysis (My, my ears are burning!). So even if your intent is to find an ‘objective’ account this can be a challenge, and a slog through digital space.

I can feel exhaustion starting to set in. At this point I usually turn to the world of science, academia, a place where critical thinking and objectivity is prized. It is the accumulation of unadulterated information, clearly sourced, it’s methodology clearly outlined. It is Truth. This is the tale I have been told, which I swallowed as a university student and which now tastes bitter on the tongue, and tiresome as it rings in my ears.These are my peers, whom I feel comfortable with, and an affinity for. However, I am also aware of dogma, of our humanity encroaching on methodology, and of our limitations. Nevertheless, the scientific method is our greatest tool when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge, and so I exchange Google for PubMed, which searches a huge library of biomedical and life science journals. As the results pour in, I see a profusion of latin names, chemical formulae, parametric and non-parametric statistical analyses (which theoretically eliminate extraneous variables such that conclusions can be ascribed to their appropriate causative agents), and everything you’d expect where accuracy and precision are prized. The content is a gold mine of information. And yet, there is a disturbing echo to the Google search results. The studies are not an unbounded exploration of its subject material. They are not knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

[A brief aside. There is often an intolerance. A negatively framed question when it comes to research funding that has no apparent application. “What is the use? My tax dollars could be so much better spent, etc…” There is the standard reply I give to people, that knowledge is cumulative and connected. Studying a poison arrow frog, the biology, natural history, it might be seen as a waste today, but Epipedobatin, a batrachotoxin extracted from the skin of Epipedobates anthonyi has been shown to have non-addictive, analgesic effects 200 times more potent than morphine. You might just be thanking this little frog for helping to solve America’s prescription drug problem! But this is an explanation that still has as its justification, a very human-based motive. The need to for unhampered research is more than this. Information shapes the way we see the world. Study and knowledge of only the most immediate and obviously beneficial and human-relevant topics and subjects confirms our place at the centre of the universe. However, the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, and we must acknowledge a world beyond ourselves. Perhaps the unrestricted study of the natural world is a means of doing this.]

No, these are directed studies insisting on answers to very human problems and concerns: What compressive forces can the exoskeleton withstand (approximately 900X their own body weight) – related to the cockroaches ability to squeeze into small spaces and withstand impacts. Which pesticides are the most effective and what are their physiological effects? What is the most efficient manner in dispersing this agent? To what extent do cockroach allergens contribute to morbidity in low-income housing? Etc. While some will look at the scientific method employed and be aghast (Eg. In the first example, a “series of dynamic compressive cycle tests” was used. Let’s deconstruct that phrase. Essentially, a piston gradually applied increased pressure over time, whilst physiological, neurological, biochemical, etc. responses could be recorded through the use of implanted electrodes in the eyes, brains and bodies. Remarkably, up to 900X the insect’s body weight, and there is no damage. Above that figure, the headline doesn’t explore, but 100s of crushed subjects is a certainty.The protocol for ethical experimentation on non-human laboratory subjects is subject to stringent guidelines. However, this is mostly the domain of vertebrate subjects. Enforcement, especially for subjects like the cockroach is much less a certainty. This experimentation is a reality of science and I recognize its importance, but I do often have questions, especially when the end goal isn’t necessarily an unadulterated knowledge, but rather a handbook to enhanced extermination techniques. While all this information can be sifted through, and eventually collated into a body of information which doesn’t advocate, and has no links to human concerns, it is painstaking. But slowly, laboriously, a story emerges. And it is an incredible one!

Stay tuned for Part II – Or there’s always the blue pill…


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Tailless whip spider (Heterophrynus alces) from Iwokrama reserve, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

If it weren’t for the fact that these arachnids are utterly harmless and slightly more obscure than the mygalomorphs and scorpions, they would certainly occupy a distinguished position in the vanguard of nightmares’ creatures. However, to label them as a simple curiosity or a Halloween special does them a disservice. They form an ancient, and successful sister-clade (branch with most recent common ancestor) to the vinegaroons (Uropygi) and schizomida (microwhip scorpions). Their adaptations (dorso-ventral flattening of the body, spinose raptorial pedipalps and modification of forelegs into exquisitely sensitive sense organs) have led to successful speciation (155 species in 5 different families) and radiation across the tropics.

Like most creatures occupying the realm of nightmares, she emerges when sun yields to night, and our imaginations conquer good sense. She may materialize from a cavern or cave, a burrow or some long-abandoned retreat. She advances tentatively into the open, her sedate pace belying her incredible agility and speed. Her obscenely long forelegs swing to and fro, scanning,  probing the ground ahead of her for potential prey, mates or rivals. These highly modified legs appear as long, fragile extensions (or ‘whips’) but they are instrumental in forming an image of her environment since the small clusters of ocelli on her prosoma (cephalothorax) are oriented upwards and serve little purpose in the highly detailed and colour-based sight as we know it (rather they are thought to function in the regulation of circadian rhythms by discerning light/dark cycles, as well as the perception of vague movements, and overhead obstacles (important in determining the exposure of her daytime retreat). The antenniform legs also play a key role in hunting; packed with a dense diversity of afferent (sensory) receptors in the form of (at least) 7 different types of sensillae.

Tailless whip spider antenniform leg closeup showing sensory hairs. Photographed in Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

These receptors range from the mechanosensory slit sensillae (important in the perception of mechanical deformation and/or strain), trichobothria (measuring pressure differentials), joint receptor(s) (proprioceptor(s) which sense stimuli arising within the joint regarding position, motion, and equilibrium) to chemosensory (mostly olfactory) sensillae. While the bulk of the sensory information appears to come from the antenniform legs, and indeed these play a crucial role as outlined above, other mechano/chemosensory organs have been found on the claws and pedipalps, perhaps ensuring a level of redundancy in case the fragile forelegs are damaged, severed or lost by autotomy (a survival strategy whereby a limb is sacrificially amputated (a pre-severed limb is held together along fracture planes (1), and it is the controlled failure of adhesion mechanisms through internal and external forces which allow the limb’s release) to assure the safety of the organism as a whole). The combination of these sense organs help Amblypygi develop and maintain a multi-dimensional awareness of their environment, while mushroom bodies and neuropils (areas of dense synaptic connectivity) found within the brain have been associated with more complex behaviours such as learning and memory and the more recently hypothesized integration of diverse and complex stimuli (2), (3). Essential to the relay of all this information are giant peripheral interneurons occupying the antenniform legs, and though the full extent of their role has yet to be determined, it has been posited that the increased diameter of the axonal fibres and hence faster conduction speeds  are important in the large distances that a signal must travel within these elongated limbs, which would otherwise suffer from signal degradation and lengthier stimulus-response times.

While in situ studies of predatory behaviour are few and far between, there are several laboratory studies which demonstrate a 4 stage hunting strategy: 1) Prey is first encountered and assessed. The antenniform legs are alerted to the presence of prey by airborne or ground vibrations enabling the reorientation, aiming and tracking of the prey while the body as a whole remains stationary. Mechanosensory sensillae determine the prey’s distance and relative position, while olfactory organs determine the prey type. Unfortunately there is insufficient data to determine whether Amblypygi adapt their hunting strategies to specific prey size and type; however, given the sheer number and diverse types of sensillae it stands to reason that there is probably a certain degree of prey discrimination 2) Next, the antenniform legs will gently contact either side of the prey (surprisingly without initiating the prey’s flight response). This is thought to either guide the prey into a more vulnerable position, or else to provide additional information 3) The whip spider then unfolds its pedipalps revealing raptorial spines and frames the prey with its antenniform legs without actually touching it, composing a strike ‘image’ to accurately judge distance, speed, etc. 4) Finally the sensory legs are swept aside as the prey is impaled on the spines of the open pedipalps.

Tailless whip spider (Heterophrynus alces.) from Iwokrama reserve, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Tail-less whip spider (Heterophrynus sp.) with cricket prey. Photographed in Jatun Sacha reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Observations of mating amblypygi are rare in the wild, and photos even more so; however several documented accounts relate a scenario similar to the more familiar scorpion and Uropygi mating rituals. Notably, a short courtship involving a touching and stroking of the forelegs, a pedipalp embrace, the deposition of a spermatophore directly onto the substrate and the guidance of the female by the male over the sperm packet upon which she lowers herself. Eggs develop in a case held below the opisthosoma (abdomen) and hatch approximately 3-4 months later.

Like some other basal lineages (Thelyphonida and Scorpions), mothers exhibit a degree of subsocial behaviour (ie. care for their young). This is most obvious in the manner in which they carry their newly hatched young  (first instar stage) on their backs until their first moult (second instar stage) when their antenniform legs become sufficiently developed to allow them to hunt for themselves. This seemingly trivial extension of maternal care offers substantial evolutionary advantage in neonatal survivorship at a time when mortality rates are at their highest. Furthermore some species have been demonstrated to show kin recognition in successive moults with concomitant decreases in aggression (4).

Photographs of this group typically rely on frontal portraits of the head and pedipalps. This highlights two key features: 1) The eyes; though functionally of little value these are still important compositionally, and 2) The spines which ornament most/all amblypygi pedipalps. This is an effective view and probably offers the most advantageous perspective which includes the most features.

Tailless whip spider (Damon sp.). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Tailless whip spider (Damon sp.). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Tailless whip spider (Charon sp.). Photographed in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Tailless whip spider (Charon sp.). Photographed in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Tailless whip spider (Damon sp.). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Tailless whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Other views to consider might be overhead closeups of the head (first image of this section and below).

Tailless whip spider (Charon sp.). Photographed in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Or else high magnification views detailing armature and spines (below). Owing to their nocturnal nature, properly photographing amblypygi within their environment through wide-angle macro can be difficult, though provided there are interesting topographical features this may be a desirable perspective. Nb. that this will require either a multi-flash setup or a single flash fired multiple times with a longer shutter speed.

Tailless whip spider (Charon sp.). Photographed in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Tailless whip spider (Euphrynichus bacillifer). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Alternatively, many amblypygi show beautiful translucence with delicate whites, purples and blues immediately following ecdysis (moulting). Unfortunately this highly photogenic phase is quite short-lived, usually no more than 30 minutes. Therefore if ecdysis is imminent it is probably best to remain nearby and check in frequently. During this teneral stage they also display a small amount of UV reflectance which disappears completely as the exoskeleton hardens and becomes increasingly pigmented.

Tailless whip spider (Euphrynichus amanica) under UV llight. Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Tailless whip spider (Euphrynichus amanica). Photographed in Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

A clip from “Life in the Undergrowth” narrated by David Attenborough:

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The Bolas spider

I am hoping to start a new monthly feature giving some background into my most interesting finds. So without further ado, here’s October’s instalment.

Bolas spider

During the day they are at rest and fairly unresponsive. Undoubtedly they possess an interesting physiognomy, often camouflaged as bird droppings or other unpalatable fare and thus suitable for portraiture; however, the real point of interest is their hunting strategy which can only be seen at night.

Bolas spider (Exechocentrus n.sp.) from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Bolas spider (Exechocentrus n.sp.) from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

And so, as darkness descends, the bolas spider emerges from its daytime slumber, finds a suitable location free from obstructions and begins to build. It is not a web in any recognizable sense, but rather a single long silken line to which it attaches globule(s) of a glyco-protein glue; together, they form the bolas. The silken line is made of a relatively rigid silk, not like the capture strands of a standard web, but rather like a fishing pole, rather than the line itself. It can bend and has give, but it must provide a frame to support the heavier globules which adhere to it. As the silk is pulled from the spinnerets, it is pulled towards the mouth where the globules are affixed before being lowered to where it rests below the spider’s body. “Each of these globules has a complex internal structure consisting of a mass of curled or folded fibre embedded in a viscid matrix which is in turn surrounded by a less viscous layer. This results in the low viscosity liquid flowing past the moth’s scales to reach the cuticle below, while the more viscous liquid forms a bond to the thread to sustain the moth’s weight. The folded thread inside the ball permits elastic elongations which extend the spider’s striking range”(Unreferenced Wikipedia note).

The exact form of the bolas differs between species, with some species using a single terminal globule attached to the line, while others use interspersed droplets. The line is completed in short order and is then allowed to dangle, or rather angle.

Bolas spider (Exechocentrus n.sp.) from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Bolas spider (Exechocentrus n.sp.) from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

As one might expect from such a peculiar spider, this is not the whole story. Left to chance alone, swinging a single line would be even less effective than casting a line without a fly or bait. However, studies have shown that bolas spiders, on average capture as much as their web building counterparts. How? With perfume. Or rather a sex pheromone. Normally the domain of sexually willing and available females, the pheromone is species specific, and entices male suitors. Wafting on the humid night air, the moths follow the concentration gradient with their ultra sensitive antennae until they reach the source. Once there, they will literally fly circles around the waiting spider, affording several attempts at capture before wising to the spider’s subterfuge. This aggressive chemical mimicry is even more complex than what it appears on the surface. Some bolas spider species (Mastiphora hutchinsoni among others) have been shown to emit pheromones for multiple moth species and adjust the concentration ratio in response to the scotophase (the stage of darkness in a light/dark cycle) and resultant activity pattern particular to each moth species. How such a complicated strategy has emerged is truly a wonder of nature. One hypothesis is that the pheromone analog is actually derived from a native pheromone used by the female bolas spider to attract the much smaller males, which would otherwise have difficulty finding her. However the mechanism behind the development of multiple pheromones and the ability to adjust their concentration ratios remains baffling.

Hunting strategies seem to vary between the three genera of Mastiphoreae. “Mastophora holds the bolas stationary with a front leg until a moth approaches, and then cocks the leg and swings the bolas towards the prey with a rapid pendulum-like stroke. Ordgarius begins to whirl the bolas rapidly when detecting an incoming moth. Cladomelea akermani whirls the bolas immediately after it is prepared for about 15 minutes, even when there is no moth present. Ordgarius sometimes has smaller droplets above the terminal one, whereas the other genera produce only one terminal globule.”(Unreferenced Wikepedia note).

Like most of the araneidae, bolas spiders have poor vision, instead relying on the vibrations from the beating wings which are picked up by pressure sensitive hairs (trichobothria) which line the legs. Once the bolas makes contact with the moth, the sticky globule(s) sink and spread over the scales preventing escape through their release. The spider then gently reels up its prey and will either feed or else tie up its prey with a different form of silk and produce a new bolas to continue hunting. On the occasions where hunting is unsuccessful, the line is brought in and consumed.

It would be interesting to trace the emergence of the bolas spiders and the selective pressures which have led to the secondary loss of a web building habitus. One might think that the ability to emit a species-specific pheromone evolved first and then the abundance of prey led to the dispensation of expensive silk production in a gradual and/or episodic evolution towards its current hunting strategy. However, this view is complicated by the the fact that standard webs are not effective at catching lepidopteran prey short of entanglement. The wings of butterflies and moths are covered in delicate overlapping scales which are readily dislodged upon even the slightest contact, something which is exacerbated with frantic flapping. Therefore when butterflies and moths fly into a web, the web adheres to the shed scales, enabling escape for the majority of subjects. This might indicate that the web building stratagem was lost first, followed only later by complex pheromone mimicry. This would imply stages in bolas development (or reduction in web design) were probably present at one point or another and that such a means of capture might have involved less specificity in terms of prey.

This wonderfully intriguing spider undoubtedly has more secrets to reveal though finding them might involve a bit of fishing.

Bolas spider in action begins at 3:00 (David Attenborough’s “Life in the undergrowth”.

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Border skirmish

There was a moment’s hesitation whilst the border woman looked up from my forged vaccination card to size me up. “No…this doesn’t look right” she frowned, handing my certificate to another officer, who seconded her reservations. I had had to keep my subterfuge simple, the addition of a simple pen stroke, something designed mislead and misdirect rather than raise questions. Anything more overt would be overextension on my part, a hard lesson learned from experience. Now they were both leaning forward, squinting, noses practically touching the paper I’d folded over and over again, creases designed to confuse and further obfuscate the change I’d made. “Already expired” the woman finally pronounced, giving my vaccination card a dismissive backhanded flick in my direction, the universal sign for “get this shit out of my face”. The second officer already had the faint crease foreshadowing a smile and looked ready to motion me aside where we could “discuss” the fine. It didn’t take much imagination to see dollar bill signs emanating from his head like some cartoonish thought bubble. The woman meanwhile was turning in her chair, eyes glazing, flushing my shitty prospects from her mind. I reached for my vaccination card, sighed the sigh of resignation that precedes doing something stupid, indulged in that blissful 1/2 second fantasy where things actually go my way, and then opened my mouth.

“Pardon, mais je crois que vous vous trompez” – “I’m sorry but I think that you’re mistaken”. The officer’s chair stopped mid-swivel. Although negotiation is a matter of course, the pair seemed somewhat taken aback. The growing smirk of the one and the vacuity of expression of the other had disappeared. It hadn’t taken me long to  come to the conclusion that courtesy is a ruefully one-sided affair. I held the woman’s gaze a moment then let my eyes fall in what I hoped would be taken as a sign of deference rather than of guilt and then chanced what I hoped to be a disarming smile (you’ll notice a lot of baseless and naive ‘hoping’ going on in my narratives, a counterbalance to the crying in the shower scenes which I mostly edit out… or as far as you’re concerned simply don’t happen), though it appeared to either be lost in translation or else simply ignored as the woman simply pursed her lips and settled her rifle in my direction. She snatched the card out of my now trembling hands and I readied myself for the further tightening of the screws of scrutiny.

I imagine that these encounters follow a rather typical trajectory in which 1) Introductions are made 2) Documents exchanged 3) Problems found by officials 4) Problems denied by traveller 5) Possible reference to peers or superior who corroborate original official (with an expected cut of the profits) 6) Payment terms suggested 7) Negotiation 8) Payment 9) Passage granted. This simple flow chart of course neglects the intricacies of negotiation and further complications engendered by the original forgery which might involve an almost “snakes and ladders” like progression where any simple misstep might require additional documents be furnished, other officials engaged, running from one department to another, all the while the imagined dollar bill signs radiating from each encountered official gathering into some dark, brooding and imminent financial thunderstorm. I was still in stage 4, with stage 5 involving possible escalation and involvement of additional personnel and further complications. Something had to be done. And so, with a second sigh of resignation that precedes doing something stupid in as many minutes, I played my hand.

It was a maneuver straight out of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”,  “change the landscape or the theatre of the battlefield”. With an innocent and nonchalant “What does this look like to you?” I needlessly involved another Muzungu in the line next to me. He was part of an organized tour and someone whom I hoped would fall under the auspices of the tour organizers who would undoubtedly speak Swahili and/or have some influence. Of course they could simply disavow any connection or complicity and leave me dangling from this fetching new noose I’d crafted for myself, though they might also not want to appear unsympathetic to their clients. These thoughts raged briefly as I made my gambit.

As if his grimace weren’t enough of an indicator, a trail of under-the-breath expletives beginning in “fucking” and ending in “fucker” muttered through tight lips confirmed my suspicions… this Muzungu wasn’t happy. Although we’d had a few pleasant exchanges while waiting he seemed to have an altogether different opinion of me now, not to mention harbouring a profound regret at having made my acquaintance. “I…I don’t know…” he finally managed to utter without even a glimpse of the object of contention. “But it kinda looks like it expires next year”. Hope rekindled? The border woman’s eyes narrowed and then with a sound that was something between a squawk and a growl she motioned for him to hand over his card, studiously comparing the two as though my deception were all part of a larger conspiracy. I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps I’d gotten my head wedged in the steadily narrowing window of opportunity. Several moments later the woman practically flung the man’s vaccination card back at him, while still holding mine along with any other cards she still intended to play close to her chest. Fortunately, it was then that the guide for the tour operator interceded. Some soft spoken words in Swahili were exchanged and suddenly I found myself liberated, my vaccination card accepted, my passport stamped, the keys to the kingdom given. It was a complete about face that had me equally wrong-footed. My brain told me to make sure things were sorted with the border woman, to find out what the hell had happened, whilst my body was already half-way out the door. My sense of elation was weighted down by suspicions…things had gone a little too smoothly. I stood west of the Rwandan border, my feet firmly on Congolese soil, already a befuddled target.

As I exited the border control offices, the guide (who had just finished his own round of negotiations on behalf of his clients) generously offered to give me a lift to the national park office. Although neither of us had made mention of his role in getting me clear of the vaccination card kerfuffle, it was clear, I was indebted. And so, as I climbed into the air-conditioned, tint-windowed SUV and he introduced himself, I was filled with all the misgivings that being introduced to a man named “Innocent” in the Congo might entail. Of a sudden I was taken by an involuntary shudder, what kind of a devil I had just shaken hands with?

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Between two worlds

I gazed at the calendar and visualized the months gone by, tracing the path from where I lay, dozing in my hammock in the Rwandan rainforest, to where I’d begun some two months ago in the bustling capital of Dar Es Salaam. I allowed my thoughts to wander the sinuous back alleys of memory, jumping from national park to national park: Dancing with mambas in Udzungwa, hypothermia in the relentless rains atop Mt. Meru, walking in the paw-prints of lions before being detained by rangers in Katavi and an endless march of days fading into obscurity. Sometimes commemorated with a photo, but more often than not just a pencil-thin sketch scrubbed clean by the ebb and flow of each new day. These were places where angst and fear were but pinpricks, felt beneath a blanket of security, the knowledge that safety though at times fraught with uncertainty, was never wholly out of reach. Now, that threadbare blanket had worn through and I could feel the rising dread. It had a pulse, and it was racing…

The waking hours preceding the Congo were a shadow-theatre played in the back of my brain. Stripped of detail, they were the silhouettes of a brighter day on the horizon. And now, as I lay curled up with the last of the sun’s vanishing rays, I am suddenly drowned in a deluge of emotion, a cocktail of adrenaline-fuelled anxiety and wild, waking dreams that burns with a chemical fire brighter than the proverbial midnight oil. I still had the option to back down; it was the sliver of a possibility, one shaved thinner and thinner by the ticking clock, and yet it was also the kind of opportunity to which I knew I would never avail myself. It wasn’t pride or the need to prove myself, but rather the strength of the current my actions and emotions had engendered.  I opened a family album, and hoped to fortify my resolve or at least rally my spirits but was greeted only by a gallery of disapproval. The imaginary voices beseeched, and implored and when I remained resolute, their chorus of complaints finally gave way to condemnation. I closed the album with a sigh. I hadn’t told anyone that tomorrow I crossover to the Congo, a decision that weighed heavily even as I waded beyond the shores of what had been the comfortable unknown in Rwanda and Tanzania. Now those shallows were ceding to the fathomless depths where the silhouettes of deepwater threats swam below. In the Congo I would be a minnow, just trying to keep ahead of the maw. Out the window, a yawning darkness; a black canvas for shadowy thoughts painted in with doubt and misgivings. I longed for the light, yet quailed at the day it would usher in. I closed my eyes and stared at the image seared into my consciousness, Nyiragongo volcano.

Nyiragongo volcanic crater lake. Photo from Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Waking or asleep the Congo loomed large. In truth, I felt I was already there.

The following hours of packing, preparing and heading to the border were a hazy memory even as I lived them. A quirky distortion of time which squeezed the seconds from the minutes and wrung the minutes from the hours. All the while my heart beat set the swing of the pendulum.

“Certificat fièvre jaune”. “What?” I was suddenly brought out of my reverie. “Yellow fever card”, the border woman repeated. I stayed the tremor in my hand as I checked my pockets for the card. Although most countries officially require documentation of a yellow fever vaccination, it is rarely if ever enforced, the Congo is the exception. Here the rules have become an extension of corruption, a perversion by which money can be extorted. No card would entail the largest fine (upwards of $200 for a noviciate of the Congo) whilst an out of date vaccination would mean a fine, whose final amount would be determined by my bargaining skills under duress. Either option would invite further scrutiny of my entrance documents with additional penalties, real or imagined. The unrivalled number of UN officials and NGOs based in the Congo, “frequent flyers” across the border has translated into a lucrative opportunity for graft, in this case, literally the official stamp of the Congo. “Yellow fever card”, the woman insisted. I hesitated, then with what I hoped was an inaudible gulp I handed over my forged yellow fever card. The certificate, valid for 10 years, would as chance have it expired two days ago. Caught in a lie, I could only imagine what penalty I would be subject to. The seconds quickened, the calm was breaking, I was entering the Congo…

Nyiragongo volcanic crater lake. Photo from Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

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