July 10, 2020

The Plant Life Project, iNat, and Exploring Nature While Black - iNat User Camisha Butler

[Last month, a few weeks after iNaturalist released its Black Lives Matter statement, we received an email from Camisha Butler, (@camcamcam, below) a Black iNat user who hails from the Atlanta area in the United States. Camisha wrote about her lifelong relationship with nature, her use of iNat for her Plant Life Project, and some of the experiences she’s had being Black while out in nature. She said she’d be happy to share her story, so we exchanged a few emails and I used her responses for what follows. - Tony]

While Camisha Butler grew up in the city (Atlanta’s West End, to be exact), she spent many of her childhood summers about one and half hours away in Hancock County, with her grandmother and her cousins. “[My grandmother’s house] was surrounded by a large field and I often spent my time running around barefoot and climbing trees,” she recalls. “I still love walking around barefoot in the summer and feeling my toes dig into the grass and moist soil.” And at around the age of twelve she and her family would join her brother’s Boy Scout activities, like hiking and camping, “and that is when I first became excited about being outdoors and realizing that it was an interest and lifestyle.”

However, Camisha has had negative experiences while out exploring, and in her experience this is often due to the misconception that Black people don’t enjoy the outdoors. She’s been told “I didn't know black people camped,” by an acquaintance, and says

I have experienced curious stares from whole families on hikes and even at the showers while camping, [and] although it's not particularly harmful behaviour, it feels restrictive and that makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I'm not entitled to enjoy a mountainside or gaze out on a rushing creek in peace...In my adult years, I have found a community of black women and men who hike regularly and we often share different trails or pictures from our hikes. I think it's important to have representation everywhere as no race is a cultural monolith and nature belongs to the Earth, which means it belongs to everyone. 

About nine years ago, Camisha learned that her great-great-grandmother, Susie Reaves, was both a midwife (“she personally delivered over 200 children in her lifetime”) and someone who treated others with medicinal herbs. “She would prepare various teas, tinctures and salves which she also kept in her home for her family and patients,” says Camisha. 

This really inspired me. Although I loved being outdoors and being amongst the trees and other greenery, it struck me that I did not know anything about them, I didn’t even know their names. I desired to grow an understanding of the plants around me, not so much for medicinal purposes, but just because I felt it my birthright and responsibility to develop a knowledge of greenery around me so that I can continue our family relation to Mother Earth.

“I’m a serial collector. I collect records, concert ticket stubs, museum pencils and I've even had a paper bag collection,” Camisha explains, “[so] around 2012, I thought I would begin ‘collecting’ plants. Not physically, but through identifying plants around me through photography, and that was the birth of The Plant Life Project.” So she started identifying and learning about the naturally occurring plants she encountered, particularly weeds. Her favorite is the American trumpet vine (above), which is native to eastern North America. 

Last summer, I first saw the trumpet vine on the side of the highway and I became obsessed. I happened to find some growing off an old building in the city and I stretched my arm AND camera zoom to capture a pic so I could learn its name. I’m happy to say that just yesterday, I spotted some vines growing over a very accessible bridge up the street from my house. I went home, dressed properly in my boots, sweats, long sleeves and gloves and I came back and down around the bridge to get my first up close picture. They are so beautiful in color and shape, they appear melodic, the name is quite fitting. It was the highlight of my weekend.

After years of using various resources for identification, Camisha started on iNat in 2018, and appreciates the computer vision suggestions and the corrections, as well as helpful comments from other users. Her goal is to have at least 150 observations by year’s end, with the majority being research grade. She’ll also break out the iNat app while shopping for house plants to get some care tips and information. “The iNat community,” she says, 

is super inclusive and diverse in cultures and interests. It's exciting finding iNat users near and far. There's a comfort in the diversity on the platform because it shows that we're together in our common love of nature. There are biologists, nature photographers and observers from around the world with varied reasons for using iNat, some love plants like me and some enjoy fauna. The community really provides a well rounded view that anyone can be a naturalist. And because IDs are crowdsourced, you have an opportunity to interact with many knowledgeable people from anywhere.

- You can follow Camisha and her #PlantLifeProject on Instagram at nutellabrownbaby.

- Coincidentally, it happens to be #BlackBotanistsWeek! Follow the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram.

Posted on July 10, 2020 21:37 by tiwane tiwane | 14 comments | Leave a comment

July 07, 2020

A Japanese Naturalist Documents Their Country's Native Plants - Observation of the Week, 7/6/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Aquilegia buergeriana var. buergeriana flower, seen in Japan by @skycat!

[skycat doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Japanese, so both of us relied on Google Translate here. I’ve cleaned up Google Translate’s version of  skycat’s responses, hopefully not too much was lost in translation in either direction.]

“I've always loved living things since I was a kid, and I used to collect beautiful flowering plants from nearby mountains and grow them at home,” recalls skycat. That passion continued into adulthood, and they’ve been gardening for quite some time now. 

After years of looking at plants that have been bred to be pretty, skycat now wants to show off the beauty of wild plants as well, and has been photographing plants unique to Japan, hoping to one day see them become as popular as the standard garden plants from the country, such as the Golden-rayed Lily (ヤマユリ) and the Japanese Camellia (ヤブツバキ).

One such plant is the native Aquilegia buergeriana, which skycat says is widely distributed in Japan’s mountainous regions. Many members of this species have red sepals, but skycat says in the Tokai region, where they reside, the flowers have whitish-yellow sepals. 

The genus Aquilegia, known in English as “columbines”, contains around 70 species and is native to the northern hemisphere, especially in areas of higher elevation. The flowers of this genus are striking, with five sepals and five petals. The petals have five nectar spurs reaching past the back of the flower, giving the columbine flowers a distinctive look.

skycat tells me they use iNaturalist as a record of “my own images taken in the past. 

I like the fact that I can easily retrieve past images...I take photos so that other people could understand not only the flowers of the plant, but also the leaves, the overall appearance, and the way it appears in its habitat. As I have used iNaturalist, I’ve begun to carefully observe even smaller flowering plants that I had not noticed before.

- by Tony Iwane

- The U.S. Forest Service has a thorough article about the co-evolution of North American columbine flowers and their pollinators (primarily hawk moths and humming birds in North America).

- Differences in columbine nectar spur length are due not to the number of cells in the spur, but to the elongation of those cells.

Posted on July 07, 2020 04:42 by tiwane tiwane | 12 comments | Leave a comment

June 28, 2020

An Entomologist in Iraq Finds a Rare, Recently Described Monitor Lizard! - Observation of the Week, 6/28/20

Our Observation of the Week is the first Nesterov’s Desert Monitor posted to iNat, seen in Iraq by @soran4!

“I grew up in a small village in the Kurdistan region of Iraq so I have great contact with nature,” says Soran Ahmed, who is currently a Masters of Science student in entomology at the University of Sulaimani. “I have a huge interest in studying biodiversity of Iraq, mainly insect diversity but I also love identifying any animals I find in our nature, and conserving threatened animals. I usually go to the field at least once a week to find animal diversity in our region.”

Soran found the monitor lizard you see above near a water source (see video here), and tells me they’re at risk of being killed by humans due to a misunderstanding about their behavior. The lizard’s local common name translates roughly as “goat sucker” and people in the area mistakenly believe they bite the teats of goats and sheep, and will thus sometimes dispatch them.

This monitor species was described in 2015 by Wolfgang Böhme, et al. A specimen was actually collected in 1914 by Russian herpetologist P.V. Nesterov, who “had intended to include them as a new Varanus species in his long manuscript on the reptiles of Kurdistan,” but he was not able to finish his work due to the outbreak of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. A closer look at these once forgotten specimens, along with a recent photo of the lizard in the field by Willi Schneider, led to further study and finally a description of the species. Although little is known about these lizards, they are believed to range only in “the western and southwestern margin of the Zagros Mountain range on both sides of the Iraqi/Iranian border and down to the area of Shiraz, Fars Province, Iran.”

Soran (above) says “since we do not have sufficient sources for identification, using iNaturalist indeed helps me for identification purposes; it is really helpful. It’s also a perfect gate for sharing our diversity with other peoples around the world.”

- by Tony Iwane. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

- Take a look at Soran’s YouTube channel, and he also has an Instagram account here

- There are over 7,500 monitor observations on iNat, check them out!

- Another reptile in the region, the spider-tailed horned viper, was also only recently described after a specimen was collected decades ago. It was the subject of an Observation of the Week post back in 2016.

Posted on June 28, 2020 20:52 by tiwane tiwane | 20 comments | Leave a comment

June 22, 2020

A Trip to Texas Provides a Long Sought Photographic Opportunity - Observation of the Week, 6/21/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Long-tailed Giant Ichneumonid Wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus), seen in the United States by @cholmesphoto!

“I became interested in Megarhyssa a number of years ago when I stumbled across a congregation of males of M. macrurus and M. greenei on a log waiting to mate with emerging females,” recalls New York based photographer Clarence Holmes. “I was able to capture photos of the males, but one of my macro targets since then has been to capture photos of a female (particularly M. macrurus ovipositing). I have had limited opportunities until recently.”

That changed, however, on a recent trip to the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas this spring. On his first visit to the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA) he found an ovipositing female but couldn’t get a good angle on it.  “At the time I added it to my long mental list of missed opportunities and moved on...

The next day I returned to investigate a few different trails, and while walking one of them stopped to take in a view along a creek.  I detected motion to my right and there I saw three female M. macrurus all ovipositing on the same tree!  I took time to observe their behavior and was able to capture my long desired photo of the female ovipositing.

Take a look at Clarence’s photo and you’ll see the remarkable mechanism this insect uses to get her young off to a good start. Megarhyssa wasps, also known as “stump stabbers”, are able to detect their hosts (the wood-boring larvae of Tremex columba sawflies) then drill into the wood using their incredible long ovipositors (this can take 40 minutes!). The translucent blue membrane you see at the base of the ovipositor pushes it into the wood as the tip cuts. Once the host is found, it is stung and paralyzed, then the egg is laid. The wasp larva will consume the paralyzed host then pupate in the burrow before emerging. 

Growing up in the US state of Ohio, Clarence (above) tells me he’s always been interested in nature, and observed the various birds, insects and plants in his backyard and beyond. “I started doing macro photography of insects in my teens and it has been a constant throughout my life,” he says. “I have expanded my observation of nature as a birder, and recently have taken an interest in fungi and lichens. I license many of my photos of the natural world for various uses including print publications and for use on the web.”

He joined iNat in late 2018 and started uploading his photos and making IDs in 2019. He first tries to use resources like field guides and BugGuide, but says iNats help if he’s stumped (no pun intended).

My primary interest is insects and spiders, but I have also posted observations of anything in nature that I have been able to capture photos of. I spend a lot of time out in the field hoping to discover, observe, capture (photos), and learn about insects and any other aspects of nature that I encounter. iNaturalist has added to these activities by helping me see what others are seeing in my area, by helping me identify what I see, and by allowing me to improve my identification skills in many taxons.

- by Tony Iwane

- You can check out Clarence’s photos here, he’s got quite a diverse portfolio.

- This page goes into the Megarhyssa oviposition process in some detail and includes video. Pretty sweet!

- This is not the first Observation of the Week from LLELA - take a trip with us down memory lane back to December of 2015!

Posted on June 22, 2020 01:16 by tiwane tiwane | 45 comments | Leave a comment

June 14, 2020

In Taiwan, a Zoologist Posts Only the Third Golden-haired Tube-nosed Bat (金芒管鼻蝠) to iNat! - Observation of the Week, 6/14/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Golden-haired Tube-nosed Bat (金芒管鼻蝠 in Traditional Chinese), seen in Taiwan by @manuel_ruedi!

“Basically, I was born with a love of animals,” says Manuel Ruedi. And throughout his life, Manuel has got from being a fan of big cats, then eagles. He eventually got into birdwatching, then moving on to studying bats and mammals in general. “I graduated in biology,” he tells me,

then did my master on the speciation of bats, then a PhD on the biogeography of shrews (all the University of Lausanne, Switzerland), then went for a postdoc at Berkeley to research on pocket gophers with Jim Patton and Peg Smith,[and]  finally came back to lead a big research projects on bats, before ending as a curator at the Natural History Museum of Geneva.

In 2016, Manuel was researching bats in Taiwan with his colleagues, zoologists L.K. Lin and Gabor Csorba. They described two new species and one new genus of bats, and Manuel also had his first chance to see the Golden-haired Tube-nosed Bat shown above.

I never saw Harpiola isodon before,...[but] I immediately understood why this bat got its name: isodon = all teeth equal in size! No larger canines, etc. quite strange for a Murina-like bat. And golden was also clearly appropriate to describe its incredible colour.

Described in 2006, this bat species is native to the uplands of Taiwan (it’s been seen between about 1,000 - 2,400 meters above sea level) and is an insectivore, relying on vocal sonar to navigate in the dark. To give you a sense of scale, the ears of this species average about 13mm in length.

Manuel (above, in Quebec, Canada) says he only heard about iNaturalist a few weeks ago,

But [I] was immediately struck by the power of the community interaction, to ID any living thing…I have about 70,000 pictures of plants and animals worldwide, and dream of finding the time to submit all my observations to iNaturalist… eventually!

- by Tony Iwane.

- This video from the Smithsonian slows down bat echolocation calls so we humans can hear them.

Posted on June 14, 2020 19:23 by tiwane tiwane | 16 comments | Leave a comment

June 11, 2020

Black Lives Matter

We on the iNaturalist team unequivocally believe that Black lives matter. Over the past several weeks and years, we’ve seen the horrors of police brutality and racism that disproportionately target Black people in the United States. While racism is a global problem, our staff is American, and we estimate about 60% of people using iNaturalist are too. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others have pushed the U.S. over a tipping point, and the resulting protests demonstrate that we can no longer stay silent. We call on all police and law enforcement officers: stop killing our friends, neighbors, and family. And we must collectively work to fight the systemic racism that leads to violence. Now.

Black lives in nature

We believe that nature is for everyone. Biodiversity is for everyone. Curiosity and exploration are for everyone. Everyone should be able to be in nature without fear of discrimination. Unfortunately, recent events in the United States have reminded us that enjoying the outdoors carries much greater risks for Black people like Christian Cooper, who had the police called on him while birding, or Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased down and murdered while jogging. We stand for the safety and the right of Black people to be outdoors and in nature without being subject to suspicion, confrontation, or the threat of violence.

We encourage you to read accounts of Black peoples’ experiences in nature to better understand how race plays a role in natural history and outdoor recreation, particularly those of Christian Cooper, Carolyn Finney, J. Drew Lanham (and this), Corina Newsome, John Robinson, and Rue Mapp, among many, many others. There are plenty more examples shared by BlackAFinSTEM on Twitter.

Our mission is to connect people to nature through technology, and that means making it easier for anyone to relate to, understand, and participate in the natural world around them, regardless of their background. iNaturalist is rooted in science, conservation, natural history, and technology, each of which has its own issues with systemic racism that have historically discouraged the participation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). This moment and movement is specifically focused on Black people in the United States, but the actions we’ve taken and plan to take fit into the larger picture of increasing diversity, access, and inclusion in the global iNaturalist community across all axes of systemic discrimination. It takes concerted action to overcome the inertia of historical biases and power structures. We acknowledge that we have much to learn and we want to share where we are in the process.


In 2015, we instituted Community Guidelines that include zero tolerance for racist language and hate speech. We consider racism to be grounds for immediate and permanent suspension. These guidelines have been enforced in the past and will continue to be enforced.

Identifying humans as non-human animals on iNaturalist has been a hurtful form of racism done both intentionally by some users and unintentionally by our software, albeit rarely in both cases. We act on intentional behavior like this by removing content and permanently suspending users, and we have tried to avoid automatically comparing pictures of humans to pictures of non-human animals that may be offensive. We know we can do better, and are working toward assessing our computer vision model for racial bias in a systematic manner (as opposed to our past efforts which have been largely anecdotal), exerting more control over taxon photos to avoid hurtful comparisons, and suppressing observation photos of humans to neutralize racist attacks and protect personal privacy.

We will also make an effort to share more Observations of the Day, stories, and blog posts featuring BIPOC naturalists. If you are interested in being featured, please email help@inaturalist.org. Additionally, we would like to support social movements like #BlackBirdersWeek, #BlackInNature, and #BlackBotanists. To our knowledge, these movements have primarily taken place on mainstream social media platforms, but we welcome them to connect on iNaturalist as well to foster relationships and build community around nature observation.

We will meet as a team at least once a month to take stock of these actions and to consider how we can continuously improve diversity and inclusion within the iNaturalist community. This is not a one-time action on our part, and we plan to keep this conversation going and continually address what we can do to make our community better moving forward.

We welcome your feedback

We want iNat to be welcoming to people of all backgrounds, but to be honest, we don't know if it is. We don’t collect information on the race, ethnicity, or even gender of our users, and we currently have no anecdotal evidence of people feeling unwelcome on iNat due to their race or ethnicity.

  • We invite anyone from the BIPOC communities who has a story to tell or feedback on their experiences about race and iNaturalist to contact us at help+race@inaturalist.org, or if you feel comfortable sharing your story publicly, we've started this iNat Forum thread.

  • We would also greatly appreciate your direct feedback, thoughts, and ideas for making our community a more inclusive and diverse space together. How can the iNaturalist community better serve BIPOC? Let us know at help+race@inaturalist.org or on this iNat Forum thread.

  • We know there are organizations working hard to overcome the obstacles that BIPOC face in participating in nature, and we aim to do more to support these organizations on iNaturalist. We know that some groups use iNaturalist as a tool for diversifying science and nature exploration, but we don’t know if they have particular needs that are unmet by our current system. If you support or are a part of any organizations that make nature more accessible to BIPOC and other marginalized groups, please let us know on this Forum thread.

This blog post touches on many issues that warrant further discussion. Since comments on the iNaturalist blog are not well suited to complex conversations, we've disabled comments on this post and encourage further dialogue to happen on the iNaturalist Forum at the links above.

We encourage everyone in the iNaturalist community to join us in reflecting on how our individual actions have impacted this movement, and how each of us can affirm that Black lives matter to more broadly foster diversity, access, equity, and inclusion in our community. There are just 8 staff members but over a million people using iNaturalist. Individually and collectively, our words and actions matter. Thank you to everyone who is already working hard to make the world a more fair and just place.

The iNaturalist Team
Abhas, Alex, Amanda, Carrie, Ken-ichi, Patrick, Scott, and Tony

Resources for the iNaturalist community:

Posted on June 11, 2020 19:47 by kueda kueda

June 07, 2020

A Kenyan Biologist Spots an Endemic Ethiopian Frog! - Observation of the Week, 6/7/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Badditu Forest Tree Frog, seen in Ethiopia by @jkn!

Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, many of James Kuria Ndung’u’s formative experiences in nature occurred when he visited his grandparents in the Central Province countryside. “Both of my grandparents were educated and they taught me a lot regarding ethnobotany, birds, animals and other facets of natural history through narratives, folk songs, poetry etc,” he tells me. “In real sense, I was being nurtured to become an interpretive naturalist, in my own rights!”

In high school, James was active in the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, and the various activities, lectures, and programs “opened yet another dimension” in his life. “I got to learn the floral and faunal scientific species common names, which became much more easier as I had...already known most of them in my mother-tongue language, through my rural folks.”

His lifelong interest in nature led to him become a professional biologist who is also interested in outdoor education, and James ended up spending about three years as a full time naturalist for Bale Mountain Lodge, nestled in Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP) in southern Ethiopia. There he lead interpretive walks and coordinated with researchers doing field work in the area. 

It was on one of these walks that James spotted the frog you see photographed above, a Badditu Forest Tree Frog. He and the guest came across it while on the Sanetti Plateau, the largest afro-alpine habitat in Africa, and James says “[the frog] brought my guest of the day and myself a great joy despite the freezing temperatures...It was my first time to see and record the species, during both my study and working stint in the Bale’s.”

This frog species, which is endemic to Ethiopia, typically lives at higher elevations - 1,900 to 3,900 m (6,200 to 12,800 ft) - and likes grasslands, although it will live in some forests and forest edges. Females reach 40–63 mm (1.6–2.5 in) in length, while males are a bit smaller, reaching 20–45 mm (0.79–1.77 in). They are generally fossorial (burrowing) but come out to breed after heavy rains.

Although interested in all facets of nature, James (above) has focused on avian biology for much of his career and is a trained, qualified and certified “A”-grade bird ringer/bander through the South African Bird Ringing Scheme (SAFRING). However, he is currently not engaged in any research, “as opportunities here in Kenya have dwindled with the harsh economic times and a lot of bureaucracy, as well as the prohibitive research fees, delayed permit issuances, institutional affiliations and tedious paperwork.”

This has allowed James some time post his photos to iNat, like the Badditu Forest Tree Frog. “I use [iNaturalist] as a learning tool and as a sharing platform to showcase my field observations with my fellow nature lovers, enthusiasts, researchers, scientists and the greater public at large,” He tells me.

Everyone is entitled to education. Luckily being in the digital era, sharing and learning through such a great platform has indeed increased our scientific knowledge gaps through the practical participatory and  involvement of all persons including the citizen science. I am delighted to be a proud member of the iNaturalist family!

- by Tony Iwane

- Check out James’s publications here.

- Almost exactly two years ago, another Observation of the Week blog came at us from the Bale Mountains - @veronika_johansson’s Ethiopian wolf

Posted on June 07, 2020 20:59 by tiwane tiwane | 27 comments | Leave a comment

June 01, 2020

It's an Elm Zigzag Sawfly Larva! - Observation of the Week, 5/31/20

Our Observation of the Week is this tiny Elm Zigzag Sawfly, seen in Germany by @karsten_s!

“Since my earliest childhood I have been very interested in nature and till today I'm a passionate fish-keeper,” says Karsten Schönherr. He’s made several trips to South America fo research fish, and is currently focused on “the Lithoxini, a group of catfish that lives in the river rapids of the Guyana shield with several still undescribed species.”

With a trip to South America not possible at the moment, Karsten tells me he’s now focusing on local flora and fauna in Germany, utilizing his camera’s macro and telephoto lenses to help him out. “I'm basically broadly interested in mostly everything that I can capture with my camera but particularly focusing on plant-animal interactions, parasitic/parasitoid relationships, Hemiptera, Lepidoptera & Tenthredinoidea,” he says. 

That third taxon is also known as “typical sawflies”, which is what you see above. Karsten found it while on a bike ride, when he stopped along the river Neckar

[I] took my camera with the new macro lens (Pentax Lumix DMC-GX80, Olympus Makro 30mm) and checked in the trees nearby if I can find anything interesting to photograph. Obviously there was also this elm tree… I was right away amazed by this regular feeding pattern and tried to make some good pictures. Light conditions were excellent.

Native to eastern Asia, elm zigzag sawflies were first documented in eastern Europe in 2003, and have since spread across the continent and to Britain, where they were first confirmed in 2017. Its common name originates from its larval host plant (members of the genus Ulmus) and distinctive eating pattern, as it devours leaf material in a back and forth manner, at first between the leaf’s main veins. Older larvae tend to not leave such distinct zig zags. After gorging themselves on elm leaves for 15-18 days, the larvae will then pupate for 4-8 days and emerge as small, dark-colored adults with light-colored legs. No males have ever been found, and it’s believed this species reproduces by parthenogenesis.  

“I stumbled onto iNaturalist website while I was searching for reference pictures of catfish of the families Loricariidae and Callichthyidae,” Karsten (above, in Peru) tells me. 

Step by step I also used it to explore local nature and get a better understanding of nature just outside my doorstep. It's a perfect tool to get into contact with the respective experts and convert a nice picture of an insect larva into something more meaningful. Once you know the correct name you can easily find more information about it and how it interacts with other organisms you have observed. It can be a starting point to explore and understand a tiny puzzle piece of the amazing diversity, complexity and beauty of nature…

Hopefully with observations like this more and more people are getting interested in nature and conserving this treasure for us and the generations to follow.

- by Tony Iwane. Photo of Karsten by Norman Behr. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

- Here’s some nice footage of an elm zigzag sawfly doing its thing. 

Posted on June 01, 2020 00:16 by tiwane tiwane | 15 comments | Leave a comment

May 24, 2020

A Chimney Building Cicada Nymph is Seen in Brazil! - Observation of the Week, 5/24/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Fidicina cicada nymph, seen in Brazil by @siddantas!

Here in North America, we’re used to seeing cicada exuviae on tree trunks, but I’d never heard of a cicada tower until coming across Sidney Dantas’s photo. Sidnei tells me they’re very common in Amazonia, especially near the end of the rainy season, but in over twenty years of exploring the Amazon, he has never actually seen a nymph actually building one until May 9th of this year.

As a child growing in eastern Brazil, where much of the forest had already been removed, Sidnei says he learned about nature “[mostly] from tv shows and books/magazines.” But that didn’t stop him from becoming a biologist later in life, earning a masters and a PhD  in bird ecology and taxonomy, mainly in the area of Belém do Pará. “After my PhD,” he tells me, “I got some postdoc grants and continued to do research on birds in Belém, and did not focus much on other kinds of creatures for a long time.”

That changed in 2018, however, when Sidnei changed career directions and became a guide for tourists at the Cristalino Lodge in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. “Here in Cristalino, I have to speak about birds and many other things, so I got in contact with my ‘naturalist side’ again, and activated my curiosity for nature in general, especially for butterflies and frogs. Now I am...spending the quarantine [here], and taking my time to look for more amazonian wonders everyday.”

Which, of course, brings us to the very busy cicada nymph. “On that day, me and my friend Jéssica Martins, another guide in Cristalino Lodge, were walking in the forest, and in fact she saw the cicada first, after I passed by it unaware, and called me back. 

We were amazed to see it in action, and spent some minutes taking photos and observing the cicada building the tower by placing the mud with its big front legs from side to side, being annoyed by some ants, and even pulling the sides of the tower to cover itself when we did some sudden movement close to it...After some time taking photos, we decided to leave it alone.

Cicadas spend much of their lives as nymphs, tapping into the roots of plants and slurping up xylem. Many will spend years doing this (perhaps most famously the 13 and 17 year cicadas of North America) before metamorphosing into adults who will live no more than several weeks or months. The nymphs which Sidnei and Jéssica found were likely in the genus Fidicina, and their towers would perhaps more accurately be called “chimneys”, as they are believed to aid the nymphs in regulating the microclimates of their underground chambers, as well as providing a place to escape during heavy rains.

“I started using iNaturalist for uploading my butterfly and reptile photos, in order to contribute to projects cataloging the butterflies and reptiles of the Cristalino region,” says Sidnei (above, on one of the observation towers in Cristalino Lodge). “Soon I was posting observations of other taxa as well, excited by the possibility of getting them identified by specialists! I’ve learned a lot about insects, frogs, and other things...and I started to learn how poorly many of these taxa are known for this region…

I have contributed photos and sound recordings to people’s work on membracids, crickets, wasps, and I find it amazing to get in contact with people from these areas and learn so much! At this point, the iNaturalist experience stimulated me to pay more attention to and record unusual species or behaviors, to share with other people and possibly contribute to knowledge about amazonian biota.

- by Tony Iwane. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

- iNat user @belgianbirding commented on Sidnei’s observation and linked to his own blog post about his encounters with these chimneys.

- The Animal Architecture project has some pretty sweet examples of structures created by animals.

- Of course David Attenborough did a segment on periodical cicadas.

- An emergence of 17 year cicadas is actually occurring right now in a small area of North America. 

Posted on May 24, 2020 20:12 by tiwane tiwane | 23 comments | Leave a comment

May 21, 2020

Seeking Swordfish, Landed Green-eyed Shark - (Belated) Observation of the Week, 3/29/20

Our (belated) Observation of the Week is this incredible Centrophorus shark, seen off of the Cayman Islands by @captjohndmcdow.

Note: I originally reached out to John about his observation in late March, but due to extenuating circumstances he wasn’t able to reply until recently, so I’m posting this a bit late. - Tony

 A researcher with a masters in fisheries ecology from Texas A&M University, John McDow was swordfishing off the southern shore of Grand Cayman when he came across the shark you see above. “We were deep-dropping squid in about 2300' of water and drifting into the 1400' range before resetting,” he recalls. 

This shark picked up the bait as soon as it hit the bottom on one of the drops. It didn't put up much of a fight and we thought it was a pomfret or barrelfish. When it made it to the surface I saw it was a shark and I knew it wasn't a species we had seen before. We took measurements as quickly as we could and got several photos before releasing it. The shark swam off strong despite being brought up from such a depth.

The shark John and his companions landed was only the tenth individual of its genus posted to iNaturalist (there are now eleven), and as you might ascertain from his tale it’s a deepwater dweller. Like many deepwater marine denizens, not much is known about it, but the large distinctive green eyes are thought to help it see as it hunts for prey so far beneath the surface. Look closely and you can see it has spines on both dorsal fins. Unfortunately, sharks of this genus are vulnerable to the trawl fishery, such as this example from Australia:

Graham et al. (2001) reported declines of 98.4–99.7% in the relative abundances of C. harrissoni, C. moluccensis and C. cf. uyato off the upper slope of New South Wales between 1976–77 and 1996–97. (White et al. 2008)

John (above, with his daughter and a scarlet snake) began exploring the bays, marshes, and beaches of the Gulf Coast when he moved there as a teenager and is now researching the seasonal migratory patterns of tarpon (as well as working a fishing guide). He’s only recently joined iNat, but tells me “I love iNaturalist. It is a great resource and a good place to network with other nature enthusiasts. What I love the most about iNaturalist is that my kids also love it and now they want to go herping or snorkeling to find a species they saw on inaturalist or to get a new photo to submit.”

- by Tony Iwane

- In addition to marine life, John is also into herping - take a look at his observation of a tree-climbing Cayman Racer!

- Like so many observations, John’s Centrophorus benefitted from the knowledge of experts thousands of miles away. @clinton, iNat’s top elasmobranch identifier, resides in New Zealand, and @willwhite, and expert in this genus, lives in Australia.

Posted on May 21, 2020 05:23 by tiwane tiwane | 7 comments | Leave a comment