Dung Beetles on the Cover!

I am extremely pleased to have had the opportunity to custom-shoot a cover for this week’s Science magazine:

The research comes from Armin Moczek’s lab at the University of Indiana, known for pioneering studies on the evolution of novel structures. In this case, they figured out that horns are built by co-opting gene networks normally involved in wing development.

To produce this cover, we created dozens of alternate compositions, species, and concepts, including live beetles and focus-stacks of preserved specimens. Which I’d love to show you, but they’re contractually under wraps until the new year. Bear with me…

Ringo the Cottonwood Borer

Plectrodera scalator – Austin, TX



The postdoctoral researchers in Nancy Moran’s lab here at UT have adopted a local longhorn beetle and, for reasons that remain mysterious, named it “Ringo”. I can only hope they weren’t punning on Beetles/Beatles.

Ringo was kind enough to pose for me in the most makeshift of photo studios. Lacking time to assemble a proper studio whitebox, I took the beetle to a small, white-painted room and fired a couple off-camera strobes at the ceiling.

Photo details: Canon 6D, 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, two off-camera strobes.

Behind the Photo: Firefly at Dusk

A male eastern firefly, Photinus pyralis, hovers to watch for signaling females. Urbana, Illinois.


We moved to Illinois from Tucson in 2008. The naturalist in me cringed at the relocation. Tucson is surrounded by rich natural deserts, national parks, and state forests. Champaign-Urbana is buried in a monotony of industrial corn/soy production. Illinois nature was more than 90% plowed under years ago and hasn’t returned.

Yet the midwest has its buggy bright points. What’s left of the local ant fauna remains mostly native and hosts an array of fascinating social parasites. The famous 13-year periodical cicadas emerged again in 2011. And the fireflies! The common eastern firefly Photinus pyralis launches a tremendous show in June and July. Western fireflies for the most part don’t glow as adults. I missed them when I live in Arizona.

I’d been telling Mrs. Myrmecos every year since the move, “this is the summer I finally shoot the fireflies!” and then, for various reasons, I fail to follow through. For a specialized insect photographer to not have photographs of the most spectacular local insect phenomenon was getting ridiculous.

My schedule this past summer finally conspired to allow plenty of evening firefly time, though, so I went at them with a vengeance. If you haven’t seen the results, I’ve uploaded them here: Phenomenal Fireflies.

Learning to shoot fireflies on the wing wasn’t easy, but I can distill the strategy down to one key point: spend a few evenings watching the animals behave. Each species has a particular courtship pattern, this pattern is predictable, and if you learn it you’re much more likely to know where to put the camera and when to time the shot. Photinus pyralis males have a six-second cycle : swoop upward while lit, hover for a couple seconds to watch for a female return signal, the fly forward a few feet to begin the next run.

After some practice hand-holding a pre-focused camera rig and flash, I was able to not only get a flying firefly in focus, I was able to plan for particular backdrops. The photograph above shows a male at the height of his ascent, watching for females.

If you’d like a print, this photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1.

photo details:
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM & 12mm extension tube on a Canon EOS 6D
ISO 800, f/10, 1/25 sec
Lit with diffuse off-camera strobe

Behind the Photo: Dueling Dung Beetles

Onthophagus taurus
Male dung beetles, Onthophagus taurus, vary in size and horn development.


The next series of posts- Behind the Photo– will feature the stories behind images I’ve included in this year’s print sale. First up: the brutish male dung beetles in this 2009 creation.

These insects were given to me by biologist Emilie Snell-Rood, who at the time was working in Armin’s Moczek’s Evo-Devo lab, with the hope that I might photograph live animals of different shapes and sizes for use in Moczek lab papers, web pages, and talks. Live photos make compelling stories, after all, and Onthopagus taurus has an especially interesting one. It’s about how new body parts evolve.


Males of this species employ varying strategies to reach females. The larger ones sport horns and fight over mates, while the smaller hornless ones bear a striking enough resemblance to females to slip past their rivals unrecognized as males. Since beetles that are otherwise genetically identical either sprout horns as they develop or don’t, they’ve become a fantastic model for questions about why and how new structures form. Biologists can watch the horns grow, or not grow, all within a single sex of a single species. They can also examine the process in related beetles, and make comparisons that allow inferences about how ecology interacts with genomes to produce new horns. If you’re intrigued, you can catch up with the research here.

My photograph of the dueling male beetles is not a natural scene, of course. Wild beetles fight in underground tunnels, face-to-face, not in the gleaming open air of a photography studio, so this scene is less documentation of real world behavior that a stylized illustration of male variation.

The challenge of taking this photograph was two-fold. First, dung beetles are shiny. To capture the subtleties of texture on such a reflective animal, I needed extremely soft lighting. So I fired an upward-facing flash off in a white box. A white box is what it sounds like- a box that’s all white on the inside. The box I used for the above photo is pictured at left, an old toilet paper box with printer paper taped to the inside.

The second challenge was the hyperactivity of the beetles themselves. Getting two feisty insects to perform for a well-composed shot took a long time and a lot of attempts. Here is a sample of mostly throwaways from the session:


If you’d like to purchase a print, the dueling beetles photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1. I have reprocessed the image up from the original RAW file just for this event.

photo details:
Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D.
ISO 200, f/14, 1/125 sec
Off-camera flash, manual mode.

An Inordinate Fondness for Barely Scratching the Tip of the Iceberg


Alex Surcică , of facebook’s Digital Museum of Natural History, has created this wonderful poster covering a diversity of beetles from eastern North America. You can order a copy clicking through the link.

The poster represents a tremendous effort on Alex’s part- 90 photographs of stubborn, difficult to control live insects composited into a single montage- yet even this work records just a minuscule slice of beetle diversity. You’d need at least 12,000 such posters to cover the documented diversity of beetles. Never mind the 10,000 or so additional posters required to address the remaining undescribed species. The number of beetles is nearly incomprehensible.


Friday Beetle Blogging: Callipogon longhorn beetle


The Friday Beetle returns with a simply massive insect, Callipogon, among Central America’s largest longhorns. We (well, Mrs. Myrmecos) picked up this ferociously furry male during a trip to Belize last year. Presumably the plush mandibles have something to do with mating, as only the males sport an impressive rack.



photo details:
top photo: Canon 17-40mm f/4.0L wide angle macro lens on a 12mm extension tube.

ISO 400, f/9.0, 1/250 sec, diffuse off-camera strobe
bottom photos: Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens
ISO 200, f/14-f/18, 1/250 sec, inside a studio white box