Answer to the Monday Night Mystery

What was that dashing, color-coordinated tropical moth?

Erebidae (Arctiinae)

This mystery was difficult on two counts. First, it’s a tropical moth from a poorly documented fauna. Second, the family-level taxonomy of this group was just revised and the once-proud Arctiidae, the tiger moths, is now a mere subfamily (Arctiinae) in a larger Erebidae.

What was the genus? I’m not sure. There don’t seem to be any decent keys. But the wing venation had me 80% on Cosmosoma, and the moth also matches online photos for Loxophlebia. So I’ll take both for an answer until someone more knowledgeable shows up to tell us otherwise.

Points are awarded as follows: 6 each to JasonC and Ben Coulter, and 1 to Chris Grinter for the useful taxonomic summary.

Now. Time to tally our points for February. The monthly winner remains reigning mystery champion JasonC, with 21 points. Josh King (12 points) and Morgan Jackson (10 points) take second and third.

At some point we need to tie JasonC down until he reveals his entomological secrets.

Paraponera clavata, the bullet ant

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

Meet the bullet ant.

Why is it called that? Well, the searing sting of this New World tropical species apparently feels like a gunshot wound. It tops Justin Schmidt’s 4-point sting pain index:

Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

Paraponera clavata is one of those animals, like jaguars and monkeys, that everybody talks about in the rain forest. While there are certainly deadlier animals lurking in the Amazon, some snakes and big cats, Paraponera is respected as a more everpresent threat. It is one of the most dangerous species you are liable to encounter on a daily basis. The giant, inch-long workers are commonly seen walking up and down tree trunks as they travel from their soil nests up to the rich foraging grounds of the forest canopy.

And just how dangerous is the infamous bullet ant?


Acrobat ants and a change of style

Crematogaster acrobat ants feed from a Heliconia flower
Jatun Sacha, Napo, Ecuador

This is a photograph I probably wouldn’t have taken if my powerful MP-E lens hadn’t failed during my recent Ecuador trip. I normally shoot ants close-in (like so), but with high magnification off the table I had to take another approach.

When photographic subjects occupy only a small part of the frame, the composition, context, and backdrop assume elevated importance. Instead of ticking down my list of the tiny ants I wanted to shoot and then arranging for the most pleasing backdrop given their field situation, I had to work backwards. I targeted insects on aesthetically interesting backdrops. Bright colors, curvy surfaces, converging lines. Images suited for fine art as much as for natural history.

This was the silver lining to equipment failure. Forced out of my comfort zone I experimented with lenses, lighting, and composition. While my overall output was reduced from what I’d hoped for, I ended up with a stylistically broader portfolio. I’d like to think I became a better photographer.

photo details:
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens
Canon EOS 7D
(top)ISO 200, f/16, 1/250 sec
(bottom)ISO 100, f/18, 1/250 sec

Visiting the Devil’s Garden

Your intrepid blog host contemplating the devil's work (Jatun Sacha, Ecuador)

I had been following an army ant raid for half an hour through dense tropical forest when the trees unexpectedly parted to reveal a small clearing. Sun broke through the canopy and fell on a low tangle of furry plants.  It was a monoculture, looking as though planted by a reclusive sort of gardener.

I had stumbled into a Devil’s Garden.


Ectatomma guarding a treehopper

Ectatomma is a large, conspicuous ant that prefers to hang out at eye level in the forest understory.  As a consequence it is among the most commonly encountered tropical insects, and one of the most photographed. The world does not need more Ectatomma photos, but when I happened across this scene just up the trail from the Jatun Sacha station buildings I couldn’t help myself:

Ectatomma tuberculatum & membracid nymph, Ecuador

At the time I did not notice the water droplets in the backdrop, but in my opinion they really make this shot.

photo details:
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 200, f/16, 1/200 sec
Indirect strobe positioned for the double duty of backlighting the leaf and bouncing indirectly off white paper above the ants for foreground lighting