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