Search Results for: copyright

Ant Smuggler Gerhard Kalytta Is Finally Caught

The online store of smuggler Gerhard Kalytta

I’ve wasted many hours of my life in various Latin American bureaucracies clearing paperwork for the legal exportation of preserved insect specimens. It’s a costly, difficult, time-consuming process, one that is constantly changing as rules shift and new government agencies emerge.

We researchers routinely book extra days at the beginning and end of our international expeditions, for no reason other than to make sure the proper permits are obtained. Those days are billed to our grants. That means you, taxpayers.

Once, in the Dominican Republic, I happened to be the very first foreign biologist to apply for collecting permits under a new law. Rather than getting my papers and heading straight to the field with my Dominican colleagues, I ended up in some sort of ceremony where I spent the morning shaking hands and schmoozing. I met the minister of Agriculture. Fun, I guess, but not exactly what I wanted to be doing.

During a recent visit to Ecuador, the office worker assigned to our application quit shortly before we arrived. The only person remaining with authority to prepare our papers was the Director of Sumaco National Park, an important guy with more important things to do than shuffle papers for a couple of foreigners. Yet he spent an hour and a half laboriously looking up what he was supposed to write and typing up a suitable form for us. We felt bad. He felt bad. The whole thing should have been easier.

Why is exporting insects- even dead insects- so difficult?

The underlying reasons are complex, but one of them is smuggling. Smugglers collect and sell from biodiverse tropical countries, the same countries that attract researchers. Wildlife smuggling causes ecological problems: damaging native insect populations, introducing non-native pests elsewhere. Smuggling also offends the economic protectionist sensibilities of the host countries. Much of the paperwork involves declaring that we are not planning to profit from the collected insects (pssst- anyone want to buy a Linepithema?), and if we do, the money is to be repatriated.

Smugglers don’t pay the rules any attention of course. The more people who engage in illicit wildlife trade, though, the more draconian the rules become that scientists have to follow. The bottom line is that smugglers are not only environmentally suspect, they make life really difficult for scientists.

Thus, I am pleased to learn that the Australians have finally caught ant smuggler Gerhard Kalytta:

A German man who tried to smuggle native ants and plants out of Australia has been fined $3000.

Gerhard Kalytta, 65, pleaded guilty to attempted illegal export charges when he appeared in the Perth Magistrates Court . The court heard that on September 7, Kalytta attempted to smuggle more than 3000 ants along with plants and plant material out of Perth International Airport.

Customs officers searching his luggage found 153 plastic packages containing the ants and plants


Kalytta operates one of the larger European ant-trading sites, Ants Kalytta. While trading ants within Europe is legal, it’s painfully obvious to anyone who has done international research that Kalytta’s tropical stock is pilfered. Most ants don’t breed in captivity, and Kalytta has a lot of species from places like Paraguay. In Paraguay you’d be lucky to get permits processed within 3 weeks of arriving, and that’s if you export only preserved specimens, leave half in the National museum, and publish with local scientists.

$3000 is a slap on the wrist for a guy with a history of illegal wildlife trade. But it’s a start.

***added in update: I believe the screen capture of Kalytta’s website at the top of this post falls under the Fair Use provision of U.S. Copyright Law. The image is used in the editorial context of a story being reported, the image is credited as being from Kalytta and not my own, and I am not earning money from an editorial display of this image on

A mural on moth wings

Evo-devo biologist extraordinaire Antónia Monteiro is visiting campus this week, and she shared with us this photograph of a simply unbelievable Malaysian moth:

Macrocilix maia, Malaysia

Do you see the mural?

Mimicry is common in insects. Some adopt the cryptic appearance of sticks or leaves, some ape the stripes of stinging wasps, and some sport the colors of poisonous butterflies. There are caterpillars that look like bird droppings, and beetles that look like caterpillar frass. I’ve even seen a blister beetle that mimics a harvester ant running backward dragging a seed.

But Macrocilix maia is a first. It’s the only mimic insect I know that paints an entire scene. It looks like a watercolor. Two red-eyed muscomorph flies feed from fresh bird droppings, complete with light glinting off their wings. I’ve never seen anything like it!

The scant published research on the mural moth is systematic in nature, with nary a mention of the incredible mimicry. In fact, the photo-sharing site Flickr has outpaced any academic work: photographer Allan Lee reports in 2009 that the moth reinforces the imagery with a pungent odor. That’s the extent of our knowledge. Macrocilix maia is a Ph.D. project waiting to happen.

When not to participate in a photography contest

If the terms read anything like they do in the National Pest Managment Association’s new pest photo contest, avoid like the plague:

By entering this Contest and uploading your Submission, you irrevocably grant to Sponsor and its agents the unconditional and perpetual right to post, display, publish, use, adapt, edit and/or modify such Submission in any way, in any and all media, for any purpose, without limitation, and without consideration to you. Finalists agree to irrevocably assign and transfer to the Sponsor any and all rights, title and interest in Submission, including, without limitation, all copyrights and waive all moral rights in Submission. All Contest entrants further agree to release and indemnify and hold harmless the Sponsor and the Contest Parties from any and all claims that any commercial, advertising, presentation, web content or any other material subsequently produced, presented, and/or prepared by or on behalf of Sponsor infringes on the rights of Entrant’s work as contained in any Submission.

A bunch of cheapskates representing a large and profitable industry don’t want to pay for images they can use in advertisements. So they host a contest, hoping to play people’s vanity into scoring some freebies.

I’m not intending to single out the National Pest Management Association. The scam contest is a common corporate strategy.

Reputable photo contests, in contrast, allow photographers to retain ownership of their own images. Always read the fine print.

Submit your images to the 2012 ESA calendar!

This just in from the Entomological Society of America:

ESA is looking for the best insect photos to grace our 2012 World of Insects Calendar. Anyone can submit photos for the calendar — you do not have to be an ESA member.

Photos should be of the highest aesthetic and technical quality. Photographs for the calendar will be selected by the ESA Presidential Committee on the World of Insects Calendar. The requirements for submission of photos are:

  1. JPG format (between 1000 and 2000 pixels wide);
  2. Common or scientific name must be included in each filename;
  3. All photographs must be horizontal and rectangular (vertical and square photos will not be accepted);
  4. A maximum of eight (8) photographs may be submitted by a single photographer (more than 8 submissions will disqualify all photographer’s entries); and
  5. Submissions must be e-mailed to ESA headquarters ( by close of business on May 16, 2011.

I’m told that copyright remains with the photographer.

The ESA annual calendar ends up in the hands of thousands of entomologists around the world. I’ve had them on my own wall for years. It’s a great way to reach a large audience with your favorite bug photographs.

PSA: The following images are not public domain

This past few weeks I’ve been performing the unpleasant annual ritual of combing the web looking for instances of unauthorized commercial use of my photographs. My rationale for controlling copyright infringement is two-fold. First, infringement deprives me of the revenue I need to host my websites, repair my equipment, and travel to insect-filled jungles. Second, infringement is unfair to my honest, paying clients. Why should they fork over cash for images when their competitors use the same ones for free?

The results of this year’s infringement hunt were disheartening. Much more egregious than previous years. I am watching volumes of my work slip away into the ether. I’ve seen my images branded with the logo of other companies, appended to coupons, banner ads, and pest ID charts.

A few of my images have been copied through enough intermediaries that they appear in multiple search results, stripped not only of attribution but often of even the correct species name. This image of Formica oreas, for example, is now a leading search result for “Argentine Ant“.

In the possibly futile interest of heading off future infringements, I’ve made the following watermarked compilation of my most frequently abused images. All of my photographs are legally protected, of course, but these are the ones that have most often worked their way off my galleries and proliferated across scores of third-party sites.


An interesting pattern

My apologies for the slow blogging the last couple of days. My morning blogging hour was taken up not with the usual joyous reparté on natural history but with the drudgery of emailing copyright infringement notices to various companies that never bothered to ask if using my photographs to sell their products was ok.

I have noticed an intriguing pattern. Two of the most egregious categories of infringers are Islamic creationists and Christian pest control companies. Yet I haven’t found any troubles with Christian creationists- who are unfailingly professional in their photo requests- or Islamic pest control. Odd.

PLoS and Creative Commons

This morning I had to deny a scientist permission to use my photos of her ants in a paper headed for PLoS Biology.  I hate doing that.  Especially when I took those photos in part to help her to promote her research.

The problem is that PLoS content is managed under a Creative Commons (=CC) licensing scheme.  I don’t do CC.  Overall it’s not a bad licensing scheme, but for one sticking point: CC allows users to re-distribute an image to external parties.

In an ideal world, non-profit users would faithfully tack on the CC license and the attribution to the photographer, as required by the CC license, and then the downstream users of those projects would faithfully continue to do the same.

But this is the real world. (more…)

How to Identify the Argentine Ant, Linepithema humile


The Argentine Ant (Linepithema humile), a small brown ant about 2-3mm long, is one of the world’s most damaging insects. This pernicious ant is spreading to warmer regions around the world from its natal habitat along South America’s Paraná River. Linepithema humile can drive native arthropods to extinction, instigating changes that ripple through ecosystems. In California, horned lizard populations plummet. In South Africa, plant reproduction is disrupted. Worldwide, the Argentine ant is a persistent house and crop pest. This is not a good ant.

My Ph.D. dissertation, completed a few years ago, dealt with the taxonomy and evolution of the 20 or so mostly obscure speciesin Linepithema, the broader group from which the Argentine ant emerged. The project had many different aspects, but most people will only care about one small part: I figured out how to reliably identify the Argentine Ant.

The taxonomy of the Argentine Ant has been a particularly difficult problem in South America where several frustratingly similar species co-occur. Researchers who try to study L. humile in its native habitat occasionally end up working with the wrong species. That’s an embarrassing error, and one that has resulted in misinformation about the Argentine Ant spreading through the literature. I won’t bore you with the details of the thousands of Linepithema specimens I looked at to determine exactly what was and wasn’t an Argentine ant. But I will share the result, a system for separating Argentine ants from related species.

Here is how to tell if you’ve got an Argentine Ant.





Photo Technique: On-Camera Flash Diffusion

Photo Technique: Backlighting

Photo Technique: A Better Backdrop

Photo Technique: Working With Ants

Photo Technique: Post-Processing

How to Photograph Army Ants

Review: The Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens

The Poor Man’s Macro: Extension Tubes

Copyright Registration

Is iStockphoto Ruining the Insect Photography Business?

The Digital Revolution and the Mainstreaming of Arthropods

Adapting the iPhone for Insect Photography


A Guide to the Insect Field Guides of North America

A Guide to Common Ants of the Amazon Rainforest

How to Identify the Argentine Ant, Linepithema humile

How to Identify Queen Ants

Urban Ants of the Midwestern United States

The Evolution of Ant Agriculture

Rover Ants, Brachymyrmex patagonicus, an Emerging Pest Species

Eureka! An Astonishing New Ant!

Army Ants of the North