Category: informational

Regular

Giant Leopard Moth

I am inexcusably behind on introducing y’all to one of my new babies. Please meet:

This fuzzy bab. It’s good advice to never touch fuzzy or furry caterpillars, because sometimes they sting. But, if you know, for sure, what a caterpillar is, and you know it doesn’t sting, then it’s fine. The older caterpillars of these moths are very easy to identify, and they are safe. The above photos are NOT of an older caterpillar, though! I wasn’t sure yet, so I let him hang out on my front porch.

Above photos from October 14, 2018

A few days later (October 17), I found the bab, but bigger, fuzzier, and orangier! Those thin orange rings between body segments will identify this black fuzzy caterpillar as a Leopard Moth! In my area, Giant Leopard Moths are the most common, so that’s what I have him identified as. At that point, I brought him inside. I mean, look at this face:

It had been a little while, so I went looking for him today, and I found him hibernating (?) in this dried up leaf!

You may be wondering what happens to all these caterpillars over the winter. How do they stay safe when it gets so cold? They will enter a state similar to hibernation called “diapause.” Essentially, they stop eating, they may change color or shape, and they find a safe place to be while they wait out the winter. Many moths and butterflies “overwinter” as a pupa. Moths have the added protection of their cocoons to stay safe. But some butterflies overwinter as a chrysalis, too! One of my favorite childhood memories was finding a Swallowtail butterfly chrysalis in the pile of branches my dad had pruned off our bushes, putting it into a container, and checking it one day in early spring to find the butterfly had emerged!

But! Many caterpillars stay in caterpillar form over the winter. They can stay camouflaged, but they can also respond to threats by periodically moving around. My Tawny Emperor babies will overwinter as younger caterpillars. And Leopard Moths also overwinter in caterpillar form! I’m not sure if my fuzzy baby is overwintering or getting ready to molt (I had caterpillars into November/December last year!). My guess is he’s about to molt, but it seemed like a good opportunity to talk about diapause!

I didn’t mention: some species will overwinter as adults! Question Mark and Comma butterflies are some examples. Their wings resemble dead fall leaves for a reason!

October 24, 2018

Hey! So the luna moth I recently posted on iNa…

Hey! So the luna moth I recently posted on iNat got me thinking. All the luna moths I've seen (in pictures) are much larger with brighter green, translucent wings. That's why I wasn't sure if it was Actias luna, or just in the genus Actius. I guess the same can be said for the flannel moth I posted, too. It's so close, but a little different. Is this just normal species variation? Or something else? I figured if anyone could answer, it'd be you! Pleasexthanks

Hello (finally)! You are absolutely correct to think this is normal species variation, and this is one of the trickiest parts about learning how to identify any type of living organism. How do you know that a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard are the same species without memorizing all the dog breeds? 

There are key morphological features that are still the same within a species, even if they are vastly different sizes, shapes, or colors. Range is also extremely important when you are identifying species. Actias is a fairly small genus, with approximately 25 species worldwide. If for no other reason, your green moth has to be Actias luna because of those 25 species, only one exists in North America.

Naturally, you may wonder why is there so much variation? Well, why is there so much variation between people? Why are some people tall when others are very short? Why do some people have brown eyes, when others have green eyes? The same factors can influence animals in similar ways, even if they are vastly different species. 

Genetics: Maybe your moth had the “short” gene!
Sex: Males/females of the insect world sometimes look so different, you wouldn’t believe they were the same species unless you studied them. Size differences are common, especially in species where the females lay hundreds of eggs.
Diet: If you have a caterpillar who is eating a nutrient-poor food, or who has difficulty finding enough to eat, they will mature more slowly, and will be smaller as an adult as a result. Also, some species of animals will be different colors depending on their diet. For example, Flamingos are naturally white!

image

Above: Two Polyphemus Moths, scaled so the rulers match up. Top is a male who had been exposed to pesticide as a caterpillar, and was smaller than average as an adult. Bottom is his wild (and very healthy) mother. 

Health: Related to diet, if a caterpillar survives having parasites, was exposed to pesticides, or had an infection, if they survive, they will likely be smaller as an adult.
Injury: Once the moth emerges from their pupa, they have to deal with birds biting at them, surprise rainstorms, spider webs, and all sorts of other dangers. The color on moths’ wings are the result of scales, and these scales can easily rub off as they avoid dangers (or they can lose parts of their wings!). If you are used to seeing Luna moths with mostly transparent wings, and you see one that is very solidly colored, it’s likely you met him when he was brand-new!

image

Above: A Snowberry Clearwing moth… before his wings lost their scales to become clear!

I hope this helps, and congratulations on seeing a Luna Moth, I still haven’t met a wild one!

October 22, 2018 (SORRRRRY)

nanonaturalist: nanonaturalist: nanonatural…

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

WHY DO I KEEP DOING THIS??

Millions of tiny mystery caterpillars -_-
What do they eat? WHO KNOWS???
What do they turn into? HELL IF I KNOW

Eggs were covered in white fuzz from mamas belly and they have five pairs of prolegs, egg mass was on live oak. I gave them the Polyphagous Caterpillar Variety Pack buffet (rose, live oak, hackberry, and sage). They should eat ONE of those.

Tiny mystery babs are the WORST because how do you keep them in a habitat??? They are SO SMOL. They’re in a lidded food container for now… hopefully they eat everything and grow very large

October 7, 2018

OKAY results of the taste test are in. They are delicious. Wait no that’s not what I meant!!

They nibbled all the plants, but they’re going nuts over rose leaves. So, that’s what they get!

October 8, 2018

The very hungry caterpillars

They are only eating rose, and they have tiny adorable spots. I think they may be tortricid moths.

October 9, 2018

Their hunger is endless

Getting big! Eating the flowers and making pink rose poops 😂

October 12, 2018

#you lucky bastard #where do you keep finding all these babies

In my yard! (with one two exceptions). My recommendation for improving your moth egg/caterpillar-finding skills: 

(1) Get a good headlamp
(2) Go outside at night

It helps if you have access to an area that is somewhat “wild,” which for me is my yard. It can also be a neighborhood hiking trail or the ditch a couple blocks from your home. I don’t treat anything with pesticides, and I’ll let random weeds pop up and do their thing. In many cases, weeds are just native wildflowers, which means they are often the preferred food for lots of insects. Or, you can have a regular garden where you grow vegetables, flowers, bushes, ground cover, trees, etc, but just don’t use pesticides. This includes the whole “spraying the plant with soap” thing. That kills insects, which is why it keeps them from eating your plants.

Most moths and caterpillars are active at night. I frequently find moths in the act of laying eggs (I found a Polyphemus moth laying eggs on the side of my house, when I brought her inside and she blessed me with abundant green squishy babs). ALSO, caterpillars and moth/butterfly eggs are often very well camouflaged, and on the underside of leaves. During the day, they are all backlit and effectively become invisible. At night? They’re no longer backlit, and you have the benefit of shadows and superior color perception to find them. Other clues: piles of caterpillar poops, nibbles at the edges of leaves (or missing leaves entirely)

One more tip: Go outside, at night and during the day, and look for bugs every day. I don’t find eggs or caterpillars every time I go outside.  But I go outside so often that I’m bound to find something.

October 13, 2018

nanonaturalist: nanonaturalist: nanonaturali…

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

worm-suggestion:

Photogenic… Charming little fellows, to be sure…

Now that I checked scorpionfly off my wishlist, next step: SNAKEFLY!

October 12, 2018

@quickwitter I don’t know about the bugs of Costa Rica (yet!), but Dobsonflies and snakeflies are a bit different

Snakeflies are tiny, with a long skinny neck

Dobsonflies:

These are LARGE!! They do look similar in many respects. Dobsonflies are in order Megaloptera with fishflies, and I think those can look closer to snakeflies.

All around, I would highly recommend both 😂

October 12, 2018

@bowelfly You are right about it being “a California thing,” for the most part. Snakeflies do show up in Texas, but very rarely based on reports on iNaturalist and bugguide.

Snakeflies mostly occur west of the Rockies. One more reason to shake my fist at my past self for not going bughunting when I lived in Seattle.

To be fair, Texas gets a good number of things that are rare or do not occur elsewhere in the US. For example, I scratched my head when I saw a post of somebody getting very excited to see their first webspinner, while they’re so common here that I often find them in my house.

This may also be a case of them being small and “boring,” and are overlooked easily. A shame, they’re great!

October 13, 2018

@etosaurus It’s possible! They are tiny and skinny, and hold their wings flat against their backs. Their front forearms are thick, as that is where their silk glands are.

They are small and hard to photograph well, but here are a couple I’ve seem at my house.

I believe they are social and live in groups in their web-homes under fallen wood. I have never seen them in their webs, though.

October 13, 2018

nanonaturalist: nanonaturalist: worm-suggest…

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

worm-suggestion:

Photogenic… Charming little fellows, to be sure…

Now that I checked scorpionfly off my wishlist, next step: SNAKEFLY!

October 12, 2018

@quickwitter I don’t know about the bugs of Costa Rica (yet!), but Dobsonflies and snakeflies are a bit different

Snakeflies are tiny, with a long skinny neck

Dobsonflies:

These are LARGE!! They do look similar in many respects. Dobsonflies are in order Megaloptera with fishflies, and I think those can look closer to snakeflies.

All around, I would highly recommend both 😂

October 12, 2018

@bowelfly You are right about it being “a California thing,” for the most part. Snakeflies do show up in Texas, but very rarely based on reports on iNaturalist and bugguide.

Snakeflies mostly occur west of the Rockies. One more reason to shake my fist at my past self for not going bughunting when I lived in Seattle.

To be fair, Texas gets a good number of things that are rare or do not occur elsewhere in the US. For example, I scratched my head when I saw a post of somebody getting very excited to see their first webspinner, while they’re so common here that I often find them in my house.

This may also be a case of them being small and “boring,” and are overlooked easily. A shame, they’re great!

October 13, 2018

nanonaturalist: worm-suggestion: Photogenic… …

nanonaturalist:

worm-suggestion:

Photogenic… Charming little fellows, to be sure…

Now that I checked scorpionfly off my wishlist, next step: SNAKEFLY!

October 12, 2018

@quickwitter I don’t know about the bugs of Costa Rica (yet!), but Dobsonflies and snakeflies are a bit different

Snakeflies are tiny, with a long skinny neck

Dobsonflies:

These are LARGE!! They do look similar in many respects. Dobsonflies are in order Megaloptera with fishflies, and I think those can look closer to snakeflies.

All around, I would highly recommend both 😂

October 12, 2018

Regular

chrishopper:

nanonaturalist:

I FOUND ONE!!!

SCORPIONFLY!!!!!!!!

McKinney Falls State Park, Austin TX

October 12, 2018

#Texas

@chrishopper I found this guy in the bunch grass off of the prairie/picnic area just past the upper falls.

Bugguide lists their habitat as [link]:

low shrubs and ground cover in densely-vegetated woodlands, often near water or wet seeps; grasslands, cultivated fields, forest margins; adults mostly seen resting on leaves within 1 m from the ground

If you go looking, go soon. They essentially fly for 6 weeks in Texas during early fall. I guess this is the one case where the south doesn’t have a better bug situation than the north!

From bugguide:

Scorpionfly distribution map of user-submitted photos

Annual occurrence of scorpionflies by state and month, based on user-submitted photos.

@celestialmacros made a comment about seeing one but not getting the pinchy butt: only the males have the pinchy butt! He uses it to grab onto the female so he can mate with her while she’s distracted by his offering of delicious foods. It’s possible you saw a female, which could be why you didn’t notice the tail.

Others who now fear this world where scorpions can fly: it’s okay, you’re safe!! This is a case of convergent evolution, except not even really. Scorpions are arachnids with a stinger on their tails. Scorpionflies are a type of insect who cannot sting or harm humans. The males just have a tail that curls up in a way that reminded whoever named them of scorpions. They are also not very large. Maybe an inch long, total?

I’m still super excited about this. 😀

October 12, 2018

nanonaturalist: nanonaturalist: nanonaturali…

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

nanonaturalist:

Ready for another caterpillar flavor? I found a Polyphemus moth laying eggs on the side of my house. Brought her inside, put her in an enclosure while I grabbed a paper bag (easier to collect eggs on paper!!!), and she laid FIVE eggs in the 10 seconds it took me to get back to her.

Last year, I struggled with keeping my Polyphemus babes fed, since the trees they eat were not abundant in my yard (they ate all the little saplings down to sticks!). But this year, I anticipated Good Moth Luck, and have let all the elm saplings get big and tall regardless of how inconveniently placed they are. And here we are! 😀

August 31, 2018

Guess who’s here?

Mama moth laid 90 eggs and thankfully I was able to give away most of them. I kept 20 eggs for myself, and they started hatching this morning. Exciting!!

September 8, 2018

My fat babies 😭

I gave away 5 more eggs, and three have yet to hatch, so only 12 caterpillars right now. Much easier than 90!!

September 10, 2018

Newborn Alert!

Compare the size of a newly hatched baby pillar with her two-day-old siblings.

September 10, 2018

Baby’s First Molt

You can see his old face is starting to come off! Exciting!

September 11, 2018

Molting underway!

Fresh new clothes! In the top photo, you can see the baby’s old skin behind him (it’s the dry yellow thing). In the bottom photo, you can see all their discarded head capsules (I circled them). I collect caterpillar faces!

Remember: they are four days old at this point.

September 12, 2018

Gaze upon my large children

September 13, 2018

Oops forgot to post these yesterday!! Got distracted by BIRD NONSENSE

I probably need to feed them again. They are eating machines!!!

September 15, 2018

Important new development: Hairy Toes

September 20, 2018

The molting and cuteness are everlasting. Soon they will have their walrus mustaches.

September 22, 2018

The bigger they get, the sillier their molt dance gets. Check out the complete celebratory ridiculousness here [link to previous post]

Wow wouldn’t it be nice if I could post a video reblog on mobile?!

September 23, 2018

Important

Big n’ fat

September 25, 2018

Absolute Units

These were taken over the course of the past few days (time to retag these as “caterpillar laterposts”?), but as you can see, they are now LORGE. The last photo is a big fat baby molting again to become bigger and fatter.

On Monday, I’m bringing them to a school, where a class of VERY lucky 1st graders gets to MEET THEM and WATCH THEM POOP. Speaking of which, stay tuned because I have the action-gif of the poopening photo third from the bottom.

September 29, 2018

Polyphemus caterpillars: unanimously approved by 25 six-year-old humans

image
image
image

Yesterday, I brought four of the fatties to Cedar Creek Elementary school where they got to meet a class of 1st graders who are learning about insects. One of them was molting! One of them pooped, they were fat and eating and the kids LOVED them. They kept asking: “Are these REAL?!” You bet!!

I also brought the microscope and showed them some caterpillar faces! Photos above are from yesterday.

And today?

image
image
image

They grow. Larger and larger!

October 2, 2018

*heavy breathing*

October 3, 2018

Poopin’

October 4, 2018

I’m in love

October 4, 2018 (pm)

Faterpillar Apocalypse

October 6, 2018

How are they not making cocoons yet?!

LOOK HOW FAT

LOOK

October 8, 2018

STOP THEM

Like my new mustache?

October 8/9, 2018

Squeeze gently to check for ripeness.

Ah, yes. Almost ready.

(Where are my cocoons already?!)

October 9, 2018

It is time

The prophesy is realized. As it was foretold,

R O U N D B O Y

has arrived

This prepupal green sausage is making THE FIRST COCOON!!!

October 10, 2018

There are now three cocoons

Top: the first cocoon, babby sewed some leaves to the side the their home so you can see the “naked” cocoon side. They don’t always hide in leaf cocoons, but it’s very common and a good camouflage strategy.

Bottom: the second cocoonis completely enclosed in leaves. The third cocoon looks the same.

The caterpillars were huge, so these cocoons must be MASSIVE, right??

Nope! Check it out:

You remember the first bab got SO FAT WHY? They squeeze themselves like an accordion before they make their cocoon and pupate inside. Adult moths look way bigger than they actually are thanks to their wings. Polyphemus moths are pretty big anyway, but the cocoon and pupa are only about a large as the moths body, the wings are just tiny inflatable flaps until they emerge and pump them up.

Only 9 more to go!

October 12, 2018

Using iNaturalist Tutorial 1: Making Observati…

Welcome to the first part in a series of tutorials on using the world-wide citizen science website/app/paradise that is iNaturalist [link]. They have their own tutorials on using the website [link], but *coughs* they haven’t been updated in a while and the interface changed a little

I’m trying to encourage tumblr peeps to try out iNaturalist, so I created an “iNatters of tumblr” group [link] for us all to see what everybody else encounters, help each other ID things, and otherwise just have a fun time while contributing to science! Want to join us? Just create an account on iNaturalist, and either send me your username (on tumblr or on iNat!) and/or follow the group (click the button in the top right corner of the group page). I will add you to the list of identifiers, and all of your observations, past and present, will be added to the group! Check out my tagged posts about this project! [link]

Figuring out any new website or app can be confusing and frustrating, and I hope these tutorials will make it easier to start using iNaturalist. If anything I say is unclear, confusing, or doesn’t match what you see, just let me know and I will update this tutorial with a better explanation. 

These tutorials are image-heavy and kinda long, so they will be under a cut. Note: I have the iPhone version of the app, so you may see a slightly different interface on another device.

Observation Tutorial Part 1: Making Observations with the Mobile App

First Thing’s First! Let’s check out your settings!

image

Most of these settings are self-explanatory.
Automatic Upload
The app defaults to automatic upload, which means it will start uploading your observations as soon as you save them. If you are doing a bioblitz, or are in an area with limited cell reception, this option can slow down the app and drain your battery. If you turn off this option, you will need to push the “upload” button to post your observations so others can see them.

Suggest Species
This option is MAGICAL. It was first rolled out about a year ago, and HOLY CARP it’s pretty good! But, it does have limitations. First, it requires a good signal and can slow you down and eat up your battery. Also, it works based off a machine-learning system from observations previously uploaded and verified on iNaturalist. What this means: The identify tool can only successfully identify things that have been observed and identified by other real humans. Also, it only uses your main photo (the first one), and it can get thrown off if it was taken at a weird angle, or if there is lots of other stuff in the background (like plants, rocks, other bugs). And, very important to note: it does not take your location into consideration. There is a very heavy user-base in New Zealand, so it is fairly common for species that only occur in New Zealand to be suggested. So, use your best judgement. If you think something is a Booger Beetle, but the app suggests Snot Weevil, ignore the app. OR, you can stick to a higher classification (Beetles) and come back to it later. You can always change your mind!

iNaturalist Network
You don’t really need to worry about this too much. There are a bunch of “flavors” of iNaturalist, and which network you select is the one your data will stick to in the event that the iNaturalist Network breaks up. They are more or less regional. More information about the networks here [link]

Okay, let’s take some photos!

image

Wow, nice! You have two options for making observations with the mobile app. 
Option 1: Take the photo now, worry about iNat later
Option 2: Take the photo using the iNat app

image

I recommend choosing Option 1 if you are taking photos of things that may move, because the app has a bit of a delay, and the quality tends to not be as good. I use Option 1 almost exclusively, because it’s easier to take my photos and do bulk uploads when I’m inside and not being chased by mosquitos. Option 2 is better if your subject isn’t moving too fast, and if you are just observing a couple things (and also if you don’t want to build up a several-month-long backlog of photos on your phone…).

You can take and select multiple photos! Try to get different angles, and photograph different parts of your subject to help with IDs later.

Advanced iNatter Option
If you take photos with your phone to upload later, you have the option of annotating your photos! This is helpful if you have more than one specimen in the photo, or if your specimen is well camouflaged. You can also point out important features, like I did below. Any edits you do to your photos before you upload them can really help out people who do IDs!

Regardless of which option you choose, you will end up at your observation page!

Adding identifications to your observations

image

From your observation page (on the left above), you can add more photos, add an ID, write notes, and edit time and location information. More on those options later! First, let’s click “What did you see?” to get to the ID page. 

If you have “Suggest species” turned on, the app guesses what you saw. Clicking the information symbol to the right will show you more information on each species to help you decide if that ID is a good fit. Feel free to pick whatever you think is closest, and other people will agree with you OR suggest other identifications later.

If you know what you saw, or if you have a guess, go ahead and type it into the search bar. If you have autocomplete on, it will (guess what!) autocomplete what you are typing. If you have a slow connection, LOOK OUT because you might accidentally select the wrong ID due to lag.

Editing Location and Privacy

Depending on your phone’s privacy settings, your photos will automatically have a GPS stamp on them, so if you are adding photos to iNat later, you usually don’t need to worry about remembering where you took them. If you have this feature turned off for your phone, that’s fine! Or, if you have that option turned on, and your photos are GPS tagged, you can still protect your privacy while keeping the location data useful for scientists and researchers.

If you are wondering, “Why is location even important? Why should I bother?” There are a couple answers! First, there are very few species present worldwide. For the most part, in order to identify something, it is essentially to know where it was. Sometimes, you can be vague, and just stating the country is good enough detail to identify something (common for larger animals, like birds and mammals, and larger plants like trees). But other times, you need to be extremely specific. Some insects look nearly identical to each other, but there will be different species living on one side of a mountain range vs the other side, even if they are only 20 miles apart. And also, researchers who are tracking the movement of species in response to climate change can benefit from having access to accurate data–showing that a species of plant is appearing even several miles north each year is crucial to understanding how to manage environmental stewardship.

If you are out and about, and have GPS phototagging on, you don’t really need to edit your location (unless you want to!). If you have GPS tagging off, or the location data was a little off, OR you want to protect your privacy (observations at your house, for example), here’s what ya do:

Click the area on your observation page with location (I blanked those details out of my screencap). You will be taken to a map. Clicking the green arrow takes you to your current location. You can zoom in or out of the map (unfortunately, you can’t just type in an address on the mobile app, but you CAN on the website, and you CAN edit posts you made from the mobile app on the website later!). When the location you want is centered on the map, zoom in or out to set your accuracy (if you can’t remember where you were, but you KNOW you were somewhere in Austin, you would basically do what I have above in my map). 

If you don’t want to edit the location, but you don’t want the entire world to know where your photos were taken, you can change the GeoPrivacy setting (kinda cut off in the screencap, but it’s directly underneath location). You can select three options: 
Open: Everybody can see where your observations were made
Obscured: iNaturalist will create large square that contains your true location at some random point within the square. All observations with obscured coordinates will be randomly assigned to one point in that square. Only you can see those coordinates (one exception is if you join a very specific type of project, and you have opted-in to let project curators see obscured coordinates).
Private: No location information is shared. You may select this option if you want, BUT keep in mind it will be very difficult for people to help identify your observations!
For more information on GeoPrivacy, iNaturalist provides more information here [link]

Adding Observations to Projects

iNaturalist has many different kinds of projects [link]. The “iNatters of tumblr” project is a “collection” project type, which automatically adds observations meeting specific criteria (in our case, all observations made by users I have added to the project). Another type of of project, the “traditional” project type, was originally the only type of project available. It’s great for collecting some very specific observations that you can’t really search for. Two of my favorites are “Mating Behaviour” and “Animated Observations” [both are links]. The downside of these kinds of projects is somebody has to manually add each observation to the project. If you have joined one of these kinds of projects, you can link them to your observation before you save it. You can also add observations to projects any time later.

To link your observation with a project, you must have joined a project first. Afterwards, just click the button and you’re done!

Saving and Uploading

You’re almost done! Just ONE final step. Save!!! Click the big green SAVE button at the bottom, and you see your beautiful observation:

If you have Auto Uploads turned off, you need to click the upload button to start uploading. That’s it! Congratulations!


If you take your photos with a camera, or if you want to upload a BUNCH of observations at one time, you will want to make your observations on the website, rather than the mobile app. Making observations on the iNaturalist website will be the subject of Tutorial 2!

September 18, 2018

Not to be that guy…

underthehedge:

But I feel like parts of my brain are melting at people’s ID requests so I’m totally going to be that guy. 

Recently I joined some UK ant-keeping facebook groups to get updates on mating flights and no one uses the forums anymore. Overall they’re pretty good and interesting, nice bit of community etc. but some of the ID requests…Anyone else who helpfully answers people’s questions about these things will probably know where I’m going with this (@nanonaturalist), it’s the photos.

I remember first getting into photographing bugs years ago and taking photos I thought were decent, but looking at them now? Oh dear, no, out of focus etc. So I know you need to have experience to actually tell a good photo from a bad photo but like, sometimes it feels beyond a joke? I’m not expecting a studio lit image stack but surely people can work out you need to be able to actually see the ant? 

“Hi I caught this queen earlier can anyone ID it for me?” – I took this photo as a joke but actually uuuuh this really isn’t that far off. Grainy, unfocused, apparently taken from halfway across the room for some reason. Or other old favourites like a lovingly detailed portrait of someone’s thumb next to a blurry out of focus blob that I wouldn’t even feel confident IDing as “an ant”.

None of which bothers me like the people who don’t have even the faintest clue what they’re talking about who stride in proclaiming it as this genus, species, subspecies and its mother’s maiden name for ants you can’t even ID past subgenus without a microscope (looking at you, Chthonolasius with your identical workers and nearly identical queens). Especially tiresome when you’re trying to explain how you can’t actually ID something to species from these photos and what would be needed and here’s Barry swooping in with “Oh it’s X looks just like mine”. Fuck off Barry you thought you’d found something that’s not even present in this country last week, take your shoddy advice elsewhere.

I get it, if you’ve never keyed out species with a dichotomous key you aren’t going to know what details to include and what quality of picture you need. If you’ve not spent hours staring at small insects down a microscope you won’t realise how much fine detail your photo is lacking* and you probably don’t know why that’s important. It’s not their fault and I don’t want to discourage anyone it’s just…after the fifth unusable photo of the day my brains starts to squeak.

*for the love of any and all gods that are listening, Focus. The. Camera. On. The. Subject. Not your fingers, c’mon, just focus the camera before you press capture.

Oh yes, I do know what you mean. I haven’t had this problem with tumblr peeps, but I have seen this in other various groups and databases. Bugguide [link] in particular can have some … uh… challenging photos to ID.

Most of the photos people submit for ID requests are pretty good! But sometimes…

You can’t zoom in on any of these photos, either. For what it’s worth, I let this person know I thought these could be snails, and suggested uploading to iNaturalist since bugguide doesn’t keep snail photos.

On Photographing Nature

I would like to point out, us “experts” are fallible! You think I was born taking excellent photos of very tiny things that move really fast? HA!!! Please observe my transgressions from the early days of my Bug Photography Career (aka 2016):

I helpfully identified this photo as “insects” and made no comments [link to iNat post]. Originally I had identified this as “leafhopper” but moved it back a notch when I realized it wasn’t. But… I have no idea which thing I was looking at or how I could miss the MATING TUMBLING FLOWER BEETLES?!?!!?

Please observe Transgression #2 [link to iNat post]. At the time, I was extremely proud of myself because THIS PHOTO ACTUALLY TURNED OUT!!! I did (and still do) use the “finger portrait” technique to get tiny bugs into focus. The trick is you have to hold your finger at the same exact distance from your camera as the bug, otherwise the method doesn’t work (also, your finger has to NOT SCARE OFF the bug). An alternate method to get bugs in focus is to “lock” the focus by focusing on something big enough for your camera to find in the same general area, but instead of tapping, you hold down your finger and it prevents the autofocus from ruining everything. If everything is a mess, you can turn away, hold out your finger, lock the focus, turn back to your bug, and physically move your phone closer or farther away until your bug friend is in focus. Can’t tell? ZOOM IN! Yes, your phone can zoom! Try it!

To be fair: I do not consider these to be “bad” photos because the insects in them are still identifiable (to a degree). But these photos were from before I realized you can crop photos on your phone. That was a huge game changer for me! And cropping can really help people identify your photos better. Why?

HALP WHO IS THIS FRIEND?! ID PLEASE!!!

Yes, I posted this on iNat as the main photo [link]. Please forgive me.

See him now? Are you squinting hard enough? 

I do regularly still post photos of this quality (and again, I would not call this a “bad” photo). But it could be better with cropping. Here’s how I would post this photo today:

Much better!

But if you go to my iNat links to see the original observations, you will see that I have not, in fact, modified any of my older posts. It is very much possible for me to crop the original photos, upload them, and delete the older ones. Why do I leave them up there as is?

1. If you have a couple free hours with nothing to do, look through my observations from earliest to most recent [link] and make note of how the photo quality changes. You can see a significant improvement in my ability to frame, crop, and get different angles to identify things better. If I edit my old photos, I lose the ability to see how much I’ve improved

2. Beyond my own personal reasons for wanting to reminisce on ye olde days of being a baby naturalist, I want to make it clear to new iNat users (and new naturalists) that being a beginner is okay!!! Look at where I started!

3. Regardless of quality, any photo that is identifiable is a good photo. Sure, you’re not going to get rich selling licenses for grainy uncropped cellphone photos of bugs. But if your goal is to learn about bugs, document their occurrence on citizen science websites, and become a better naturalist, any photo that can identify a form of life is valuable and worth sharing.

Above, I shared only uncropped photos that were otherwise okay quality. But trust me, there are far “worse” things in my iNaturalist account. Compare photos of female Blue Dasher dragonflies I took in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Left: Female Blue Dasher in 2016 [link] Right: Female Blue Dasher in 2017 [link]
Both of these photos were taken with the exact same phone camera. What’s the difference? A year of experience taking photos with my phone (and also lucking out finding a million dragonflies sleeping in my yard every night!). But BOTH photos are identifiable to species, because you can clearly see the distinctive coloration pattern in them.

How about a couple more examples of “good enough” photos? 

Both of these photos are identifiable to species-level. Which means they are good photos. Want to guess when I took these photos? How much experience I had photographing birds when I took these? I’ll give you a clue. Here are the same bird species I photographed five months prior to the above photos with the same camera:

Left: Crested Caracara / Right: Red-tailed Hawk | April 2018

The blurry photos? I took those three days ago (September 2018). They are on iNaturalist. Sometimes the birds get away and the best evidence you have is blurry. But, if they are identifiable photos, they are good photos

Links to my iNaturalist observations for the birbs:
Blurry Caracara | Clear Caracara
Blurry Hawk | Clear Hawk

But back to @underthehedge‘s original point: To take a good photo, the subject has to be identifiable. And as mentioned, identifiability for insects and spiders can be very tricky, and sometimes impossible without a dissecting microscope and/or a DNA test. But sometimes, even getting to family or genus is good enough! In that case, the shape of the subject has to be clear. A little blur is usually okay (like my tiny grasshopper above), but for something as tiny as ants, it becomes a lot harder, and sometimes you need to accept an ID of “it’s probably an ant” and try to take a better photo next time. 

As you learn more about insects, you also learn which parts are important to identify. For some beetles, you need a close-up shot of the underside of their thorax to identify them. Didn’t get a belly-shot? Well, next time, flip one over! For some dragonflies, you need a clear shot of the spines on the legs. These are things you learn with experience!

September 18, 2018