Seriously, I really need to stop doing titles like that…
This is going to be the longest post on the blog. Not in terms of words, but in terms of images, since I am going to show a long sequence from the other evening, and they’re nearly all vertical format, so the linear dimensions of the post are going to be exceptional. This may result in some gaps between text blocks, so please excuse the formatting. Plus, this will easily be the most images for a single post, and by itself will exceed the uploads for many previous months. And, this is about the mantids, again. But don’t go yet, because you may never have seen this, or anything like it.
The Chinese mantises (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis) have distributed themselves throughout the yards, front and back, and can usually be found in a particular area that they’ve claimed as their own, even though they might change their minds from time to time. Here, one has taken up residence on the spearmint plants right alongside the front walk, and I took advantage of the ability to frame it against the sky, shooting almost straight up.
About 48 hours ago as I type this, I was out watering the plants, which have been struggling in the heat and drought conditions. As usual, after the soaking of the roots, I applied a light mist to the leaves, almost entirely for the benefit of the arthropods. You know how it goes: keep the talent happy. Right afterward, I switched on the headlamp (I can water by ambient light) to check out and see what was going on, and found the brown mantis on the rose bush had molted out into an adult not long ago, showing off wings that were still in the process of drying. This, as I’ve said before, has long been a process that I’d like to capture from start to finish, but felt it might be very difficult – not just from knowing when this would take place, but from the idea that, seeing a looming nature photographer nearby, any arthropod might opt to put off the extended vulnerability that molting entails, if this is even within their power. So, seeing this newly-emerged adult, I sighed inwardly and told myself I should have checked on it earlier. Doing my typical rounds, I went over to the Japanese maple to see how the occupant thereof was doing.
Being greeted by this spectacle, I realized I had caught one still in the process of molting – check out those wing stubs. I had missed most of the details, but could see the wings spread out at least, so I grabbed a bottle of iced Tang and sat down to shoot a sequence of photos. I have provided the times at which the images were shot to give an idea of how long this process, and indeed this session, took. I also want to add that it was still 29°c (84°f) and incredibly humid, so even while sitting largely motionless, I was sweating steadily.
The ideal thing to do in such cases is to shoot regularly-spaced images that can then be sequenced into a time-lapse animation, which is much better than shooting video – this process takes place over such a period of time that it’s only slightly better than watching paint dry. However, the mantis wasn’t inclined to hold one particular position, and I shifted several times, as well as removing a couple of blocking maple leaves, to maintain a decent vantage.
After some minutes and no small amount of twitching and wriggling, the mantis freed itself from the old exoskeleton and turned to face upwards. I have seen a few different arthropods at roughly this stage, and notably they all remained suspended from their abdomen, attached somehow within the exoskeleton anchored to the plant. The feet all have little claws, and these can apparently be locked in place as the feet are withdrawn, but how the abdomen is anchored within I cannot say for certain, though it seems it almost has to be either by genitalia or cloaca. Yeah, I know – sounds real uncomfortable, doesn’t it?
We’re going to skip a lot of images here (there’s a reason) and show the almost completely-extended wings – note the time difference. No movement is actually seen from the wings at all, though the mantis does the occasional leg and abdominal flex while this is taking place, and is free to shift position. I knew that the only thing to see from this point on would be the settling of the wings into position and their slow change into the normal adult coloration – checking on the brown mantis that I had first seen, I knew this might take an hour or more to occur, with few images to shoot during that time, so I elected to wrap it up here.
The same mantis seen at top was still perched on the spearmint plant, but I took note of something: the eyes were not black, as they typically are at night, and the only times I’ve seen mantids without dark eyes this late at night has been when they’re very young, or as seen with the others in this post, when they’re molting. I remarked in a previous post that I’m not sure why this is, but it seems to be under some control. I watched this one for a short while, taking a close image of the back where the chitin will begin to split as the molting starts, then went inside and unloaded the memory card. I figured, if I left the mantis alone until it felt safe enough to begin, I could then capture the sequence after it was committed. Close examination of the image showed no hint of spreading or stretching of the chitin that would indicate the process had started already.
I came out and checked about 20 minutes later, to find no change in condition (though a possible change of position from the mantis,) and went back inside for a while. Then I got involved in a project and spent more time than intended before I came back out to check again. Ominous music here.
You knew it was going to happen, didn’t you? But I defend my reasoning in not making the mantis feel threatened before it began, and can only admit to taking longer than I should’ve between checks – with no real idea how long the full process lasted. But yeah, stupid me.
Now, if you’re wondering, no, there is no ‘coordination’ I know of where mantids molt into adults on the same night, and the latter two were both notably smaller than the brown one, who I would have thought would have reached adulthood before the rose bush mantis. Moreover, the pattern I seemed to see from earlier molts has been that it often takes place after a rain, and we were as far as possible from rain that night. So, is three of them all molting within hours of one another just a coincidence, or provoked by something? I can’t tell you (because you don’t need to know.) If someone does know, however, please fill me in – forewarned would be so much better.
Before we move on, compare the wings before and after – we’re going to be getting a closer look at them.
Seen from the side, we now know why the head was tucked so tightly to its chest, since the antennae still aren’t free. In fact, the forelimbs are still working their way out, only clear to the elbow, while the hind limbs are barely started – the blob right at the first joint is the head portion of the exoskeleton. We’re going to keep watching without comments from the Peanut Gallery (briefly – c’mon, do you really expect me to shut up for any length of time?) as the process continues. Again, check the times.
This is where it got really interesting, and I had to show a cropped detail shot. No, mantids do not have that many joints in their limbs – this is showing the softness and flexibility of the new chitin as the mantis struggled to free the hind leg from the old exoskeleton. You can see from the color within that now the middle limbs are pretty much shed (upper right,) but the hind limbs are still visible within the old chitin, between the middle limb skins and the abdomen. You can just barely make out the split seam of the old exoskeleton, with the wing sheaths plainly visible, and something more. As I found out last year, arthropods shed not only their external covering, but the linings of their ‘lungs,’ or more specifically, the tracheoles along the lateral margins of their abdomens that feed air almost directly into the tissues through a branching network, akin to a circulatory system. Thus, the little white squiggle you see right alongside the wings is likely the old tracheoles, with more of them visible towards the top of the frame.
In fact, let’s take a close look at those. The little pale puckers you see to the left of the red line are the spiracles – all the oxygen that the mantis needs comes through them. Yeah, arthropods use air much more efficiently than mammals do. As for the ragged, tattered appearance of the abdomen along the red line? Got me – sure doesn’t look watertight, does it? My best guess is that this closes up as the chitin hardens and the flexing necessary for molting has ceased.
The hind limbs seemed to take a while to get free, and I cannot tell you if this was normal or not, but I’ve had almost as much trouble trying to get out of a wet long-sleeved sweater, and performed much the same maneuvers. Albeit with less creepy limb bending.
Ah, there we go! And exactly as you’d expect, the mantis spent a bit of time stretching out the newly-freed limbs, though much slower than you might imagine. This is roughly the point where I happened along on the earlier mantis that evening (well, okay, the previous evening now, if you want to get technical,) so I suspected there would be a delay, probably from waiting for the limbs to harden enough to function dependably and support the mantis’ weight. So while we wait, we’ll go in for another closeup. Isn’t macro work fun?
We really needed a close look at the wings, and it was informative to me at least. I kind of expected them to be folded or rolled – I mean, even flowers form rather geometrically – but the wings looked like they’d been jammed into the sub-adult exoskeleton like a sock that’s worked off and sits in the toe of your boot. Very brainlike appearance. Also note, while we’re here, the translucence of the still-soft exoskeleton and the faint details visible within. Is this cool or what?
Though the night wasn’t over yet…
[Okay, it was, but that sounds better than, “The morning wasn’t over yet” – let me have my poetry.]
While just waiting for the mantis to start freeing itself from the exoskeleton completely, I glanced over at the other spearmint plant right alongside. Seriously, what the hell was going on that night?
Less than a meter away, a cicada of unknown species was molting out as well. In fact, it was close enough that, with some angles, I had to be careful not to bump the mantis with my head while lying on my side to get photos of the cicada.
I want to take a moment to paint this picture for you. The spearmint plants are less than a meter in height, and both the mantis and the cicada were at the same distance off the ground, 30 cm or so. Depth of field with macro work is very short, so it works best if you get the length of the subject’s body nice and flat to the camera, so all of it gets into a range of sharp focus – compare the first, daylight image at top to see the effect, though hugely magnified in that image since it was shot at f4, rather than f16 like nearly all of the rest in this post. Depending on the angle that the insect was at, I needed to be flat on the ground on my side, often aiming slightly upwards, and for many of these pics I had to hold my head about 10 cm off the ground. It doesn’t take long before this really starts pulling on the neck. Thus, between shots I was often lying flat on my back on the grass to loosen the neck muscles, and thankfully no one was walking past on the road to wonder what I was doing lying there with a bulky camera rig after midnight, staring up at the sky…
Those curled wings were simply fascinating, like overcooked bacon, and the flash was really bringing out the curious coloration of the translucent chitin. A few days previously I had inadvertently stepped on a cicada, newly emerged from the ground and ready to attach to a tree and molt into an adult. I felt doubly bad, since I try not to step on any insects if I can avoid it, but also since this was exactly what I’d been watching for: an arthropod immediately before molting. And in fact, that accident had occurred not two meters from this spot. That one, however, had been about half the size of the one pictured here, which is the largest cicada I think I’ve seen.
Keeping an eye on the mantis, I started working with the fourth molt that I’d found that night, at about an equal point in the process. Makes me wish I’d been looking around more, earlier, and caught this from the beginning. These were, more or less, in range of the porch light, which I’d turned on as soon as I’d started watching the mantis on the spearmint, but easy enough to lose in the shadows as well, so most of the detail I could see was shown by either my headlamp or the focusing lamp on the flash unit. In fact, I went through a significant number of batteries that evening, between the headlamp and dozens of flash discharges, but that’s why I have stacks of rechargeables.
In time, the cicada started stretching out its legs, and I was pretty certain this was preparatory to snagging a perch and freeing itself from the old chitin so, ensuring that the mantis wasn’t doing anything yet, I stayed with the cicada and watched carefully. But let’s take a closer look at that belly while we’re here.
Isn’t that a lovely palette? Very tastefully done, though The Girlfriend suggested that this was where some of the creatures from the Men In Black movies originated. And she might be right.
As expected, the cicada soon bent over and grabbed its own exoskeleton, pulling itself free from it with considerably less effort than the mantises seemed to need. And abruptly, almost escaping my attention, those wings had started to unfurl.
Watch those times, since you’ll get to compare them against the mantis; the wings popped out remarkably fast.
You might expect to see some pulsing of the wings as fluid pumped into them, or flexing or something, but arthropod circulation is not like ours, and the wings simply grew like leaves, not visibly moving but always further along when you looked back after turning away. The abdomen would twitch from time to time, but that was about it for deliberate movement.
You might also expect the wings to, at some point,stretch out to the side, maybe do a few slow test flaps or something, but neither the mantids nor the cicada did anything of the sort, probably because the wings needed to harden thoroughly before anything like that was attempted. I have seen insects with malformed wings, possibly due to some disturbance or damage immediately following molt, but I presume genetic defects are also a possibility.
The mantis could be seen extending its legs and perching onto the spearmint plant, so I switched back to that position – credit to them both for alternating their activities so, now that I was finally on the ball, I wasn’t missing anything.
I am assuming this specimen was a male, since it was performing agitated wriggles and shifts almost identical to myself when the shorts have been holding in too much of the day’s heat. With a wrench of obvious effort, the mantis removed itself from the embrace of its old skin and immediately turned around to face upwards, letting the wings hang down; I am guessing this assists in their expansion.
The thin stalks and sporadic leaves of the spearmint plant, while a delightful smell to be working alongside for this extended session, were not the ideal perch for the mantis, who often probed the air in an anxious-looking manner trying for a foothold.
I was still keeping an eye on the cicada, and this flash angle brought out some great colors from the wings and abdomen.
Pay attention to those wings, as well as the times…
[This post is taking as much time to write as it did to shoot, and the images were already edited before I started this…]
As this took place, the mantis started doing some ‘pullup’ motions, perhaps intent on finding a better perch, perhaps only provoking the circulation to help the wings extend. Its weight was bending over the mint stalk, so it would have needed to switch to another if it wanted a sturdier support. Should have thought of that before it commenced…
Dum de dum de dum dum…
This is better than a half hour after freeing itself from the exoskeleton, and ninety minutes since I found it already well along in the molting process – obviously this is a time-consuming thing. Two and a half hours earlier, I’d looked at this one and speculated about whether it was going to molt. Nature photography is not for those with short attention spans (or a nervous bladder.)
The wings are almost at full extension here, and at this point I took a quick look around just to see if anything else was about to start molting, even though I was tired enough that I might not have followed through if I found something. I was sweaty and hot, itchy from lying on the grass, and had a seriously stiff neck – but a pile of images that I’d never gotten before. I don’t think I got a bad deal.
The next morning (from my personal “day” definition,) the mantis was still largely in position, but the cicada appeared to have moved on… until I found it in the grass practically underneath the mantis (suspicious, that.) I have never seen one with this coloration, and so far have not been able to turn up the species. I let it be after this photo and it was gone the next time I checked – just my luck it’ll be something rare that entomologists would pay thousands of dollars to obtain (that happens, right?) But as the rains finally arrived yesterday evening, the mantis sought shelter and was soon found perched on the edge of our front door, so I was able to go out and do not just an adult shot, with the wings now showing their typical coloration, but a scale shot as well. The mantis wasn’t exactly thrilled about this, but not too panicky either.
So the next phase is mating (actually, that doesn’t sound right following an image of a mantis on my hand, so let me assure you that I am not involved in this process.) I have to wonder if I’ll get the chance to capture images of that, too – I haven’t managed it yet. Keep checking back.
This post serves a double purpose, both to show off a handful of recent photos and serve as a buffer before another gout of mantis pics comes crashing in. As even further warning of that upcoming post, a lot of them are going to be really weird looking.
Yesterday morning, I watched a pair of green herons (Butorides virescens) at the nearby pond. The image above is probably the best I got, and not all that good at that – to do these justice, I need to be shooting from a tripod and not handheld. A tripod, however, does not allow much freedom of movement when the subject starts wandering in and out of view along the shoreline. Green herons have a peculiar call, similar to the sharp chirp of a basketball shoe on the court but much deeper in pitch, and herons generally don’t issue it unless they’re startled or irritated. A series of the calls convinced me to approach cautiously, and I witnessed a pair of them in a curious dance, often close together but not too close, not apparently courting nor apparently antagonistic, but at times one would approach the other and send that one winging off along the shore, with the first in close pursuit, and they did this three times in my immediate vicinity. Since they are distinctly shy birds, getting this close for photos, even with the long lens, wasn’t typical, and I surmise that they were more intent on their own interactions than my presence.
[Now, a short aside. Obviously I put effort into including the scientific names of species with these posts, but this one has provoked a lot of backtracking and an irritated sigh. I have listed everywhere else that the scientific name of the green heron is Butorides striatus, but it’s not; it’s Butorides virescens. The two species were apparently linked in some way, but all references I can find right now give the latter name. The reason I’ve been using the incorrect one? That’s the one I found when I first did the page in my gallery with a heron, and I’ve been using that as my reference ever since. What this means is that I now have to correct a webpage, the blog tags, and two previous blog posts over this, all because my original source was wrong and I never checked another. Sheesh.]
As threatened, I also got a slightly better view of the double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus,) who to all appearances has not been handling the heat well, often seen exactly like this: beak open, reluctant to exert any effort. The deep green backgrounds of both of these photos is another facet of this heat; we’d been a long time without rain or a significant drop in temperature, resulting in undisturbed water that has provoked a rich algae bloom. It sets off the eyes nicely, don’t you think? While not the best light angle, I did manage a shot that illustrated this trait, but I may not get anything better; the favored perch of this bird provides roughly ninety degrees of visual access from any nearby point, and all of that is opposite the sun, so getting good light on those eyes is going to require the bird to find a completely different location.
If you’re trying to see the double crest, don’t bother. It’s not there right now, and indeed, I’m never seen it myself, but this species develops two thin stripes of longer white feathers on the head during breeding season, which lasts a couple of months at best, and this distinction somehow fostered the name. Go figure.
The other evening while out watering the plants, I heard a faint scuffling sound from the deck, significant enough to make me think it was a rodent of some kind. Instead, I found a large pink and yellow moth, the size of a luna moth, thrashing on the boards. The pic above was one of the few where it was holding still – most times, it was fluttering rather ineptly, barely getting off the ground. This is an imperial moth (Eacles imperialis,) the first I’ve ever seen, and like the luna, it seems their adult phase is dedicated entirely to reproduction; they have no feeding organs at this stage.
The lack of a proboscis/siphon is subtle and not entirely clear, but I like how the ‘fur’ is continued up onto the base of the antennae. Because, you know, the nights sometimes aren’t sticky sweaty dripping hot, but merely warm. While I wanted a better angle, this is actually the only frame I got before it began thrashing around again, and after perhaps half an hour of trying, I simply let it go. Whereupon it immediately flew onto the porch screens and sat there obediently, too high now to reach (suspended over the dropoff in the back,) and too obscured by the screen for the shots I wanted, even though I had a great view of the underside. The entomologists out there would probably ask, “Why didn’t you just stick a pin through it?” while others would be horrified that I even interrupted its life in this way.
A few weeks back, an outing with a student was providing highly variable and scattered lighting conditions, but I took advantage of this to shoot a backlit eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) while it dined at a flower. If you’re not familiar with their appearance, this image doesn’t help, because they’re black with little edge markings in color – the wings are just thick enough to let a lot of light through in the right conditions. Eastern tiger swallowtails are often yellow, with black wing veins and the same edge markings, but the females can frequently have a black phase shown here, and will be interspersed among the yellows in any congregation of the species.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Very often, contrasting colors on an arthropod species is an example of aposematic coloration, or ‘keepaway’ signals, and is displayed in conjunction with some kind of defense, whether it be stinging or the emission of some foul-tasting or toxic substance; monarch butterflies are one such species. Monarchs look quite similar to the yellow phase of this species, only rich orange instead of yellow – it’s very easy to tell the difference, but because more people are familiar with monarchs and not swallowtails, this species is often mistaken for a monarch. There is another form of defense, called Batesian mimicry, where a perfectly edible species looks like a toxic/unpalatable one, and is thus not bothered by predators which have a bad experience with the other. Is this what’s going on with the yellow phase, which accounts for roughly 3/4 of the specimens (all males and half of the females)? Not sure. But, the dark phase of the females resembles the toxic pipevine swallowtail, and so that phase, at least, is Batesian. Now, I’m not sure I’ve seen a pipevine swallowtail around here, but I am sure I haven’t seen a monarch in ages, and their numbers are noticeably dwindling, so there’s reason to believe the dark phase of the tiger swallowtails may become more prevalent because they have a more effective defense.
And finally, another outing produced this striking pair, handily, because I’d been telling the enigmatic Mr. Bugg how to identify the males from the females. These are black-and-yellow Argiopes (Argiope aurantia,) often called garden spiders, and the male is closest to us – unfortunately this means the striking coloration of the female is not apparent, but you can always see it better here. This is courting behavior, and if I wasn’t with a student I might’ve waited to see if anything was going to happen, but that’s not something I would do while on the clock unless there were indications that the denouement was imminent. Since they appeared completely placid and no mood music was playing, I didn’t wait around to see if they’d start to tango. I did photograph one such encounter before, to all appearances an unsuccessful one. You’re going to ask what constitutes sex appeal in arachnids, I just know it, and I can’t really tell you – it’s not size that matters, obviously. I’m going to go with “sense of humor” because I keep hearing that, even when I suspect it’s defined differently from how I personally define it. And I’ll just let you ponder that one…
You know what I said a few days ago about standards being too high? I just had to share this.
In the local Craigslist postings, there was a ‘Creative Gig’ opening for a Paranormal Investigator, the entirety of the ad reading thus:
Creating a show to investigate the paranormal and past lives. Looking for an individual who is natural, curious, has a personality and is interested in these topics.
Man, that’s specific! I imagine only 99 to 99.98% of the populace could meet those requirements. But at least they’re open-minded enough not to require experience in film or public presentation, head shots or modeling background, experience with investigations, knowledge of the topics at hand, education in perceptions and the limitations thereof, or any kind of track record. So they’re not being too demanding, at least.
Still, notice the subtle racism that the ad contains? “Natural.” Which basically means, any supernatural beings need not apply. They’re also discouraging automatons and Tom Cruise.
Not to mention, I’m fairly certain that there’s an unspoken additional criteria, perhaps to be weeded out in the third round of interviews: “fatuous.” But even with this potential restriction, I’m tempted to apply for it, because the “compensation: tbd” is a serious motivator.
For today’s Monday color, we go back almost exactly five years (one day shy,) and over about eight or so kilometers, and turn mostly north, to the UNC Botanical Gardens and a butterfly, probably a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus,) on an amaranth spike. This is the kind of image I consider a magazine cover: space at top and bottom for masthead and barcode, space along the left side for content teasers, and a simple, bold subject with good contrast concentrated towards the center. This is one of the reasons where the rule of thirds might lead one astray, since some uses require different compositions. The butterfly was turned flat to the camera for best focus, and even the light gave some shape to the eye rather than a featureless black blob. I’d love to take credit for meticulously setting this up, but it was a grab shot as the butterfly landed to feed nearby – I will take credit only for a quick reposition to frame everything better, and being able to approach cautiously enough not to spook it away. Well, that and cash – I’ll always take cash. Praise too. And I’ll never turn down good birch beer. I suppose there’s a lot of things I’ll take, come to think of it…
Yeah, now I’m feeling obligated…
This one’s from not quite a week ago, an earlier morning outing. The sun had finally broken through the foliage and was attempting to burn off the overnight dew that had been surviving in the shade. In the brief time slot where the light was hitting it, before it evaporated within a couple of minutes, I played around with short depth images at f4, capturing more drops in the background well out of focus.
There is a concept, a meme if you will, that shows up a lot in critical-thinking circles, and I’ve even tackled it a few times before here. Commonly known as “Occam’s Razor” but also by the less folksy term of parsimony, it provides a very simple measuring stick: if multiple explanations can be advanced for any given facts or events, the simplest is usually the correct one. What it tells us is not to seek complication when trying to find out how something happens; the more complicated something is, the more likely it is to leave traces of this complication behind. Very few things happen without a trace of evidence. If we have a theory that fails to account for any given detail, the theory is probably wrong, or at least incomplete – that detail had to come from somewhere. But at the same time, if we have a complicated theory without accompanying complicated evidence, that theory is probably wrong as well – not only does every effect have a cause, but every cause has an effect.
When it comes to paranormal topics, however, problems can arise. By paranormal I refer to such topics as extra-terrestrial visitation (which is more specific than UFOs,) psychic powers, faith healing, ghosts, and so on – essentially, any topic where the phrase, “science doesn’t know everything,” is used as both justification and a battle cry. The problem is two-pronged, and one of those prongs is often not even recognized. On the face of it, the existence of Bigfoot is a very simple explanation for all of the myriad sightings, the footprint casts, the blurry photos and videos, and the reports of weird calls in the night, as well as many other items. An unknown intelligence with hypertechnology is a very simple explanation for radar traces, fast-moving lights, and the car not being able to start. On the face of it, paranormal explanations are indeed the simplest connection to all of the facets reported. Or at least, might be if word count is the main criteria of, “simplest.”
It’s extremely easy to say, “Bigfoot,” (try it, you’ll see,) but Bigfoot is not a simple concept. What did this creature evolve from, what is its closest living relative, what does it eat, where does it sleep, how come we’ve never found a carcass, why does it depart so far from the hominids of the past few hundred thousand years, did it come onto the continent separately from humans, how many are needed for reproductive stability? And so on, and so forth – there’s a lot of baggage when it comes to proposing an entirely new species based on rather flimsy evidence, evidence that fails to answer any of these questions and most others as well; “big” and “hairy” do not really portray a robust theory. The same kind of questions can be asked of any other “simple” explanation, especially if we consider that the advancement of scientific knowledge is the aim, rather than the typical lofty goal of winning an argument.
[I will take a moment to address the common response at this point, which is to argue that any such proposal “might be possible.” It might also be possible that the proposal is utter horseshit, as well, and in fact this is far more likely in damn near every such situation – but, curiously, you won’t find a fraction of the effort spent towards ruling this out, even though you’d think that would be the first step, wouldn’t you?]
But the second prong of the problem is a little thing called conflation. While a radar trace, a light in the sky, and the car not starting are all considered evidence, how does one determine that these belong together in any way? Has any effort been made to tie the radar trace to the light’s position firmly enough that they can be considered linked? I mean, there are always lights in the sky. How about the position of the light to the location of the car? How close is “close enough,” especially considering that in most situations, within a half-kilometer radius there could be anything from dozens to hundreds of other cars? How are all of the myriad known causes of a car not starting ruled out first? What mechanism is proposed to prevent a car from starting without physical interference? The military of any country would be exceptionally interested in this explanation. It is assumed that this is a property of alien spacecraft, simply because they’re often reported together, but the reasoning and the physics behind this are left hanging, somehow unnecessary to fill in at all. And if the answer to any such question is along the lines of, “Magic, super-high technology that we haven’t discovered yet,” that effectively translates to, “I don’t know,” and thus no differentiation from random, unconnected events has actually been established.
The same may be said for Bigfoot. Someone heard a weird noise in the woods at night? Yeah, welcome to the woods, a lot goes on here – I’m sure you can identify a raccoon squabble, the mating call of a red fox, and the cry of a captured treefrog, to rule out all of these, and every other known denizen of the forest. Tracks, you say? So, they exhibit the flexing, hip torsion, and toe separation of a bipedal hominid, and not just the easily-faked flat ‘bootprint’ impression of a standing foot, right? You’re aware that wildlife biologists routinely perform population counts in remote areas with the advanced technology of game cameras, so establishing more details about such a species would be relatively easy, of course.
This kind of ‘evidence’ is presented all of the time. “This house is haunted; it often creaks at night for no reason!” Oh, so ghosts, defined by having no physical presence whatsoever, now have enough mass to make the floorboards flex in an aging structure? “No, but wait: someone died here!” Yeah, that’s never gonna happen for an old house. Someone has died on some stretch of road we drive frequently too – be careful of the car stalling out. No, wait, that’s aliens…
It’s funny. We have a likely-evolved trait to work things out, to find the patterns, to seek the cause-and-effect function everywhere, and this is no bad thing, because it’s responsible for everything that we call ‘knowledge’ in the first place. But it’s not quite complete. We have a wicked tendency to fixate on a potential cause, often in complete disregard of its plausibility, and then try to jam in supporting evidence while ignoring everything that fails to fit, or disproves it. In many cases, facts are grabbed at will, becoming ‘evidence’ for the favored cause even when no relation can be found. If we want to find support for any given scenario, and are not encumbered by either having to show distinct relevance, nor in demonstrating that they could not originate from mundane causes, then we can always find plenty of things that meet those low standards. For those who adore conspiracies, the sole criteria is, “something that appears odd.”
One of the most functional aspects of scientific endeavors, one that would be of inestimable value if introduced to kids early on, is the concept of ruling out wrong answers and mistakes. Sure, it appears that R is caused by A – but are we sure it’s not caused by C, H, or M? Can we demonstrate this? And so, the consideration of alternate scenarios becomes a prime activity, as well as the consideration that factors Q and U have no demonstrable relation to the result at all.
[I have to add in another aside. Cultural influences are pernicious little things that abound in such discussions as well, often assumed to have some relation even though nobody actually knows how or why. While very few people reading this have had any personal experience with aliens or Bigfoot, we all ‘know’ what they look like, don’t we? And why the fucking hell would extra-terrestrials with such advanced technology have to display anti-collision lights? It usually takes real effort to tackle these ‘common knowledge’ aspects and recognize them for unwarranted assumptions, repeated ad nauseum throughout every form of media.]
I have heard, on more than one occasion, the phrase, “You just have different standards of evidence than I do.” First off, recognize that this is a complaint about someone’s standards being too high. But more to the point, this isn’t really a matter of personal opinion – evidence can only be for one thing, even though we’re often unsure what that one thing is. Most of the time, we’re being told this is evidence for something that has never been proven, has no firm criteria or often even a definition, and cannot be replicated on demand. That’s a bit problematic all by itself, but it gets much worse when the vast majority of this evidence could also be produced by mundane means. Sure, it could be from real psychic, precognitive powers, but it could also be produced by cold-reading, which we have ample evidence of and can be taught to someone within a day, which has even been proven as the modus operandi of a large number of self-professed ‘psychics.’ Since cold-reading is common and real precognition has never been established, the odds are heavily (as in, entirely) in favor of cold-reading. In such a case, we’re not even talking standards, but the bare necessity of ruling out the thing that exists before proposing the thing that doesn’t. Avoiding this is not just showing a bias towards psychic powers, but also a distinct lack of trust in them – someone convinced that they exist would have no hesitation in putting them to the most stringent tests possible, rather than arguing that the standards are too high.
One of the guidelines that I’ve used as a challenge has been to think of the topic as a court case; the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their case is solid. There’s a slight downside to this, in that “reasonable doubt” is too broadly subjective, but there’s also the other aspect that prompts diligence: that an opposing attorney is going to look for any manner possible to rip the case the shreds. “Did the witness remain in a fixed location and plot the movement of the light in the sky against firm and measurable landmarks?” “Were there any other witnesses to this event that the witness on the stand is now selling their account of to magazines for a tidy fee?” Faced with such inquiries, the typical promoter of paranormal explanations insists that “skeptics are just trying to dismiss the whole thing,” but the point really is, if the doubt can be sown so easily, what does this say about the quality of the supposed evidence? No belief in extraordinary properties should have to rely on whether someone is favorably disposed to it or not. The case should be built against such doubt, not in denial or avoidance of it.
Well, very briefly, anyway. Almost as soon as I got the binoculars on it, it became Identified.
Here’s the whole, sordid story. The Girlfriend was outside at roughly 10:25 pm EDT chatting with a neighbor when they saw the light in the sky, and came in to summon me, telling me to get the binoculars. By the time I came out it had disappeared, but I got specific location and directions from them (oriented on the handle stars of Ursa Major,) and scanned anyway with the 10x50s. Nothing to be seen. From the behavior that they described, I thought it might be a satellite flare, except that they said it was orange and “big.” I know enough about observations that “big” often means only “bright,” so I didn’t give this too much credence. No sound to be heard, and this is a quiet area and aircraft can usually be heard if they’re within eight kilometers or so.
Within a couple of minutes, however, I spotted it myself: still in the trees, deep orange, and very bright – close aircraft bright. It was clearly heading up and to the left, soon to come out of the trees, so while I was trying to get a good look at it through the branches, I knew in a few moments it would come into the clear. Within the trees, it seemed slightly amorphous, not a hard bright light like a star or planet, but more of a halo.
As soon as it cleared the trees and I knew I had sharp focus on it, the mystery vanished. It was clearly a Chinese lantern, a thin paper or plastic balloon with a light source within, in this case almost certainly something burning. Not only did it have the same hue as a small flame, but it faded and disappeared within a minute or so of coming into the clear. The bright light source was distinctly visible in the binocs, and could even be seen swinging around in relation to the surrounding, dimmer enclosure, of which it sat closer to the bottom edge. The movement and subsequent stalling in midair was consistent with a balloon rising on this wind-free evening.
While I toyed with the idea of getting the long lens on it, which could have resulted in something more magnified than the binoculars provided, there were three things that stopped me:
1. By the time I got the long lens and tripod set up and aimed, it likely would have vanished;
2. While bright, it was not short-exposure bright, and the shutter speed would have to be at least 1/4 second for any image, likely longer, and any movement at all in that time would have blurred it;
3. An indistinct shot would have done nothing towards demonstrating what it was – likely, it would have made it even worse, because no one would have been able to see what I was describing.
I am perfectly sympathetic towards those who would not have been able to identify such a sighting. The balloon was distant enough that “big,” even though an accurate description in this case, was relative to stars and aircraft lights and not a good indication of size. The angular size of the object was only perhaps 2mm at arm’s length – larger than any aircraft lights, planets, or even the ISS, but much, much smaller than the moon. In other words, too small to see the details of the balloon body and non-centered light source without magnification. Distance, naturally, was impossible to tell – we simply do not have viable depth-perception beyond about 15 meters, and it was only because I knew what it was and could discern a size of the flame within (through the binoculars) that I can say it was within 1,000 meters, probably more like 500. Once it cleared the trees its movement was difficult to pin down, since only the background stars could be used; only the brightest could be made out in these conditions, so this meant it spent a lot of time in “open air.” And even with what I know about careful observations, I did not note specific times nor have any way to pin down precise angles or travel.
The inability to discern the details that I had, however, does not open the door for such a UFO to be considered anything more than “mysterious.” Not immediately recognizing something doesn’t mean it’s not a mundane source. I am well aware that there are those who would still try to make something out of this, claiming I’m trying too hard to explain it or that something could simply have an appearance similar to a Chinese lantern while still being extra-terrestrial or whatever. But this is purposefully skewing observation in the wrong direction. The light had the appearance, behavior, and short life of a Chinese lantern, which are known phenomena and, while perhaps uncommon, certainly not unlikely in any populated area, and not impossible in any area. The goal should never be to say, “How can I still make this mysterious?” but only to demonstrate that a mundane explanation does not fit the observation.
There’s another post coming up shortly that deals with such topics in more detail – I’ve been working on it the past couple of days and am just shy of posting it, so watch for that. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if any reports pop up locally, and how they’re treated.
Gosh, it’s been, what, six whole hours since I’ve posted anything about the resident mantids? I cannot apologize enough – I know how you must feel.
Okay, it’s been a bit longer than that, and in fact, this first image was taken nine days ago and not posted then. [See what I did there? I prefaced with hyperbole and followed with a contrasting statement, and now another post about mantises suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. You cannot spell manipulative without Al – well, sorta.]
On the same lily blossom that we’ve seen before, though showing even more of its age now, a Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) also performed a modeling session, completely unprompted – there seems to be something about the plants on the deck, and the lily in particular. I’d be inclined to say that it’s because the flower attracts pollinators and thus food for the mantids, except that I have never seen a pollinator even near them, and now they’re well past attracting such anyway.
The Carolina mantis species is smaller than the Chinese mantis, differently colored, and for reasons unknown, seem to be considerably less common, at least in both areas that I’ve been shooting in routinely. I have no preference for either, really, though getting the detail shots of the larger species is always easier. Carolina mantises seem to have an ‘urban camouflage’ color scheme, and by extension may prefer plants on which they blend in better, which we may not have in the immediate vicinity. Or they may normally be so good at camouflage that I simply do not see the dozens that abound, which would be a blow to my observational ego to be sure.
The difference in sizes is now readily apparent among the various mantids in the area, showing that some are more adept at finding food than others (you can compare sizes against the images in the previously linked post, or linked again right here.) Two that I thought had moved on suddenly reappeared last night when I misted the Japanese maple, making me suspect they’d simply been hiding from the heat – it’s been a while since the last rain now. But one in particular has moved ahead of the others.
The Chinese mantis (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis) on the rose bush was found during a watering session around midnight the other night, displaying the newly extended wings from a recent molt. They’re still not dry in this photo, which is why they appear a little unkempt; they’re also paler than they will be when dry, which we’ll get to shortly. The wings don’t become this big, or functional, until the final instar, the reproducing adult phase, so now the quest is on to find a mate.
Also notable, to me anyway, is that even this late at night, it is not displaying the dark eyes that are typical of mantids after sunset, leading me to believe that the act of molting affects this in some way. It is not particularly surprising, in that they will not be actively hunting for a period of time before and after the molt, because it takes up so much of their effort and their chitin has to dry and harden afterward, but it implies that the change in eye color is not as automatic as I suspected. Plus, I guess the additional camouflage cannot hurt.
The old exoskeleton was not immediately obvious – it usually can be found attached to a branch very close to the newly-emerged adult – but a quick search on the ground revealed it in the grass.
The head is towards the bottom in this shot and hiding behind a blade of grass, thought the antenna is easily spotted, but what I want to draw attention to is the wings – that’s them along the body by the legs, slightly darker than the skin of the abdomen to which the legs are attached. Yes, those wings above came out of these little sleeves – it always amazes me. In fact, the entire insect always seems to emerge much bigger than it was before the molt, and I’ve seen this often enough that I don’t think I’m imagining it, or mistaking the drying, shrinking exoskeleton that it just discarded as falsely representing the original size. One of these days I’ll have distinct measurements for before and after (and maybe even capture the process from beginning to end) to establish this once and for all. But it’s pretty obvious that the wings themselves undergo just a wee bit of expansion.
Ten hours later, the wings were dry and displaying the adult coloration, as well as presumably being functional – I am guessing this is a female who will be waiting for an acceptable male to find her, especially since she seems to like the rose bush. I am not going to discourage this in any way, since it would be easy to find an egg sac should she place it there, and may well give me the opportunity to photograph her producing it. Measured just now for this post, the mantis is about 86mm in length (3.5 inches) from the head to the wingtips, quite a change from the 10mm that they typically are when hatched. She won’t get a whole lot bigger than this, though she (if I have the sex right) will get considerably broader until producing the eggs. Keep checking back with me, and we’ll see what happens.
I just have to mention this, though it has nothing to do with the topic. This past weekend, our friends stopped by for a brief visit on their way to the beach, and the adolescent girls got to see this particular mantis. I had to inform them that it molted out just a couple of days after they’d left, depriving them of the opportunity to see it. In response, I get back word that they had gotten to see baby sea turtles emerging from the nest and paddling into the ocean. The single blurry photo they’d forwarded, taken at dusk with a telephoto lens past the crowd, was enough to send The Girlfriend into an uncontrollable bout of baby talk, so I can’t imagine what seeing the real thing would have done. But yeah, that whole ‘cute’ thing again…
Just a quick note along a neglected blog topic, but the next few nights will host two meteor showers: the Delta Aquarids for tonight and tomorrow night, and the Capricornids for tomorrow and Thursday. Since discontinuing the blog calendar, I moved some of the events over to my personal calendar as a reminder to post reminders.
While I have witnessed countless meteor showers, I have photographs of virtually nothing – somehow, it’s just never worked out. And it’s not likely to now, either; between the scattered clouds and humidity right now, and the proximity to city lights, I’m not going to have very good conditions to even see anything, much less photograph it. However, maybe some of you out in better locales will have better luck – Jim, I’m looking in your direction.