A mother’s day post

I mentioned earlier, I believe, that I had a few mantis egg sacs that I was watching to see if they’d hatch, the intention being (of course) to photograph their emergence in better detail than before. One of the sacs was in the front garden where most of my mantis images from the past two years have been shot, and a couple of young-uns, not apparently from any of the sacs I was watching, had been spotted several times on the day lily plants. Early Sunday morning, as I was attempting to point them out for The Girlfriend, we realized there were even more than we suspected – a lot more. A close examination of the sac showed a thin clump of the telltale chaff that signifies a hatching. Which is about as close as I’m ever going to get to motherhood.

Later that day, The Younger Sprog came around with some calla lilies for her mother, and one pot of these was placed in the front garden behind the day lily plants (not yet budding out.) So this morning as I was checking to see if the sac might be producing more eruptions, I glanced over at the calla lilies in the vague hope that one of the newborns would be perched on a blossom, since it would make a great setting, and I’ll be damned if one wasn’t there! Couldn’t let that opportunity pass.

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on calla lily blossom
This little sprog was well aware of my presence and noticeably agitated by it, so I was struggling for good framing; within a handful of images the mantis leapt away onto a nearby leaf, so I’m glad I was able to take advantage of the opportunity.

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on calla lily blossom
Scale should be fairly apparent with these images, but I’ll say again that the newborns are roughly 10mm in length, easy enough to miss with casual inspection. Since the lilies that they like so much are right alongside the front walk, I’m always self-conscious about even walking past, but to my observations they tend to maintain safe perches and almost never appear on the ground; even when they end up there after leaping away from danger, they quickly scramble for height on anything handy.

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on calla lily blossom
This is my favorite of the handful of frames, nicely positioned among the curves of the blossom; it would be nicer if the mantis had been facing me, but whatcha gonna do?

True to my word, I have been keeping an eye on the red-shouldered hawk nest (Buteo lineatus,) and yesterday morning we also had confirmation that the young had hatched, getting a distant peek at two fluffy white heads poking above the rim of the nest to receive fragments of food from the mother. With the foliage fully developed now the light has gotten a tad worse, but this is hardly surprising; hawks are smart enough not to place their nests in broad sunlight where their chicks would be susceptible to overheating and being spotted by other marauding birds. So the images are not likely to get a lot better than this, unless I snag a sharper 500mm lens (or longer.) Don’t hold your breath.

mother red-shouldered hawk Buteo lineatus with newborn peeking from nest
It’s always hard to gauge distance in such circumstances, but the lens focus ring seemed to believe the nest was about 40 meters distant, ten meters shorter than my guestimate, so you can decide who you trust. Nevertheless, the female appeared to be well aware that I was standing in the backyard behind the tripod and watching her, because she kept her back to me every time she was feeding the babbies, looking back frequently to ensure that I wasn’t creeping closer. At one point after feeding, she stood on the rim of the nest and looked for all the world like she was peering at the bowl judiciously; she flew off a short time later and came back with a sprig of fresh leaves that she added to the nest.

My goal, of course, is to be around when the fledglings make their first attempts at flight; we’ll just have to see how lucky I get.

Just to round out the post theme, I have to include an image from the previous weekend at the nearby pond. I have way too many images of Canada geese (Branta canadensis,) but I couldn’t resist firing off a bunch of frames as a family took to the water in the glow of the setting sun; a little ducking and dodging afforded me an almost-clear view through the foliage. I got the geeseling, and that’s what counts.

Canada goose Branta canadensis family taking to the water

At least 800 obscenities

You’ll probably have to look closely at this one for a moment to realize what you’re seeing.

black ant pyrrhic victory
On the back porch early this evening, I spotted a black ant ambling along with what appeared to be captured prey, as ants are prone to doing. A closer look changed that impression, and made me run get the camera for a quick photo session. Apparently, a contentious encounter between two ants (that look like the same species to my untutored eye) resulted in one locking its jaws onto the other’s antenna before dying. The victor sectioned off all of the loser’s body that it could reach, but was unable to free itself from those jaws, and so was carrying around about 1/3 of an ant dangling from its antenna, one of the more bizarre visual stories from the arthropod kingdom. While I followed it trying to ensure that I got a sharp enough image, the ant appeared to be going about its business as normal, but did eventually pause in a crevice of the trunk and try to rid itself of the dead weight, unsuccessfully. I imagine that eventually it will lose that antenna.

Ants, by the way, are not easy macro subjects in their normal environment. They tend to move quickly and almost randomly, and can whip in and out of focus in a fraction of a second; even when they pause, it’s usually just long enough to almost nail focus before they dart off, sniggering I imagine. I shot 25 frames (while the aging flash batteries were holding things up by providing slow recharges,) and got just one useful image – I’m probably lucky to have gotten that, but I’ll happily credit it to skill instead.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but if ants had a language and such a thing as curses, that’s likely what the bulk of them would be in this case.

You telling me or asking me?

Over at Why Evolution Is True far too many days back (time really has been getting away from me,) Jerry Coyne ran a post on how he, as an atheist, found ‘meaning’ in life. Surprising few who have engaged in such discussions before, religious commenter ajmgw saw fit to correct everyone’s impression, which Dr. Coyne featured in another post. For the edification of all, it reads:

The question of meaning is valid, but must be understood in a different way. How can meaning come from a mindless process, no guidance just time and chance?1 In that kind of a world an atheist cannot give a justification for a difference between good and evil2. If we are simply pond scum, the result of mindless processes over millions and billions of years, who decides what is right and wrong?3 The atheist cannot explain the existence of mind and morality4. In order to do so they unwittingly must borrow from the Christian Worldview5. As Greg Bahnsen said, “Like a petulant child they sit on their father’s lap and they reach up and slap his face.” According to the atheistic worldview, right and wrong are the results of chemical processes in our brains, a by product of survival of the fittest inherited from our common ape-like ancestors6. In that case one doesn’t even have free will, but the chemical processes are in control7.

I apologize for all the little numbers in there, which I added myself – they are bookmarking the responses to come below. But first, the overall observation that, as happens so often in discussions with religious folk, this entire comment is nothing but assertion, and rather presumptuous and arrogant assertion at that:This… is what atheists believe.” A couple of them are largely true, in that a majority of atheists may hold some form of agreement with them, while others are completely false; you might find someone who makes such a particular claim, somewhere, but none of these – not one, not at all – has any association or relation to atheism, or even secular humanism. The practice of assertion is a common one, and will be tackled in detail in an upcoming ‘But how?’ post, so for now I’ll simply point out that assertion, without any facts or reasoning to back it up, is worthless. One might as well pronounce themselves King of the World for all the value that it provides, and anyone with any reasoning power whatsoever will generally treat them as equally infantile. It’s funny how few religious folk actually comprehend that.

Much worse, though, is the simple fact that all of these have been addressed, many times over, for quite a few years now. I myself have tackled most, if not all of them, primarily through the ‘But how?’ posts, and I want you to appreciate the irony here, because this happens very, very frequently: the religious folk that make such assertions have never actually bothered to ask. Never looked it up, never considered that there might be a different answer than what they want to believe (or perhaps were told by the gibbering religious leader of choice,) never embraced the humility that perhaps there was more than met the eye, never even fed the curiosity, should it have raised its ugly little head. There was a certain undercurrent of satire when I created the ‘But how?’ topic for posts, because a depressingly small number of religious folk can ever be found actually asking questions.

So while considering it a largely wasted effort, I’m going ahead and addressing these points anyway. I have skimmed a couple of the responses from WEIT’s readership, but stopped far short of finishing, because I wanted to put down my own thoughts without being too influenced by others. This might mean you will see a lot of similarity, or it might not (I’d say the former is much more likely.) As of this posting, I still have not read through the majority of the responses, though I’m confident that there are quite a few thought-provoking entries over there, well worth the time.

One more thing: biology is not a simple field, and understanding something from a biological standpoint isn’t likely to be intuitive or easy-to-absorb without some previous knowledge or a certain amount of dedication to the premise – in other words, it serves to explain things extremely well, but only if one tries to comprehend. Again, probably wasted effort – open minds are not something that religion encourages in the slightest.

Anyway, let’s dive in.

To begin with, “meaning” in this context is a philosophical term, poorly defined and even more poorly understood. It is apparently important to religious folk, despite the fact that very few seem to demonstrate any grasp of it. No “meaning” – as in, personal goals or expectations or even end results – is promised in biology or any of the sciences, nor is there anything that demonstrates any necessity of such. We have desires, certainly, and we find them of varying importance, yet all of them can be shown to have value in keeping our species alive. And that’s how it works: if some trait, which can easily include an emotional kick towards certain behaviors, provides a benefit to survival and reproduction, then it stands a higher chance of being passed along to offspring. That’s evolution.

Just to be perverse, I have to point out, yet again, a simple observation. Everyone who uses the meaning argument seems to assume that their own religion is the only one; they never, for instance, seem to consider that every other religion in the world promises its own meaning. Some of them find meaning in subjugating females, sacrificing animals, self-flagellation, magic underwear, and other such profound topics. Chances are, back in the history of anyone’s own religion sits the meaningful pursuits of slaughtering infidels and pillaging the neighbors – as long as it’s a meaning, it’s cool, right?

But let’s go back to understanding meaning in the first place. The religious want to believe that anyone’s existence must be defined by intent, and the intent of a creator at that; lacking this must result in an aimless and unrewarding existence. Funny, however, how many human traits hold the same throughout every religion and lack thereof, and appear without any prompting whatsoever from holy texts and careful instruction. We can argue that the creator imbued meaning automatically into every human, but that would include atheists too, so the argument falls flat; meaning, in this context, must be obtained through devotion at least, but probably also a knowledge of scripture. Animals, therefore, cannot have it, even though they seem to be doing just fine – only humans can be nihilistic and aimless, one supposes.

So we start with the basics. Take two individuals of any kind of organism that possesses enough of a nervous system to make simple decisions. One, through random mutation, gains a desire to avoid death, and the other lacks it. Which one is most likely to survive? Okay, that was easy enough, now let’s raise the stakes a little. One gains an interest in cooperative behavior, the other doesn’t. Now who is more likely to survive? One gains a desire to care for their offspring in the early stages, the other doesn’t. Since these are traits gained through genetic mutation, they can pass along to their offspring. I hope I’m not going too fast.

Is this ‘meaning?’ Well, define that term in a useful way, and let’s see how it fits. Humans have a lot of basic desires, impulses within their lives – food, sex, cooperation, and so on. We find such things important through, yes indeed, the makeup of the brain and the actions of the chemicals within; we know this because we’ve found a lot of them, and have seen the results when the system doesn’t work as usual. We don’t rationally choose the precise time to become aroused for sex, and in fact, the sex drive is so poorly regulated that this routinely causes problems – even for the religious. A crying baby sets us on edge, regardless of whose it is, and we’re motivated to try and halt the crying – usually through meeting the infant’s own immediate desires like food or a clean diaper. Works pretty damn well, doesn’t it? Find me the scripture that says, “Thou shalt not tolerate the caterwauling of the moppet.”

“But those aren’t meanings!” protest the indignant religious folk, and it’s true enough – neither is anything that they offer as such themselves. In their usage, living without a meaning would make life pointless and desolate – which must logically be applied to the vast majority of the world that does not share their particular religion. Not to mention, such a thing should be responsible for making people flock to religion to suddenly gain this wonderful purpose in life, rather than simply satisfying inherent urges and instincts. Funny how the number of religious folk is actually dropping worldwide.

So, to get around to number 1, what does arise through “time and chance?” Well, take a look at all the things that people claim as meaningful in the first place (again, you have to ask, rather than assume you know what it must be.) The answers are as diverse as, “raising my children right,” “being successful,” “making a difference,” ” traveling the world,” “perfecting my art,” and, “climbing Mt Everest,” while the day-to-day goals can get as trivial as “making ends meet,” “finishing this project,” “getting a raise,” “affording a better car,” and, “going someplace interesting on vacation,” to say nothing at all about the unvoiced meanings that a lot of people nevertheless pour a lot of effort into, such as, “getting laid this weekend,” “making obscene amounts of money at anyone else’s expense,” “having my team win some pointless championship,” and even “getting back at my coworker for what she said” – not to mention, “getting all the spics and niggers out of the country,” and “finding any way that I can to demean as many others as possible because it’s too much effort to improve myself.” I shouldn’t have to point out how many of these goals are held by religious folk who supposedly already have a meaning to their lives.

All of them, quite simply, are extensions of survival behavior – improvement and competition are obvious factors, and so are social cohesion and raising offspring. By itself, ego is more properly defined as trying to remain competitive. As a species we have a strong drive to explore, which is a great antidote to a changing environment, and even racism has roots in kin selection, the promotion of the most closely related genes. And the reason we see such a wide variety of ‘meanings’ throughout our species is that these drives are unspecific, and easy to appease in a variety of ways. Evolution produces a net average gain, but not a constant one and without any need to be specific. On the other hand, if we were designed to be this way, how can we even have a sex drive for anyone other than our spouse, or fall prey to drug addiction? What kind of a shit design is that?

Number 2, the conflation of ‘meaning’ and ‘ethics/morality.’ First off, note how many religious behaviors, now and especially in the past, are considered unethical and even reprehensible – things like class consciousness and gender discrimination, beating children and taking slaves, slaughtering the neighboring tribes and avoiding shellfish. It’s in scripture! How can one possibly be ignoring or avoiding this guidance?! Yet, ethics isn’t actually about following rules; it’s about social cohesion and cooperation, a pretty simple instinct possessed by a ridiculous number of species – amazingly, the ones that gain the greatest benefits from being that way (funny how that works.) Religious guidance obviously wasn’t enough to prevent witch hunts and genocides, and in fact, was directly linked to many such occurrences in our species’ history. Culture defines ethics – as long as it fits in with the instincts and desires we already have. And since we also have ego and competitive desires as well, there’s often a clash – again, something that a designed species shouldn’t fall prey to, wouldn’t you think? But also noteworthy in here is how often churches have exploited these tendencies and clashes, rather than raising us above them.

Number 3, how can pond scum make ethical decisions? Well, we’re not pond scum – a millisecond of acute observation would have revealed that, but yes, I know the question is asked in a manipulative and hyperbolic way, courtesy of the ethics that religious meaning has provoked. Every species above the bacterial level can take action based on external stimuli, and the more complex the species is, the greater the variety of responses – astounding how those relate, isn’t it? But even plants can turn to face the sun. Ethics/morality is fostered by the instinct to get along, to maintain a strong cooperative ‘tribe.’ It can easily be seen where the demarcations of ‘tribe’ lie, as well, and the radical difference in behavior towards those outside of this tribe. But even if we disregard this entirely, it’s not like ethical decisions require some outside guidance of any kind. “If I hit him, he won’t like me, and may try to hit me back, or not share his food, or otherwise become a competitive factor. But if I’m nice to him, he may share food when it’s scarce, or protect me from others.” I mean, holy shit, are we supposed to be so vapid and aimless that we could not figure such things out on our own? What kind of fools does this question even assume us to be?

[I have to point out that the only fools assumed to be here are the ones without the religious guidance – it’s that ego thing again. Coming from those who cannot form a simple chain of logical thought. Seriously. Atheists are often accused of being nasty and demeaning, but it’s a wonder that this kind of religious condescension doesn’t result in a lot stronger kickback; can anyone claim that it isn’t deserved?]

Number 4, atheists not explaining mind and morality. Well, we’ve already tackled the latter, and the former isn’t an aspect of faith, but of philosophy; it’s not exactly in the purview of atheism any more than it is geology, nor is it related to morality in any way. However, it’s still been addressed thousands of times, mostly pointing out that it’s horseshit – seriously, can’t anyone that uses this hoary old argument type words into a fucking search engine? Either way, let’s start with having a firm definition of ‘mind’ in the first place and see if that even exists; the religious want to equate it with ‘soul’ and thus claim that it’s independent of the brain and the rest of the body, but that has obvious (one would have thought, anyway) issues with brain damage affecting the ‘mind.’ Philosophers and occasionally sociologists define mind as ‘self-awareness,’ which is pretty easy to explain without supernatural influence – indeed, a ridiculous number of species have it to one degree or another, because it’s what a nervous system is there to foster; what else would anyone think this is for? Why have a sense of touch and pain if nothing could be done with the info?

If anything else is intended with this badly abused term, I’ll simply say this: define it. Define it rigorously enough to fit how it is used, such as how humans have it and nothing else, or whatever. The very act of doing so should, if anyone is intelligent enough (and honest enough) to even be posing the question in the first place, demonstrate that the concept has way too many issues to be a factor in anyone’s argument.

Number 5, copying christians. Heh! This comment is so ridiculously implausible that it deserves more than minor rebuke, which I’m being kind enough not to take advantage of. Putting it quite simply, secular humanism even exists because the religious worldview (not just the christian one) is corrupt enough to be hugely detrimental to ethics and, for that matter, any kind of guidance. I’m not even sure what the commenter is thinking with this, but I suspect it’s a couple of the commandment-style guidelines such as, “Don’t kill,” and, “Don’t steal.” That these are common facets of every culture, including those far removed from christianity and even the abrahamic religions, seems to have escaped critical notice. And as pointed out above, there are a hell of a lot of things permitted and condoned in scripture that we have now, thankfully, considered unpalatable and even wildly immoral – shame we didn’t get to it sooner, before so much strife was caused directly in the name of so many religions. I am being far too kind, really – this kind of utter fucking bullshit needs to be highlighted, again and again, because far too many of the religious like sweeping all the horrendous portions under the rug and then immediately saying that scripture is an ultimate guide to behavior.

A small observation about the quote that falls at this point in the comment. Religious folk are inordinately fond of quotes, and this one serves double duty: quotes are a form of appeal from authority, in essence pointing out how this learnéd person has a view that everyone should hold, and the quote directly addresses ultimate authority itself. Except, this authority cannot be shown to exist in any form, and is remarkably absent from any actions that can be ascribed to it – which is the whole point of atheism. There is no face to be slapped here. While trying to paint atheists as petulant (and themselves, by extension, as humble,) those that use such quotes never tumble to the fact that their entire worldview is one of remarkable self-importance based on assertions, at best, and excuses for the complete lack of evidence. Yeah, humble as shit.

On to number 6, right and wrong are chemical processes in the brain. Yep, got it in one – I told you that the commenter got a couple of them right. To be more specific, the evidence that we have about the structure and function of the brain is pretty damn overwhelming, while the evidence to the contrary is… nonexistent. Bear in mind that not even scripture lays any claim to a mind/brain duality, and the concept of ‘soul’ is quite loosely defined; a ridiculous number of people, atheists among them, don’t realize how many concepts are not outlined in scripture in any way, being only interpretations that have been fostered by churches and theologians in the time since.

Note, though, that the commenter has contradicted themself. While maintaining that right and wrong are unknown to atheists (and, presumably, those of the wrong religions as well,) now we see that right and wrong are properties of being human – those silly atheists maintain that it’s a property of the development of the species rather than being endowed by the creator because humanity is too stupid to figure out consequences on its own. This kind of double-dealing happens a lot, but at least it’s a bit closer to recognizing the reality that our prisons are not full of atheists…

And finally number 7, we don’t have free will, just chemicals. Close, really – we have laws of physics, and no demonstration that the body or mind or whatever can thwart these. Once again this is philosophical, and in fact the entire concept of ‘free will’ was created that way, likely from religious roots because the structure of omniscient/omnipotent creator, one that has a master plan to boot, quickly makes the actions of mankind utterly pointless – and of course, we are supposed to be pushing meaning here. You have to sit here and wonder what, exactly, religious folk are trying to convey. On the one hand, we are supposed to follow every precept outlined by this creator, on punishment of everlasting punishment in most cases, but ‘free will’ is an important facet of not being an automaton or puppet – I suppose slavery or, at best, coercion is so much better (and worthy of praise somehow.) From a religious standpoint, atheism is the ultimate expression of free will – and thus reprehensible. Do I pretend to understand how this works? I do not.

Much worse is the part that no religious person, ever, responds to, which is the alternative that is being proposed by secular humanism in the first place: do what can be rationally determined to be best, for us and everyone else. If anyone wants to maintain that we have minds and we have free will, fine, no problem – use them, in the best manner possible. This does not mean holding up a strangely absent authority to buttress one’s standpoint only when it’s personally convenient, and it does not mean finding some self-importance or ego-stroking from the practice. The whole point of ethics and morality is that they define how we treat others, not our own status – that, by extension, will be defined by others based on how much they respect us. That’s how it works, and what that word actually means in the first place. Which is the funny thing about all of this: atheism and humanism have nothing to do with eradicating morality or what-have you – just with eradicating meaningless and unsupportable authority, which is usually wielded in a remarkably selfish manner.

Now, if that’s not long enough, we’ll examine a couple of the many aspects that are missed within the attitudes often displayed by religious folk. The overriding one is that meaning, however you want to define it, is personal; I don’t expect anyone else to see the importance in what I find to be meaningful, and I don’t look to others to provide any back to me. Nor is meaning something that has to be beneficial, progressive, or in any way socially acceptable – even though our evolved traits often guide things along these lines anyway. The idea that meaning should be something on which we can pass judgment is just another manifestation of ego, and a useless one at that.

While we’re talking about passing judgment, let’s take a peek at the difference between words and actions. While expressing the idea that meaning is what makes life worthwhile, far too many religious folk don’t seem to grasp the concept. Scripture was used to condone slavery for a very long time, and still gets wielded to support all kinds of bigotry. Only recently, and not in near enough countries yet, women have stopped being treated like second-class citizens; we’ve still got a long ways to go with sexuality and gender identification. The overall message coming through is that these people don’t count; despite the fact that anyone was born that way (and thus, presumably, intended as such by god and all part of that master plan,) they don’t deserve the chance to pursue this all-important meaning. And as I shouldn’t have to point out, it’s not just an expressed opinion, as religious fuckheads continually, and with great effort, try to push through legislation to maintain this second-class status for those of whom they do not approve. Yeah, that’s a meaning we can all do without quite readily.

Even if we just fall back to the meaning that is usually intended in such circumstances, there’s not a whole lot to be derived from it. “Glory to god,” and all such variations isn’t really inspiring to a lot of people, I’m sorry to say – some even find this mindless obsequiousness to be demeaning, especially in the face of having some progressive goals for those living right here on earth instead. Let’s face it – any form of higher power doesn’t need our help at all, and if we feel so bad about ourselves that we think sucking up is the most important aspect in our lives, well, therapy might help with that. But not everyone is that pathetic, and not everyone is going to fall for the arrogant assertion that such a state is somehow superior – especially not when the very concept of a god, any god, is so devoid of evidence, laden with issues and contradictions, and completely unnecessary to either explain the world or live a fulfilling life. The religious answers to these points have always been sophistry at best, but rarely ever get beyond making excuses and simply repeating assertions, which makes it especially amusing when such folk want to offer up what must be important in life.

*     *     *     *

Further examinations on some of these topics (you know, that atheists have never tackled):

Meaning
What does it mean?!
Like we mean it
Denihilism
Bleak?

Evolved traits
Friends with benefits
How to bake a human
But how? Part four: Religious belief

Morality/Secular humanism
You don’t look a day over eighty

Consciousness
But what if it is broke?

Free will
Free willy
Free if you can get it to work
Nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure
Buried at the crossroads
Isn’t that the real truth?

And just ‘in like vein’
How about a little fire?
I wonder why?

The fame keeps rolling in

Several weeks back, I was contacted out of the blue (rather than out of the yellow or the aubergine, which are much less abrupt) by Catherine Scott, a biologist/entomologist that specializes in spiders; she had seen some of my images on BugGuide.net and wanted permission to use them in a post on her own blog, SpiderBytes. After a lengthy and heated discussion on terms (me: “Sure!”) I sent her over some copies, and then just checked occasionally to see what new posts were appearing because, you know, spiders. Now, I never intended to concentrate on arachnids with my photographic pursuits, but they’re what I’m finding the most of, and they’re admittedly pretty interesting on their own.

Her post featuring my images snuck in between checks, so I’m a little late, but it can be seen right here. And she had a similar experience to my own with her first encounter. Mine was several years back on the dog fennel plants, which had provided tons of photo subjects; I first thought I’d spotted a thin-bodied variety of assassin bug such as the Metapterini, for which I think I can be excused. Upon realizing that my tiny subject was an arachnid, I also suspected the long-jawed orb weavers (Tetragnathids,) but BugGuide wasn’t providing any matches, plus the chelicerae that prompted the name weren’t actually long (what you’re seeing here are the pedipalps, not the chelicerae/fangs.) After a lot of searching, I finally uploaded the photos to BugGuide and received an answer almost immediately. My photo subject was a Rhomphaea fictilium, but that’s probably obvious once you see the image below.

Rhomphaea fictilium profile
Now for the part that I think I noticed, but never really put together, which she makes clear in her own post. Unlike every other arachnid I’ve seen, Rhomphaea have the ability to alter the shape of their abdomens, and I actually caught this in two of my images; I think I suspected I had two different individuals, since the images were shot on consecutive days, even though they were both in the same area and have never been seen since – both were also males. If you look at the image above, you can see that the abdomen extends just beyond the first joint of the hind legs, though in other images it seems to stop just shy of that point. Contrast that, however, with the next image:

Rhomphaea fictilium closer, showing reshaped abdomen
Obviously, a lot longer here, and bent to match the joints of the hind legs. According to Catherine, this flexibility could be to help them camouflage themselves. Also note the location of the spinnerets producing the webbing, not at the end of the abdomen as expected, but well up towards the base and protruding noticeably – a fine line of web can just barely be seen extending from it off towards the right.

She pointed out another trait, one that I sort-of captured in my images, seen in her post and on BugGuide. Rhomphaea prey on other spiders, and apparently can find the web of another species and mimic the vibrations of tangled prey with their forelegs, bringing the other spider racing out to snag their ‘capture,’ only to be captured by Rhomphaea instead.

[Knock knock]

“Who’s there?”

[Trying to disguise voice] “Um, a mosquito.”

“Be right out, don’t go away!”

I’ll let you dwell on that mental image as I plow on.

Now, I’d love to capture more images of behavior such as this, and have tried, really, without much luck. Part of the problem might be that my looming presence is enough to alter the behavior of any arthropods within visible range, and I have seen supporting evidence for this. Another reason might be that such encounters are few and far between, and I would have to stalk one particular subject for hours or days on end to see such drama. I have, on occasion, spent quite a bit of time on observing one form of behavior or another, but this tends to be when I already see it happening; I don’t recall ever capturing behavior from just following a subject around to see what happened, and often when I’ve tried, nothing has come of it. Perhaps I’m just not trying hard enough.

The reveal

I told you yesterday that I’d reveal the secret tomorrow, meaning today, and it’s still May 1st as this posts…

What you saw in the last month-end abstract was simply a dragonfly, one that was doing a good job of hovering in one spot, and so I snagged a photo of it in midair. At 1/50 second shutter speed, the wings blurred, and with the sun behind it, the reflections from the wing veins as they hit certain angles caused bright lines to be described. The dragonfly was facing away for this shot, so that’s the abdomen sitting in the center, while the outlines of the wings can be seen with little trouble – at least, now that one knows what they’re looking at. Possibly before, too – I didn’t quiz anybody on what they thought they saw, and of course I knew what I’d been taking photos of.

Here’s another frame, a tight crop from the original, but showing a significant amount of detail for the conditions. I’d like to think that I could do better if I tried, but I imagine that the attempts could drive my frustration level to an unhealthy point. So for now, just note how the legs are held, and how the wingbeat pattern (remember, dragonflies have four wings) isn’t as simple for a hover as we might imagine.

hovering dragonfly

This is just wrong

What not to do on a roller coaster
There are no words to express how flawed this whole idea is.

If you’re on a roller coaster and there is anyone at all in front of you, you have no business being on a coaster.

April abstracts bring May, um… abstracts I guess

I'm not telling you here either
For this month’s end abstract we have… something. I’ll let you try to figure out what. I’ll be back tomorrow to eradicate the mystery, should it still exist. All I will tell you now is that there is nothing at all tricky about it, no editing, no special techniques, just a grab shot yesterday.

Monday color, uh, 48?

pink azaleas or something against blue skyWow, I really dropped the ball on this one! Seems I simply forgot to post Monday color since, oh, the beginning of the year.

Okay, fine, it was an exercise begun in winter a year ago, that carried over throughout the rest of the year, and that I simply let slide in 2016. But I’ll still occasionally get some images that work almost entirely because of their palette (or at least I think so,) and then they’ll get posted here. Sometimes perhaps even on a Monday. Since I haven’t been posting as much and my time to work on such is more sporadic now, I should probably be making more use of images that don’t need a lot of additional text or research.

These azaleas (I think) were from a trip to the NC Botanical Garden, which provided more photos that will be along eventually. Be patient.

A closer look

Just a few pics from yesterday morning not long after sunrise, poking around in the yard looking for subjects. While I had initially modified a 80mm macro lens from my Mamiya medium format camera to work on Canon bodies when my Sigma lens failed, I have maintained the use of it because it’s one damn sharp lens, despite the fact that both focus and aperture must be manually controlled. I cut my teeth on fully manual cameras, and have even worked with external exposure meters and sometimes no meter at all, so the little bit of extra effort barely even registers.

Here, we have a tiny jumping spider perched on the newly-emerging day lilies, so small that I had to lean in close to even determine that it was a spider and not just a bit of chaff. I wasn’t bothering with the flash rig at the time (yeah, I know, I just got done boasting about making extra effort without batting an eye, and now I can’t be assed to affix the flash-and-softbox,) so in the weak dawn light I was shooting wide open at f4, demonstrating just how short the depth of field can be in macro work.

tiny jumping spider salticidae on day lily leaf
That’s full frame, and some of that gauzy effect in the middle comes from leaves very close to the lens and extremely far out of focus. But let’s instead take a close look at the spider itself, still sluggish from the overnight chill but well aware of my presence.

full resolution crop of same frame of jumping spider Salticidae
This is a full-resolution inset of the same frame, so it shows the level of detail captured. I didn’t get a measurement at the time, but checking just now, the leaf is about 10mm wide, making the spider somewhat less than 2mm across the cephalothorax (“head”) – the pale specks you see scattered on the leaf and spider are pine pollen. Overall, it’s a little oasis of sharpness in an otherwise misty frame – I’m trying to decide if the full-frame image would make a good art print. I mean, I like it, but we’ve established that I’m pretty weird and thus perhaps not representative of the art market as a whole.

The next one, however, I know not to bother with. It’s a bit too scattered and confusing, a clash of contrast and elements that don’t contribute to the effect in a positive manner; some frames just don’t work. But it’ll serve to illustrate the lens performance anyway. Here’s the full frame:

crane fly Tipulomorpha on rosemary bush
That’s a crane fly, infraorder Tipulomorpha, perched on one of the rosemary plants; not even a fraction as surreal as the day lily leaves. But we’ll ignore my failings for a moment and go for a full resolution inset again.

full resolution crane fly Tipulomorpha inset
Yep, a couple more pollen grains in there, and if you look really close, you might make out the faint feathery tendrils that branch out from the sides of the antennae. If I remember right, the light allowed me to stop down to f8 for this one, but the depth is still pretty short, as evidenced by the legs and rosemary leaves.

Now, a quick note. Autofocus, had it been available, would have been of little use here. Even if it was accurate enough to snag the precise portion of an arthropod that I wanted sharp, there’s the simple factor that I was shooting handheld in natural light, with a very short range of sharp focus available; to put it simply, infinitesimal body movements (my own) constantly shift such subjects into and out of critical sharpness. Add in that the view in the viewfinder is much smaller than seen here on your monitor; I can’t give a good impression since I don’t know how big your monitor is nor what resolution it produces, but I would say my viewfinder image is probably much less than half what you’re seeing here. This isn’t bragging – I have plenty of frames which missed, which is why I take a lot of them when doing macro work, trying to time my own movements carefully, getting as stable as possible, and usually while holding my breath. Seriously, my arms braced against my ribcage add in another factor of movement that I’d rather do without; on occasion when pursuing a difficult subject, I have to stop and take a few deep breaths to replenish my system. Moreover, the shooting angles and perspectives that I try for often require being in an awkward and uncomfortable position; leaning over sideways with your head twisted even further, trying not to go off-balance because the self-absorbed arthropods that you’re shooting can’t be bothered to pose near good footing and clear views, can make you aware of muscles that never get developed at the gym somehow. Believe me, as macro photographers shrug off the shackles of indifference and begin to be treated as norms, we’ll be seeing a lot more cultural emphasis on chiseled, well-sculpted neck muscles.

Until that glorious day, and perhaps even after it, I’ll be using my favorite lenses for close work, both of them non-standard lenses and both excellent performers. You can get by without spending a bundle on equipment if you experiment a bit, and do your research. And hold still.

Spiders, spiders, spiders, spiders, spam, and spiders

Is there a blog in existence that hasn’t gotten off at least one Monty Python reference? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?

We’re still dealing with the lingering effects of the cold spell, meaning it gets chilly at night and well into the morning, so I haven’t expected much to be happening on the arthropod front and haven’t really been looking. Today, however, while getting some gardening done, I managed to spot a couple of token arachnids.

tiny red mesh web spider Dictynidae showing off male privilege
On a small potted tree I found a tiny red spider centered on a leaf, and going in for the extreme closeup displayed some serious pedipalps – not just a male of the species, but a proud one. This would appear, from the color and eye arrangement, to be a mesh web weaver, family Dictynidae.

Just in case you’re missing the significance of this from not having seen the times I’ve explained it before, the big black things in front of the spider are the pedipalps, mostly used to assist in manipulating food, but also used by the males to transfer sperm to the females; as such, they are typically much bigger in the males, club-ended rather than pointy, and serve as the most dependable way of telling gender in arachnids. You can check out this post and this one for more information if you dare.

While photographing that one, I spotted a jumping spider nearby that spooked as I tried to close in for the photo, but on returning a little later I found it back in place, quite close to the mesh web weaver. Notably, it was facing the red one and poised on ‘tiptoe,’ and suspected it had possibly sighted the smaller spider.

unidentified jumping spider sighting prey
I watched to see if a capture was imminent, but after a minute it turned away, and I switched position to capture them both in the frame. I think it’s obvious that we’re not talking ‘big’ here; the red one is perhaps 3-4mm in body length.

two competing spider species in close proximity
A few seconds after this image was taken, the jumper made a minor move which likely disturbed one of the mesh web weaver’s many little strands of web stretched along the leaves, because the red one leapt off the leaf and dangled from a webline, then quickly cast another strand into the breeze and clambered along it to a nearby twig, where it took up a hiding position. Whether the jumper was intending to eat the mesh web spider or not, the latter certainly believed it was likely.

Several years back, I observed two jumping spiders of mildly disparate size facing off on a railing, and quickly brought the camera to bear. In an instant they launched themselves at one another and ended up dangling several centimeters below the railing, spinning madly. Eventually they climbed back up the strand to regain their footing on the railing – or at least, one did. I was able to see them clearly, belly to belly, both facing the same way (and directly into the lens,) but the larger one was clearly in control, and had likely just killed the smaller one which was clasped upside down beneath it. Somehow, though, I lost that roll of film, one of only two that I’ve ever lost in my life (out of hundreds,) and it irked me no end.

Magnolia green jumping spider Lyssomanes viridis portrait
On the gardenia bushes nearby, I spotted my old friend the magnolia green jumping spider (Lyssomanes viridis) atop a leaf. They adore the gardenias, as do several other species, but the magnolia greens most like to sit underneath the leaves, lying in wait for all the insect species that take shelter on the undersides of leaves. Since this is a regular habit of mosquitoes, we’re more than happy to have the pale green spiders hanging out down there.

jumping spider Hentzia mitrata warily watching the photographerAnother denizen very close by was a jumping spider fairly common around here, though BugGuide.net lists their range only as ‘Florida.’ This is a Hentzia mitrata, no apparent common name, so we will call them peachfuzz for obvious reasons. This one came very close to a magnolia green, but went past and tried to take shelter from my presence against a stem, before gaining the topmost leaf and viewing me alertly. Some jumpers are fearless, some are shy, and these seem to split the difference; after its attempts to disguise itself against the stem failed to work, it sat in plain view and intently watched me and the camera, in this image probably viewing the softbox reflector hanging out over the lens. More images of the same species from last year, including a fartistic one, can be found here.

By the way, in stepping out this evening to check something outside while writing this post, I missed an opportunity. A magnolia green was sitting underneath a leaf, while opposite it on the top sat a longlegged sac spider, both visible as I shone a flashlight up from underneath the leaf – the silhouette of the green spider almost looked like the shadow cast by the sac spider, but displaced too far to one side, nicely surreal. I went in to get the camera and tripod, but the sac spider failed to heed my admonition to remain where it was, and had wandered away to another leaf before I returned – probably an irreverent juvenile. You know what I’m talking about.

Also, while researching the species for this post, I believe I stumbled across the correct identification of an earlier shot, the near-microscopic spider seen in this post. While mine had no visible yellow spot on the abdomen, it certainly looks like it could be a Theridula emertoni, a type of cobweb spider.

It was one other find that I was most pleased about, though. Spotting some slender legs moving behind a potted plant, I carefully drew out the entire pot to get a view without disturbing the resident. Expecting to see another spider, I instead faced a newborn praying mantis. Between never having found an egg sac, and the inordinately cold weather, I wasn’t expecting any such appearances for at least another week or more. This one proved to be quite shy, and every time I managed to get it into the viewfinder it leapt away to another perch – I eventually couldn’t locate it again and I still hadn’t snagged a photo. Frustrated by this lack but still pleased to actually see evidence, I moved on to other tasks, only to find it (or a similar one) about a half-meter away in the opposite direction from what it was last seen moving. Ah, the old ‘fake and double-back’ trick – not a tactic I expected from one so young…

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis offering a reluctant pose
Seen here on the same stump that the Copes grey treefrog was favoring earlier this year, this Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) was reluctant to provide me with a head-on shot, but my natural charm and charisma paid off (you should do something about that cough.) Only 10mm long and weighing – man, how would anyone even weigh one of these? It’s lighter than a sesame seed – this minuscule mantis marks the first of the season, at least for me, and could only be a couple of days old at the most. I actually have a pair of egg cases in the mail to me right now, specifically so I can try to photograph their emergence in excruciating detail. And speaking of excruciating detail…

extreme closeup of newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis
If you look close, you can actually make out the facets of the compound eyes. Bearing in mind that the eyes are 2mm across at the widest point, I’m pleased to capture that kind of detail. Also note that, at this magnification, the false pupil is quite vague, but that’s partially because it’s slightly out of focus.

So, yeah, I’m pleased with how the day came out. And I’ve gotten an appropriate start on the subjects that will undoubtedly appear here many more times throughout the year.