Too cool, part 40: Red sprites in incredible detail


Astronomy Picture of the Day today featured a confusing and abstract image, because it’s something probably never seen in this detail before: a collection of red sprites above an active thunderstorm.

Here’s the deal. Occasionally, waaayyyy above the tops of the clouds on some thunderstorms, there is an additional discharge – actually, two different kinds, the other being blue jets. They’re as brief as the lightning, but much dimmer, and can only be seen either from the side or from an aircraft at high altitude near the storm (which is how they were first reported, from airline pilots.) And as yet, no one knows how they form, but to be honest, we still don’t know exactly what causes lightning either.

It has long been my goal to capture one of these, and there’s a slim chance that I might have caught the vestiges of a couple, not long ago. Yet it takes not just the right kind of storm (that no one has pinned down,) but also the right conditions, seen from a distance to the side without anything in the way, and exposing for a dim display – such conditions are hard to come by. Hell, just pinning down lightning photos is challenging enough.

And then, Stephane Vetter here blows everyone out of the water and does a great deal towards lessening my enthusiasm, because beating this image is going to be well-nigh impossible. Oh, I suppose I’ll still be trying, but there’s no motivation to be the first to capture something like this in such detail. Note the graininess to the image, indicating that a very high ISO setting was required to snag the weak display, as well as no star trails, so the exposure was still relatively brief.

You can also check out the website of The World At Night for more night sky exposures, but be warned: some of these are specialized captures with expanded ISO cameras, and some are simply composites and other shenanigans, something not possible until digital editing came on the scene (you know, the exact same kind of editing that people rant about giving unrealistic expectations about models and beauty – in other words, not possible in normal means or ‘in-camera.’) If you’re getting the impression that the trend towards shamelessly and extensively editing night sky images makes me annoyed, well, you’re right. Might as well dub in a couple extra moons while you’re at it.

All that aside, this definitely ranks as Too Cool, and check out the various links in that post.

Brevity, let’s see, brevity…

You and I both know I’m not too familiar with the concept, but we’ll make the attempt, okay?

Anyway, I have a buttload of photos that I’d like to feature before I even get to the beach trip, but not enough time to do detailed posts about them, so I’ll toss down some brief descriptions and possibly send the rest over to the Latest Images page. Sound like a plan?

lily pad collection with single blossom
I took this to illustrate that, even if the focus is the lily, we can always do more with the framing. We won’t miss it even all the way up there in the corner, but now it’s an accent to the patterns of the pads.

unidentified water flower against background of amphibian eggs
Another illustration of framing and selective focus; the background dots are a large quantity of amphibian eggs on the water’s surface.

Demonstrating the difference that positioning and effort can make. This is what the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) looked like when first spotted. Pretty humdrum.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis in shadows
But then, I carefully shifted around, endeavoring not to disturb the plant at all, to change the viewing angle, finding a small gap in the leaves to work with.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis from a better angle
Now we have a more personal angle, and the furtiveness and ‘hidden’ aspect gets enhanced, even though they’re really the same location. Certainly better than a dorsal view. These, by the way, date from late July – I’m further behind than I thought.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis gazing at photographer
A little later on in the same session, the mantis had moved to a spot that was easier to access, and when it turned to watch what I was up to, that’s when I took the shot. Just a simple demonstration of the small differences that are easy to accomplish.

Let’s get a little variety of color in here.

unidentified orthopteran on unidentified flower
I watched this locust/grasshopper fly from the lawn onto a flower blossom, and stalked it carefully to keep from spooking it again, knowing that it would still be wary after the initial scare. This was a frame that I’d considered using for the latest macro photography post, about doing more than illustration, but I passed it over in favor of better examples, so it appears here now. Makes you wonder who was stalking who, right? At least that was my intention.

tiger swallowtail Papilio glaucus drinking from phlox blossom
This one is merely illustration, though illustration of habits and details rather than just basic anatomy, at least, captured as a tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) delved deep into a phlox blossom. As I’ve often observed, there’s a lot of luck involved, but recognizing that the focus had to be on a specific point and that I had a bare couple of seconds to achieve this played prominently, as well. The ability to exploit the lucky circumstances, is what I’m saying – I gotta take some credit.

juvenile Carolina anole Anolis carolinensis on banana leafOkay, back to green.

I knew that the Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis) favored the banana and nearby palmetto plants in the botanical garden where all of these (so far) were taken, so we spent some time looking them over carefully to try and find some – that’s how the previous mantids were found, as well. Eventually, we were successful in finding a half-size juvenile, obviously this year’s brood, who was wary of our presence.

Following it carefully, we watched to see if it was going to provide a useful pose. It is worth nothing that the banana plant that it was perambulating across had huge leaves and was off the immediate path, so getting close or choosing a large variety of angles wasn’t going to happen – which is fairly typical for just about any kind of nature photography. This might look like I’m right on top of it, but it’s a tight crop from the Mamiya 80mm macro, and I was better than a meter away from it. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but the anole was only about 7cm in length to begin with, tail included – a ‘normal’ view would have had it almost disappearing against the huge leaves and stems and their assorted shadows. And ‘shadows’ is a key word here, because eventually, it jumped across to the right spot, and I was able to change position adequately.

juvenile Carolina anole Anolis carolinensis shadow against banana leafAlas, my timing was just a bit off, and the anole had crept forward enough to put its head in shadow before I could get set to capture the silhouette that I was after. So this isn’t really the print-quality fartsy shot I had tried to achieve, but at least serves to illustrate thinking of a more creative approach.

The toes, of course, are the same size in each photo, but show up a lot more impressively in this one because of the contrast. There’s also the curious idea, which just now hit me, that the anole is holding a leaf up to its face with the forelegs, perhaps a member of the Witness Protection Program, or maybe just tipping some ants down to its mouth. I probably spend too long looking at my own photos…

But here’s another little observation: the textures of the backlit leaf are an element all their own, and I’ve shot such before just as abstracts. Now, though, I have a brand new goal of trying to get an anole silhouette in such a way that the leaf textures and the anole’s shape and position coincide, the curves matching and accentuating one another. I’m not expecting to nail this one anytime soon, but it’s the very awareness of these factors that will make me watch carefully for them to occur. Granted, this vigil will likely begin next spring at least, as we’re nearing the end of anole season here.

We found another of the same size that day, who is going to transition this post from green to brown – the frame below isn’t exciting, but the pose is adequate and the details are nice.

juvenile Carolina anole Anolis carolensis in brown display
The coloration is not indicative of a different sex, just a mood display, though I couldn’t tell you what provoked this – the behavior was perhaps a little less wary than the previous, but obviously it’s not trying to blend in here, and perhaps had spotted another anole (that we missed) that it was warning off. I’ve seen such changes occur, by the way, and it’s pretty fast – a second or two if they’re motivated.

Now we move on to a different day and location.

When my brother visited, he demonstrated that his spotting skills were competitively slick as he found this mantis that I had just passed.

Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina posing on leaf
This is a Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina,) about half the size of the more-common Chinese mantis that has appeared more often on this blog than any other species by far. I got slightly more of a scale shot when we let it stalk down his arm, but I should have backed off more to get the thickness of his arm in there, at least – I was concentrating on the mantis details and not thinking about what use I might put it to.

pregnant female Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina on arm
The swollen abdomen outclassing the wings pegs this as likely a pregnant female. The coloration is more widely variable than the Chinese, but the ‘urban camouflage’ pattern here is fairly common.

And I’ll close with a dragonfly from the same brief outing, one that I crept up to after a mating pair proved too elusive for any decent shots.

likely great blue skimmer Libellula vibrans with tattered hindwings
This is likely (as near as I can determine, anyway,) a great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans,) judging from the eye and abdomen coloration and the dark tips to the wings; this took way too long to research. The tattered wings showed no visible detriment to its flying ability, and if I remember right, experiments done on several four-winged species indicated that the secondary wings were more for added maneuverability than much else, almost being redundant. Which seems odd to me, because the resources to develop and maintain such wings, which are clearly used in flight, could be better spent somewhere else; numerous other insect species have near-vestigial hindwings. But as I’ve said before, I just shoots ’em…

Draconids tonight

Just a quick reminder, but the Draconids meteor shower is peaking the evening of October 8th and 9th. As usual, the moon is a bit too bright for optimum viewing, but give it a shot anyway. What have you got to lose, except for sleep, patience, body heat, battery power, blood to mosquitoes, dropped keys, and possibly your virtue if you’re out there with someone else? Plus you can do a couple of moon shots to see what I mean about shooting something less-than-full, or some longer time exposures of the landscape by the light of the moon. Go for it.

I just features them

I can only guess that entomologists have a bigger lobbying body than I would have expected, because today has been named National Green Lynx Spider Day by the American Association of Let’s Make Every Damn Day a Holiday. While I find this a frivolous method of celebrating nothing at all, it is a national holiday and I accordingly have the day off, so far be it from me to shirk my patriotic duty. My friends frequently maintain that if there’s anything you can say about ol’ Al, it’s that he’s patriotic. And honest too.

Luckily enough, I have a few relatively recent photos of green lynx spiders (otherwise known as Peucetia viridans,) so this is not a stretch. Yes, I know I said something about beach pictures, but there’s a proper time and place for things, and they’ll have to wait.

green lynx spider Peucetia viridans perched on older flower
Green lynxes are ambush spiders, usually picking flowers with leaves that they blend in with well and hanging out until some stupid bug gets too close. Average size for the females is just under 30mm body length – decent-sized but not huge. At this time of year we’ve hit breeding season, which means fatter ones like that seen above are likely females about to produce an egg case, while thinner ones have either done so already (in which case ahaha you’ll see it very close by) or they’re males. They can certainly spin webs – most spiders can, regardless of their hunting technique – but generally any coordinated effort is for a nursery to protect the newborn young.

dragline webbing of green lynx spider Peucetia viridansWe’ll go in close for a second to see a detail that I missed at the time, but found in editing. You’re seeing the tip of the abdomen here, with the spinnerets and a pair of draglines that most spiders maintain, a constant safety harness that allows them to drop away from predators or hazards without losing their place, as it were; is some cases they also serve as invisible tripwires, little warning signals that something possibly-edible is blundering around nearby, but I can’t say for sure if the lynx spiders use them that way or not. Even in bright sunlight they can be near-impossible to spot, but go out early on a humid morning when the temperature has dropped below the dewpoint and you’ll see just how many spiders there might be in any given area, since the webbing collects dew and thus becomes visible. Seriously, you’ll probably find a buttload (ahaha) of webs everywhere.

By the way, as I fill up a little space alongside this image before moving on to the next, the webs of the two species of black widow spiders in the US are very strong, almost feeling like wire, and I’ve found them twice in this manner – the resistance as I put my hand against the strands was distinctly noticeable. Thankfully they don’t feel the need to rush out and bite everything that disturbs their webs.

green lynx spider Peucetia viridans likely ready to make an egg case
From her swollen abdomen and the fact that she’s not in position near something that would attract her food, I’m speculating that this one is not far from producing her egg case, but I have yet to capture this in progress, from any species really (except a snail.) I have no idea when it typically occurs, though ‘overnight’ is a wild guess, nor how long it takes; I really need to stake out an expecting mum and watch for it, but we have none close enough to maintain such a vigil – I haven’t seen one in the yard. The images here were taken either in the NC Botanical Garden or at Gold Park.

green lynx spider Peucetia viridans with egg case
And this is one with her egg case; you can see how much girth she’s lost after producing it. This is not the same spider, but was shot in the same location on the same day, not two meters from the other, but the sun had gone behind a cloud when I tackled this one. I’m not sure what makes for the bumpy/spikey appearance of the case, but it might simply be from the anchoring web strands. In my experience, the egg cases are pale green for the first day or so after being made, then turn a dead-leaf brown and remain that way. It will be several weeks before the young hatch, and the mother will hang around on the case or nearby the entire time, and run interference for the young for a while after hatching.

male and female green lynx xpsider Peucetia viridans possibly in courtship
Now, I’m not exactly sure what I captured here, but I have strong suspicions that it’s a courtship in progress, with the male at top; he was definitely monkeying around near the back of the female, and looks to me here like he’s gathering in webbing that she’s producing. There are a couple of things that make me pause, however. The first is, she appears to be already well along the path to motherhood (though I know you should never assume, much less mention, anything of the sort,) so if I’m correct he’s late to the party. But she made no moves to chase him off either, or eat him or hit him with a frying pan or call HR. Secondly, the reproductive organs of the female are not located anywhere near that spot, but well underneath the spider just aft of the thorax, close to the legs (well, duh.) It is, in fact, the dark spot seen on her underside below as I went around to the sunny side, which made the exposure better but hid too much of the behavior.

underside of female green lynx spider Peucetia viridans showing epigyne
The male spent some time finagling around up there, but never engaged in anything resembling copulation, possibly because he never received any receptive signals from the female – I dunno. It’s another thing that I should have captured on video, but it’s not as easy as simply saying that. Focus is wildly variable at macro magnification, requiring a steady subject and camera, and the position that I was in to capture these, slightly above my head on a tall flowering plant, was already awkward; a tripod would have been out of the question, and the breeze was swaying the plant back and forth too much to maintain focus. There are better conditions to pursue such things within.

I close with a not-green-lynx-spider, but an unidentified crab spider, genus Thomisidae, because I’m a rebel. During the same session in the botanical garden, I finally managed to spot a crab spider after much searching; the area is often ideal for them, but this year hasn’t been indicative of that at all. This one is tiny, only millimeters across, and I have several frames where focus was off, mostly from my own swaying. No, this is not unprofessional unsteadiness, but a purposeful motion like praying mantids use to appear like a plant in the breeze and disguise my true nature. So there.

unidentified tiny crab spider genus Thomisidae

Storytime 40

ganesha idol found on shore of Jordan Lake
This is one of those entries that I don’t actually know the story behind, but it at least suggests that there is one…

On the same outing from the previous post, the Insurmountable Mr Bugg and I opted to climb down a less-than-wheelchair-friendly route to the water’s edge where I knew we’d have a better view of the sunrise – that is, of course, if the sunrise wasn’t shrouded in clouds, which it was. The region is a nice enough beach, but requires a little bit of an awkward descent down to the water level from the road some seven or eight meters above, along a heavily eroded near-cliff face held in place by tree roots – not your ideal picnic area, in other words. Yet, as we got down there, we found this idol of the hindu god ganesha sitting on a small rise facing the water, a little ways down the beach.

First off, the condition of the statue says that it’s seen better days, and may have been sitting there for quite a while, or may have washed up and been placed there by the finder. It’s hard to imagine that it was put there intentionally as some sort of observance, but who knows? On another outing many kilometers away on the same lake, we’d found what appeared to be a food offering on the beach, too early in the morning for anyone’s lunch and arranged too neatly to be a randomly-forgotten snack. Is this common? I have no idea.

ganesha is a god of good fortune in the hindu pantheon, and perhaps best known as the remover of obstacles, but also as the patron of arts, sciences, intellect, and wisdom, so there is a bit of irony in this post pleading near total ignorance. And given that this area of the lake showed little debris at all, and what could be found was mostly in the form of fishing line and the occasional soda bottle, it’s a pretty random object to appear there. I’ll leave it up to you to piece together the full story.

Bad light and good birds

tree stump on still morning on Jordan Lake
Some weeks back, Buggato and I did a sunrise session down at Jordan Lake, which was an undeniably mixed bag. While we haven’t had rain in forever (seriously, like one five-minute shower since Dorian blew through uneventfully,) the morning was still too cloudy to see the sun at all until well after sunrise, so no rich colors and frameable prints on that end. But before the breezes of the day had begun, I took the opportunity to frame an old stump against the inordinately still waters – a stump that I’m almost certain I’d photographed 14 years earlier. Compare those horizon lines and tell me what you think.

The waterfowl, however, were more than adequately present, if difficult to photograph in the weak light, and we spent some time stalking them as they flitted back and forth between ideal spots along the lakeshore.

great egret Ardea alba on shore of Jordan Lake
Several great egrets (Ardea alba) were milling about, and allowed us to get within a useful shooting distance, for a long lens at least. They seem reasonably used to people in this particular area, so all we had to do was remain quiet and move slowly. By the way, this occurred within about a half-kilometer or so of this photo (and this,) so I’m not complaining one bit.

We even got a few flying by which, again, wasn’t helped at all by the lack of sunlight, but I snagged a couple of useful frames nonetheless. Notice that now there was enough of a breeze to stir the lake surface.

great egret Ardea alba flying past over Jordan Lake
This one I happened to like because of the way the head lined up with the wing. Sometimes, you get a cool frame simply because you’re taking the opportunity to fire off a bunch as your subject is being cooperative. I usually recommend the opposite, which is thinking about the shot and planning for it as much as possible instead of relying on chance, but there’s no way I could have timed such an alignment of head and wing, or even seen it clearly enough in the viewfinder.

We were hoping to spot some bald eagles, and I thought I might have seen one alight in a tree around the point, so we made our cautious way over there, eyeing the trees carefully. As we got almost directly underneath the spot where I’d seen it land, we’d found absolutely nothing, and I figured I’d either misjudged its location or it had slipped off around the bend while out of sight. And then, right smack in front of us in the shallows, an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) slammed into the water in pursuit of a fish; I had been right about the location, but not the species (I told you it was dim,) and the osprey wasn’t at all concerned with our proximity. I’d missed the initial action but brought the camera to bear as quickly as I could, and was rewarded with the takeoff at least.

osprey Pandion haliaetus breaking from water with captured fish
And then, to set a pattern that was to hold for the rest of the session, the autofocus failed to track worth a shit, and I have several close frames of an incredibly blurry bird, before it finally found its mark again and locked back on. I might credit this to bad centering on my part, but the camera is usually set for wide-field, multi-point focus in such situations and my subject tracking isn’t that bad. This isn’t the first time either; something’s going on, and I’m hoping to find out what eventually.

osprey Pandion haliaetus shaking off water from recent capture
Note the water droplets – at least the occasional frame comes out right. Osprey, and indeed many other diving birds, often climb out for a few seconds and get a bit of altitude before doing a full-body shimmy to rid themselves of excess water, which someday I’m going to capture on video. Judging from the flatness of the feathers, that isn’t what’s happening here; it’s just residual drippiness.

The sun did eventually struggle free from the clouds, panting and exhausted, but it was a while before the light was strong, and while this was happening, none of the birds around us were inclined to cross either the limited colors of the clouds nor the brief appearances of the glitter trails on the water. I watch for that kind of thing, but nooooo….

morning sun barely peeking through clouds
Eventually, after finding too little to sustain us in that region of the lake (except for some fartsy shots,) we headed a short distance off to another promising spot, the same where a great egret had landed in the trees right over my head (that’s linked a couple of paragraphs above – you never bothered to click, did you?) Knowing that a particular cove often played host to herons, egrets, and osprey, we carefully scoped out the area as much as possible from a distance, then slowly made our way deeper into the cove. We’d spotted nothing, and I eventually started out into the shallow water to get a view into the treetops overhead, to see if anything was hanging out there. I wasn’t seeing much, but glanced to the side and abruptly froze, hissing at Mr Bugg for caution and silence, since an osprey was perched in plain sight right at the edge of the cove.

osprey Pandion haliaetus perched in hunting position
This shot is full frame at 600mm, with the osprey being 20-25 meters off; there was no question that it could see us, because we couldn’t have been any more obvious out in the open water. It just wasn’t concerned about our presence at all, at least at this minimal distance. Communicating in very quiet whispers and moving with due caution, we started creeping closer at times, firing off a ridiculous number of frames. The following are all cropped a bit for better detail.

osprey Pandion haliaetus searching for fish
You might think that it’d be keeping a wary eye on us and our suspicious behavior, but it was more intent on finding breakfast. I’m used to osprey wheeling around overhead and spotting their food while on the wing, but this takes less energy, I admit. And they might prefer to do this when the wind is stronger and thermals can hold them aloft with little effort, which may not have developed by this point in the morning.

osprey Pandion haliaetus watching photographer for a moment
Out of dozens of frames, this is the only one where the bird is definitely looking right at us; other times it might have been in our general direction, but it’s clear from the head and eye angle that it’s paying more attention to the water below. Though in one instance, as a turkey vulture wheeled overhead (which puts the lie to the speculation that the thermals were insufficient, so this appears to be just a lazy bird,) the osprey eyed the sky for a few moments, obviously more concerned about the vulture than about us.

osprey Pandion haliaetus watching turkey vulture overhead
Several times, its attention seemed to indicate a potential launch for food, and we sat at the ready, arms aching from holding the big lenses up to our eyes, while the osprey faked us out. But eventually it took off and circled overhead casually, with my autofocus locking on less often than it should’ve. At length, the osprey dropped into the water and came out with a fish, and then circled the area several times; I finally figured out that it wanted to return to its perch, but didn’t feel safe with us present (despite having sat there for a measured ten minutes while we danced in the water,) so I motioned us back under the tree canopy a bit. But during that time, we were tracking its movements and firing off frames, and I managed to get one that was okay, but not ideal, while it held the fish in its talons.

osprey Pandion haliaetus passing overhead with captured fish
Knowing that it would be out of commission for a little while as it consumed the fish, we wandered off to another area to see if anything else could be found, as we were near the end of the session time. Finding nothing, we did one more quick peek at the cove, and discovered that an osprey was back to wheeling over the water; I couldn’t say for sure if it was the same one or not. We ended up running over time as we tried for more frames, hoping to get the moment of capture. I got so frustrated with the autofocus wandering at inopportune times that I switched to manual, because the tiny tweaks needed were far less than the tracking motor was taking the focus, even though I cannot honestly recommend trying to manually focus on a circling bird, unless you like apoplexy.

This next one is again full-frame, so you get the idea of how close the osprey passed overhead, and I don’t feel bad about focus and tracking on this one because, this close, that’s a lot of movement to stay on top of.

osprey Pandion haliaetus passing close overhead with fish
Even after I unloaded the card and was looking at these on the large monitor, I was wondering if the damn bird had somehow dropped the fish we’d seen it carrying, but then I realized it was a trick of the light on an unimpressive catch; the fish is there, if you look. But to assist, here’s a full-resolution inset of the same frame.

inset of frame showing osprey Pandion haliaetus talons and fish
Knowing the size of ospreys (I’ve handled a couple during my rehab days,) I don’t think that fish tops out more than 8cm in length, so barely a snack. But those talons are impressive, aren’t they? If you go swimming in these waters, it’s undoubtedly a bad idea to do so in trunks decorated with little fishies.

Overall, the session was productive enough, I have to admit, despite the lack of sunrise, and this post catches me up a little on the backlog of photos and stories that I’m working through. Thankfully I’m not trying to do this on any schedule, because I’d be constantly wrecking it, but they’re still coming, in due time.

The age of aquarium

Still doing the terrible title puns, of course – hey, you do 1600+ posts and see how your titling efforts hold up. This has nothing whatsoever to do with taking delight in terrible puns, not at all…

We’re going to go back several weeks here, to a period just after the New York trip (First, second, and third posts.) I had collected several dozen freshwater snail shells and a handful of little aquatic critters while there, but never devoted the time to photographing them on location, as it were, so they came back down with me. Then, while checking out the nearby pond with my brother, I spotted another curious aquatic arthropod, and went back a couple days later and retrieved it – this was atypical luck on my part, since most times when I spot something that I have no way of collecting at the time, I never see it again on subsequent searches.

But let’s not jump ahead too far – building the right momentum within a post is an art (notice that I said nothing about my skills, or lack thereof, at such art.) We’ll start with the NY critters.

perhaps juvenile crayfish
My brother felt these were juvenile crayfish, which I cannot dispute since I have no idea what juvenile crayfish look like; all I know is they look a lot like the amphipods that I used to find all the time in Florida. Only those were saltwater denizens, while this is fresh. Getting a decent picture was somewhat hampered by the staining of the tank’s glass, but much more so by the hyperactivity of the little spuds – attempting to catch one during its brief pause usually consisted of almost pinning focus down before they flitted off again. All of these photos, by the way, were taken with the same macro aquarium found here; I can’t stress how handy such a thing is.

The critter, by the way, is only a few millimeters long, while the substrate is/are the shells that I mentioned, probably averaging about 12mm or thereabouts. There is a wide variety of coloration to them, which will appear in some later post, possibly during the winter slow season.

While chasing images of these and others, I noticed that a little bit of debris in the tank, what appeared to be a stem fragment or something, was moving rather purposefully. It was minuscule in size and not terribly close to the glass, so my images aren’t that impressive (I mean, even less so than normal,) but here it is anyway.

unidentified aquatic larva with protective 'cocoon'
Bear in mind this is no longer than the amphipod/crayfish, but seen at this magnification, the pattern of its camouflage is a bit more obvious. By eye, it just appeared to be random flotsam. Or jetsam – I don’t know how to tell them apart.

unidentified aquatic larva peeking from 'cocoon'
When I attempted to shift the shell it was perambulating across closer to the glass, naturally it ducked into hiding, but eventually peeked out enough to get a hint of gross detail. I never tried to identify this, since what I have is so sparse on characteristics that might assist, so I’m only guessing it’s a larva of some kind, one of many that constructs a case made from available materials to protect itself from marauding nature photographers, which only half worked. After leaving it alone for a few minutes, it simply vanished, but that’s not as mysterious as it might sound given the huge number of hidey-holes among the shells.

I also captured a few regular NC residents, which have appeared here a few times before: the giant water bugs, or electric light bugs, more accurately known as Belostoma flumineum.

giant water bug Belostoma flumineum eating its own kind
Yes, they’re doing what you think they’re doing, if you think they’re eating their own kind, or being eaten by their own kind (depending on which you focused upon.) I’ve never kept them for very long in the macro aquarium, but they’ve shown little hesitation in immediately making themselves at home, which means ravenously finding anything that they might consider edible. It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there.

When one paused against the glass, I took the opportunity to illustrate the curious underside, which likely aids in their respiration.

underside of giant water bug Belostoma flumineum showing trapped air
You can see that the tip of the abdomen is breaking the surface and is likely gathering air in that way, perhaps trapping it against the underside of the abdomen with what appears to be tiny hairs to assist this. I’m speculating ignorantly, of course, because I’m just a photographer, not an entomologist; one of these days I’ll actually partner up with someone who has the knowledge, and together we’ll become this unstoppable crime-fighting duo. Or something.

Now let’s get to the star of the show.

water scorpion genus Ranatra profile
This is a water scorpion, genus Ranatra, which is as far as I could pin it down right now since BugGuide.net is kinda thin on distinguishing details among the ten species in the region. The body length, from the tip of that Jughead nose to the snorkelass, is in excess of 40mm – quite impressive to see at the surface of an overflow pool. And that proboscis announces that this is not a vegetarian. Nonetheless, one of the giant water bugs didn’t find this too threatening.

giant water bug Belostoma flumineum perched on back of water scorpion genus Ranatra
While both are predatory, they remained like this for some time, neither appearing concerned about the other (and don’t ask me where that blue fiber came from – it just happened to be in the water and there wasn’t much I could do about it without disturbing things, even if I had seen it before snapping the frames.) Perhaps there is some form of professional courtesy, a recognition of Hemipteran peers, that prevents them from preying on one another.

water scorpion genus Ranatra preying on giant water bug Belostoma flumineum
Or perhaps not. After finishing the initial photo session, I turned off the bright focusing light that I had over the tank and turned to the computer to download the images; some time later I glanced over and found this, so, you know, maybe bug brains aren’t all that sharp, hard as that may be to imagine.

“Hey, Al,” I hear you say, “how about we finish up with a detail inset of that last frame?” Well, seriously, I was gonna spare you that, but since you’re asking, I guess you’re up to it. So here’s a nice closeup of the water scorpion and its prey. Because you’re so insistent.

detail inset of water scorpion genus Ranatra and water bug Belostoma flumineum
I mean, I can’t blame you for asking, because those eyes (of both species) are pretty cool to look at, and the water masked any milkshake-slurpy sounds that may have been emanating. Meanwhile, is that algae or fungus or something? I honestly don’t know.

I have a lot more images on the way, but they’re of totally unrelated subjects, for better or worse. We’re getting there.

Coming soon to a blog near you

sunset off Oak Island, NC
Since I still haven’t outsourced posts to Korea or anything yet, we have to deal with me having enough time to write up something more than vapid blather like, you know, this, but more is coming, I promise. In the interim, I throw down this photo from sunset. No, the nearby pond was not having an especially windy/choppy day – this is from a weekend beach trip that The Girlfriend and I took. Unfortunately, it was remarkably hot, so we did a little less than planned, but I can’t say the trip was wasted in any way, and I have more than a handful of shots. Watch this space for further developments.

September?! We don’t need no September!

glitter trail through gap in tree trunks
September’s end-of-month abstract is a small section of the full frame, but doing it this way highlighted the details better. This came from a session which produced more than a few interesting images, but [broken record repeating sentence fragments about lack of time and all that horseshit]. I think I’m gonna hire a secretary or something. Anyway, you’ll see more eventually…

Here’s why, part 2: religion

As I said in the first post of the series, the question that comes up in these topics, far too often, is, “Why doesn’t science takes these seriously?” And the answer usually is, “It does,” but serious does not equate with, “Finding that it has any merit whatsoever.” In the case of this part’s topic of religion, science, or to be more specific, a significant number of scientists, have given it way more attention and examination than it ever deserved. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First off, it is the avowal of numerous religious leaders or figures that science specifically excludes religion, as if there’s some set of rules, or a list of forbidden topics, or some such rot, which is quite simply not the case; anyone that says otherwise is either lying or stupid, possibly both. In fact, religions of countless kinds were well-established while the present scientific methods were nascent, and the sciences grew in an atmosphere of assumption that at least some aspect of creation was fact. Countless religious orders were responsible for much of the research from times past, and quite a few of the biggest names in scientific circles were religious, to one degree or another. As the present scientific method was established (or to be more specific, the structure of degree programs and most higher education facilities,) no one bothered to include anything that exempted any aspect of our lives, or any given topic, from examination; the structures are only there to try and ensure that we’re as correct as possible. This does, however, conflict with some typical aspects of religions, as we’ll come to shortly.

Most religions do indeed fall outside of consideration of scientific investigation anymore, though, and there are more than a few reasons why.

Too many. There are countless religions in existence the world over right now, and many times more that existed in some point in the past and are now considered mythology. They can’t all be correct, because there are far too many outright contradictions, to say nothing of the hugely different worldviews and, for instance, origin stories. Worse, every last one of them has changed significantly over time, showing them to be culturally flexible rather than, as is often claimed, distinct and everlasting since the origin of any given scripture. We could, should reasonably expect that any lore provided by a supernatural being would not only hold up very well, but be consistent throughout both time and cultures, or at the very least, bearing some basic resemblance to one another.

Given all of the different religions practiced throughout history, the very first question remains, which one? Which should gain the distinction of being the one that bears close examination? It doesn’t really matter, because all of them have been examined, and none hold up very well. Moreover, there’s a rather telling factor that comes into play, and that is the distinction between religion and mythology. While we dismiss countless stories from past cultures as fables, the only difference between them and religions now, any given faith that people embrace as their primary worldview, is how many people believe them; nothing else can be demonstrated, no other factor useful for defining the difference. Culturally, we consider there to be a huge divide between the religion and mythology, but there’s no measurement that supports this.

Poor coordination with expanding knowledge. This is by far the biggest aspect that causes religion to fall by the wayside in regards to scientific inquiry, and easily contains the most numerous conflicts. While all religions provide creation stories, and most provide accounts of historical events, none of them coincide in even small ways with what we’ve been finding out about our world, from very early on. At present, we have overwhelming evidence of a 13.77 billion-year-old universe, a 4.5 billion-year-old planet, and the development of species from very rudimentary beginnings, and each of these is not only supported by countless converging points of evidence, they all fit neatly into the laws of physics that we have discovered, which themselves dictate and predict what is going to happen given any particular set of circumstances – which is, of course, why we use them constantly. The majority of religions present circumstances that contravene these laws in sometimes egregious ways, which would be acceptable to all of the sciences – if we ever saw such examples rather than simply hearing about them in scripture. But when we’re finding our laws of physics holding solid from as far away as light can carry to as small as we can distinguish, it seems rather odd that they, far too often, vanished entirely when it comes to scriptural events.

There’s only so much weight that can be given to a story. And that’s all that scriptural accounts are: stories. Just like in our courts of law, personal accounts are a starting point, but in order to find them believable, we need to have some form of corroboration, preferably physical – especially when humans are so ridiculously prone to fabrication, exaggeration, and embellishment. And when it comes to large-scale events, it’s hard to even imagine something that somehow does not leave any trace of itself behind. Even an overnight rainstorm leaves evidence for us to see in the morning – but virtually nothing related in scripture, far larger in scope than rain, has ever been found, anywhere.

And then there’s the obvious editing. Detailed examinations of scripture have existed since earliest recorded history and continue to this day, with comparisons among not only numerous examples and copies from around the globe, but even the writing styles and meticulous determinations of age from documents. One thing that has become very evident is that countless forms of editing have taken place among far too much of it, putting the lie to anything being “as god intended.” Some are certainly simple mistakes and transcription errors, but a lot more are attributed to religious leaders deciding on their own agenda, and any religious scholar can outline these in detail, especially when we have distinct records of when and where they took place. It is often claimed (but only by the devout) that these efforts were restoring the scripture to the original forms that it had drifted from through previous edits, but this has two distinct problems right off the bat: that anyone could edit scripture away from the original sacrosanct messages, and that none of these restorations managed to bring scripture in line with physics anyway.

[There’s a curious assumption within this sub-topic as well, which is that, despite the countless variations and changes throughout the centuries for any given sect, what we have at present is exactly right, with no consideration given to the idea that we may be as far afield as the previous cultures were in their interpretations.]

Among the many aspects of scientific investigation sits the examination of alternatives: are we sure we’re considering every possibility? And of course, one possibility that bears inclusion, among all of the proposed explanations for these kind of things, is that all of it, every last page of scripture, every ancient account handed down through the ages, is simply made up – as fictional as every other religion and every past mythology. When scripture shows ample evidence of alterations, additions, subtractions, and radical changes, with cultural influences and distinctive adaptations from other sources, that’s pretty much what we expect to find from fables and folklore, and not at all what we should expect from a supernaturally-invoked guide for humankind. And as yet, no one has even come close to ruling out this possibility.

Religions aren’t a very good guide towards behavior, understanding, or growth. Let’s face it – we have to ignore huge aspects of any given scripture to even get by in the world, partially because it’s contradictory, but also because it’s incredibly anti-social and unacceptable to so many people. The same holds true for countless sects and variations, even within the narrower confines of judaism, islam, or christianity; it takes no effort whatsoever to find a church, among anyone’s own faith, that they consider drastically wrong. We try to excuse or ignore numerous aspects of our past cultures that were religiously-invoked or supported, as well as just some really odd restrictions or advice, but let’s be real: these are pathetically bad excuses for guidance from a supreme being, or even from a village elder. It comes up again and again, to the chagrin of countless religious folk, but very large swaths of our history are religiously-supported bloodbaths, so much so that were have special vocabulary that defines it. Yet even the minor proscriptions or advice are almost always demonstrably useless, when they fail to be actively harmful. While there have been plenty of instances where religious leaders blame this on the fallibility of man, we have to recognize that a) a supreme being should have been more than capable of taking such into account, and b) an awful lot of this would never have existed without the religious provocation in the first place.

Meanwhile, as cultures have been reducing the emphasis on religious guidance and classism, and instead concentrating on simple empathy and human rights, our societies have taken radical leaps forward in terms of quality of life, reduction of tribalism, and just about every measure of well-being that exists – this is a serious condemnation of religious value and guidance. Even today, here in this country, the greatest threats to human rights and progressive culture are often religiously-provoked.

There is a fundamental clash in methodology, functionality, and evaluation of effectiveness. This is perhaps the second biggest stumbling block in having the sciences, any sciences, treat religion with consideration, and the reason why so many argue that science and faith are not compatible. Religion relies on things like dogma, authority, and the abject denial of having to prove either factuality or value; faith is a huge factor, as well as deference to religious authority. But faith is a remarkably stupid thing to have, in any circumstance, and countless aspects of our cultures the world over have been adopted because of this simple fact – we have contracts and consumer laws, audits and oversight committees, health departments and drug tests, and it takes little effort to imagine how incredibly dangerous it would be to dismiss any of these. Because of this, the scientific method revolves around producing as much support as possible for any given conclusion, and there’s no such thing as authority; despite advanced degrees or a history of dependable results, any given scientist still has to demonstrate that their pronouncements are backed by solid evidence, and at any time may be countermanded by evidence to the contrary. And the reason that we’ve adopted such practices is simply because it’s the most effective way that we’ve found of ensuring useful, dependable results.

Meanwhile, overblown pronouncements of certainty from any religious figure, without any supporting evidence or demonstrable results, are de rigueur; this includes the ‘proper’ interpretations of scripture and even the idea that scripture is “the word of god.” This kind of behavior is what defines a dictatorship, actually, and the failures of that approach are voluminous and damning all by themselves. Without the concept of unquestionable authority, religion dies quickly – but nothing should ever be unquestionable.

Very often, you will hear people repeat the adage that science tells us how, but religion tells us why, or some such variation – the idea is that science is useful only for physical effects but we need something else for moral guidance or origin explanations. Except, of course, that religion never does tell us why in any manner, and ridiculously often, falls back on variations of, “we can’t understand what god intended.” Meanwhile, a majority of religions interpret morality as, “doing what we’re told by the supreme being, ” which isn’t morality at all, simply self-absorbed obeisance; morality directly involves doing what’s best for other people and for society as a whole. If you ever want to see how badly religion answers the why question, ask any ten devout people, even from the same church, how their god allowed any horrific historical event to occur.

On the other hand, science can be quite adept at answering the why questions as well, especially as we develop a greater understanding of human minds and motivations, and can trace back the evolution of various organisms. Some of the most complicated things that we see can still come about through very basic physical laws, and in many cases we have the variations that demonstrate stages of this development. And while ethics and morality are still largely considered the realm of the humanities rather than the ‘hard’ sciences, we’ve been discovering that adopting more of the methods of the hard sciences can work a lot better than the philosophical approaches ever did. Morality isn’t actually difficult to understand, but we very often run into clashes with emotional influences and justifications – which we’re understanding better and better now, thanks to more studies and with no useful contributions from religion whatsoever.

Religion offers no explanatory or predictive function. Let’s face it, this is what we use science for in the first place, and in fact, our whole lives revolve around figuring out how things work – that’s why we consider ourselves the most advanced species on the planet. We learned how to bake cakes by observing what happens with each variation of ingredient; we figure out the best ways to deal with people in our lives by noting what they respond to, both positively and negatively. The scientific method just puts a structure to this learning process to help keep us from jumping to conclusions (like superstitions, or the belief that trends must continue.) And as mentioned above, this process has helped us understand that our desire for social cohesiveness, evolved into us as a necessity for our survival, is what produces morality in the first place.

Religions, however, are terrible at explanations, and abject failures at predictions. First off, if we want to posit that anything that happens might be because of the whims of an omnipotent being, then what’s to predict? Or even explain? Should we believe that we can have intensely negative affects on our environment, to the point where we put our entire species in danger, or is somebody, something, playing around behind the scenes? And while countless devotees seem to believe that such supernatural manipulations are ultimately beneficial, we still have numerous accounts right within these scriptural guidelines for humanity that demonstrate otherwise; in fact, in far too many examples, this being was capricious, vindictive and, hard as this would be to believe if more people actually thought about it, petty, jealous, and insecure! How would any omnipotent being even come to be this way? And more importantly, why worship such a being when we ourselves are driven (and even admonished) to overcome such traits?

The explanatory parts, far too often, aren’t; they’re either excuses over why things simply make no sense, or pronouncements that we’re not even supposed to question them in the first place. Ignoring for just a moment that, if we were indeed created, we were created to question things, we cannot rationally deny the fact that such questioning is supremely functional in our lives and provides untold value and advancement. Being told not to, or having some excuse foisted onto us, isn’t of any value whatsoever, and actually has a negative effect, as most parents can attest to.

As for the predictions, anyone is welcome to point to any prediction in scripture that actually came true. Bearing in mind, of course, that even if they find something that might, by some stretch, be interpreted as such, a diligent reader will find at least ten times as many, from the same set of scripture, that obviously did not. And as noted above, even considering such accounts as potentially historical, few portions have proven to be factual in the first place, mostly involving whether there was indeed a city in some location (for all the inordinate value that has.) But again, worldwide cataclysms or even influential events? The examples are far too lacking to find value in such.

The boldest claims from any religion are about what happens after we die, which is naturally a bit hard to demonstrate, yet it is these aspects that perhaps the majority of devotees latch onto. These claims virtually always revolve around some form of justice, of getting what one ‘deserves,’ which is gratifying to us in the face of either capriciousness or indifference – at least this has a distinct rule. Except that so few actually believe it that we have criminal justice systems that deal with what happens in our brief mortal stays, rather than leaving it up to any supernatural consequences, and that extensive efforts are put forth by the religious to have others conform to their way of thinking, and yes, this still involves bloodshed very, very frequently. And we cannot ignore the fact that this supernatural justice structure is abysmally bad at provoking people towards good behavior, as is demonstrated constantly, especially among the religious leaders that are so often caught actively flouting it.

When it comes down to it, most of the reason why anyone embraces any form of religion in the first place is self-indulgence – the ‘answers’ that it provides are what they want to hear, and the authority that it promotes is only obeyed when it coincides with their own attitudes in the first place. And while there can be some small value to indulgence, there can also be a large detrimental affect as well, while neither of these has anything to do with science, or even whether or not religions should be ‘taken more seriously.’ There are plenty of ways to indulge oneself without resorting to ridiculous concepts of unquestionable and unsupportable properties, and much more value to finding something more useful to society as a whole than being self-absorbed.

Even the concepts of vague supernatural powers or actions are nothing more than sophistry. First off, let’s face it: no one arguing for any value from religion is thinking of a vague power or a force that ‘started it all,’ or any of the typical theological suggestions of this nature, because these provide nothing to guide us, or explain anything, or reward us for whatever actions we take; most are simply attempts to dodge the failures of organized, defined religions that have been revealed over the centuries. But addressing the arguments at face value for the moment, we still find that nearly all of them revolve around unproven assumptions such as ‘everything must have a beginning’ and ‘so many people being religious means something.’ The few that don’t, that actually try to transcend philosophy and breach the realm of scientific (more or less) conjecture, still offer nothing that could be tested or falsified, and thus no path to take for advancement of knowledge, no ‘next step’ or publishable treatise. Stoned people have produced more profound thoughts than this.

Scientists have actually been far more accommodating to religion than the situation warrants. Because of the huge cultural influence, and the vast number of people that take offense at simple facts that run counter to their desired worldviews, scientists have been remarkably circumspect about religion as a whole, though this varies from culture to culture, country to country. But given the inordinate number of failures that religion has openly, repeatedly, and undeniably demonstrated throughout history, there really have been far too few scientists or authority figures outright calling it worthless bullshit. Religious leaders can, very frequently, gain a public forum to proclaim that Harry Potter books are works of the devil, and nobody ever steps forward and calls them a brain-damaged asshat diddlyfucking around with worse fairy tales than any work of admitted fiction – at least most fiction attempts coherence. Far too many scientists will aver that religion is outside of their purview or some such dodge, rather than openly admitting that nothing about religion is the slightest bit supportable in a rational world. It’s a shame, really, because we need more people to be blunt in the face of the utter nonsense that religion can provoke someone to, but it should be said that religion as a whole has been treated a hell of a lot better than it ever deserved.

The sciences will continue to examine all of that which actually has an effect in our world, regardless of apparent source or ideological bias, but those items found lacking in effect or even accuracy will be dismissed as unimportant. Science wouldn’t, couldn’t work any other way.