Journal archives for February 2019

February 02, 2019

A Mantis Shrimp in Mozambique - Observation of the Week, 2/2/19

This peacock mantis shrimp, seen off of Mozambique by @jennykeeping, is our Observation of the Week!

“Since I started diving in 2012, the marine world has had me captivated,” says Jenny (aka @jennykeeping). Jenny tells me she has always been interested in nature, but her current research (for her master’s degree) focuses on “the stingray species of Southern Mozambique, and so stingrays and elasmobranchs in general are my primary scope of interest. But honestly, if it's underwater then I want to know more about it!”

While the mantis shrimp Jenny photographed might be a once-in-a-lifetime sight for many of us more terrestrial folk, she says that

the peacock mantis shrimp is a common sighting in Tofo, Mozambique. Especially on our shallow (<16m) sites we have these colourful charismatic critters scurrying all over the reef and tucking themselves in to a hole, but curious enough to then poke their heads back out in this inquisitive pose, like has been captured in this photo.

Despite their common name, mantis shrimps are technically not “shrimp” as we commonly think of them (which belong in the infraorder Caridea), but are part of a separate taxonomic group, the order Stomatopoda. Oh, and they’re also definitely not mantids. Not only do they have some of the most complex visual organs of any known creature, mantis shrimps use their forelimbs to strike prey with incredible speed, creating cavitation bubbles in the water! I could go on, but The Oatmeal has already, in cartoon form, famously shown how crazy awesome these creatures are, so check it out.  

“I have been using iNaturalist to help in the identification of the marine creatures we see here in southern Mozambique, but I also enjoy the daily email updates to see what observations have been made, especially of stingrays, all over the world,” says Jenny (above, in her preferred environs).

It is helping me to learn how to critically look at the identifying features of marine species, especially elasmobranchs and stingrays. There are such intricate details that can tell a species a part it's really a skill I admire in the ID pros in iNaturalist. I also then find myself using the interactive map a lot to explore species distributions, whilst also dreaming of my next diving destination!

- by Tony Iwane. Photo of Jenny by Steven Scagnelli.


- How do mantis shrimps strike so quickly? Dr. Sheila Patek explains in a TED Talk

- BBC’s Earth Unplugged team tries to get slow motion footage of a mantis shrimp. 

- Here are all faved Stomatopoda observations on iNat!

Posted on February 02, 2019 22:12 by tiwane tiwane | 4 comments | Leave a comment

February 11, 2019

A Rare Moth is Found in Chile - Observation of the Week, 2/10/19

Our Observation of the Week is this Andeabatis chilensis moth, seen in Chile by bernardo_segura!

Last week, Frank Izaguirre (@birdizlife) messaged me, writing “Tony, check this one out. It just showed up on my feed! So beautiful, even kinda trippy, and a first for iNat,” and directing me to Bernardo Segura’s photos of the insane moth you see above. So it was chosen as Observation of the Day and got a lot of love on social media, including this great comment on Facebook: "The seventies called. They want their wings back!”

What was really cool is that not only did a user who was mostly interested in birds fall in love with this moth, but John Grehan (@johngrehan), a specialist in swift moths (aka ghost moths), of which this species is a member. John and Bernardo connected, and Bernardo will (fingers crossed) attempt to collect some specimens for John in the hopes of collaborating on an article.

“[This find] illustrates the value of iNaturalist in the way it can alert specialists about new species or new opportunities with known species,” says John. “I have an automatic link for new notifications on Hepialidae and this has contributed to at least two publications. And where new species are suspected it is possible to get in touch with the photographer to see if specimens may be obtained in the future.” He says this last part is critical and would like to encourage observers to try and get a specimen if a specialist ask for one and if local rules allow it. John notes that this species is the only known member of its genus, and that those black tips on the gold scales (see below) are “unique to this species as far as currently known.”

So how did Bernardo come across this moth? Well, unlike many moth finds, he heard it first:

Two years ago I was in the beautiful Alerce Costero national park in the rain forests of southern Chile, taking photos of some frogs at night when I saw a big fluffy thing moving in some branches close to me. It was big as a fist and very loud in its movement so at first I thought it was some small mammal like the Colocolo opossum (Dromiciops gliroides) but when I pointed my headlamp towards it I realized that it was a huge moth moving clumsily in the branches, a moth of a species that I have only seen photos of before and was hoping to see sometime, the incredible and kind of mythological to me Andeabatis chilensis.

“Details of biology are poorly or entirely unknown for most ghost moth species,” says John. However, what we know about them is fascinating. Eggs are generally dropped on the ground and “newly hatched larvae of many (all?) species feed on dead plant detritus or fungi before transitioning to live plants.” And when consuming live plant material, many larvae remain on their own, “living in tunnels made of silk and debris or bore into soil or host plants. Most are probably root feeders.“ Adults, like the one Bernardo photographed, lack functioning mouth parts, meaning they often live for no more than a single night - so he was lucky to have found this one!

Bernardo (above), who has a masters in wildlife conservation, says he has “been passionate about nature since I can remember. Always a curious boy enjoying watching bugs and others animals mainly in the Chilean Andes, now I try to immortalize those marvelous findings through photography and to share them to everyone.” He works with a variety of organisms, “from the most understudied and unknown velvet worms to the charismatic wild cats of the Andes.

I’m just starting to use INaturalist and I believe it’s a great way in which everyone can help to improve the knowledge of  species, I’m now uploading years of finding, starting from interesting and understudied animals like Andeabatis chilensis.

- by Tony Iwane. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity. Many thanks to Bernardo, John, and Frank.


- Check out Bernardo’s Facebook page and Flickr gallery, as well as John’s site!

- Not only did Bernardo take some sweet photos of the moth, he also shot really nice video of it as well!

- Here are links to two of the papers John was involved in, which cited several iNaturalist observations.

Posted on February 11, 2019 06:52 by tiwane tiwane | 27 comments | Leave a comment

February 18, 2019

A Pink Grasshopper! - Observation of the Week, 2/17/19

This erythristic Green-striped Grasshopper, seen in the United States by pufferchung, is our Observation of the Day!

In the grand tradition of Observations of the Week depicting organisms the observer was not looking for, Michelle’s (@pufferchung) target species of the day was not an insect but a plant. “Since I was looking for something that grows on the ground and it's ‘small and red’, that's how I found the ‘pink grasshopper’,” she tells me.

iNat user Todd Fitzgerald (@oddfitz) saw her observation and commented “almost positive it’s a Green-Striped Grasshopper with erythrism which exaggerates the natural red pigments,” and other users such as @sambiology and @brandonwoo (the latter is iNat’s top IDer of orthopterans) concurred and Todd reached out to me and let me know what a cool find this was.

Erythrism, as Todd notes, exaggerates the red pigments of an organism, and is actually a well-known but not entirely common trait in some orthopterans, particularly katydids. This species typically has green or brown coloration (see photos here) and ranges from Canada to Costa Rica.

“Photography gives me an appreciation for the world that we live in,” says Michelle (above).  “ [And] nature photography also takes me to outdoors more. I've been to many Texas state parks, natural/nature preserves and hiking trails. I want to see and experience things we sometimes take for granted. It provides me with some wonderful memories and photos that I can share with my instagram/facebook friends.”

Michelle tells me that someone on Facebook suggested to her the iNaturalist community could help identify her finds, so she started posting her nature photos on iNat as well. “Using iNaturalist gives me hope that some of the things people find aren't as rare as we think they are, they're just hidden and could lead to more nature conservation efforts in different places that they didn't think to look.”

- by Tony Iwane.


- Think that green coloration in katydids is a dominant trait? You might have to reconsider.

- @silversea_starsong’s Amazing Aberrants project is a great collection of unusually colored organisms.

Posted on February 18, 2019 22:22 by tiwane tiwane | 30 comments | Leave a comment

February 26, 2019

A Tiny Feather Duster Worm in Lake Baikal - Observation of the Week, 2/25/19

Our Observation of the Week is this Manayunkia feather duster worm, seen in Russia by @septima15!

Home to over 20% (!) of all the world’s surface freshwater, Russia’s Lake Baikal is Earth’s largest freshwater lake (by volume) and home to thousands of plant and animal species, the vast majority of which are endemic to its waters and surroundings.

Olga Medvezhonkova (septima15) works at a research institute near the lake, where she hydrobiology researcher. What does that entail? “Most of the time I spend on the beaches or the shallow lake area for sampling bottom animals and then studying them under a microscope to determine the taxon and count the number” is how she describes it. “This is part of the science of hydrobiology!”

“I met the polychaetes during the processing of the sample from a depth of 4-5 m,” explains Olga, “and I decided to learn how to identify them to species, and for this I took pictures.” A wealth of biodiversity can be found in these samples, and she says “I [also] constantly find mollusks, oligochaetes, nemtodes, and others in the samples, but most of all I’m passionate about water bears (Tardigrades).” Check out some of her water bear photos here - hopefully she’ll add some more to iNat!

The worm photographed above is in the genus Manayunkia, which is a member of the Sabellidae, or feather duster worm family. These are polychaete worms, and polychaetes are commonly called “bristle worms” due the setae protruding from each segment of their bodies. Many move about freely, like this enormous Alitta brandti, but others like the feather duster worms create a tube in which they reside. Olga says that Manayunkia reach about 5-8 mm in length, and “at the front end there is a corolla of tentacles, with which they breathe. [The] worms live in tubules built from silt or sand particles. Manayunkia live on sandy and silty soils, stones, sponges [and] they feed on detritus. The fauna of polychaete of Baikal today includes only 3 species, conditionally considered to be endemic (http://irkipedia.ru/content/bespozvonochnye_baykala_polihety).” Nearly all polychaetes are marine, so these freshwater species are of definite interest.

Olga joined iNaturalist only recently but says it’s “a very useful idea for collecting information on the global distribution of species. And to me personally, it helps to identify species in the definition of which I’m not an expert...I am very, very glad that the Internet users liked the photo of the Manayunkia so much, and even more so if they became interested in the Baikal Polychaeta itself.”

- by Tony Iwane


- Amazingly, Lake Baikal has its own endemic seal species

- Like many tiny things, Manayunkia can have a large impact on its environment. For example, Manayunkia speciosa can harbor myxozoans that parasitize salmonid fish.  

- Here’s some video of a much larger feather duster worm. 

Posted on February 26, 2019 05:43 by tiwane tiwane | 11 comments | Leave a comment

February 28, 2019

iNat Photos Used to Study Correlation Between Dragonfly Wing Coloration and Temperature

I came across this article in January and thought the study was a great example of how iNaturalist data can be used for research, so I reached out to researcher Michael Moore (@moore-evo-eco) about it. He was gracious enough to spend some of his time to answer my questions. Thank you Michael!


Michael Moore, a graduate biology student at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, says he’s been studying blue dasher dragonflies for his research over the course of a few years, pretty much because they’re common across much of the middle of North America. Before he had even done field research with this species, Michael heard that males in the eastern part of the continent had darker wings than those on the western side. “I kind of filed that anecdote away in the back of my brain while I used the species for research in other topics,” he recalls. “But in the winter of 2016-2017, while I waited for the snow to clear so I could get back out there and do some research, I realized that the reason this dragonfly species has different wing color patterns in different parts of North America might be really interesting and worth investigating.”

Blue dashers would not be flying until the weather warmed, but Michael was chomping at the bit to get started with his research so he turned to iNat. “When I went to check the iNaturalist page for blue dashers, I could not believe how many really, really high-quality pictures there were just of this one species I happen to research,” he tells me. “I think at this point there are like 13,500 observations--so trove is definitely the right word...

Once I started looking through these pictures, I realized that the information that iNaturalist stores was literally everything I needed not just to get some preliminary data, but to decisively address where the dragonfly tended to get the color on its wings and where it did not....After seeing that pattern from the iNaturalist photos, there was no question that I was on to something. I applied for a bunch of small grants for experiments on how I would follow up on this exciting geographic pattern, and I got enough funding from the American Museum of Natural History and my department that I could do the experiments. Without the amazing collection of pictures of just this one little dragonfly on iNaturalist, I'm not sure any of the rest of this research would have been possible.

After getting range and wing coloration data from iNaturalist, Michael and his colleagues obtained male specimens and tested how wing coloration affected the dragonflies’ body temperatures; whether or not a higher body temperature translated into better flight performance; how wing coloration and weather affected a male’s ability to defend territory; and finally, whether wing coloration was reduced in hotter parts of the species’ range (using iNaturalist observations). What they found was that increased body temperature did improve flight performance - up to a point. Once the dragonfly’s body temperature was too high, flight performance was negatively impacted, thus reducing the male’s ability to defend territory and in turn mate with a female. So the reduced wing coloration in hotter areas of the blue dasher’s range does correlate with sexual selection and fitness.

“For me at least, the first big benefit of the data available from iNaturalist is the sheer volume of high-quality observations that are available for some species. It's still hard for me to get my head around,” says Michael. “While gathering natural-history observations is a key element of biological research, it would take years for a small team of researchers to collect that many observations. This can really jumpstart the process of identifying patterns and figuring out which ones are worth designing experiments to understand at a deeper level.” He does acknowledge that he lucked out with blue dashers because they are a charismatic, commonly observed species, and he also wishes that the photos were more standardized, so he says “I suspect that plants and animals that don't catch people's eye quite as much might not be as amenable to these kinds of studies. But these are small drawbacks when compared to the really amazing opportunities that platforms like iNaturalist present...

as more and more researchers start working with these great platforms, I really think we could witness an explosion of newly uncovered patterns in global biodiversity. The key then will obviously be to design careful follow-up experiments to help us understand why these patterns arise in the first place, but the possibilities that iNaturalist and eBird present as a jumping off point are remarkable…

...Because we are now accumulating this remarkable collection of time-stamped photographs of every manner of plant, animal, and fungi through iNaturalist and similar platforms, we're potentially going to have a digitized record of how each of these organisms evolve over the next few decades. We'll be able to watch evolution occurring on a grand scale. From a purely academic perspective, it's every evolutionary biologists dream.

What’s next for Michael? He has some ideas about how iNaturalist and other crowdsourced data can be used, but he’s also interested in following up on this dragonfly study. “Like many research projects, there are a lot more questions that this study raises than answers,” he says. “Did the dragonflies evolve to have reduced wing coloration in the hotter areas, or vice versa? What about areas where they don’t have much wing coloration yet the temperatures are not as hot?

“Identifying the evolutionary forces that act in addition to temperature to cause these patterns will hopefully help biologists understand how animals adapt to simultaneously balance the competing demands of multiple environmental factors,” Michael concludes. “Without that initial boost from the iNaturalist dataset, I probably never would have looked seriously at the role of temperature in the evolution of this trait, and we would have had no idea that we could use this species to examine these all of these important evolutionary ideas and concepts”

By Tony Iwane

Photos: Male blue dasher in Ohio by Dave McShaffrey (top); Male blue dasher in Arizona by Alex Lamoreaux (middle).


- This study is under embargo for a year, but an abstract can be found here. Michael’s co-authors were Cassandra Lis, Iulian Gherghel, and Ryan A. Martin.

Check out another ongoing study that’s using iNat photos of mountain goats.

- A blue dasher photo was chosen as an iNat Observation of the Day. However, its in the jaws of a snake! Great photos. 

Posted on February 28, 2019 20:44 by tiwane tiwane | 14 comments | Leave a comment