Journal archives for June 2022

June 01, 2022

Pride Month: Meet @humanbyweight, author of "The Social Wasps of North America"!

It’s Pride Month on iNat, and we’re featuring iNat user Chris Alice Kratzer, (@humanbyweight), a prolific iNat user and transgender lesbian who recently published The Social Wasps of North America, a field guide which she wrote and illustrated. The guide covers more than 200 species and contains 900 full-color illustrations, nearly all of which are based on museum specimens and photos posted by iNaturalist users! What follows is a little piece about Chris and her field guide. We’re also working on setting up a virtual mixer with 500 Queer Scientists later this month, so stay tuned - we’ll make an anncouncement in this thread on the iNaturalist Forum.

Growing up in the woods of western New Jersey, Chris Alice Kratzer says she’s always loved nature and found insects to be particularly accessible. “You can go outside any day and catch a grasshopper. A muddy girl cannot so easily catch a bird,” she explains, 

[so] I would spend hours watching the secretive world of insects fly, crawl, and scurry around me – as much a fact of life as the sun in the sky. One year my parents gave me a disposable camera and I used up the whole roll of film on one butterfly. I never let go of that excitement and wonder. I hope I can inspire it in others.

One encounter with wasps in my childhood stands out to me. I was walking through the brush when suddenly I heard a buzzing just to my left – and there, a foot away, was a huge nest of bald-faced hornets. I could see a dozen black-and-white wasps tending to their nest. I froze, and after a minute, I slowly backed away. And I was not stung. They could have stung me, but they didn’t. Why? Everyone knows wasps are vicious. Why wasn’t I attacked? I couldn’t shake my curiosity. 15 years later, I have my answer, and I was able to share it through the world’s first comprehensive field guide to social wasps.

Chris began researching her field guide in earnest starting in 2018, about a year after she joined iNaturalist. “It was always a passion project at its heart,” she explains, and tells me nearly everything she knows about social wasps comes from her research for the book. “I faced an incredibly steep learning curve, which I only pushed through with help from the patience, passion, and generosity of other experts in the field. Through hard work and determination, I am now proud to count myself among them.”

She began volunteering at the Cornell University Insect Collection on weekends, read taxonomic papers, reached out to experts in the field and curators of various collections, and “I spent over a thousand hours studying the ranges and color patterns of wasps on iNaturalist.” Chris also used about 700 photographs from iNaturalist, taken by about 530 photographers.  

Most of the photos were used as references for my paintings, but some also appear “as-is” in the final book. I took great care to get written permission from every photographer before use (unless their observation was already marked CC-0, CC-BY, or CC-BY-SA). I think it’s really important to stress that my book would not exist without iNaturalist.

And as you page through the book, you see that Chris credits the photographers whose photos she used for references, and includes their iNat usernames. It’s really cool to see so many names prominently displayed on each species page, and I have to admit I got a little surge of excitement seeing my own name on one of them. In addition to basic facts and descriptions of each species, the guide includes a lot of basic life history information that is written in an engaging and humorous manner, and it includes a handy section about wasp stings and how to avoid them.

In the introduction to The Social Wasps of North America, Chris writes (tongue firmly in cheek) “All of the information in this book is wrong. All of it. Wasps are an appallingly understudied group of organisms,” although hopefully that won’t be the case forever. “iNaturalist,” says Chris,

opens the door to so much new and exciting research on understudied taxa. It is currently being used to help identify introduced species before they can become established, document rare species, and expand our knowledge of ranges, habitats, behaviors, life cycles, food webs, and color variation among known species.

In my opinion, [it’s] the cutting edge of ecological science. I expect to see many more field guides that use iNaturalist data in the future.

Writing this book was not the only major decision Chris (below, researching her next guide) made over the past few years. She also decided to embrace herself and who she was. “I am proud to be visible as an engineer and scientist who also just happens to be a transgender lesbian,” she says.

I am a woman who, through no fault of myself, my parents, or my doctors – was accidentally raised as a boy. I tried my best to live up to everyone’s expectations of my gender, but 20 years of pretending left me empty and broken. I finally started living as myself in 2020 – to heck with what people think. It was the right choice for me. I finally feel like myself, and I have never been happier…I have a wonderful girlfriend named Zoey whom I love with all of my heart!

However, as she continues to work both as an engineer and on her next field guide - The Cicadas of North America - she’s found it difficult to focus on science due to attacks on queer and transgender people in the US. “We just want to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives, just like everyone else,” she says, “[and] it is terrifying to watch innocent people (including many of my close friends and colleagues) become targets of political violence and prosecution.”

- Chris is working on a Spanish translation of The Social Wasps of North America, scheduled to come out later this year.

- Check out this video, in which Chris demonstrates her illustration process for the book.

- When asked if she had a favorite wasp, she said her answer changes a lot but she does really find Arctic Yellowjackets (Dolichovespula albida) to be particularly fascinating. "They live high above the Arctic circle. The queens can survive being frozen and their nests have special adaptations that allow the colony to survive the temperature extremes of the Arctic spring and summer. It is amazing to me that a social insect can survive in those conditions."

- In her engineering work, Chris is using her entomological background “to create the next generation of structural insulation based on the structure of wasp nests (specifically the Arctic Yellowjacket!), which has the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions associated with heating and cooling buildings. Our prototypes are already better than most fiberglass! It is my dream to lead a team to develop new sustainable technologies that can help to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, and I am slowly realizing that vision.”

- You can follow Chris on Twitter.

- In a journal post, Chris lists over a dozen potentially undescribed species or subspecies she’s come across while doing research on iNat.

Posted on June 01, 2022 06:03 PM by tiwane tiwane | 49 comments | Leave a comment

June 07, 2022

Dueling Crabs in Thailand - Observation of the Week, 6/7/22

Our Observation of the Week is this pair of Macrophthalmus tomentosus crabs, seen in Thailand by @plains-wanderer!

“Most other kids my age in the area I grew up in carried slingshots around to shoot animals for fun, but my idea of having fun was to try identifying animal species & see rarely seen animals,” Wich’yanan “Jay” Limparungpatthanakij tells me. “I would steal slingshots from those kids & hide them away whenever I had a chance, so they couldn't hurt animals, at least for a while.”  Wich’yanan grew up in the countryside of Thailand and while the was into all kinds of organisms, the only comprehensive field guide that was available to the public covered birds  (A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand by Boonsong Lekagul & Philip D. Round, published in 1991), so he was able to study and identify them more than most other organisms. 

His interest in birds continued into his time at Mahidol University, where he focused on the ecology of avian mixed-species foraging flock, and through to this year, when he participated in the Global Big Day. And “while scanning for shorebirds on an intertidal mudflat west of Bangkok suburbs,” Wich’yanan spotted the crabs you see above.

I had never a photographed this species engaged in such an action before, so I took a few shots. It's one of the many species I learned about from iNaturalist. I submitted a few observations of this same species to iNaturalist last year, not having a clue what species they were. Big thanks to @rueangritp, who is a crab expert, for adding the initial species identification, as well as confirming & correcting other crab identifications I attempted to do on my own.

Not much is known about crabs in this genus but they are in the same superfamily (Ocypodoidea) as fiddler crabs and ghost crabs, and Wich’yanan captured two males locked in combat in his photo. 

An iNat member for nearly three years, Wich'yanan’s (above) recently worked on research for @rongrong_a's PhD study on bird communities in the agricultural landscape in the Central Plains of Thailand. The two of them also started the Tangled & Trapped project on iNat as a way to collect data on animals caught by human objects. And he’s also trying to improve the data quality and computer vision model in Thailand.

By uploading photos to iNaturalist, it has been much easier for me to look for my own sightings. I think I've learned to identify invertebrates, plants, & other organisms more quickly than ever. I think I no longer have plant blindness! The feature “suggest species” is super useful and handy, but oftentimes it suggests similar species occurring in developed countries where more people submitted data but are out of range. This motivates me to submit media as frequently as possible to help improve it, at least locally. I've also been urging people to add their sightings to relevant iNaturalist projects.

(Photo of Wich'yanan by Rongrong Angkaew)

- You can follow Wich’yanan on Twitter and Instagram.

- And check out his research here.

- Here’s a Macrophthalmus banzai crab (same genus, different species) doing some pincer waving on a mudflat in Japan.

Posted on June 07, 2022 10:07 PM by tiwane tiwane | 7 comments | Leave a comment

June 14, 2022

A Variable Hawk on Windy Day in Argentina - Observation of the Week, 6/14/22

Our Observation of the Week is this Variable Hawk (Geranoaetus polyosoma, Aguilucho común in Spanish), seen in Argentina by @lechuzoologo!

(Ezequiel wrote a very nice, complete piece in response to my prompts so I’m publishing it in its entirety below, with some minor copy edits. I’ve also added some links to his text, and some info about variable hawks at the bottom.)

I’m Ezequiel Racker, from Argentina, and I’m a nineteen year old student of bioIogy. I have always been interested in animals. When I was just a toddler, I was passionate about dinosaurs and snakes. As I grew up, at around 8, I began taking photographs and dreaming of becoming a wildlife photographer. Now I don’t think of it as a job anymore. It is a hobby I really love. Then, when I was approximately 11 I discovered bird watching. Ever since then, I have been taking every opportunity I get to combine these two passions: photography and bird watching. 

Apart from studying Biology at Argentina’s UBA University, I am a member of the group of birdwatchers of Escobar (COA Pava de Monte), the area where I live. I am also a member of eBird Argentina, where I work in the communication team. Also, the last two summers I participated as a volunteer in the “Programa Patagonia”, a conservation program that studies and protects many species in Santa Cruz province, such as the Hooded Grebe (Podiceps gallardoi). During this experience not only did I spend several months doing fieldwork in the Patagonian steppe, I also had the opportunity to meet other people who shared the same interests. 

This volunteering programme was a memorable and enriching experience in more ways than one. I think that during those months I took some of the best photographs I have ever taken as I was closer to nature than ever before. One of these photographs is none other than my photograph of the Variable Hawk (Geranoaetus polyosoma). 

One day I was going around doing my duties as part of the programme. I was camping in the Strobel plateau, and I was really excited about it because I had been told that a family of Magellanic Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus magellanicus) lived nearby. So, as I did my chores, I was alert to any sign of the presence of one of my favorite species. Suddenly, I heard a shrieking sound, so I took out my camera and got ready to take some shots. I walked towards the sound and was surprised to find that the one making the sound was the Variable Hawk. As I got closer, I started taking photographs. I wanted to get one of it vocalizing and looking at me at the same time. But it was not easy because it did not look at me most of the time. It was incredibly windy. And then I got lucky, I could take the shot I wanted, with the bird looking at me as it vocalized. Plus, the wind blew so hard just then that its tail was literally lifted, giving it an eeky dromaeosaurid look.

As regards iNaturalist, I have been using it for over a year. I use it both to share and to keep my records in an organized and helpful way. Before using iNaturalist I was almost exclusively focused on birds, and maybe just a few mammals and snakes. Now, however, I have become more curious about a lot of other species, not only animals but also plants and fungi.

As its English common name suggests, this species of hawk has many different plumages (at least 27), perhaps the most of any raptor. They range throughout much of western and southern South America and inhabit a variety of habitats. They catch and eat small to medium sized prey and have a wingspan of 113 to 151 cm (45–60 in).

(Photo of Ezequiel by Gonzalo Pardo)

- You can follow Ezequiel on Twitter and Instagram.

- eBird has some good audio clips of this species. 

- take a look at the diverse array of variable hawk plumages on iNat.

Posted on June 14, 2022 09:47 PM by tiwane tiwane | 12 comments | Leave a comment

June 21, 2022

A Siberian Weasel Poses in China - Observation of the Week, 6/21/22

Our Observation of the Week is this Siberian Weasel (Mustela sibirica, 黄鼬 in Chinese (simplified)), seen in China by @joy_wang!

“Growing up in the city, my passion for the natural world stemmed from watching documentaries and remained that way for a long time,” says Joy Wang, who credits birding, which she started up three years ago, as getting her out into the field. “I was immediately drawn to observing wildlife of all kinds and learning to identify them.”

And while in China this past February, Joy spotted a decidedly non-avian animal, which you see pictured above.

Mustela sibirica is a widely distributed mammal species in Asia. They are quite common in farm areas, but many can even be spotted in very urban environments. Agile as they are, these creatures often give me a mere glance as they rush across an opening and are nowhere to be found again. But from time to time, you encounter a relaxed individual who doesn’t faze under the spotlight. This weasel popped up from the bush and provided a fun photo opportunity. I was able to capture its adorable face as it gave a curious look at me before carrying on with its quest among the bushes.

Not only do Siberian weasels occupy many habitats in Asia, their diet is also quite diverse. They’re known to prey on rodents, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, and they also eat plant material such as fruits and nuts. In cities, they’re known to prey mostly on rats. 

“I wish to grow into a generalist,” says Joy (above, with a Chinese horseshoe crab), who delved into intertidal ecology last summer when she volunteered with the IUCN Asia-Pacific Horseshoe Crabs Survey. “I try to balance school life and a heavy birding/twitching schedule. In summertime, I look at the fanciful insects and frogs. Last winter, I started tracking – Chicago’s thick snow provided great opportunities to learn about the tracks and gaits of common North American mammals.”

She’s currently a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and tries “to present an ecocentric and minimalistic value system through my work.”

I’ve only been actively submitting observations on iNaturalist fairly recently. I will no doubt be adding more past observations to this awesome global database. iNaturalist helps me keep track of what I’ve seen. I learn even faster with the help of the community IDing my observations. I enjoy the “Explore” feature where I can filter out certain taxa in specific places. iNaturalist becomes a great tool when I plan a trip to see wildlife. I love that iNat brings researchers, biologists, citizen scientists and anyone who has an interest in nature together. It’s a platform to share the same passion and enrich communal learning.

(Photo of Joy by Siqi Yu)

- you can follow Joy on Instagram here!

- the first known photo of the rare Colombian weasel was posted to iNaturalist a few years ago!

Posted on June 21, 2022 09:03 PM by tiwane tiwane | 8 comments | Leave a comment

June 28, 2022

"Sneaky" Fig Wasps in South Africa - Observation of the Week, 6/28/22

Our Observation of the Week is this pair of fig wasps (Watshamiella alata on the left, Sycoscapter cornutus on the right), seen in South Africa by @alandmanson!

In July of 2020, during COVID lockdown, Alan Manson began observing the wasps on the twenty-five year old fig tree in his backyard. As you may know, figs are only pollinated by certain wasps in the Family Agaonidae (they have amazing heads, by the way), but many other wasps both in that family and in others do not pollinate figs, they induce galls in fig plants, and both of the wasps you see above are of the latter variety. 

However, there's a reason the Watshamiella alata wasp is following the Sycoscapter cornutus wasp, which Alan discovered while learning more about fig wasps from FigWeb and @simonvannoort. Compton, et al, in their paper "Sneaky African wasps that oviposit through holes drilled by other species" (open access) found that female wasps in the genus Watshamiella will follow other female fig wasps and, after that female “drills” a hole in the fig and oviposits, the Watshamiella will oviposit into the same hole. 

So when I saw the female Watshamiella alata watching a female Sycoscapter cornutus oviposit, I realized that I might be able to catch the former using the same hole for its own eggs. Eight long minutes later the Sycoscapter departed and I was able to photograph the Watshamiella place her ovipositor into the same hole. 

The exact nature of the interaction between the larvae of these wasps is unknown, but Compton, et al believe the oviposition behavior has several adaptive advantages for the Watshamiella wasps:

  • they don’t need the larger anatomical structures necessary for drilling into the fig.
  • they don’t need to expend the large amount of energy needed for drilling into the fig.
  • oviposition is much quicker for the Watshamiella wasps, reducing their vulnerability to predators such as ants, which often patrol figs. 

Alan (above, in the Mkomazi River) tells me he grew up on the a farm in the KwaZulu-Natal of South Africa, and birded, herped and fished when he was a child, which led to his career in soil science. He credits digital photography with getting him into bird photos, and the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2 for getting him into citizen/community science, and he joined iNat in 2017. Since getting to wasps in 2019, Alan uses iNat mostly for wasps now, but says

I use iNaturalist to archive the biodiversity I am able to capture wherever I take out my camera. Digital photography has changed the way I see the natural world, as it forces me to ignore the bustle of the human world and focus my attention on the subject of the moment. iNaturalist allows me to archive those experiences and, along with many other online resources, to learn more about the organisms I have photographed.

(Photo of Alan by KD Dijkstra, it was cropped in order to better fit into our blog format.)

- Alan’s linked to other observations associated with this fig tree here.

- the fig-wasp pollination process is pretty remarkable, here’s a video depicting it.

- two other Observations of the Week document wasps ovipositing into plants: this one by @ropro, and another by @cholmesphoto.

Posted on June 28, 2022 09:00 PM by tiwane tiwane | 10 comments | Leave a comment

June 29, 2022

Identifier Profile: @victorpaiva28

This is the eleventh in an ongoing monthly (or almost monthly!) series profiling the amazing identifiers of iNaturalist. This month’s post coincides with Pride Month, and features a member of iNaturalist’s LGBTQIA+ community. 

Víctor de Paiva Moreira tells me that as a child growing up in São José de Mipibu in northeastern Brazil, he was always interested in animals and loved watching their interactions. Then, “in my pre-adolescence, I became interested in plants because of my grandmother's influence. I helped her in the garden and, from there, I discovered the incredible world of plants, their shapes, colors and among other things, since then it's been my passion.”

Currently a forestry engineer and studying for a master’s degree in Ecology at the Federal Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) in Brazil, Víctor says he’s particularly interested in Brazilian species of Bignoniaceae (Handroanthus and Tabebuia), Cactaceae, Lecythidaceae, and, mainly, Myrtaceae, which is what he’s currently studying. 

Víctor joined iNat about three and a half years ago, and he actually discovered it by chance.

I was looking for pictures of some plant species, and the search took me to a page on the site. When I understood more about the principles of citizen science followed by iNat, I realized that it was something I always believed in and I think essential. Researchers cannot be everywhere, and some information only people in the region can notice. From there, I joined the community to help increase the number of records and help with identification. My main objective on the platform is to accurately enrich the database, thus facilitating the possible studies based on citizen science.

Since then he’s identified over 22k verifiable observations and is the top plant identifier in Brazil. “Despite having some groups of plants that I'm more interested in,” Víctor says,

I go deeper in the identifications, I always try to get to know a little about all the families of South America, especially the Brazilian northeast. I believe this broader view of botany allows us to have more insights and new visions about some studies precisely because of the diversity of interactions and morphological characteristics of each taxon…

Whenever I have free time or am studying a taxon, I use the [iNaturalist] database to learn more from the images and help with identification. As I am usually looking at Brazilian plants, I usually base myself on the Flora do Brasil project. Despite it, I always resort to taxonomic revision publications and consult material deposited in herbariums (Jabot, SpeciesLink, and GBIF), which allows you to learn a little about plants from other countries.

I believe knowledge must be built together, and the role of scientists of the academy is to pass on what they learned to the rest of the people. INat is a practical way to speed up this process, being an open space for discussions, so I always seek to talk, explain the characteristics that differentiate the species and, at the same time, see the opinion of others, debate, and reach a consensus, when possible. I'm sure I've learned a lot more from other contributors than I've taught them.

Víctor identifies as bisexual, and tells me

I believe that being bisexual, and maybe that goes for the entire LGBTQIA+ community, made me see the world differently. It is as if, by living in a society that is most contrary to our existence, we naturally question and challenge the world. This act of looking for well-founded explanations for things is what drives science, so it's always been part of me.

In botany, this worldview always makes me question whether the species I once identified or the interactions I found are still valid and whether there is new knowledge about it. The world, the species, and the vegetation are constantly changing. In other words, life on earth adapts and evolves.

So, being part of the community allowed me to always seek to evolve along with the world, update myself and take this to others. Having a vision of diversity within society facilitates contact with people as different as the assimilation of new information and knowledge from them. These certainly helped me get in touch with several people with distinctive experiences at iNat.

- You can find Víctor on ORCID and Lattes

- Here are the most-faved observations of myrtles (Family Myrtaceae) in Brazil.

Join the iNat/500 Queer Scientists Pride Virtual Mixer tomorrow, June 30th, at 5 pm (California time)! You must pre-register here. LGBTQ+ iNatters and allies welcome.

Posted on June 29, 2022 08:45 PM by tiwane tiwane | 16 comments | Leave a comment